Author Neal Stephenson joins Magic Leap as Chief Futurist

Neal Stephenson is the author of Snow Crash, a book which helped me ‘get’ virtual worlds. Today he announces in a blog post that he agreed to become Chief Futurist of Magic Leap, which is a secretive company working on something which seems to get rid of keyboards and other clunky computer stuff in order to make things appear out of thin air. As Snow Crash was all about virtual reality and augmented reality (in 1992!), it seems to make sense to ask such a visionary author to become Futurist of this secretive company.

This is how Stephenson describes Magic Leap:

Yes, I saw something on that optical table I had never seen before–something that only Magic Leap, as far as I know, is capable of doing. And it was pretty cool. But what fascinated me wasn’t what Magic Leap had done but rather what it was about to start doing.Magic Leap is mustering an arsenal of techniques–some tried and true, others unbelievably advanced–to produce a synthesized light field that falls upon the retina in the same way as light reflected from real objects in your environment. Depth perception, in this system, isn’t just a trick played on the brain by showing it two slightly different images.

This is what our author hopes to do:

I’m fascinated by the science, but not qualified to work on it. Where I hope I can be of use is in thinking about what to do with this tech once it is available to the general public. “Chief Futurist” runs the risk of being a disembodied brain on a stick. I took the job on the understanding that I would have the opportunity to get a few things done.

He adds that Magic Leap is “not exclusively about games. It’s also going to be a great tool for readers, learners, scientists, and artists. Games, however, are a good place to start talking about why this tech is different.”

Keep an eye on his blog!

(Hat tip to Colin Dwyer on the two-way for bringing the news).

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Mark Cuban and Howard Schultz invest in Virtuix Omni

In my previous post I mentioned Virtuix, the company behind the virtual reality treadmill Omni. The founder is the Belgian Jan Goetgeluk. The Omni allows you to exercise and game at the same time, it’s exergaming. Have a look:

In 2013 the project was launched on Kickstarter and 2.500 devices were ordered for $1.1 million. The company got two financing rounds for in total  almost $6 million, the latest was closed recently. My newspaper De Tijd learned (Dutch) that among the investors are investor Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks. Mark Cuban believes in the potential of virtual reality for sports.

The Omni costs $499.

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Oculus/Facebook wants to track your fingers and environment

In case you still have any doubts: virtual reality is hot. News from the Digits blog (The Wall Street Journal) by Timothy Hay: Oculus/Facebook bought two start-upsNimble VR, which was formerly known as 3Gear Systems (San Francisco), they are specialized in skeletal hand-tracking using tiny cameras, and Swedish start-up 13th Lab which uses cameras making 3-D recreations of various physical environments.

Here you see some magic from Nimble VR (video from the Kickstarter Campaign). Notice the Minecraft game and the school examples but of course there is much more in this:

13th Lab shows some nice videos about SLAM or Simultaneous localization and mapping. This is the computational problem of constructing or updating a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it. This is one example where the technology is used for the recreation of a stairway:

This is a game application by 13th Lab:

The post on Digits mentions also various companies in the VR industry getting venture investment such as Survios (resulting from Project Holodeck at the University of Southern California), Jaunt (toolset for cinematic VR) and Virtuix (a company founded by the Belgian Jan Goetgeluk and specializing in a VR treadmill, Omni).

I’m pretty sure that the way we interact with the digital world and how we integrate the digital into the physical is about to change dramatically.

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500,000 Google Cardboards

In June 2014 Google showed the world the Cardboard VR headset, today it has been announced 500,000 of those devices have been shipped. This is extraordinary, realizing the project was ‘just’ an experiment done by two engineers in the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, David Coz and Damien Henry, during the 20 percent time Google engineers get for personal projects.

As explained in the previous post, cheap and mobile VR headsets could be crucial in turning virtual reality into something which is used by a mainstream audience. Especially students and learners could benefit (one can assemble a Cardboard oneself or buy it for around $25).

At the LeWeb conference in Paris this week people could try the Cardboard, it seems it was quite a success.

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Smartphone-based VR headsets open up new possibilities for learning

Google CardboardConnectivism guru Stephen Downes is right to point out alternatives for Oculus Rift such as Google Cardboard. You can buy these things (which allow to convert smartphones into VR devices) from others or build it yourself. I never tried it out myself so I cannot compare with Oculus Rift, but I see the pedagogical advantages of building oneself a virtual headset. Downes refers to a blog post by Donald Clark: 7 learning principles that work in VR (one of those principles being “learning by doing”).

Samsung GearIn the meantime Samsung Gear VR is now officially available in the US, it launches internationally ‘early 2015′, so Road to VR says. The interesting thing about these smartphone-based VR headsets is that they allow for short-term immersive experiences, untied to desktops or laptops so the devices are easier to share.

Immersive experiences for short attention spans

One of my doubts about immersive media such as virtual worlds is that they are often extremely time-consuming – either you ‘get it’ and stay for hours in-world or you don’t and you leave without ever returning. In this new mutation of immersive media however one can dip into an immersive environment – for instance to enjoy a song in a VR setting as suggests Maria Korolov on Hypergrid Business:

Obviously, the killer app for virtual reality is going to be music videos. The length of a song is just about the right amount of time for an easy introduction to VR, and after you’ve watched it, you can pass it around to all your friends.

Now imagine the typical short educational videos used for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – one could imagine using lightweight mobile VR headsets for accessing short immersive experiences in this context. I first had to smile looking at the smartphone-based headsets, but now I realize they open up very new possibilities.

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Robots, VR Headsets and Virtual Worlds are made for each other

People don’t get ideas, they make them. That’s the pedagogy of constructionism explained in the shortest possible way, I guess, and Colin Lewis at RobotEnomics is very good at that. He posted about why employees should be playing with Lego Robots – because it makes it so more obvious what the Internet of Things is all about, more so than by letting people watch Powerpoint presentations.

However, you don’t need to despair if you don’t have a robot around. There’s something called Robot Virtual Worlds which is a high-end simulation environment that enables students, without robots, to learn programming.

Now let’s take another step and use the Oculus Rift, like these guys:

I’ve no experience at all with Robot Virtual Worlds nor do I have any information about which virtual robot programs are compatible with which virtual headset, but it seems obvious that virtual headsets, robots, virtual worlds and programming lessons are made for each other.

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Oculus Rift can be a Tool for Data Visualization (and Marketing of course)

Last week a colleague at my newspaper told me about Oculus Rift experiments by data visualization experts. It seems logical to use virtual reality for data visualization – after all that’s what people also did and I guess still do in virtual environments such as Second Life and OpenSim. Personally I never did much more than 3D brainstorming by putting up media billboards showing videos and websites about a certain topic. I (my avatar) walked around those things and meditated, making all kinds of associations.

I did some browsing to find more compelling examples of data visualization, and these are some must-read articles:

– Mike Wheatley at SiliconAngle.com explains how Virtual Reality brings Big Data visualization to life. He talks about engineers using OpenSim for visualization experiments and the development of a 3-D data browser based on the Unity3D game development engine “capable of rendering 100,000 data objects in about 15 seconds onto a bog standard 2011 Macbook Air”.

– Andy Greenberg on Wired wrote about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) turning Oculus into a Weapon for Cyberwar. The real use by soldiers is still years away, but the researchers envision a future in which similar devices could be used for offensive hacking as well as defense and reconnaissance.

Fidelity Labs, Fidelity Investments’ R&D think-tank, has launched StockCity, a virtual-reality view of an investor’s portfolio. I still have to test it, it seems something between a useful visualization tool and a marketing gadget, but here is a video:

Arch Virtual ran a story about City Planning and Urban Design with Oculist Rift and they published an e-book about Unity3D and Architectural Visualization (including a chapter about the Rift).

So lots of experimenting going on, still early phase.

 

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Vyuu wants to be a YouTube for virtual reality content

Vyuu homepageVyuu is a start-up with lofty ambitions: creating a YouTube for surround media content. The company is based in Antwerp, Belgium, and will soon invite 5,000 people to test the platform, so my newspaper, De Tijd, learned.

The founder, Guillaume de Sadeleer, at first developed a VR-headset which would use a smart phone screen (in the meantime Samsung did something similar by developing Gear VR). De Sadeleer changed plans and developed a YouTube-like platform for content suitable for viewing using Oculus Rift or other VR gear. He was joined by the innovation agency bundl and the software developer Appstrakt.

Vyuu will also focus on combining virtual reality and livestreaming.

 

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Is the Oculus Rift a Gothic Cathedral?

“Performance philosopher” Jason Silva brings us yet another interesting video, talking about the The Revered Gaze, explaining how immersive technologies are linked to our need to experience transcendence. As such the gothic cathedral and the Oculus Rift are very similar technologies.

I do admit there is the very real possibility of experiencing this Revered Gaze using immersive technologies, but for me personally that’s not really the most important aspect.

What is important to me is the sense of connection and of sharing the same space with others, wherever in the world they are physically located. It’s about exchanging points of view, projects, ideas and yes, emotions. That’s something very different compared to being overwhelmed and in complete awe for some experience which happens to you. So for me the Rift is not really a Gothic Cathedral where one has mystical experiences – it’s a tool for connecting to others to have great discussions and for exchanges of ideas using immersive media.

(Hat tip to VRPat on reddit for starting the discussion there)

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Five conditions for a perfect Virtual Reality experience

I had some very nice Oculus Rift experiences. I tried Titans of Space, an exploration of our solar system. The head tracker of the DK2 proved very useful: I could use the dashboard of my small spacecraft by nudging and tilting my head. Here you find a video by VR Review:

You find Titans of Space on the share section of the Oculus site.

Another beautiful experience is Lighthouse Lost Mansion which seems to be an adventure in several episodes. Very beautiful start scene on a rock in the sea with dark skies. I found this download at The Rift Arcade Market where you can actually buy Rift experiences (or sometimes get them for free).

I also continued my exploration of Second Life using Oculus Rift. I went to the Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA) and walked around at the Welcome Area (SLurl, requires viewer download) and visited Sister Planet (SLurl), to thoroughly enjoy the scenery. Looking up at the vegetation above my head was very nice – really very immersive and realistic. Here you see a picture of the place in a normal view:

Sister Planet on Second Life

I got the idea of visiting these areas on the Oculus Rift DK2 Intergalactic Space Station (SLurl) where you’ll find more suggestions for Rift inspired visits. The Intergalactic Space Station also lives on Facebook.

Even though I’m just a beginning Rift explorer, I’ve some ideas about what is needed for a great virtual reality experience.

– The obvious: being surrounded by a high quality environment.

No hassle. Right now different downloads often require tweaking display settings of your laptop or desktop.

– A bit less obvious, but feasible: great 3D audio.

Haptics! Have a look what this could mean these days (hat tip to Chris Baranluk on NewScientist):

– But what’s also needed is a social dimension. I saw very nice Rift cinemas. You can sit in a very nice virtual cinema and watch a movie, but ultimately what would be fun is meeting others. The social dimension is also very much something the new owner of Oculus Rift, Mark Zuckerberg, wants. Ultimately the Rift must bring us together.

Right now, in this very early phase, most Rift experiences seem to be a bit spooky: the visual effects are powerful, yet without haptics and others who join the experience online these experiences lack some fundamental dimensions.

The fact that one can experiment with the Rift in Second Life is cool for exactly this reason: even though the environment is far from perfect (there is a reason why Linden Lab builds a new virtual platform), the fact one can actually meet other people in en open-ended environment is fabulous.

This could be a competitive advantage for Linden Lab: the fact they already work with this huge virtual world community and have quite some experience with being a platform for many different communities.

Do you see other conditions for a good VR experience? Let me know!

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