About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.

Did we just see a massive Augmented Reality IPO?

Snap, owner of Snapchat, is doing very well on its market debut. Maybe, just maybe, one could consider it as a success for Augmented Reality. On C|net Joan E. Solsman calls Snapchat and it’s Specs (the camera sunglasses) “your secret AR ‘gateway drug‘”. That may sound strange since Snap itself does not position itself as an AR-company. I guess they don’t want to frighten the investors.  So why does Solsman situate Snap in the AR-space? She explains:

With Lenses barfing rainbows from your open mouth, and more recently with the $130 sunglass-camera hybrid Spectacles, Snapchat parent Snap has served up the world’s hottest training wheels for AR.

Lenses put a digital layer on the physical reality, and even interacts nicely with the physical layer turning the whole into mixed reality (going further than the initial filters). The Spectacles look cool and non-threatening contrary to Google Glass and even though they are just a camera for now, they could add more functionalities in the future.

Media reported that Snap bought an Israeli AR-company – but very quietly. In November Business Insider UK said that Snap

is working on advanced object recognition that can serve ads, promotions, and other information over physical objects seen through a camera.

Do we have a major AR-company on Wall Street now – even if the company itself avoids that categorization?

Oculus cuts prices for Rift and Touch

Good news for the consumer, but what does it tell us about the state of the market? Oculus drops the prices for the headset and the Touch controllers:

We’re excited to announce that starting today, Rift plus Touch is now only $598 (from $798). If you already have Rift, Touch is now only $99, and the price of an additional Oculus Sensor is now $59.

In Europe the price for the bundle has been lowered as well but is considerably higher than in the US at 708 euros.

Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin says in a blog post that the recent doom and gloom about VR is as exaggerated as the initial hype and stays determined to realize the big ambitions of the platform:

Oculus believes, as do the thousands of original Kickstarter backers and millions of current users, that VR is the next computing platform. We also know that if there aren’t major investments made to the ecosystem, it’s going to take a really long time to reach that eventuality. So today, Oculus is aggressively making the high end of VR more attainable.

It also seems the costs came down as well.

The announcement comes about one year after the shipping of Rift and during the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.

HTC brings physical objects into a virtual world

Physical reality, virtual reality and mixed reality: it’s a matter of gradations, not of hard oppositions. The Wall Street Journal shows this from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – a tracking system by HTC Vive allowing to incorporate physical objects into a virtual environment:

Then again, I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t make distinctions and end up in a “night in which all cows are black”, as the philosopher Hegel would say. Augmented Reality is different from Virtual Reality, as Niantic’s John Hanke explains on the BBC:

Philip Rosedale and Fred Ehrsam discuss blockchain in a virtual salon

It seems the virtual world High Fidelity is hosting interesting events, like this salon about blockchain with Philip Rosedale (High Fideltiy, founding father of Second Life) and  Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam. I think it’s a good idea to organize these salons, they remind me of the Metanomics series in Second Life – years ago – where we discussed economics, anthropology and all things virtual worlds.

The look and feel of the avatars does not appeal to everyone, but then again this is a very young virtual world, still being born, using fancy stuff such as virtual reality headsets, hand- and face-trackers.

The discussion itself is pretty fascinating as it touches the philosophical – and increasingly also practical – question of what is “real”. Let’s not forget that Rosedale also is very knowledgeable about virtual currencies since the whole Second Life economy works in Linden dollars which are exchangeable in American dollars. One could easily imagine that virtual worlds use virtual currencies such as bitcoin or ethereum or even other currencies specifically created for those worlds and communities.

Those worlds could run their own monetary policy and economy – but the same could be done by communities in the physical world. The blockchain technology could also be used to identify each and very object in a virtual world, but also in the physical world. The blockchain technology enables a shared reality through a distributed ledger which stores transactions in such a way that the records can not be tampered with. This could be of utmost importance for managing identities, not only of objects, but also of people.

Having a central company such as Facebook controlling the databases with identities, posts and pictures is maybe not too terrible as people use Facebook but do not actually live in it, while the ambition of virtual worlds creators such as Rosedale is that people work, study and ultimately pass a substantial part of their lives in those environments – so the issue of who controls the databases becomes of existential importance. Hence the importance of distributed, tamper-proof solutions.

More about this subject:

VR is a Killer App for Blockchains by Ehrsam
Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain by Rosedale
Blockphase To Test Its Ethereum-based Virtual Reality Content Distribution Platform

One million headsets – success or failure?

How much is about one million headsets? Consumers purchased 915,000 PlayStation VR headsets as of Feb. 19, roughly four months after it went on sale, so The New York Times reports. This is in line with Sony’s goal of one million by April.

But how does this result, which seems to please the upper management of Sony, compare? In that same article it was said that SuperData Research estimates there were 243,000 Oculus Rift headsets and 420,000 HTC Vive headsets sold by the end of last year.

On the other hand, the Playstation VR headset is an add-on to the Playstation 4 of which more than 53 million have been sold. For now virtual reality is heavily into gaming, and Playstation 4 is of course squarely into that market, so one cannot say there has been a stampede of gamers to use VR.

In The Wall Street Journal VR-industry sources sound rather disappointed. “One million is almost nothing”, one expert says. But then again, Sony has been very cautious. In Belgium at least the headset is not promoted at all. Even well-stocked game console shops seem to ignore it – there are no demo-stations (and nor are there demo’s for other VR-headsets) – so maybe a lack of supply and of sales efforts explain the limited results.

All of which means that game developers will stay cautious. The market is still very small and divided among competing platforms – and one of the reasons is that there are not that many compelling titles out there.

It’s still very early phase though, but as usual research companies don’t hesitate making bold predictions. Superdata says:

Like most new technologies and platforms, virtual reality has had a rocky, but predictable, start. But the path is clear: by 2020, the virtual reality market will be worth 20 times what it was in 2016. $37.7B to be precise. This year, the emerging market will grow to a considerable $4.9B, driven largely by hardware with software getting its footing.

 

Philip Rosedale wants to improve upon the real world

The Financial Times runs an intriguing portrait of Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life and these days building a VR-compatible virtual world called High Fidelity.

The article not only focuses on the virtual world ambitions of Rosedale but also on his renovation and building projects in the real world of San Francisco, where he lives in the very exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood.

One of the remarkable quotes of the article (written by Hugo Cox) is this:

If you could work, play, meet, go to school, if you could do all these things in a virtual world then why would you not think that these spaces could become more important than this [real] one?

The idea seems simple enough but many interesting questions arise:

  • What are the reasons people would prefer a virtual world above this one? Is it because a virtual world is more convenient – for instance, one can teleport around rather than commute endlessly, one can ignore the laws of physics in colorful creative surroundings.
  • Or is it (also) because the “real life” cities and living conditions are disappointing for the majority of people who cannot afford to live in such an expensive place? Is there an implicit rejection of the injustices of the “real world” by an exodus to the virtual world? (read also the works of synthetic worlds economist Edward Castronova).
  • How “real” is real and how “unreal” is “virtual”? In the above mentioned quoted “real” is added between square brackets – I guess by the interviewer. But if one routinely works, studies and lives in a virtual world, would it not become as real to me as the current real world? Especially when augmented reality (adding digital layers to the physical surroundings) and mixed reality (adding digital 3D-objects seamlessly to the physical world) go mainstream, blurring the distinction even more?
  • Is life in a virtual environment the way out for many in a possibly jobless society, where work will be done by robots and AI agents, except for either low skilled labor which remains somehow out of reach for robots or for very skilled labor (developing the AI agents and coordinating humans, cyborgs and AI-agents)? [I have my doubts about this vision of disappearing jobs, at least for the coming ten to twenty years]
  • One should contrast a purely “virtual” vision with an “augmented” one – rather than retreating into a synthetic environment in order to get an education or go to work, one could imagine people staying in a mixed reality world, being in the physical world yet also at the same time using the affordances of virtual reality.

Even though I’m an avid reader of the Financial Times, I read first about this article on the New World Notes.

Virtual Reality Games as a Metaphor

“Virtual” is often used as a metaphor for “almost nothing” – like in “it’s only virtual, it’s not real”. I encountered an interesting example of that language usage by a well-known historian – actually what he referred to was more “mixed reality” than “virtual reality”, but his logic was the same: to express the idea that something, in this case religion, is not real, just an illusion.

Derek Thompson  of The Atlantic interviewed the historian Yuval Harari who just published his new book Homo Deus. In the interview, The Post-Human World, Harari describes a scene in which kids almost get into a fight when opposing groups try to catch the same Pokemon Go creatures. The fact that these creatures are “just virtual” does not matter to them. That reminded Harari of Jerusalem: where competing monotheist religions see a holy city, he just sees old stones. In his view those religions live in a virtual (I would say “mixed”) reality – members get good points when performing or not performing certain actions and bad points/punishments when doing or not doing other things. Harari:

There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?

I think he stretches the notion of “virtual” here while at the same time interpreting it too much in the negative sense of “unreal”. Used in this way we could use “virtual” for many if not all other cultural phenomena: we humans constantly give meaning to our physical environment since what we experience is tied up with our emotions and ideas. These ideas and convictions are not tangible but they are part of our social reality. It is also not clear what he means by “religion” as even the big monotheist religions come in many flavors.

In the book Thank You for Being Late Thomas Friedman devotes a chapter to the question “Is God in Cyberspace?”. He mentions Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a Talmudic scholar, who explains that there is a Jewish post biblical view of God. In that view God is present by our own choices and our own decisions. You have to bring in God (or not) “by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.” I would hesitate calling this “virtual reality” in the sense of “just a game”.

Or do I misinterpret Harari here?

 

The disappearing headset

Google makes headsets “disappear” or at least show the face of the VR-user. The Google Research Blog had all the details about “headset removal for virtual and mixed reality“. their definition of Mixed Reality is a bit limited I think:

a related medium that shares the virtual context of a VR user in a two-dimensional video format allowing other viewers to get a feel for the user’s virtual experience.

Compare with Wikipedia:

Mixed reality (MR), sometimes referred to as hybrid reality,[1] is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real-time.

Anyway, as Google explains, this is more than a gimmick:

Headset removal is poised to enhance communication and social interaction in VR itself with diverse applications like VR video conference meetings, multiplayer VR gaming, and exploration with friends and family.

Blockchain for avatars

Even though I’m sceptical about the appeal of open-ended, user-created virtual worlds for a mainstream audience, I still follow people who are very active in that field because they tend to be highly creative out of the box thinkers. One of them is Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life, and these days busy creating a new world which takes full advantage of VR, High Fidelity.

In the post Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain he tackles the question of how we can prove our identities in a digital environment without revealing our real life identity:

As we begin to live and work in digital spaces, we must design an identity system that is safe, secure, and decentralized like the web. A combination of theblockchain and digital certificates seems like the best design.

Being a true Maker, Rosedale does not limit himself to a theoretical explanation, but will try the coming months to implement such a technology in High Fidelity. All this even fits into my ideas about Mixed Reality, as one could consider such a virtual implementation as a big rehearsal for ‘real world’ applications. Rosedale:

And of course, this sort of identity system might someday even work well for real-world things, like who can vote, or keeping track of who owns parcels of land. It seems likely that a distributed database like this, applied to identity information, could be a bigger value to people than the current applications which have been mostly for virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Hat tip to Wagner James Au for discussing Rosedale’s article on the New World Notes.

Facebook as the Mixed Reality which really matters

This blog remained silent for more than a year. I continued writing my column Legrand Inconnu for my newspaper De Tijd – about the impact of technology on society and the economy. Part of my writing is about Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Augmented Reality.

I’m still fascinated by VR and VW even though I’m convinced it’s a niche activity. VR tries to seduce hard-core gamers and even that is an uphill battle. Pokemon Go had its moment of mainstream glory, and maybe Apple will give it another boost if reports are true that the next iPhone would enable higher quality AR. Microsoft’s HoloLens seems fascinating but not yet ready for the consumer market.

Mixed Realities is still young and provides endless subjects for thought experiments. What if I could blend my international friends into my physical environment as realtime holograms, enabling them to observe and interact as if they were here? What if I could visualize in AR the emerging Internet of Things around me? Robert Scoble tells us on Inside AR&VR that mixed reality interfaces will be used for all those things: AI, cryptocurrencies, robots, drones, self-driving cars… But it’s still early day.

Conclusion for this blog: it makes little sense to focus on Second Life as I did when I started about ten years ago. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, is working on a VR compatible virtual world, and founding father Philip Rosedale has his own VR project, but in my view this will attract mainly a subset of current Second Life users. Technically it will be superior to the current Second Life environment, but will it add new philosophical dimensions to the virtual experience? I’m not sure, but I may be proven wrong.

Facebook

What about the impact on society? I bought an Oculus Rift because Facebook is behind it. I do believe Mark Zuckerberg has this great ambition of making  VR and AR mainstream – in ten years time. For now he has more urgent worries.

Zuckerberg wrote a very interesting Manifesto, Building Global Community. He seems very worried that the dream of an ever more connected world turns into a nightmare of tribalism, political and cultural wars and hate.

He wonders how we can experience each other online as full human beings and not just as partisans of the opposing political group. Maybe VR and AR can help in the longer run, but for now it will be a matter of better designed groups, AI orienting people to groups which could be very important to them, detection of extreme behavior before it really escalates (while still promoting encryption) and stuff like that. The redesigning of our online social structure will be quite a challenge but much-needed. Zuckerberg wants to promote the ‘very meaningful groups‘  (about parenting, patients, education, religion…) which constitute for their members a major part of the online experience but are also crucial for the physical existence of people (hence mixed reality).

The real mixed reality world out there could very well be Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp with it’s more than 2 billion users. That constellation matters politically and economically, and yes, VR and AR will be part of that, somewhere in the future. As I’m most interested in that societal impact, right now I’m more interested in how Facebook will redesign it’s social infrastructure than in the latest VR rand VW releases.