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?

 

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.

VR news roundup: increasing competition for Oculus

Some rather important news about virtual reality developments: it seems Oculus is getting some serious competition.

-Playstation 4 VR Headset Project Morpheus could come to market in the second half of 2016. (Roadtovr)

– Valve and HTC unveiled a very impressive system at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona. This stuff is expected to ship to developers in Spring 2015. TechCrunch John Biggs has a glowing report on it.

– A Secret team at Google is working on new version of Android for virtual reality, so Rolfe Winkler announces on The Wall Street Journal.

– So what is Oculus doing? No hard announcements yet for the launch of a consumer version of their headset. However, Gear VR, the Samsung mobile headset powered by Oculus, would get a full launch with Samsung’s next cycle – probably this Fall (TechCrunch).

I updated the VR wiki mindmap accordingly. 

Big tech in love with VR and AR, so we update our mindmap

Crazy times for virtual reality, or so it seems. ‘It’s the future’, people at Facebook say. Users will not only be able to experience immersive Facebook-experiences, but will also create them, Eric David posts on SiliconAngle. ‘Users’ means not just developer-types, but the average user. However, it is totally unclear when virtual Facebook-apps would hit the market.

While Facebook executives dream about immersing all of us in their product, some people at Apple share that dream for their own products. Apple was awarded a patent titled “Head-Mounted Display Apparatus for Retaining a Portable Electronic Device with Display,” which details a virtual reality headset powered by an iPhone or iPod, according to Apple Insider. The device does look not fundamentally different from other systems strapping your smartphones on your face such as Google’s Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus).

But we may still have to wait a long time before Apple presents a consumer-ready device, and that device could also be something rather different from Oculus and be more along the line of Microsoft’s HoloLens – as one could think looking at patents filed two years ago, BusinessInsider says.

Since I started a wiki mind map about Oculus Rift developments, quite some people added useful stuff to it. I now added these latest developments (use the icon with the arrow under the map to maximize):



Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

Microsoft’s HoloLens delivers a new level of augmented reality

Dieter Bohn and Tom Warren at The Verge had an amazing mixed realities experience at Microsoft. They tried out the HoloLens, a headset that projects holograms into real space. They report about having Minecraft on a coffee table and about an amazing experience during which an engineer who was communicating via Skype helped a reporter to fix a light switch, not only by talking but also by actually drawing on ‘his reality’. Sounds very weird but have a look at the video:

The applications go far beyond gaming of course: all kinds of support and learning situations could benefit from this.

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).

Oculus Rift in Second Life: nice to have but not enough for a breakthrough

oculus

So I bought an Oculus Rift virtual headset and ventured into Second Life using the special viewer. This was rather frustrating using a MacBook Air 1.7 Ghz, Intel HD Graphics 5000, but things went a lot better with a MacBook Pro 2.5 Ghz and an Intel Iris Pro for graphics.

I got no motion sickness as the environments were rather slow – a tranquil Japanese sim, an Italian one, a stunningly beautiful beach scenery with a few avatars. It was captivating to be immersed  this way, looking down into a fascinating tropical sea, up to birds in the sky and high rocks. Or flying and looking deep down. On the other hand the interface is still difficult to use as you cannot see the keyboard, the first person view is imperfect as one looks down without seeing legs and feet. Small imperfections in the scenery or the scale of the objects seem to become more important as it stops the “suspension of disbelief“.

I guess it will get better, especially as there is a new Second Life in the making. Yet  I wonder whether a virtual headset version, even perfectly implemented, will attract that many more users. The immersion into another body and into artificial paradises appeal to a niche. We live in times of short attention spans and people love to integrate the digital closely into the ‘real’ physical environment, so mobile augmentation possibly has a future on a mass market, but this is not what this Second Life virtual experience is about. My guess is that virtual headsets will make user-generated virtual worlds even more appealing for the existing fan base, but they won’t convince the mainstream to embrace these environments – unless new applications and use cases are discovered.

Update:  I also noticed how important audio is in such a highly immersive environment. The Oculus makes you notice so much more of the virtual environment. It’s as if when you use one of your senses more, you also need using at least one other sense more intensely.

 

Imagine 3D-sensors…

… in your phone, and what you could do with it as a developer… Imagine the games, the education projects, consumer and business projects…. These are exciting times, as Google says about its Project Tango. Google has built a prototype Android smartphone that can learn and map the world around it – what would you do with it?


Seth Rosenblatt on CNET has pretty interesting background information. Movidius’ Remi El-Ouazzane explains in an interview how his chip firm is more than just another partner in Google’s mobile 3D-mapping project — it’s at the center of a revolution in how computers process visuals. The chips can be used far beyond smartphones and tablets: think wearables, robots, autonomous cars, drones…

Google itself mentions various possible applications: interior design, helping the visually impaired, but also immersive gaming – mixed reality style.

Weekend Reading: “news may be in decline, but insight is booming”

– On Fastcompany I read a story about Lara Setrakian and her site Syria Deeply. The site is ultra-focused and makes good use of infographics and video. It not only provides news but also context to make sense of it. They are working on new software to facilitate policy crowdsourcing. Technology could pay for the news, like a Bloomberg-terminal pays for the Bloomberg-journalism – such a terminal delivers not only well-structured news, but also services such as communication, secured mail, transaction, lots and lots of data – and is very expensive. As Setrakian says:

The news business may be down, but the insight industry is booming.

– On TechCrunch Gregory Ferenstein brings us Twitter Co-Founder Evan Williams Lays Out His Plan For The Future Of Media. A remarkable quote:

News in general doesn’t matter most of the time, and most people would be far better off if they spent their time consuming less news and more ideas that have more lasting import.

The post also refers to the research paper, “Does the Media Matter”, in which a team of economists found that getting a randomized group of citizens to read the Washington Post did nothing for “political knowledge, stated opinions, or turnout in post-election survey and voter data.” Medium tries to make publishing stuff easy, also for those who maybe have something very insipring to tell but don’t find the time nor have the inclination to devote lots of time for running their own blog and building an audience. Medium runs an intelligent algorithm that suggests stories, primarily based on how long users spend reading certain articles.

– Another way of applying technology to journalism is Google Glass. In July Sarah Hill explained in some detail on MediaShift how Glass will change the future of broadcast journalism. There are new tricks to be learned (how do you warn people you’re conducting an interview and not just chatting with someone during a conference), microphone issues but as she explains in Mediatwits it can be a kind of real time social backchannel. For Robert Scoble, on that same Mediatwits, it’s a new device category which will change media – he has been using Glass for several months now. Jeff Jarvis expects new eye-witness stuff being generated through Glass and similar devices. Robert Scoble also interviewed Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite and now a VP at CNN. As an information discovery specialist he wonders whether Glass/Google will be smart enough to give us really relevant information via Glass. It’s the future, but when will it happen?


Eric Scherer talks about Google Glass (and drones, and encryption) as a new tool for journalists and interviewed Tim Pool about how he uses Glass. Interesting is that Pool also uses a mini keyboard and the touch pad of a smartphone in combination with Glass.