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.

New Media experts: 3 steps to get ready for Virtual Reality

You’re a new media expert, specializing in video, social media, liveblogging or infograhics? Get ready for the final breakthrough in virtual reality, which is starting to impact sectors such as education and even the newspaper industry. As a columnist about new media for the business newspaper De Tijd in Belgium, I realized this year that there’s little time left to get ready for the transformation virtual reality will cause in very diverse industries.

When Facebook bought Oculus VR in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg said:

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

Zuckerberg sees virtual reality changing industries such as healthcare, education and sports news coverage. This evolution will take quite a few years, but the future is being prepared now and early but convincing examples will be soon accessible for huge audiences. Also take note that Facebook and YouTube enable users to post 360 degree videos, right now.

I’ll present you two recent articles demonstrating the high expectations regarding virtual reality, then I’ll give my recommendations.

The first article was published in the British newspaper The Financial Times and seems totally enthusiastic: Our virtual reality future is bigger than it appears. The author of the article, Jonathan Margolisbecame firmly convinced about virtual reality during a number of meetings in Los Angeles.

Interesting enough, the breakthrough is not “just” in entertainment. Education for instance is very interested in the new possibilities. Roy Taylor, a vice-president of the chipmaker AMD, told Margolis: “VR is happening here on a scale and with an energy you can’t believe.” Taylor added that the universities are pouring “millions of dollars into it.”  

The author of the article also refers to first-hand experience: he was totally blown away by a virtual reality video about the Wright Brother’s flight. He watched it using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Personally I use a prototype of the Oculus Rift but recently I bought the Google Cardboard headset – less sophisticated maybe, but very cheap.
cardboard

(Graphics from https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/)

A second article which is very positive about the future of virtual reality – even outside the traditional gamers communities – comes from Jessica Davies on Digiday. She reports about the worldwide ambitions of the British newspaper The Guardian in sports coverage.

Sports journalism is often very innovative as The Guardian demonstrates with the use of liveblogging. The future of sports coverage will be even more spectacular.  Davies quotes The Guardian’s sports editor Ian Prior as saying: “VR could have major ramifications for live sport experiences and really drive the next iteration of journalism.”

The New York Times recently sent Google Cardboard virtual headsets to its subscribers. In combination with the app NytVR people can experience news coverage about the refugee crisis and the Paris terror attacks in a far more immersive way.

What should you do in order to keep a close eye on the virtual reality breakthrough?

  • Get Google Cardboard It is cheap and gives access to a lot of interesting virtual reality content, it works with most smartphones.
  • Consider buying Samsung Gear VRThis headset works with Samsung smartphones and it powered by Oculus Rift.
  • Wait for Oculus Rift VR headset –  It will be available for consumers in Q1 201 and you’ll need a gaming PC to get access to a premium quality virtual reality experience.

Summary

Virtual Reality will start going mainstream in 2016, if you want to be part of the action, invest now in getting hands-on experience with it.

 I got inspired for this post as a participant in the Social Media Marketing course at Coursera, created by Northwestern University. Feel free to reach me at @rolandlegrand on Twitter. 

 

Bruce Sterling and the convergence of humans and machines

Bruce Sterling is a tremendously inspiring science fiction author, futurist, design thinker and cultural critic. Menno Grootveld and Koert van Mensvoort had a great interview on nextnature.net with him about Artificial Intelligence, the Technological Singularity and all things convergence of humans and machines.

In this interview, Sterling explains in very clear terms how we are prisoners of metaphysical ideas when we believe in ‘thinking machines’ and entities which would become like artificial super-humans.

Of course, technologists are seduced by these ideas, but then their projects get unbundled into separate products and services.

It’s not that Sterling wants to prevent us from being too ambitious regarding computers and algorithms. In fact, he explains that by trying to think about our technological futures in anthropocentric terms, we actually limit what is possible.

Whether you are obsessed by the Singularity or not, this is a must-read interview.

Avatars as digital personal assistants

Imagine that you don’t have to search for each individual app, select it, then use it according to its own little system. Instead you would speak to your device (smart phone, watch, headset, whatever) using natural language, and the thing would do whatever you instructed it to do. You could ask for a high quality French restaurant in a certain neighborhood of your city at a certain time and specify that parking should be easy and safe. Your device, or rather the “digital personal assistant” in it, would mobilize a number of apps and databases and book a table. That would be the era of the post-app, so Richard Waters explains in the Financial Times, writing about Artificial intelligence: Digital designs for life.

I wonder what form that personal assistant would take. A cute robot? Or rather something very small, almost invisible? In a virtual world setting such as Second Life and OpenSim it could be an avatar without a real life typist behind it, but chatting away like Siri responding more or less intelligently to questions and remarks. Such a bot could be the representation of a personal assistant.

However, such an avatar does not have to be confined to a traditional computer screen, just imagine what could be possible using Magic Leap or HoloLens. It would make our future digital personal assistant even more interesting…

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

William Gibson captures the (gloomy) mood of the time

Don’t miss the latest episode of The Coode Street Podcast as it features author William Gibson. One of the topics is of course his latest book, The Peripheral, a story set in multiple futures. I guess ‘multiple futures’ sounds complex and the first part of the book is indeed bewildering. Wikipedia has a nice entry about The Peripheral (spoiler alert). I found the book intriguing because of the gloomy times we live in – think terrorism, war in Ukraine, societies in crisis, climate and environmental tragedies. In The Peripheral Gibson refers to a major crisis wiping out a big part of humanity, mysteriously called The Jackpot.

There’s no detailed account of what happens during The Jackpot except for some references to the climate. Yet the way in which Gibson talks about the Jackpot seems remarkably realistic:

And first of all that is was no one thing. That is was multicausal, with no particular beginning and no end.

A bit further it is described as

androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit

The climate change, caused by there being too much carbon, is an important driver of the catastrophes. People in the past “fucked it all up” so it is explained, at first they did not know what was going on and then they were unable “to get it together to do anything about it”.

But it’s not only the climate and the climate has multiple consequences. Like I witness it from our newsroom the world is an extremely interdependent, complex and delicate system breaking up at various places – environment, culture, society, economy, finance. It’s not an analysis I talk about here but a certain mood, and Gibson captures that mood brilliantly in his book.

If you wonder what a “peripheral” is in this context: it’s a cyborg avatar that users can connect to from another location. (Wikipedia)

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.

Virtual Reality as a Tool for Humanity

A short but beautiful video featuring the grandfather of virtual reality, professor Tom Furness. He can be situated directly into a tradition which goes back to Vannevar Bush, who in 1945 described the Memex-device in As We May Think – a technological dream of making knowledge accessible in ways corresponding to the complexities and challenges of the contemporary world.

Bush and Furness have a military background in common, and the desire to give humanity the tools needed to do something about very urgent and complex issues.

Without further ado, here is the video from Sebastian Sanchez:


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.

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.