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.

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.

 

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!

The dark side of accelerating technological change

Virtual worlds and virtual reality make us dream about telepresence and the death of distance. Some even suggest the concept of citizenship may change as we’ll be citizens of nation-states and of virtual worlds. But then again, we should consider also the reality out there: technology is a crucial element in the power struggle between nation-states and between states and groups (or networks).

Colin Lewis on RobotEnomics tells us about a report by James Kadtke and Linton Wells II about Policy Challenges of Accelerating Technological Change: Security Policy and Strategy Implications of Parallel Scientific Revolutions. Consider the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. It becomes conceivable that swarms of drones operate without human intervention while they try to achieve objectives such as securing territory or destroying enemy forces.

The technology required and the cost for building these systems become more achievable for others than the US military – authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups will probably try to build their own robot warriors.

The same worries exist about biohacking for instance – another technology becoming more affordable and the knowledge is spreading around fast. DIY-groups act responsibly, but then again, there is no guarantee that all groups will have noble intentions, which is rather inconvenient as the technological possibilities of individuals and groups will only increase. Add to this similar concerns about nanotechnology and about the combinations of all these technological breakthroughs.

I wrote a column about these issues today for my newspaper, titled KillBots (in Dutch). For similar thoughts expressed in a more poetic fashion, read Jason Dorrier at SingularityHub.

Peter Diamandis: you will (also) be a virtual world citizen

The Belgian newspaper De Tijd has a great interview (Dutch language) with Singularity University co-founder, author, entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis. When asked about the short-term evolution, Diamandis referred to virtual worlds. He expects interesting stuff to happen there as those worlds become more “real”. People will go there for work and entertainment. Citizenship will no longer be reduced to one single state. One will be a resident of a nation-state but at the same time resident of a virtual world. Kids experiment now already with such a double role in their game worlds. People will also experiment with new forms of government in virtual worlds. Diamandis mentioned Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life: he considers him to be a pioneer. Diamandis predicts people will ask their governments in the physical world tough questions as they pay taxes but increasingly will take care of their own transport, health care and education.

My own opinion: I think nation-states and companies could also use virtual environments in other ways, for instance to facilitate “virtual immigration”. I remember that back in the hype-period of Second Life we had feverish discussions about immersing non-US residents in American virtual environments where they could work and contribute to the US economy and culture without actually entering the “physical” United States, thus avoiding political discussions about immigration levels.

 

 

Oculus Rift and Leap Motion are made for each other

My next investment will be a Leap Motion. Have a look at this, and notice how the Leap Motion makes building in an Oculus Rift enabled environment possible. However, don’t forget that Oculus and Leap Motion are still rather early phase – it all seems very slick in this video, but I had not yet the possibility to test World of Comenius myself as it’s not yet released (and I still have to buy and integrate the Leap Motion). It seems self-evident that this kind of technology will be used for the next Second Life platform and the High Fidelity project.

You can follow World of Comenius on Facebook.

Read also this post on Road to VR about the Comenius project at a school in the Czech Republic.
Another must-read post is the interview with CEO Ebbe Altberg on VentureBeat about the next generation platform for Second Life. Altberg mentions Leap Motion and Sixense as tracking tools.
For anwell-researched report on the secretive Magic Leap project, have a look at Gizmodo.

It’s obvious that the whole Virtual Reality / Virtual Worlds / Alternate Reality / Augmented Reality industry is about to make a real big leap… I’ll try to cover the developments on this blog, with a focus on education and learning.

You can find more on my fledgling Netvibes page about virtual reality.

#SUsummit Amsterdam showcases the augmentation of everything

Virtual worlds are often weird environments. The innovators in that industry have a broad view on our future. Conferences and community conventions offer fascinating insights and discussions. I remember how futurist and technologist Ray Kurzweil gave a (virtual) presentation during the Second Life Community Convention 2009 in San Francisco. Afterwards I rushed to the Green Apple bookstore to buy his book The Singularity is Near (2005). Wikipedia explains:

Kurzweil describes his law of accelerating returns which predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology,robotics and artificial intelligence. He says this will lead to a technological singularity in the year 2045, a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it. Irreversibly transformed, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Once the Singularity has been reached, Kurzweil predicts machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Afterwards, Kurzweil says, intelligence will radiate outward from the planet until it saturates the universe.

Fast forward to December 2012, when Kurzweil was hired by Google “to bring natural language understanding to Google”. He was involved in various education and learning projects, one of the most interesting is the Singularity University (SU) which he co-founded with Peter Diamandis (2008).

The headquarters of the SU are at Moffett Federal Airfield (NASA Research Park), California, but in Europe we can attend two-day Summit conferences. Last year I attended the Singularity University conference in Budapest, Hungary and I (together with other participants) built a mind map about the state of the future at that time, topics of that mind map include ambient intelligence (sensors, ubiquitous computing, networks), robots, energy, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, synthetic biology, health and medical services, organizational change. In short, it’s about how the augmentation of the human intellect materializes itself and disrupts about everything.

This year my newspaper colleague Peter De Groote went to the Amsterdam Summit. He reported in De Tijd that the fully self-driving car will be available in ten years time, that robots are still toddlers but are growing up fast (and they can read your emotions), that artificial intelligence evolves from disappointing to disruptive, that we no longer should limit ourselves to wearables but that implantables are next in line to augment us:
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Virtual Worlds

So… nothing about virtual reality and virtual worlds in this disruption overview? Yes there was. First let’s take a step back: in September Jason Dorrier posted on SingularityHub about Virtual Reality – will it become the next great media platform? He showed this inspiring video:

The idea is that technologies such as Oculus Rift and the new generation of virtual worlds (think High Fidelity) will make it possible to visit the worlds in the other person’s head. We make our dreams accessible, quite literally. Which brings us to brain-to-brain communication and yes, this is a Singularity topic. One example being discussed: University of Washington researchers can transmit the signals from one person’s brain over the Internet and use these signals to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal.

Rob Nail talked during the conference about exciting applications like allowing a surgeon to operate from 10,000 km distance, to a pilot assisting a non-pilot to land an aircraft. Or how we network and augment our brains very literally…

Destructive Personal Learning Environments

‘The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice.’ That’s the title of an opinion article in the Financial Times, written by Robert Hannigan, the chief of Britain’s electronic spying agency GCHQ.

The digital natives who joined the terrorist organization Isis are very adept in using social media and in the use of encryption techniques. Their practices, such as beheadings and stoning, often seems to date from the Middle Ages or pre-medieval times, but they also produce high quality video footage and they use WhatsApp to coordinate their operations.

Hannigan points out the internet skills of these terrorist digital natives and laments the fact that big internet companies are less ready to collaborate with government agencies.

While I do have many questions about the surveillance practices of the various spy agencies, I’m also worried about what Hannigan describes. The augmentation of the human intellect made possible by the internet has a very dark side. The individual or small groups of individuals can engage into peer-to-peer learning in order to build a better and more tolerant and compassionate world, but they can also learn to master techniques aimed at the destruction of such world.

The ‘personal learning environments’ of young terrorists can help them not only to master social media techniques and ways to hide on the internet, but also how to build and use weapons of mass destruction. It seems that the empowerment of the individual is culminating in a race with the empowerment of state agencies trying to prevent the worst scenarios. These are interesting but sad times.

Understanding Google, embeddable content and MOOCs

googlecourseWhat makes mobile so transformative? Why is Google a revolutionary company? These are questions asked and answered in the Coursera course
Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Professor Owen R. Youngman (Northwestern University) focuses during six weeks on Google and what makes it so important, not just for media people but for all of us. If you use a smartphone or a social network, you should know why these technologies are so much more than gadgets. The course offers the typical talking head videos but professor Youngman also adds his talent as a curator by selecting half a dozen books and many press articles dealing with fundamental aspects of Google – and of course both highly critical and more jubilant commentators are being discussed.

MOOCs and embeddable content

This is a second run for this course. Of course, it would be interesting to ask the question What Would Google Do (title of a book by Jeff Jarvis) about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as they are organized by Coursera. In an interview by Youngman, professor Jeff Jarvis promotes the idea of the ’embeddable article’. Just like Google makes YouTube-videos embeddable, media companies could do the same for their news articles (incorporating their brand and ads in the embeddable content and adding a link back to their site). Wouldn’t this be a great idea for parts of the Coursera-content – or not really? Maybe this is less a problem for more connectivist-styled MOOCs such as Connected Courses – ultimately it boils down to choices about the business model (or lack of such a model).

Inventing a New University

One of the courses I really enjoyed these last few months was History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, by professor Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University) on the Coursera platform. The final assignment was the invention of a new institution of higher education. This was my answer, and yes, I did mention virtual environments… I called the thing Peeragogy University, named after a project facilitated by Howard Rheingold, peeragogy.org.

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It’s a pleasure and an honor to present our Peeragogy University. We firmly believe that we live in an epoch of exponential change. The old industrial ways of thinking do no longer apply for learning and teaching (see our Duke U course). We want to help our students to become Change Masters, or rather, we want them to help each other (peer-to-peer) to become Change Masters. 

What is our Mission Statement? There are three crucial skills we want our graduates to acquire:
1) The deep understanding of the fact that this education is not about them. It’s about what they can do for humanity.
2) The deep understanding and the skill of connecting to others in order to realize our dreams. During the program students will discover how connected the big issues of our time are, and how necessary it is to break out of academic silos to work together, to celebrate diversity in our teams. “Diversity” also means that we involve people from outside the institution and from outside academia. We use the wisdom and creativity of artists to facilitate this (see Duke U course).
3) The deep understanding and the skill of learning how to learn and adapt to emerging technologies in the broadest sense of the word ‘technologies’. So the crucial skill and value here is the eagerness to learn, and to learn how to learn throughout their lives (content vs. learning, Duke U course). 

What is the structure of our institution? 
Every student gets a preliminary course during about ten weeks. Leading experts will present major breakthroughs in information technologies, biotech, management (including new ways to launch a project or a business), healthcare, robotics, nanotechnology, energy systems and the makers industries (3D printing, DIY drones etc). These are the competence clusters which form the basic structure of Peeragogy University. 

The students will actually experiment (learning by  making, see Duke U course) with bio-hacking, programming, robotics, genetic engineering, management principles… These weeks will be inspired by what the Singularity University is already doing in California. What we add: we’ll help the students to explicitly build a personal learning environment, making use of their social connections online and/or on campus and of the affordances of the internet (blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, forums, crap detection and information dashboards). See also the Digital Literacies as discussed in the Duke U course. 

After these ten weeks students will have to decide what their Major Project will be for the next years (we have a 4 year program in place). This project must make a difference for humanity (see Mission statement). Maybe something which can affect the lives of millions of people? Typically,this project will make it necessary to acquire an advanced knowledge and skill-level in several subjects. 

However, not everybody who has some healthcare project as his Major Project will need to become a surgeon. Maybe it’s more interesting to become a robotics-specialist in order to contribute to a breakthrough (think exoskeletons for paraplegics). Becoming a robotics specialist probably implies great skill in programming and algorithms. Someone else in the team will become an expert in capital markets in order to find ways to get financing and to develop a financial plan. A third person can contribute because of special knowledge regarding patient psychology and sociology (see Mission Statement aboutconnecting). For each special skill the faculty experts will not teach as Sages on a Stage, but as facilitators of project based peer-to-peer learning. 

As these students try to change the world, they will have to reflect on what they’re doing (Mission statement: meta-learning). They will discuss on an academic level, using the resources of philosophy, logical thinking and using art as a way to mobilize more people for their projects and diversify their teams. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Who are the teachers? All students are also teachers. They work in project teams, and we’ll also organize contacts between the teams. We do havefaculty: there are recognized experts in their fields, from academia but also from outside academia. They will be facilitators of the learning. 
Who are the students? We do not require specific diplomas. We do run an Introductory MOOC (3 months), and achievements during that MOOC will be an important element for admission on the online or physical campus for the full four year program. 

Where do we meet? Our Campus is situated in Portland, Oregon, right next to some famous beer micro-breweries. However, we run an international Introductory MOOC (three months) and a Companion MOOC which runs on a permanent basis. We make heavily use of virtual environments to create an interesting online alternative for the physical campus. 

Who pays and how much? 
Peeragogy University found some generous sponsors, but nevertheless we have to ask a fee for the physical campus experience: $80,000 for one year, housing, tuition and food included. There is a considerable discount for tuition-only students. 
The Companion MOOC-version is free, except for those students who want a formal assessment of their work ($5,000 on a yearly basis). The Introductory MOOC is free, except for those who want an assessment in order to gain access to the 4 year program ($100). 
Students who have financial difficulties can apply for special sponsoring. Students will learn during the Introductory MOOC how to finance their studies (alternative financing techniques). 

Peeragogy University organizes short term programs for companies and government institutions, These programs help financing the Peeragogy University. 

Assessments and Certificates: the assessments are based on the performance during the year – compare it to assessments for company and government workers. Important elements are creativity, how people collaborate, how they learn, how impressive their skills are. We have a completion diploma, but more important even are the Peeragogy Badges (see Duke U course) which reflect the skills of the student. Important to realize: the Major Projects can become companies or institutions outside of Peeragogy University. Students learn to inform venture capitalists, government and social profit players about their Major Projects…