#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…

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

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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.

 

Mindmapping Oculus Rift

I’m still working on the Oculus Rift coverage and will meet users and developers. I made a wiki mind map (so you can add, change to it) about Oculus, using sources such as the Oculus subreddit and Wired Magazine.

Scanning the reviews and reactions it seems obvious that Virtual Reality is back again. The application go far beyond gaming and new exciting developments can be expected such as haptic feedback and eye tracking.

So here is my fledgling mind map:

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Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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A future for virtual worlds after all

The virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift makes virtual worlds folks dream of a bright future. The Rift exists now as a developer version, but a consumer product could be available in 2015. Second Life is anticipating on this rather thrilling development by releasing a Rift-compatible viewer:

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Read more about it on the New World Notes.

Maria Korolov on Hypergrid Business refers to an article in Wired about the inside story of Oculus Rift with the quote ‘I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change. Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.’ (Brian Cho, a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz).

Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Second Life, is working on his very own virtual reality which is compatible with Oculus Rift: High Fidelity. At the recent Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference (videos on HyperGrid Business) Rosedale said something very important about the inspiration for this project, as reported by Wagner James Au:

I remember reading Snow Crash feverishly and how it helped me to understand Second Life. I just bought Ready Player One and I can imagine how it inspires the next generation of virtual worlds: haptic feedback, the possibility to reflect the facial expressions via the avatar, chatrooms which are separate virtual spaces rather than text-based instant messaging boxes etc.

I’m not much of a coding or a hardware person – I prefer old-fashioned reading, and somehow reading Ready Player One and thinking about what’s going on in the virtual reality industry makes me believe there’s an almost unimaginable future waiting for us.

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?
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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.

Are our attention spans becoming longer again?

There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.

howard rheingoldSo what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.

– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.

Crucial technologies I want to master: the components of HTML5 (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), jQuery, and for stuff such as web scraping I need a language such as Python.

Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).

– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.

Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.

Is something changing?

These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.

But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.

Philip Rosedale, Chairman of Linden LabPhilip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”

But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…

Read also: 

True Ventures about the investment in High Fidelity.

When people make rather than just buy goods

I went to the Lift innovation conference in Geneva, Switzerland, last week – and I’ll reflect on my experiences in the next few days.

Here is a short interview I did with co-founder Massimo Banzi of Arduino, the open source hardware and software technology project:

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Here is his full presentation:

http://new.livestream.com/accounts/2619102/events/1826081/videos/11112460

As I’m fascinated by the Maker movement, I also interviewed Caroline Drucker, country manager for Germany at Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods:

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And the full presentation:

http://new.livestream.com/accounts/2619102/events/1826081/videos/11115574

Massimo announced a European-wide Maker Faire in Rome, October 3 to 6, 2013. I will go there.

The new world we build with sensors is cool and creepy

More interesting footage from the CES at Las Vegas. Robert Scoble presents PrimeSense, the company which is best known for the 3D sensors in the Kinect. Very Mixed Realities, transforming a table into a keyboard, a piano etc. The second part of the video is fascinating as it demonstrates how retailers can use sensors to interact with customers. Also, it’s a bit creepy, but I guess we’ll get used to it.
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You find more videos and stuff on my Tumblr blog.