The history of the future

I’m reading The History of the Future, a book written by Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars. It contains a foreword by Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, the book which used to be or still is required reading for all those working at Oculus VR.

The book brings the fascinating story of Palmer Luckey, who developed an astounding expertise in VR while living as a home-schooled teen in a trailer outside his parent’s house. The book describes how he got into contact with other VR and gaming-experts and was able to start his own company, Oculus VR, which was subsequently sold to Facebook for about 2.3 billion dollar in cash and stock.

In 2017, after issues related to 2016 political contributions to Republicans and public support for then-presidential nominee Donald Trump, Luckey departed Oculus. There is discussion about whether his political views were the immediate cause of his departure.

I’m not even halfway the book now, but it sure is a fascinating story, introducing the reader to many important and colorful characters in the gaming and VR-industry. It’s interesting to note how Luckey believed at the start of the Oculus project that the VR headset would be of a niche interest. VR at the time had a bad reputation after various cycles of hype and doom. It’s only when other folks joined the project and turned it into a real company that the ambitions became much bigger. That would only accelerate after Facebook bought Oculus VR – Mark Zuckerberg dreaming about one billion of users, not only for gaming, but also for other telepresence applications.

Today one may wonder whether the initial niche-orientation of Luckey wasn’t closer to the truth than the wild ambitions of Facebook. Even after the launch of the low priced and easy to use standalone headset Oculus Go the technology is far from being embraced by a mainstream audience.

Will this be different after a more sophisticated version, the Oculus Quest, gets on the market? As described in the book, people invariably have a “oh wow”-experience when they try the headsets for the first time. But those who are not into a niche of hard-core gaming and science-fiction, still are reluctant to actually buy a headset. It seems the wow-experience wears off quickly as there are no must-have applications.

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress, VR and especially AR-headsets were being applauded as these technologies seem to offer good reasons on the consumer-side to roll out 5G. However, a big player such as Microsoft made it clear that their cutting-edge AR-headset HoloLens is exclusively for enterprise-use. Also HTC seems to promote its Valve Focus Plus for “serious use” such as healthcare and security training.

At Microsoft experts say they still need years of development before they can enter the mainstream consumer market.

And where did Luckey go after he had to leave Oculus? He started another company, Anduril, which specializes in military applications such as border protection using AI, sensors, drones, towers and visualization. Virtual Reality, AI and mesh networking meet here for surveillance purposes and battlefield awareness. Another niche.

Argument maps, continued

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m looking for 3D or VR argument maps. In the meantime I found out about Noda, which is a fledgling application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It’s available on Steam.

On Twitter, Roy Grubb suggested his own software, Topicscape, which is a 3D visualization tool. For 2D online argument mapping, I found Rationale.

I’ll experiment with all these tools.

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.

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.

 

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.

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. 

 

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):

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Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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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:
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Virtuix works on virtual treadmill for military and police

Virtuix, the maker of the virtual reality treadmill Omni, prepares applications beyond gaming. Here you see the treadmill in a gaming context:

Roel Verrycken, the US correspondent of the Belgian newspaper De Tijd, had an interview with founder Jan Goetgeluk and asked which new applications his company is developing. Goetgeluk:

For training police or military personnel. We have a special military version which is a bit bigger and sturdier and which has some additional functions. Recently we participated at a specialized fair and there’s a lot of interest from that sector. Remember the attack on Osama bin Laden? The US military built the house in which he was hiding. Using the Omni the training coould be done virtually without having to build a complete house. Every possible environment can be programmed virtually for training purposes. We see a very important market there.

Asked how dependent Virtuix is on the development and commercial launch of the Oculus Rift headset, Goetgeluk explained Omni is compatible with all devices. He referred to the Samsung VR goggles, and said that smartphones will have the capacity to be transformed into virtual reality devices. “Everyone in the industry is determined to advance virtual reality. It’s still a fledgling industry, now we’ll have to gain mass market traction. That’s something for 2015.”

You can read the complete interview (Dutch language) on our newspaper website.

Immersive journalism puts you in the middle of the news

How would immersive journalism look like? Immersive as in ‘immersing the reader/viewer/participant into a situation in such a way she learns something new’? Actually there exists a website immersivejournalism.com where journalist and scholar Nonny de la Peña discusses her work and ideas about this topic.
I first encountered this work of hers in Second Life in 2010:

But you’ll notice how she evolves and now uses virtual reality tools for her newest projects, about food banks…

…or about Syrian refugees:

Immersive video

Now I learned about a project by another team “which will be centered on live video, delivering an experience that feels more like documentary and photo journalism than a console game.”

They use new experimental cameras which are able to capture live motion 360° and 3D virtual reality footage.

The kit is made from 12-16 cameras mounted to a 3D printed brace, and then stitched onto a virtual sphere to form a 360 degree virtual environment. These new kits are also stereoscopic, adding depth of field.

The project is a partnership between Frontline, The Secret Location, and the Tow Center. You can read more about it on the Tow Center site.