Oculus/Facebook wants to track your fingers and environment

In case you still have any doubts: virtual reality is hot. News from the Digits blog (The Wall Street Journal) by Timothy Hay: Oculus/Facebook bought two start-upsNimble VR, which was formerly known as 3Gear Systems (San Francisco), they are specialized in skeletal hand-tracking using tiny cameras, and Swedish start-up 13th Lab which uses cameras making 3-D recreations of various physical environments.

Here you see some magic from Nimble VR (video from the Kickstarter Campaign). Notice the Minecraft game and the school examples but of course there is much more in this:

13th Lab shows some nice videos about SLAM or Simultaneous localization and mapping. This is the computational problem of constructing or updating a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it. This is one example where the technology is used for the recreation of a stairway:

This is a game application by 13th Lab:

The post on Digits mentions also various companies in the VR industry getting venture investment such as Survios (resulting from Project Holodeck at the University of Southern California), Jaunt (toolset for cinematic VR) and Virtuix (a company founded by the Belgian Jan Goetgeluk and specializing in a VR treadmill, Omni).

I’m pretty sure that the way we interact with the digital world and how we integrate the digital into the physical is about to change dramatically.

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.

Vyuu wants to be a YouTube for virtual reality content

Vyuu homepageVyuu is a start-up with lofty ambitions: creating a YouTube for surround media content. The company is based in Antwerp, Belgium, and will soon invite 5,000 people to test the platform, so my newspaper, De Tijd, learned.

The founder, Guillaume de Sadeleer, at first developed a VR-headset which would use a smart phone screen (in the meantime Samsung did something similar by developing Gear VR). De Sadeleer changed plans and developed a YouTube-like platform for content suitable for viewing using Oculus Rift or other VR gear. He was joined by the innovation agency bundl and the software developer Appstrakt.

Vyuu will also focus on combining virtual reality and livestreaming.


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!

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:


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…