The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

HoloLens App Development with Unity3D

A few months ago I wrote a speculative piece about how HoloLens might work with XAML frameworks based on the sample applications Microsoft had been showing.

Even though Microsoft has still released scant information about integration with 3D platforms, I believe I can provide a fairly accurate walkthrough of how HoloLens development will occur for Unity3D. In fact, assuming I am correct, you can begin developing games and applications today and be in a position to release a HoloLens experience shortly after the hardware becomes available.

To be clear, though, this is just speculative and I have no insider information about the final product that I can talk about. This is just what makes sense based on publicly available information regarding HoloLens.

Unity3D integration with third party tools such as Kinect and Oculus Rift occurs through plugins. The Kinect 2 plugin can be somewhat complex as it introduces components that are unique to the Kinect’s capabilities.

The eventual HoloLens plugin, on the other hand, will likely be relatively simple since it will almost certainly be based on a pre-existing component called the FPSController (in Unity 5.1 which is currently the latest).

To prepare for HoloLens, you should start by building your experience with Unity 5.1 and the FPSController component. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do this.

Start by installing the totally free Unity 5.1 tools: http://unity3d.com/get-unity/download?ref=personal

newproject

Next, create a new project and select 3D for the project type.

newprojectcharacters

Click the button for adding asset packages and select Characters. This will give you access to the FPSController. Click done and continue. The IDE will now open with an practically empty project.

assetstore

At this point, a good Unity3D tutorial will typically show you how to create an environment. We’re going to take a shortcut, however, and just get a free one from the Asset Store. Hit Ctrl+9 to open the Asset Store from inside your IDE. You may need to sign in with your Unity account. Select the 3D Models | Environments menu option on the right and pick a pre-built environment to download. There are plenty of great free ones to choose from. For this walkthrough, I’m going to use the Japanese Otaku City by Zenrin Co, Ltd.

import

After downloading is complete, you will be presented with an import dialog box. By default, all assets are selected. Click on Import.

hierarchy_window

Now that the environment you selected has been imported, go the the scenes folder in your project window and select a sample scene from the downloaded environment. This will open up the city or dungeon or forest or whatever environment you chose. It will also make all the different assets and components associated with the scene show up in your Hierarchy window. At this point, we want to add the first-person shooter controller into the scene. You do this by selecting the FPSController from the project window under Assets/Standard Assets/Characters/FirstPersonCharacter/Prefabs and dragging the FPSController into your Hierarchy pane.

fpscontroller

This puts a visual representation of the FPS controller into your scene. Select the controller with your mouse and hit “F” to zoom in on it. You can see from the visual representation that the FPS controller is basically a collision field that can be moved with a keyboard or gamepad that additionally has a directional camera component and a sound component attached. The direction the camera faces ultimately become the view that players see when you start the game.

dungeon

Here is another scene that uses the Decrepit Dungeon environment package by Prodigious Creations and the FPS controller. The top pane shows a design view while the bottom pane shows the gamer’s first-person view.

buttons

You can even start walking through the scene inside the IDE by simply selecting the blue play button at the top center of the IDE.

The way I imagine the HoloLens integration to work is that another version of FPS controller will be provided that replaces mouse controller input with gyroscope/magnetometer input as the player rotates her head. Additionally, the single camera view will be replaced with a two camera rig that sends two different, side-by-side feeds back to the HoloLens device. Finally, you should be able to see how all of this works directly in the IDE like so:

stereoscope

There is very good evidence that the HoloLens plugin will work something like I have outlined and will be approximately this easy. The training sessions at the Holographic Academy during /Build pretty much demonstrated this sort of toolchain. Moreover, this is how Unity3D currently integrates with virtual reality devices like Gear VR and Oculus Rift. In fact, the screen cap of the Unity IDE above is from an Oculus game I’ve been working on.

So what are you waiting for? You pretty much have everything you already need to start building complex HoloLens experiences. The integration itself, when it is ready, should be fairly trivial and much of the difficult programming will be taken care of for you.

I’m looking forward to seeing all the amazing experiences people are building for the HoloLens launch day. Together, we’ll change the future of personal computing!

Marshall McLuhan and Understanding Digital Reality

Understanding McLuhan

While slumming on the internet looking for new content about digital media I came across this promising article entitled Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Application Development. I was feeling hopeful about it until I came across this peculiar statement:

“Of the two technologies, augmented reality has so far been seen as the more viable choice…”

What a strange thing to write. Would we ever ask whether the keyboard or the mouse is the more viable choice? The knife or the fork? Paper or plastic? It should be clear by now that this is a false choice and not a case of having your cake or eating it, too. We all know that the cake is a lie.

But this corporate blog post was admittedly not unique in creating a false choice between virtual reality and augmented reality. I’ve come across this before and it occurred to me that this might be an instance of a category mistake. A category mistake is itself a category of philosophical error identified by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to tackle the sticky problem of Cartesian dualism. He pointed out that even though it is generally accepted in the modern world that mind is not truly a separate substance from mind but is in fact a formation that emerges in some fashion out of the structure of our brains, we nevertheless continue to divide the things of the world, almost as if by accident, into two categories: mental stuff and material stuff.

sony betamax

There are certainly cases of competing technologies where one eventually dies off. The most commonly cited example is the Betamax and VHS. Of course, they both ultimately died off and it is meaningless today to claim that either one really succeeded. There are many many more examples of apparently technological duels in which neither party ultimately falls or concedes defeat. PC versus Mac. IE vs Chrome. NHibernate vs EF. etc.

The rare case is when one technology completely dominates a product category. The few cases where this has happened, however, have so captured our imaginations that we forget it is the exception and not the rule. This is the case with category busters like the iPhone and the iPad – brands that are so powerful it has taken years for competitors to even come up with viable alternatives.

What this highlights is that, typically, technology is not a zero sum game. The norm in technology is that competition is good and leads to improvements across the board. Competition can grow an entire product category. The underlying lie, however, is perhaps that each competitor tells itself that they are in a fight to the death and that they are the next iPhone. This is rarely the case. The lie beneath that lie is that each competitor is hoping to be bought out by another larger company for billions of dollars and has to look competitive up until that happens. A case of having your cake and eating it, too.

stop_staring

There is, however, a category in which one set of products regularly displace another set of products. This happens in the fashion world.

Each season, each year, we change out our cuts, our colors and accessories. We put away last year’s fashions and wouldn’t be caught dead in them. We don’t understand how these fashion changes occur or what rules they obey but the fashion houses all seem to conform to these unwritten rules of the season and bring us similar new things at the proper time.

This is the category mistake that people make when they ask things such as which is more viable: augmented reality or virtual reality? Such questions belong to the category of fashion (which is in season: earth tones or pastels?) and not to technology. In the few unusual cases where this does happen, then the category mistake is clearly in the opposite direction. The iPhone and iPad are not technologies: they are fashion statements.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are not fashion statements. They aren’t even technologies in the way we commonly talk about technology today – they are not software platforms (though they require SDKs), they are not hardware (though they are useless without hardware), they are not development tools (you need 3D modeling tools and game engines for this). In fact, they have more in common with books, radio, movies and television than they do to software. They are new media.

Dr Mabuse

A medium, etymologically speaking, is the thing in the middle. It is a conduit from a source to a receiver – from one world to another. A medium lets us see or hear things we would otherwise not have access to. Books allow us to hear the words of people long dead. Radio transmits words over vast distances. Movies and television let us see things that other people want us to see and we pay for the right to see those things. Augmented reality and virtual reality, similarly, are conduits for new content. They allow us to see and hear things in ways we haven’t experienced content before.

The moment we cross over from talking about technology and realize we are talking about media, we automatically invoke the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, the author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan thought deeply about the function of media in culture and many of his ideas and aphorisms, such as “the medium is the message,” have become mainstays of contemporary discourse. Other concepts that were central to McLuhan’s thought still elude us and continue to be debated. Among these are his two media categories: hot and cold.

understanding media

McLuhan claimed that any media is either hot or cold, warm or cool. Cool mostly means what we think it means metaphorically; for instance, James Dean is cool in exactly the way McLuhan meant. Hot media, in turn, is in most ways what you would think it is: kinetic with a tendency to overwhelm the senses. To illustrate what he meant by hot and cold, McLuhan often provides contrasting examples. Movies are a hot medium. Television is a cold medium. Jazz is a hot medium. The twist is a cool medium. Cool media leave gaps that the observer must fill in. It is highly participatory. Hot media is a wall of sensation that does not require any filling in: McLuhan characterizes it as “high definition.”

I think it is pretty clear, between virtual reality and augmented reality, which falls into the category of a cool medium and which a hot one.

To help you come to your own conclusions about how to categorize augmented reality glasses and the virtual reality goggles, though, I’ll provide a few clues from Understanding Media:

“In terms of the theme of media hot and cold, backward countries are cool, and we are hot. The ‘city slicker’ is hot, and the rustic is cool. But in terms of the reversal of procedures and values in the electric age, the past mechanical time was hot, and we of the the TV age are cool. The waltz was hot, fast mechanical dance suited to the industrial time in its moods of pomp and circumstance.”

 

“Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue. With print many earlier forms were excluded from life and art, and many were given strange new intensity. But our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes.”

 

“The principle that distinguishes hot and cold media is perfectly embodied in the folk wisdom: ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.’ Glasses intensify the outward-going vision, and fill in the feminine image exceedingly, Marion the Librarian notwithstanding. Dark glasses, on the other hand, create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.”

 

audrey hepburn glasses

Minecraft in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

minecraft_ar_godview

Microsoft recently created possibly the best demo they have ever done on stage for E3. Microsoft employees played Minecraft in a way no one has ever seen it before, on a table top as if it was a set of legos. Many people speculated on social media that this may be the killer app that HoloLens has been looking for.

What is particularly exciting about the way the demo captured people’s imaginations is that they can start envisioning what AR might actually be used for. People are even getting a firm grip on the differences between Virtual Reality, which creates an immersive experience, and augmented reality which creates a mixed experience overlapping digital objects with real world objects.

Nevertheless, there is still a tendency to see virtual reality exemplified by the Oculus Rift and augmented reality exemplified by HoloLens and Magic Leap as competing solutions. In fact they are complementary solutions. They don’t compete with one another any more than your mouse and your keyboard do.

Bill Buxton has famously said that everything is best for something and worst for something else. By contrasting the Minecraft experience for Oculus and HoloLens, we can better see what each technology is best at.

 

minecraft_vr

The Virtual Reality experience for Oculus is made possible by a free hacking effort called Minecrift. It highlights the core UX flavor of almost all VR experiences – they are first person, with the player fully present in a 3D virtual world. VR is great for playing Minecraft in adventure or survival mode.

minecraft_ar_wall

Adventure mode with HoloLens is roughly equivalent to the adventure mode we get today on a PC or XBOX console with the added benefit that the display can be projected on any wall. It isn’t actually 3D, though, as far as we can tell from the demo, despite the capability of displaying stereoscopic scenes with HoloLens.

What does work well, however, is Minecraft in creation mode. This is basically the god view we have become familiar with from various strategy and resource games over the years.

minecraft_ar_closeup

God View vs First Person View

In a fairly straightforward way, it makes sense to say that AR is best for a god-centric view while VR is best for a first-person view. For instance, if we wanted to create a simulation that allows users to fly a drone or manipulate an undersea robot, virtual reality seems like the best tool for the job. When we need to create a synoptic view of a building or even a city, on the other hand, then augmented reality may be the best UX. Would it be fair to say that all new UX experiences fall into one of these two categories?

 

Most of our metaphors for building software, building businesses and building every other kind of buildable thing, after all, are based on the lego building block and it’s precursors the Lincoln log and erector sets. We play games as children in order, in part, to prepare ourselves for thinking as adults. Minecraft was built similarly on the idea of creating a simulation of a lego block world that we could not only build but also virtually play in on the computer.

lego_astronaut

The playful world of Lego blocks is built on two things: the blocks themselves formed into buildings and scenes and the characters that we identify with who live inside the world of blocks. In other words the god-view and the first-person view.

coffee prince

It should come as no surprise, then, that these two core modes of our imaginative lives should stay with us through our childhoods and into our adult approaches to the world. We have both an interpersonal side and an abstract, calculating side. The best leaders have a bit of both.

minecraft_ar_limburgh 

You apparently didn’t put one of the new coversheets on your TPS report

The god-view in business tends to be the synoptic view demanded by corporate executives and provided in the form of dashboards or crystal reports. It would be a shame if AR ended up falling into that use-case when it can provide so much more and in more interesting ways. As both VR and AR mature over the next five years, we all have a responsibility to keep them anchored in the games of our childhood and avoid letting them become the faults and misdemeanors of the corporate adult world.

Update 6/20

A recent arstechnica article indicates that the wall-projected HoloLens version of Minecraft in adventure mode can be played in true 3D:

One other impressive feature of the HoloLens-powered virtual screen was the ability to activate a three-dimensional image, so that the scene seemed to recede into the wall like a window box. Unlike a standard 3D monitor, this 3D image actually changed perspective based on the viewing angle. If I went up near the wall and looked at the screen from the left, I could see parts of the world that would usually be behind the right side of the wall, as if the screen was simply a window into another world.