Tag Archives: Oculus

10 Questions with Jasper Brekelmans

This is the first in a series of interviews intended to help people get to know the movers & shakers as well as the drones & technicians (sometimes the same person is all four) who are making mixed reality … um … a reality.  I’ve borrowed the format from Vox but added some new questions.

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Though not widely known outside of certain circles, when you ask experienced HoloLens developers who they most admire, Jasper’s name usually comes up. Jasper is the creator of the Brekel Toolset, an affordable tool for doing motion capture with the Kinect sensor. He also works with HoloLens, Oculus, and the Vive and his innovative projects have been featured on RoadToVR and other venues. His work on collaboration between multiple Vive headsets was mind-blowing—but then again, so was his HoloLens motion capture demo with a live dancer, his HoloLens integration with Autodesk MotionBuilder, and his recent release of the OpenVR Recorder.

Without further ado, here are Jasper’s answers to 10 questions:

 

What movie has left the most lasting impression on you?
Spring Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring“, “A Clockwork Orange“, “The Evil Dead“, “The Wrestler“, “Straight Story“, “Hidden Figures“…… too many to choose 🙂

What is the earliest video game you remember playing?
Pac-Man (arcade) and Donkey Kong (handheld).

Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think?
A work mentor and some close personal friends.

When was the last time you changed your mind about something?
Probably on a weekly basis on something or other.

What’s a programming skill people assume you have but that you are terrible at?
Heavily math based algorithms and/or coding for mobile platforms.

What inspires you to learn?
The goal of having new possibilities with freshly learned skills.

What do you need to believe in order to get through the day?
That what I do matters to others.

What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend?
That humanity will be better off once next generations have grown up with true AR glasses/lenses technology, have played with virtual galaxies and value virtual objects similarly to physical objects for certain purposes.

What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do?
Empower users in their daily live without them realizing it while at the same time letting new users realize what they miss instantly.

What book have you recommended the most?
Ready Player One.

Virtual Reality Device Showdown at CES 2016

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Virtual Reality had its own section at CES this year in the Las Vegas Convention Center South Hall. Oculus had a booth downstairs near my company’s booth while the OSVR (Open Source Virtual Reality) device was being demonstrated upstairs in the Razer booth. The Project Morpheus (now Playstation VR) was being demoed in the large Sony section of North Hall. The HTC Vive Pre didn’t have a booth but instead opted for an outdoor tent up the street from North Hall as well as a private ballroom in the Wynn Hotel to show off their device.

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It would be convenient to be able to tell you which VR head mounted display is best, but the truth is that they all have their strengths. I’ll try to summarize these pros and cons first and then go into details about the demo experiences further down.

  • HTC Vive Pre and Oculus Rift have nearly identical specs
  • Pro: Vive currently has the best peripherals (Steam controllers + Lighthouse position tracking), though this can always change
  • Pro: Oculus is first out of the gate with price and availability of the three major players
  • Con: Oculus and Vive require expensive latest gen gaming computers to run in addition to the headsets ($900 US +)
  • Pro: PlayStation VR works with a reasonably priced PlayStation
  • Pro: PlayStation Move controllers work really well
  • Pro: PlayStation has excellent relationships with major gaming companies
  • Con: PlayStation VR has lower specs than Oculus Rift or HTC Vive Pre
  • Con: PlayStation VR has an Indeterminate release date (maybe summer?)
  • Pro: OSVR is available now
  • Pro: OSVR costs only $299 US, making it the least expensive VR device
  • Con: OSVR has the lowest specs and is a bit DIY
  • Pro: OSVR is a bit DIY

You’ll also probably want to look at the numbers:

  Oculus Rift HTC Vive Pre PlayStation VR OSVR Oculus DK2
Resolution 2160 x 1200 2160 x 1200 1920 x 1080 1920 x 1080 1920 x 1080
Res per eye 1080 x 1200 1080 x 1200 960 x 1080 960 x 1080 960 x 1080
FPS 90 Hz 90 Hz 120 Hz 60 Hz 60 / 75 Hz
Horizontal FOV 110 degrees 110 degrees 100 degrees 100 degrees 100 degrees
Headline Game Eve: Valkyrie Elite: Dangerous The London Heist Titans of Space
Price $600 ? ? $299 $350/sold out

 

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Let’s talk about Oculus first because they started the current VR movement and really deserve to be first. Everything follows from that amazing initial Kickstarter campaign. The Oculus installation was an imposing black fortress in the middle of the hall with lines winding around it full of people anxious to get a seven minute demo of the final Oculus Rift. This was the demo everyone at CES was trying to get into. I managed to get into line half an hour early one morning because I was working another booth. Like at most shows, all the Oculus helpers were exhausted and frazzled but very nice. After some hectic moments of being handed off from person to person, I was finally led into a comfortable room on the second floor of Fortress Oculus and got a chance to see the latest device. I’ve had the DK2 for months and was pleased to see all the improvements that have been made to the gear. It was comfortable on my head and easy to configure, especially compared to the developer kit model that I need a coin in order to adjust. I was placed into a fixed-back chair and an Xbox controller was put into my hand (which I think means Oculus Rift is exclusively a PC device until the Oculus Touch is released in the future) and I was given the choice of eight or so games including a hockey game in which I could block the puck and some pretty strange looking games. I was told to choose carefully as the game I chose would be the only game I would be allowed to play. I chose the space game, Eve Valkyrie, and until my ship exploded I flew 360 degrees through the void fighting off an alien armada while trying to protect the carriers in my space fleet.

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What can one say? It was amazing. I felt fully immersed in the game and completely forgot about the rest of the world, the marketing people around me, the black fortress, the need to get back to my own booth, etc. If you are willing to pay $700 – $800 for your phone, then paying $600 for the Oculus Rift shouldn’t be such a big deal. And then you need to spend another $900 or more for a PC that will run the rift for you, but then at least you’ll have an awesome gaming machine.

Or you could also just wait for the HTC Vive Pre which has identical specs and feels just as nice and even has its own space game at launch called Elite: Dangerous. While the Oculus booth was targeted at fans, in large part, the Vive was shown in two different places to different audiences. A traveling HTC Vive bus pulled out tents and set up on the corner opposite Convention Hall North. This was for fans to try out the system and involved an hour wait for outdoor demos while demos inside the bus required signing up. I went down the street the the Wynn Hotel where press demos run by the marketing team were being organized in one of the hotel ballrooms. No engineers to talk to, sadly.

Whereas Oculus’s major announcement was about pricing and availability as well as opening up pre-orders, HTC’s announcement was about a technology breakthrough that didn’t really seem like much of a breakthrough. A color camera was placed on the front of HMD that outlines real-world objects around the player in order, among other things, to help the player avoid bumping into things when using the Vive Pre with the Lighthouse peripherals in order to walk around a VR experience.

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The Lighthouse experience is cool but the experience I most enjoyed was playing Elite: Dangerous with two mounted joysticks. This is a game I’ve played on the DK2 until it stopped working with the DK2 following my upgrade to Windows 10 (which as a Microsoft MVP I’m pretty much required to do) so I was pretty surprised to see the game in the HTC press room and even more surprised when I spent an hour chatting away happily to one of ED’s marketing people.

So this is a big tangent but here’s what I think happened and why the ED Oculus support became rocky a few months ago. Oculus appears to have started courting Eve: Valkyrie a while back, even though Elite: Dangerous was the more mature game. Someone must have decided that you don’t need two space games for one device launch, and so ED drifted over to the HTC Vive camp. And suddenly, support for the DK2 went on the backburner at ED while Oculus made breaking changes in their SDK release and many people who had gotten ED to play with the Rift or gotten the Rift to play with ED were sorely disappointed. At this point, you can make Elite: Horizons (the upgrade from ED) work in VR with Oculus but it is tricky and not documented. You have to download SteamVR, even if you didn’t buy Elite: Horizons from Stream, and jury rig your monitor settings to get everything running well in the Oculus direct mode. Needless to say, it’s clear that Elite’s games are going to run much more nicely if you buy Steam’s Vive and run it through Steam.

As for comparing Oculus Rift and HTC Vive Pre, it’s hard to say. They have the same specs. They both will need powerful computers to play on, so the cost of ownership goes beyond simply buying the HMD. Oculus has the touch controllers, but we don’t really know when they will be ready. HTC Vive has the Lighthouse peripherals that allow you to walk around and the specialized Steam controllers, but we don’t know how much they will cost.

For the moment, then, the best way to choose between the two VR devices comes down to which space flying game you think you would like more. Elite: Dangerous is mainly a community exploration game with combat elements. Eve: Valkyrie is a space combat game with exploration elements. Beyond that, Palmer Luckey did get the ball rolling on this whole VR thing, so all other things being equal, mutatis mutandis, you should probably reward him with your gold. Personally, though, I really love Elite: Horizons and being able to walk around in VR.

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But then again, one could always wait for PlayStation VR (the head-mounted display formerly known as Project Morpheus). The PlayStation VR demo was hidden in the back of the PlayStation demos, which in turn was at the back of the Sony booth which was at the far corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center North Hall. In other words, it was hard to find and a hike to get to. Once you go to it, though, it became clear that this was, in the scheme of things, a small play for the extremely diversified Sony. There wasn’t really enough room for the four demos Sony was showing and the lines were extremely compressed.

Which is odd because, for me at least, the PlayStation VR was the only thing I wanted to see. It’s by far the prettiest of the four big VR systems. While the resolution is slightly lower than that of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive Pre, the frame rate is higher. Additionally, you don’t need to purchase a $900 computer to play it. You just need a PlayStation 4. The PlayStation Move controllers, as a bonus, finally make sense as VR controllers.

Best of all, there’s a good chance that PlayStation will end up having the best VR games (including Eve: Valkyrie) because those relationships already exist. Oculus and HTC Vive will likely clean up on the indie-game market since their dev and deployment story is likely going to be much simpler than Sony’s.

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I waited forty minutes to play the newest The London Heist demo. In it, I rode shotgun in a truck next to a London thug as motorcycles and vans with machine gun wielding riders passed by and shot at me. I shot back, but strangely the most fascinating part for me was opening the glove compartment with the Move controllers and fiddling with the radio controls.

Prepare for another digression or just skip ahead if you like. While I was using Playstion Move controllers (those two lit up things in the picture above that look like neon ice-cream cones) in the Sony booth to change the radio station in my virtual van, BMW had a tent outside the convention center where they demoed a radio tuner in one of their cars that responded to hand gestures. One spun ones finger clockwise to scan through the radio channels. Two fingers pressed forward would pause a track. Wave would dismiss. Having worked with Kinect gestures for the past five years, I was extremely impressed with how good and intuitive these gestures were. They can even be re-programmed, by the way, to perform other functions. One night, I watched my boss close his eyes and perform these gestures from memory in order to lock them into his motor memory. They were that good, so if you have a lot of money, go buy all four VR sets as well as a BMW Series 7 so you can try out the radio.

But I digress. The London Heist is a fantastic game and the Playstation VR is pretty great. I only wish I had a better idea of when it is being released an how much it will cost.

Another great thing about the Sony PlayStation VR area was that it was out in the open unlike the VR demos from other companies. You could watch (for about 40 minutes, actually) as other people went through their moves. Eventually, we’ll start seeing a lot of these shots contrasting what people think they are doing in VR with what they are really doing. It starts off comically, but over time becomes very interesting as you realize the extent to which we are all constantly living out experiences in our imaginations and having imaginary conversations that no one around us is aware of – the rich interior life that a VR system is particularly suited to reveal to us.

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I found the OSVR demo almost by accident while walking around the outside of the Razer booth. There was a single small room with a glass window in the side where I could spy a demo going on. I had to wait for Tom’s Hardware to go though first, and also someone from Gizmodo, but after a while they finally invited me in and I got to talk to honest to goodness engineers instead of marketing people! OSVR demoed a 3D cut scene rather than an actual game and there was a little choppiness which may have been due to IR contamination from the overhead lights. I don’t really know. But for $299 it was pretty good and, if you aren’t already the proud owner of an Oculus DK2, which has the same specs, it may be the way to go. It also has upgradeable parts which is pretty interesting. If you are a hobbyist who wants to get a better understanding of how VR devices work – or if you simply want a relatively inexpensive way to get into VR – then this might be a great solution.

You could also go even cheaper, down to $99, and get a Samsung Gear VR (or one of a dozen or so similar devices) if you already have a $700 phone to fit into it. Definitely demo a full VR head-mounted display first, though, to make sure the more limited Gear VR-style experience is what you really want.

I also wanted to make quick mention of AntVR, which is an indie VR solution and Kickstarter that uses fiducial markers instead of IR emitters/receivers for position tracking.  It’s a full walking VR system that looked pretty cool.

If walking around with VR goggles seems a bit risky to you, you could also try a harness rig like Omni’s. Ignoring the fact that it looks like a baby’s jumporee, the Omni now comes with custom shoes so running inside it is easier. With practice, it looks like you can go pretty fast in one of these things and maybe even burn some serious calories. There were lots of discussions about where you would put something like this. It should work with any sort of VR setup: the demo systems were using Oculus DK2. While watching the demo I kept wanting to eat baby carrots for some reason.

jumporee

According to various forecasters, virtual reality is going to be as important a cultural touchstone for children growing up today as the Atari 2600 was for my generation.

To quickly summarize (or at least generalize) the benefits of each of the four main VR systems coming to market this year:

1. Oculus Rift – first developed and first to release a full package

2. HTC Vive Pre – best controllers and position tracking

3. PlayStation VR – best games

4. OSVR – best value

Come hear me speak about Mixed Reality at Dragon Con 2015

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I’ve been invited by the Robotics and Maker Track to speak about near future technologies at Dragon Con this year. While the title of the talk is “Microsoft Kinect and HoloLens,” I’ll actually be talking more broadly about 3D sensors like Kinect and the Orbbec Astra, Virtual Reality with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive as well as Augmented Reality with HoloLens and Magic Leap. I will cover how these technologies will shape our lives and potentially change our world over the next five years.

I am honored to have been asked to be a panelist at Dragon Con on technology I am passionate about and that has been a large part of my life and work over the past several years.

I should add that being a panelist at Dragon Con is a nerd and fan’s freakin’ dream come true for me. Insanely so. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay cool enough to get through all the material I have on our collective sci fi future.

oculus

I will cover each technology and the devices coming out in the areas of 3D sensors, virtual reality and augmented reality. I’ll discuss their potential impact as well as some of their history. I’ll delve into some of the underlying technical and commercial challenges that face each. I’ll bring lots of Kinect and Oculus demos (not allowed to show HoloLens for now, unfortunately) and will also provide practical advice on how to experience these technologies as a consumer as well as a developer in 2016.

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My panel is on Sunday, Sept 6 at 2:30 in Savannah rooms 1, 2 and 3 in the Sheraton. Please come say hi!

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Why are the best Augmented Reality Experiences inside of Virtual Reality Experiences?

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I’ve been playing the Kickstarted space simulation game Elite: Dangerous for the past several weeks with the Oculus Rift DK2. Totally work related, of course.

Basically I’ve had the DK2 since Christmas and had been looking for a really good game to go with my device (rather than the other way around). After shelling out $350 for the goggles, $60 more for a game didn’t seem like such a big deal.

In fact, playing Elite: Dangerous with the Oculus and an XBox One gamepad has been one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had in my life – and I’m someone who played E.T. on the Atari 2600 when it first came out so I know what I’m talking about, yo. It is a fully realized Virtual Reality environment which allows me to fly through a full simulation of the galaxy based on current astronomical data. When I am in the simulation, I objectively know that I am playing a game. However, all of my peripheral awareness and background reactions seem to treat the simulation as if it is real. My sense of space changes and my awareness expands into the virtual space of the simulation. If I don’t mistake the VR experience for reality, I nevertheless do experience a strong suspension of disbelief when I am inside of it.

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One of the things I’ve found fascinating about this Virtual Reality simulation is that it is full of Augmented Reality objects. For instance, the two menu bars at the top of the screencap above, to the top left and the top right, are full holograms. When I move my head around, parallax effects demonstrate that their positions are anchored to the cockpit rather than to my personal perspective. If the VR goggles allowed me to do it, I would be able to even lean forward and look at the backside of those menus. Interestingly, when the game is played in normal 3D first person mode rather than VR with the Oculus, those menus are rendered as head-up displays and are anchored to my point of view as I use the mouse to look around the cockpit — in much the same way that google glass anchored menus to the viewer instead of the viewed.

The navigation objects on the dashboard in front of me are also AR holograms. Their locations are anchored to the cockpit rather than to me, and when I move around I can see them at different angles. At the same time, they exhibit a combination of glow and transparency that isn’t common to real-world objects and that we have come to recognize, from sci fi movies, as the inherent characteristics of holograms.

I realized at about the 60 hour mark into my gameplay \ research that one of the current opportunities as well as problems with AR devices like the Magic Leap and HoloLens is that not many people know how to develop UX for them. This was actually one of the points of a panel discussion concerning HoloLens at the recent BUILD conference. The field is wide open. At the same time, UX research is clearly already being done inside VR experiences like Elite: Dangerous. The hologram-based control panel at the front of the cockpit is a working example of how to design navigation tools using augmented reality.

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Another remarkable feature of the HoloLens is the use of gaze as an input vector for human-computer interactions. Elite: Dangerous, however, has already implemented it. When the player looks at certain areas of the cockpit, complex menus like the one shown in the screencap above pop into existence. When one removes one’s direct gaze, the menu vanishes. If this were a usability test for gaze-based UI, Elite: Dangerous will have already collected hours of excellent data from thousands of players to verify whether this is an effective new interaction (in my experience, it totally is, btw). This is also the exact sort of testing that we know will need to be done over the next few years in order to firm up and conventionalize AR interactions. By happenstance, VR designers are already doing this for AR before AR is even really on the market.

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The other place augmented reality interaction design research is being carried out is in Japanese anime. The image above is from a series called Sword Art Online. When I think of VR movies, I think of The Matrix. When I put my children into my Oculus, however, they immediately connected it to SAO. SAO is about a group of beta testers for a new MMORPG that requires virtual reality goggles who become trapped inside the MMORPG due to the evil machinations of one of the game developers. While the setting of the VR world is medieval, players still interact with in-game AR control panels.

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Consider why this makes sense when we ask the hologram versus head-up display question. If the menu is anchored to our POV, it becomes difficult to actually touch menu items. They will move around and jitter as the player looks around. In this case, a hologram anchored to the world rather than to the player makes a lot more sense. The player can process the consistent position of the menu and anticipate where she needs to place her fingers in order to interact with it. Sword Art Online effectively provides what Bill Buxton describes as a UX sketch for interactions of this sort.

On an intellectual level, consider how many overlapping interaction metaphors are involved in the above sketch. We have a 1) GUI-based menu system transposed to 2) touch (no right clicking) interactions, then expressed as 3) an augmented reality experience placed inside of 4) a virtual reality experience (and communicated inside a cartoon).

Why is all of this possible? Why are the best augmented reality experiences inside of virtual reality experiences and cartoons? I think it has to do with cost of execution. Illustrating an augmented reality experience in an anime is not really any more difficult than illustrating a field of grass or a cute yellow gerbil-like character. The labor costs are the same. The difficulty is only in the conceptualization.

Similarly, throwing a hologram into a virtual reality experience is not going to be any more difficult than throwing a tree or a statue into the VR world. You just add some shaders to create the right transparency-glowy-pulsing effect and you have a hologram. No additional work has to be done to marry the stereoscopic convergence of hologram objects and the focal position of real world locations as is required for really good AR. In the VR world, these two things – the hologram world and the VR world – are collapsed into one thing.

There has been a tendency to see virtual reality and mixed reality as opposed technologies. What I have learned from playing with both, however, is that they are actually complementary technologies. While we wait for AR devices to be released by Microsoft, Magic Leap, etc. it makes sense to jump into VR as a way to start understanding how humans will interact with digital objects and how we must design for these interactions. Additionally, because of the simplification involved in creating AR for VR rather than AR for reality, it is likely that VR will continue to hold a place in the design workflow for prototyping our AR experiences even years from now when AR becomes not only a reality but an integral thread in the fabric of reality.

The HoloCoder’s Bookshelf

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Professions are held together by touchstones such as as a common jargon that both excludes outsiders and reinforces the sense of inclusion among insiders based on mastery of the jargon. On this level, software development has managed to surpass more traditional practices such as medicine, law or business in its ability to generate new vocabulary and maintain a sense that those who lack competence in using the jargon simply lack competence. Perhaps it is part and parcel with new fields such as software development that even practitioners of the common jargon do not always understand each other or agree on what the terms of their profession mean. Stack Overflow, in many cases, serves merely as a giant professional dictionary in progress as developers argue over what they mean by de-coupling, separation of concerns, pragmatism, architecture, elegance, and code smell.

Cultures, unlike professions, are held together not only by jargon but also by shared ideas and philosophies that delineate what is important to the tribe and what is not. Between a profession and a culture, the members of a professional culture, in turn, share a common imaginative world that allows them to discuss shared concepts in the same way that other people might discuss their favorite TV shows.

This post is an experiment to see what the shared library of augmented reality and virtual reality developers might one day look like. Digital reality development is a profession that currently does not really exist but which is already being predicted to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2020.

HoloCoding, in other words, is a profession that exists only virtually for now. As a profession, it will envelop concerns much greater than those considered by today’s software developers. Whereas contemporary software development is mostly about collecting data, reporting on data and moving data from point A to points B and C, spatial software development will be more concerned with environments and will have to draw on complex mathematics as well as design and experiential psychology. The bookshelf of a holocoder will look remarkably different from that of a modern data coder. Here are a few ideas regarding what I would expect to find on a future developer’s bookshelf in five to ten years.

 

1. Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan – written in the 60’s and responsible for concepts such as ‘the global village’ and hot versus cool media, McLuhan pioneered the field of media theory.  Because AR and VR are essentially new media, this book is required reading for understanding how these technologies stand side-by-side with or perhaps will supplant older media.

2. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin – while the whole work is great, the essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is a must read for discussing how traditional notions about creativity fit into the modern world of print and now digital reproduction (which Benjamin did not even know about). It also deals at an advanced level with how human interactions work on stage versus film and the strange effect this creates.

3. Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton – this classic was quickly adopted by web designers when it came out. What is sometimes forgotten is that the book largely covers the design of products and not websites or print media – products like those that can be built with HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus Rift. Full of insights, Buxton helps his readers to see the importance of lived experience when we design and build technology.

4. Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze – though Deleuze is probably most famous for his collaborations with Felix Guattari, this work on the philosophical meaning of the term ‘’virtual reality’, not as a technology but rather as a way of approaching the world, is a gem.

5. Passwords by Jean Baudrillard – what Deleuze does for virtual reality, Baudrillard does for other artifacts of technological language in order to show their place in our mental cosmology. He also discusses virtual reality along the way, though not as thoroughly.

6. Mathematics for 3D Game Programming and Computer Graphics by Eric Lengeyl – this is hardcore math. You will need this. You can buy it used online for about $6. Go do that now.

7. Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory by Robert Stoll – this is a really hard book. Read the Lengeyl before trying this. This book will hurt you, by the way. After struggling with a page of this book, some people end up buying the Manga Guide to Matrix Theory thinking that there is a fun way to learn matrix math. Unfortunately, there isn’t and they always come back to this one.

8. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty – when it first came out, this work was often seen as an imitation of Heiddeger’s Being and Time. It may be the case that it can only be truly appreciated today when it has become much clearer, thanks to years of psychological research, that the mind reconstructs not only the visual world for us but even the physical world and our perception of 3D spaces. Merleau-Ponty pointed this out decades ago and moreover provides a phenomenology of our physical relationship to the world around us that will become vitally important to anyone trying to understand what happens when more and more of our external world becomes digitized through virtual and augmented reality technologies.

9. Philosophers Explore the Matrix – just as The Matrix is essential viewing for anyone in this field, this collection of essays is essential reading. This is the best treatment available of a pop theme being explored by real philosophers – actually most of the top American philosophers working on theories of consciousness in the 90s. Did you ever think to yourself that The Matrix raised important questions about reality, identity and consciousness? These professional philosophers agree with you.

10. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – sometimes to understand a technology, we must extrapolate and imagine how that technology would affect society if it were culturally pervasive and physically ubiquitous. Fortunately Neal Stephenson did that for virtual reality in this amazing book that combines cultural history, computer theory and a fast paced adventure.

Screens, Sensors and Engines

Valve’s recent announcement about their new Vive headset for virtual reality as well as Epic’s announcement that the Unreal Engine is now free made me realize that it is time to once again catalog the current set of future technologies vying for our attention. Just as pre-NUI computer users need the keyboard and mouse, the post-NUI user needs sensors and just as the pre-NUI user required a monitor to see what she was doing, the post-NUI user needs a headset. Here is the list for 2015 from which, you will notice, Google Glass is now absent:

 

Virtual Reality Augmented Reality Sensors Development Platforms
       
Oculus Rift Microsoft HoloLens Microsoft Kinect 2 Unity 3D
Samsung Gear VR Magic Leap Leap Motion Unreal Engine
Google Cardboard castAR Myo WPF
Valve HTC Vive Epson Moverio Intel RealSense Cinder
Sony Project Morpheus   Orbbec openFrameworks
OSVR Razer   Eye Tribe Tracker  
Zeiss VR One      
       

The Coming Holo Wars and How to Survive Them

 

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We are the holo men,

We are the stuffed men.

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together,

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rat’s feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar.

— T. S. Eliot

 

“Disruptive technology” is one of the most over-used phrases in contemporary marketing hyper-speech. Borrowing liberally from previous generations’ research into the nature of political and scientific revolutions (Leon Trotsky, Georges Sorel, Thomas Kuhn), self-promoting second raters have pillaged the libraries of these scholars of disruption and have co-opted their intellects in the service of filling the world with useless gadgets and vaporware. When everything is a disruptive technology, nothing is.

Just as Sorel drew on historical examples of general strikes to form his narrative of idealized proletarian revolution and Kuhn identified three examples of scientific revolution: the transition from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican model of the solar system, the abandoning of phlogiston theory, and the shift from Newtonian to relativistic physics – to distill his theory of the “paradigm shift”, we can similarly take one step back in order to find the treasure hidden in the morass of marketing opportunism.

There have been three* major shakeups in the tech sector over the past several decades; each one was marked by the invocation of the “war” metaphor, the leveraging of large sums of money and massive shifts in the fortunes of well known companies.

The PC Wars – the commoditization of the personal computer in the 80s led to the diminishing of IBM and a surprising victor, Microsoft, which realized that the key to winning the PC Wars lay not with the hardware but with the operating system that made the hardware accessible. Following that model, the mid- to late-90s saw the rise of the Internet, various attempts to create portal solutions, and a pitched battle between Netscape and Microsoft to produce the dominant browser. 

The Browser Wars – the Browser Wars saw the rise and fall of companies like Yahoo! and AOL and the eventual victor turned out not be the best browser but the best search engine: Google. More recently we’ve been going through the Mobile Wars in which Apple has been the clear winner – but also Amazon, Twitter and Facebook.

The Mobile Wars – covering both the rise of smart phones as well as tablet devices, the Mobile Wars have born fruit in the way we view consumer experiences, have shifted software development from desktop to web development, have made JavaScript a first class language, have made responsive design the de facto standard, have made the freelance creative designer the Renaissance person of the 21st century, and perhaps most important have accelerated geolocation technology. Geolocation, as will be shown below, is a key player in the next technology war.

 

between the idea and the reality

 

jupiter ascending

Shape without form, shade without color,

Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

 

As a devotee of Adam Sandler movies, I was pleased to see him teamed with Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan in 2009’s Funny Men. Adam Sandler movies are up there with “Pretty Woman” and “Dumb and Dumber” in the cable industry as movies that can be shown at any time of day and still be guaranteed to draw viewers. There is a false moment in the middle of the movie, however, in which Adam Sandler and Seth Rogan are flown out to perform at a private party for MySpace. What’s MySpace you ask? It was a social network that was crushed in the dust by Facebook, of which you have probably heard, along with other even more obscure networks like Friendster and Bebo. MySpace are portrayed in the movie as an up-and-rising social network through a last-gasp cross-marketing placement with Universal Studios.

A major characteristic of today’s tech wars is that we do not remember the losers. It does not even matter how big these corporations were during their period of being winners. Once they are gone, it is as if they are completely erased from the timeline, their reputations liquidated in the same fashion as their Aeron chairs and stock options.

To be a winner in the tech wars is to be a survivor of the tech wars. This applies not just to corporations but also to the marketing, business and technical people who are carried in the wake of rising and falling technology trends. IT groups across the US now face the problem of trends they have ignored finally reaching the C-levels as they are being asked about their mobile strategies and why their applications are not designed to be responsive – and perhaps even whey they continue to be written in vb6 or delphi.

These casualties of the Mobile Wars must be wondering what choices they could have made differently over the past several years and what choices they should be making over the next. How does one survive the conflict that comes after the Mobile Wars?

 

between the motion and the act

 

2001 a space odyssey

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us — if at all — not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the holo men,

The stuffed men.

 

Surviving and even thriving in the coming Holo Wars is possible if you keep an eye out for the contours of future history – if you know what is coming. The first key is knowing who the major players are: Microsoft, Facebook, Google – though there is no guarantee any of them will still be standing when the Holo Wars are over.

Microsoft has catapulted to the front of the Holo Wars with its announcement of the HoloLens on January 21st. HoloLens is the brainchild of Alex Kipman, who also spearheaded the product development of the Kinect. It is expected to be built on some of the technology developed for the Kinect v2 sensor combined with new holographic display technology – possibly involving eye movement tracking – that has yet to be revealed.

Facebook became a participant in the Holo Wars when it bought Palmer Luckey’s company Oculus VR in mid-2014. The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, is basically two mobile display screens placed in front of a user’s eyeballs in order to show stereoscopic digital visualizations. The key to this technology is John Cormack’s ingenious use of sensors to track and anticipate head movements to rotate and skew images in a realistic way in the virtual world revealed by the Rift.

Google participates in several ways. Even though the explorer program is now closed, Google Glass arrived with great fanfare and created excitement around the fashion and consumer uses of this heads-up display technology. Following Google’s major investment in Rony Abovitz’s Magic Leap in October 2014, a maker of mysterious augmented reality technology, it now appears that this is the more likely future direction of Google Glass or whatever it is eventually called. Magic Leap, in turn, has added some amazing names to its payroll including Gary Bradski of OpenCV fame and Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash. The third leg of Google’s investment in a holographic future is the expertise in geolocation it has acquired over the past decade.

The next key to surviving the Holo Wars is to understand what skills will be needed when the fighting starts. The first skill is a deeper knowledge of computer graphics. Since the rise of the graphical user interface, software development platforms have increasingly abstracted away the details of generating pixels and managing human-computer interactions. Future demands for spatially aware pixels will force developers to relearn basic mathematical concepts, linear algebra, trigonometry and matrix math.

In addition to mathematics, machine learning will be important as a way of making overwhelming amounts of data manageable. Modern computer interactions are relatively simple. Users sit in one place, in a fixed position respective to the machine, and rarely deviate from this position. Input is passed through transducers that reduce desire and intent into simple signals. Digital reality experiences, on the other hand, not only receive gestural information which must be interpreted but also physical orientation, world coordinates, facial expressions and speech commands. A basic knowledge of Bayesian probability and stochastic calculus will be part of the tool chest of anyone who wants to successfully navigate the Holo joblists of the future.

To reforge ourselves with skills for surviving the next seven years, designers must also become better programmers and software programmers must become more creative. The freelance creative, a job role that expanded dramatically during the Mobile Wars, will have an even brighter future in a world pervaded by augmented reality experiences. In order to make the shift, however, creatives will need to move beyond their comfort zone of creating PSDs in Photoshop and learn motion graphics as well as basic computer programming. Programmers likewise will need to move beyond the conceit that coding is an inherently creative activity; moving data around from point A to point B is no more creative than moving books around a sprawling Amazon warehouse and then packing them up for shipping is a poetic.

Real creative coding involves learning how to construct digital-to-physical experiences with Arduino, how to program self-generating visual algorithms with Processing, how to create 3D worlds in Unity and how to create complex visual interactions with openFrameworks and Cinder. These activities will become the common vocabulary of the future programmers of augmented experiences. Hiring managers and recruiters will expect to find them on resumes and without them, otherwise experienced tech workers be unhireable or worse, relegated to maintaining legacy web applications.

 

not with a bang but a whimper

 

enders game

The eyes are not here

There are no eyes here

In this valley of dying stars

In this holo valley

This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

 

How can one tell if these prescriptions for the future Holo Wars are real and actionable or simply more marketing hype attempting to take advantage of people’s natural gullibility regarding technical gadgets? Aren’t we always being burned by overly optimistic portrayals of the future that never come to pass? Where are our flying cars? Where are our remote work locations?

In order for the Holo Wars to play out, certain milestones need to be achieved. Consequently, if you start seeing these milestones realized, you will know that you are in fact living through a fight over the next disruptive technology that will destroy some major tech corporations while affirming others at the apex of the tech world, one that will also reward those that have positioned themselves with useful skills for this future economy and punish those who do not. These milestones are: technology, monetization, persistent holographic objects, belief circles, overlapping dissociative realities.

Technology: the first phase is occurring now with the three major players discussed above and several additional players such as Metaio, Qualcomm and Samsung engaged in building up consumer augmented reality hardware and supporting technologies such as geolocation and gestural interfaces.

Monetization: innovation costs money. The initial hardware and infrastructure effort will likely be subsidized by the major players. Over time, the monetization model will likely follow what we see on the internet with “free” consumer experiences being subsidized by ads. There will be a struggle between premium subscription based experiences offering to remove the ads while providing better, higher resolution experiences with better content. These portal solutions will also contend against free and low-cost plug-in content provided by hackers and freelance creatives. How this plays out will depend largely on whether the premium content providers will be able to block out independents through standards and compatibility issues as well as whether hackers will find ways to overcome these roadblocks. There is also the possibility that some of the players might be looking at a much longer game and will foster an open AR content generation community rather than attempt to crush it. If the AR economy opens up in this way, a new service sector will grow made up of one set of people generating digital worlds for another set to live in.

Persistent Holographic Objects: virtual worlds are typically subjective experiences. They can be made inter-subjective, as they are in MMOs, by creating virtual topology in which people co-exist and co-operate. In augmented worlds, on the other hand, shared topology is an inherent feature. AR shared topology is called reality. In order to make AR worlds truly inter-subjective, rather than simply objective or subjective, shared holo objects must be part of the experience. Pesistent holo objects such as a digital fountain, a digital garden, or a digital work of art will have a set location and orientation in the world. AR players will need to travel to these locations physically in order to experience them. Unlike private AR or VR experiences in which each player views copies of the same digital object, with a shared experience each player can be said to be looking at the same persistent holo object from different points of view. In order to achieve persistent holographic objects, we will require finer grained geolocation than we currently have. AR gear must also be improved to become more usable in direct sunlight.

Belief Circles: a healthy indie creative fringe-economy and persistent holographic objects will make it possible to customize intersubjective experiences. People have a natural tendency to form cliques, parties and communities. Belief circles, a term coined by Vernor Vinge, will provide coherent community experiences for different guilds based on shared interests and shared aspirations. Users will opt in and out of various belief circles as they see fit. The same persistent holographic objects may appear differently to members of different circles and yet be recognized as sharing a common space and perhaps a common purpose. For instance, the holosign in front of the local Starbucks will have a permanent location and consistent semantic purpose, in AR space, but a polymorphic appearance. To paraphrase a truism, beauty will be in the eye of one’s belief circle.

Overlapping Dissociative Realities: divergent intersubjectivities will produce both a greater awareness of synchronicity – and a sense of deja vu as AR content is copied freely into multiple locations — as well as an increased sense of cognitive dissonance. Consider the example of going into Starbucks for coffee. The people waiting in line will likely each be members of varying belief circles and consequently will be having different experiences of the wait. This is not a large departure since we typically do not care about what other people in line are doing and even avoid paying attention unless they take too long making a selection. In this case, divergent belief circles make it easier to follow our natural instinct to avoid each other. Everyone in the holo valley is anonymous if they want to be. When one arrives at the head of the line, however, something more interesting happens. Even though the customer and the barista likely belong to different belief circles, they must interact, communicate, and perform an economic exchange; these two creatures from different worlds. What will that be like? Will one then lift a corner of the holo lenses in order to rub a sore eye only to discover that this isn’t a Starbucks at all but really a Dunkin’ Donuts which had silently bought out the other chain in a hostile takeover the previous week? Will your coffee taste any different if it looks exactly the same?

* 1996 was witness to a small skirmish between OpenGL and Direct3D that has subsequently come to be known as the API Wars. While the API Wars have had long lasting ripples, I don’t see them as having the tectonic effect of the other historical phenomena I am describing – plus anyways Thomas Kuhn only provides three major examples of his thesis and I wanted to stick to that particular design pattern.

[Much gratitude to Joel and Nate for collaborating on these scenarios over a highly entertaining lunch.]

Congrats to NimbleVR

I had the opportunity to meet Rob Wang, Chris Twigg and Kenrick Kin of 3Gear several years ago when I was in San Francisco demoing retail experiences using the Microsoft Kinect and Surface Table at the 2011 Oracle OpenWorld conference. I had been following their work with stereoscopic finger and hand tracking with dual Kinects and sent them what was basically a fan letter and they were kind enough to send me an invitation to their headquarters.

At the time, 3Gear was co-sharing office space with several other companies in a large warehouse space. Their finger tracking technology blew me away and I came away with the impression that these were some of the smartest people I had ever met working with computer vision and the Kinect. After all, they’re basically all Phd’s with backgrounds at companies like Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar.

I’ve written about them several times on this blog and nominated them for the Kinect v2 preview progrram. I was extremely excited when Chris agreed to present at the ReMIX conference some friends and I organized in Atlanta a few years ago for designers and developers. Here is a video of Chris’s amazing talk.

Bringing ‘Minority Report’ to your Desk: Gestural Control Using the Microsoft Kinect – Chris Twigg from ReMIX South on Vimeo.

Since then, 3Gear have worked on the problem of finger and hand tracking on various commercial devices in multiple configurations. In October of 2014 the guys at 3Gear initiated a Kickstarter project for a sensor they had developed called Nimble Sense. Nimble Sense is a depth sensor built from commodity components that is intended to be mounted on the front of an Oculus Rift headset. It handles the difficult problem of providing a good input device for the VR system which has the obvious side-effect of preventing you from seeing your own hands.

The solution, of course, is to represent the interaction controller – in this case the user’s hands – in the virtual world itself. Leap Motion, which produces another cool finger tracking device, also is working on creating a solution for this. The advantage the 3Gear people have, of course, is that they have been working on this particular problem with particular expertise in gesture tracking – rather than merely finger tracking – as well as visualization.

After exceeding their original goal in pledges, 3Gear abruptly cancelled their kickstarter on December 11th and the official 3Gear.com website I have been going to for news updates about the company was replaced.

This is actually all good news. Nimble VR, a rebranding of 3Gear for the Nimble Sense project, has been purchased by Oculus (which in turn, you’ll recall, was purchased by Facebook several months ago for around $2 billion).

For me this is a Cinderella story. 3Gear / Nimble VR is an extremely small team of extremely smart people who have passed on much more lucrative job opportunities in order to pursue their dreams. And now they’ve achieved their much deserved big payday.

Congratulations Rob, Chris and Kenrick!