Virtual Reality: Untapped Opportunity

The Science

Immersion + Interactivity = Tele-Presence. That is how the VR techies define Virtual Reality.  For us regular folks, here is a simpler definition: Virtual reality is  computer generated environment that allows the user to experience an alternate reality. This reality may or may not resemble ‘real life’.  The headset uses two small lenses to feed the user’s eyes with three-dimensional images while headphones supply the accompanying soundtrack or noises.

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The VR Engine

Virtual Reality headsets are powered by regular personal computers, since contemporary PCs are sophisticated enough to run software for Virtual Environments.  Headsets consist of two monitors, one for each eye, and they combine images to create a stereoscopic effect. This creates the illusion of depth while exploring a virtual world.

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The user is literally is immersed into a new world that is ‘near reality’ or virtual – so this is called immersion. Once in the user can interact with this new world. The combination of the immersion and the interactivity is what is called Telepresence.

Remember this formula?  Immersion + Interactivity = Tele-Presence

VE designers determine the success of their design when the user becomes completely unaware of their real surroundings and solely focuses on their existence within the virtual environment.

So far most VE involve visual and audio simulation but engineers are working to incorporate the user’s sense of touch – user force feedback and touch interaction is called haptic systems.

The Lingo

  • VE= Virtual Environments
  • VRX= Virtual Reality Experiences
  • Haptic Systems = User Force Feedback and Touch Interaction

How is it already changing our lives?

For perhaps the most obvious place of entry, virtual reality is edging into the Entertainment industry.  Films are being filmed exclusively for VR headsets while live-streamed concerts are giving users a front-row experience from the comfort of their own home.

If you recall the computer monitor at the Home Depot that helps you select the right colour for the living room, it makes sense that the design industry has eagerly adopted VR tech.  Pop on a headset, feed in a picture or two of the room that needs a renovation, you can build a new space with 3-D tools.  

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Collaborative experiences beyond traditional gaming are gaining momentum, you can tap in friends to help you build a 3-d painting -Google’s Tiltbrush.  You can use apps and wand-like controllers to add further customisation to the 3-D experience.

Gaming has gotten infinitely cooler with VR as now game designers flip the switch on traditional designing, creating easter eggs and predicting where their player will actually turn or reach out and touch in the gaming dimension – the possibilities are only limited by their creativity

Did you listen to my latest podcast ‘Virtual Reality: Are We There Yet?’? 

There is the logical extension of VR tech with Tourism and Exploration of places near and impossibly far – Google Cardboard and others promise a tour of the Planet Mars.

However, I think the potential of disrupting Meditation is infinitely more exciting!  Psychologists in the United States have already starting using it with army vets to treat Post-traumatic Disorder.  Researchers are using VR worlds to explore human behaviour in a safe space, suspended from reality.

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Studies have shown VR sessions to work better than traditional painkillers – meaning it can be used in place of medicines to heal with distraction and engagement of the mind.

Video conferencing has become common-place, but VR technology means logging onto a Tele-presence robot that wheels around automatically in the workplace while you work from a remote location.  It’s not all work, you can also log onto a chat room, not much different from The Sims, and chat or play in the guise of your game avatar.

Shopping in virtual reality is gonna be like never before,as you can try on a new pair of shoes or  squeeze into a shirt before buying it online.

What Skills Are Required to Break into VR Tech Industry? 

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The virtual reality space has taken off and the demand for job candidates with VR knowledge has gone up by 37% since 2015! Since the tech is new, VR Startups and research companies are facing difficulty filling that demand.  There are a large number of jobs available for those open to building virtual-reality apps, games, and experiences. If there is anything that screams CAREER OPPORTUNITY – this would be it.

There are two different types of VR content being created for VRX:

  1.  360 VR Video, and
  2. True-VR .

A career in 360 VR Video asks for experience in  Film Production and VFX skill-set.  The 360 video medium is a highly complex mixture of on-location production skills, sophisticated technical cameras and detailed post-production techniques. Once the experience is hot, technicians need to stitch scenes back into 360 spheres with tools like Kolor, or Nuke compositor. The final edits are made in Premiere, while any motion graphics tweaking is accomplished with After Effects or Fusion.

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360 VR Video content can be used on Youtube 360, Facebook 360 as well as all apps and devices that play VR.

A contender for a job in the 360 VR would require portfolio that exhibits:

  • Examples of grading and editing,
  • VFX breakdowns of complex fixes ,
  • Motion Tracking and embedded motion graphics,and
  • A showreel with their best 360 video work, including samples of before and after post-production stitching.

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Entering into a career in True-VR requires a strong pre-knowledge of game engine technology as well as a demonstrable game design skills-set.  The workflow for True-VR is similar to traditional game development, from modelling and animating to the eventual rendering.  Virtual Experiences created by True-VR technicians are geared for headsets such as Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, HTC Vive, and even the humble Samsung Gear VR.

Familiarity with the following programs will be beneficial for any True-VR hopeful:

  • Animation and Modelling: Maya or 3ds Max
  • Sculpting and Texturing: Mudbox, ZBrush, or Mari
  • Final Rendering and Publication:  Unity or UnReal Engine

Within True-VR there are two career paths:

VR Developer

Those looking to become VR Developers should have a showreel of VR experiences they have created for game engines, a downloadable link to the game or experience, sample code in C#, C+ or equivalent and further detail of the content they have created.

3D Artist

Those wanting to become 3D Artists should have a showreel that best exhibits their artistry in live games and experiences, wireframes and samples of their work in a game engine like Unity, UE4 or Marmoset.

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Interested in the software end of things and itching to break into Virtual Reality Development? You will need experience in the following to break into B2B VR startups:
  • Strong Knowledge of Realtime Game Engine Tech + Arts Skills: Designing and Developing with 3D Modelling Software such as 3ds Max or Maya, texture or sculpting in Zbrush or Mari and Unity or UnReal Engine to pull the whole project together.
  • SDKs (Software Development Kits) being used by VR developers, such as SDK 0.8 for Oculus,
  • Head tracking, 3D calibration and side-by-side rendering, and
  • Programming Experience with C or C ++ languages.

Leaning towards hardware? Skills from PC and Mobile Phone technology easily transfer over to immersive filming. You will need experience in Optics since visualisation is key for developing engaging Virtual Environments (VE).

Past Gaming – Where Else Can VR Be Found?

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VR jobs are expected to show up in education, military and medical fields as tech can be used for trainings, simulations, safety modulations  – as well as construction, engineering and architecture that can exploit 3D design to optimise models/estimates.

Venture into Computer Vision to understand the fundamentals of VR Tracking and camera-based user interaction.  Cognitive computer engineers are needed to help businesses create, test, and evaluate cognitive software designed for their computer network.

On The Horizon

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Scientists are also exploring the possibility of developing biosensors for VR use. A biosensor can detect and interpret nerve and muscle activity. With a properly calibrated biosensor, a computer can interpret how a user is moving in physical space and translate that into the corresponding motions in virtual space. Biosensors may be attached directly to the skin of a user, or may be incorporated into gloves or bodysuits. One limitation to biosensor suits is that they must be custom made for each user or the sensors will not line up properly on the user’s body

Thinking Out Loud

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Is this it, fellow humans? Is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and creativity  limited to regurgitating real-life scenarios onto digital screens for rapid consumption?  Are we fulfilling the prophecy predicted by the animated movie ‘Wall-E’?

Are we destined to become increasingly sedentary, floating about on hoverchairs, consuming packaged foods, viewing the world through strapped-on headsets and booking our flights to the nearest planet?

Listen to latest Catalyst Woman podcast ‘Virtual Reality: Are We There Yet?’? 

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Virtual Reality: Are We There Yet? (Podcast Episode #7)

Hey hey! The latest episode of the Catalyst Woman podcast is out – so give it a listen on iTunes , Soundcloud or right here.

The write-up will be coming out later today. Get in touch – drop me an email at talk to catalyst woman at gmail dot com or tweet at me  @ the rate of catalyst woman. 

Virtual Reality Headsets: Beyond Entertainment

woman-wearing-virtual-reality-headsetThe purpose behind writing this is to explore the utility of Virtual Reality Headsets and  the accompanying software, beyond the narrow scope of Entertainment.  

Google Glassware – Where are you? 

I often ponder and while pondering, I often think about failed technology. Google Glass and it’s accompanying apps (Glassware) qualifies for such a thought exercise. Why didn’t the Google Glass catch on? 

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Back in 2012 Google’s version Smart Glass was defined as follows:

Project Glass is a pair of glasses that would allow technology to interact with wearer’s seen reality and integrate capabilities like voice recognition, Google maps, GPS location, and more to help interpret and react to what is being seen. *

Soon after the release, it seemed like the Google Glass on sitting comfy on many celebrity noses – from the singer FKA Twigs (pictured above)  to actress  Jennifer Lawrence (pictured below).

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 2.25.27 pmThere is even a tumblr for this – > Celebs wearing Google Glass.

Google was clear from the start that these glasses were conceptual at best and that they were looking for feedback to help refine the product. Still, halting sales in under three years of the launch hints at lack of confidence in the hardware/software while the rest of the world is ramping up for AR wearables.

According to ARC Applause, the Glass’s failure was due to a mix between public perception, social contract and the very visible wearable technology. The Glasswearers, with the ability to record and transmit footage from their glasses, offended members of the general public who were not keen to be a part of the trial.  Rowinski goes on to reference tech guru, Robert Scoble, who expanded on the notion of the social contract and the smart glasses:

“A lot of people misunderstood Google Glass and blamed for the camera for its failure and that was absolutely wrong.

It messes with our social contract. We evolve as humans to look into each other’s eyes. To pay attention to each other. Are we interested in each other? Are we trustworthy? All kinds of stuff.

When we put a screen in-between our eyes, it messes with that contract and we don’t know how to explain it. ‘Will you take those things off? Are you recording me?’ Those types of things.”

Could it be that simple?

There was name-calling (Glasshole) and even an instance of violence, all due to an experimental device.  I am not convinced. There has to be more to the story behind the Glass’s spectacular crash-and-burn.

Scoble claims that the camera wasn’t strong enough, the battery life was a mere 45 minutes, and what the $1,500  Google Glass lacked was the ability to ID a complete stranger the second we looked in their direction.

Not much unlike the data feed that comes up in the Terminator:

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Reasons for Google Glass’s Failure:

  • Establishments banning the device due to fears of and instances of surreptitious recording of private conversations – Privacy Rights.
  • Buggy Beta-mode – Little effort to bring it out of the trial phase.
  • Safety Concerns – Should be anyone be driving with it on?
  • Health Concerns -How about having a wi-fi signal (carcinogenic radiation) inches from your brain for hours on end?
  • Lastly, I like how Bob Doyle sums it up “The idea was great, but the execution and development weren’t.”
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“You’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready (for now, no peeking).” 

A voice from the other camp, Tim Brown of IDEO/industrial design expert, sees that while the Glass may have lost popularity, this is true of all new technology when it’s introduced to the public – it is a trial-by-fire:

“When a new technology first emerges there’s a friction caused by the clunkiness of the technology not quite being sophisticated enough and society not being used to the idea. Over time, those two things get closer and closer together. Eventually that friction goes away and the technology is accepted.”

Meanwhile the elves at Google have been busy –  they patented a contact lens camera back in 2014, and after shutting down the Google Glass experiment in 2015, have now filed a patent for an electronic device that will implanted directly into the eye and is meant to improve poor vision.

With Google Glass and other similar Smart Glasses in our rear-view mirrors, we have moved past the era of early adopters of wearable tech.

What is the Everyday Utility?

Researchers** at Disney have created an app that scans coloring book pages and brings them to life for children – a process which is termed live texturing. While the technology is still under development, this demo shows how keen big business is to bridge the divide between traditional products and Augmented Reality.

Possibilities of Virtual Reality in the Classroom

Whenever a new technology becomes accessible, we all wonder “How will it work in the classroom?”.  Google has been making waves with it’s Expeditions Pioneer Program, where it’s team visits classrooms around the world to experience ‘journeys’ via the Cardboard headset.

The team assembles headsets in the class and guides the teacher to set up an Expedition experience via a tablet. Up to 50 students can take a virtual field trip and experience the depths of the ocean or the peaks of the Himalayas, without moving an inch!  A program like Expeditions covers the Geography, History and Social Studies components of a traditional elementary syllabus.

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What about Mathematics? the Sciences?

I see it being helpful in understanding abstract concepts common in Geometry where having students experience the transformation of a 2-d shape in to a 3-d object can increase learning.

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The potential of active storytelling seems boundless.  Students can relive story lines from books assigned in Literature class, or write their own  during Writing and Comprehension class – provided the VR app is readily available to them.

As young scientists, they can conduct investigations like forensic experts shown on popular t.v. shows or imagine a climate-change scenario with various hypotheticals.

The more I pair VR with Primary Education, the more questions there are. Seeing how we recognize that the traditional school system does not equally engage all learners, Is VR the tool to be used for those students who learn more by doing than listening?

  • With VR becoming commonplace, How can instructors determine the balance between regular classroom curriculum and VR-aided curriculum?  
  • How much of the write-ups about VR in the Classroom is funded by the companies hawking these gadgets? 

Research shows 76% increase in learning outcomes if students are taught via a gamified lab simulation – if coupled with traditional teaching, the retention of knowledge jumps close to 100%.  No wonder the VR market is projected to be worth $400 billion and it’s users to be more than 25 million in 2018!

(Interested in trying out the Google Cardboard experience for yourself? While the introductory Cardboard Viewer is a mere $15, Google provides instructions to create your very own viewer with household items (velcro, cardboard, lenses,magnets).  Follow the link.)

Spiritual Tool: Bots and Virtual Reality as the New Rosary
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We have Buddhist monks using a mini monk bot in the temple to spread ancient wisdom across the land.

“Xian’er chants Buddhist mantras, responds to voice command, and chats about his way of life.Via his screen, the robot can answer 20 basic questions about Buddhism and daily life, and can perform seven different movements on his wheels”

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The Shrink is Out, The HeadSet is In

VR is being touted as a post-traumatic stress therapy tool at The Institute for Creative Technologies; patients are exposed to virtual scenarios, directional 3D audio , vibration and even smells during a session.

Aside from mental health, VR is increasingly being used by surgeons and medical school students to visualize hypothetical procedures.

“Last December, a Google Cardboard providing a 3D image of a heart helped a surgeon in Miami visualize what he needed to do in order to operate on a baby.”

There is so much more to discover and discuss when it comes to the use or even misuse of virtual reality, beyond it being a tool for passive entertainment.  What excites you about VR headsets becoming easily accessible?  Have you tried one on yet?  Drop me a tweet @marsonearth.

Sources

*What are Google Glasses? What is Project Glass?

**Disney Research: Live Texturing of Augmented Reality Characters from Colored Drawings