Category Archives: virtual reality

When the air itself becomes the gadget

One irony of our virtual-networked age is consumers are still gaga about gadgets. The Internet and apps may give us a million different ways to view weather forecasts on a screen, but as soon as Apple launches a thinner MacBook Pro Air with a black bezel, we’ll run to the mall.

The challenge of course is computer product designs are converging into flat panes, and eventually panes can only go so far. When screens and smartphones achieve the apex of glass, product differentiation will be difficult. Which is why devices soon will move out of solid shapes.

Two examples are laser keyboards and miniature projectors. The Cube Laser Virtual Keyboard is a $180 gizmo that beams glowing keys onto any flat surface, and somehow tracks the position of your fingers as you “click” on the flat QWERTY layout. You pair the device with an iPad and suddenly can type away like mad. (Flatscreen tablets suck at typing, yes.) It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that within two years Apple and Samsung will add such laser-keyboard inputs into their tablets and phones. And for output, miniature projectors do exactly what they sound like — beam images from your phone and tablet onto the wall, so you can regale dinner companions with cat videos or hold an impromptu PowerPoint presentation with that executive you meet in the bathroom stall.

The third and most promising way devices will leave their hardware shells behind is virtual reality projections. Google announced this week it is expanding its Google Maps 3-D modeling (which renders photorealistic images of major metro buildings, streets, water, and flora from aerial imagery) to mobile phones. Now your handset can unveil a virtual earth tied to your location. If Google has figured out how to compress this powerful software into small handsets, the next step will be putting it inside your glasses, and soon you can overlay any fiction on the world you wish. Some clever hackers twisted the Google Project Glass teaser video to show how you could overlay the “Battlefield 5” game onto your neighborhood walk, if only you wore the right pair of virtual-reality spectacles.

Soon, keyboard inputs, video projections, and virtual reality will dance in the air around our fingers and eyeballs. The hunger to buy the next Apple product will fade, because slightly recast aluminum shells will become commoditized and a glass tab that transforms into a high-def screen is just another piece of glass. Apple, Google/Motorola, Samsung, Dell, HP and other gadget manufacturers will need to spend more time thinking through virtual interfaces than concrete shells. Play it forward and you’ll see plenty of opportunity for garage startups to break into this new anti-product world. When the air itself becomes the gadget, the definition of product design will change.

Tomorrow’s 3D, brought to you by the year 1862

Yeah, it’s goofy, but this ABBAWorld clip, where a man joins virtual renderings of the 1970s Swedish pop stars on stage, points to a future where you may be able to blend your physical reality with computerized fiction.

First, the technology. It’s quite old — a projection with the same visual trick that teleprompters use to make text appear to scroll on glass in front of a speaker’s podium. Holograms started back in 1862, when chemist John Henry Pepper was shocked to see a ghost float on stage. The apparition was an invention by Henry Dircks in which a large pane of glass was placed at a 45-degree angle to the audience, reflecting a brightly lit object hidden off to the side behind a curtain. When the lights came on the actor wearing a sheet hidden at stage left, the ghost seemed to suddenly appear on stage, poof, out of thin air.

Dircks’ approach, called the Dircksian Phantasmagoria, was extremely costly for theaters to replicate, but Pepper came up with a cheaper option — and as Pepper’s version spread across stages in the late 1800s, the technique became known as Pepper’s ghost. Today the small angled panes of glass in teleprompters use the same mirrored trick.

Recently Musion Eyeliner began recreating Pepper’s ghost in live performances using modern projectors to put holographic images on stage, such as this performance by Gorillaz at the Lisbon MTV Awards in 2005, or the ABBA dancing above. The technique allows artificial characters to blend with reality; the Gorillaz, for instance, is a virtual band, with British vocalist Damon Albarn being the only permanent member and cartoons representing the rotating artists behind the beats, and the group Genki Rockets similarly uses 3D projections to put its fictional lead singer Lumi on stage.

Holographic tricks will spread soon. IBM recently asked its researchers to forecast major technology trends for the next five years, and their consensus was mobile phones will project 3D images by 2015. Toshiba is developing flatscreen 3D TVs that do not require glasses. The visual push makes sense, with panel displays becoming so crisp that gadget-makers must move to stereoscopic projection as the next product differentiator.

So what happens if 3D scales everywhere? If fake images can be projected into thin air, we may finally enter the age where telecommuting takes off, or where the avatar you wish to be becomes the being you send into work or evening clubs. The Gibsonian concept of cyberspace may become real, with artifice melding with physical space. You could fly like Superman, hang out with a young version of your deceased father, chat with the stars, send a more muscular version of your body to the beach. The possibilities are endless — hopefully much more than dancing with ABBA.

Augmenting too far


We’re packing for SXSW Interactive in Texas, a conference dedicated to online evolution, so leave you with this: Is all this virtual stuff dangerous? Over at Slate, William Saletan brilliantly recounts the sad story of a young South Korean couple who spent 12 hours a day in an Internet cafe, caring for a virtual baby in an online game … until their real baby at home died allegedly from malnutrition and dehydration.

“Maybe this is just a weird story about a sick couple on the other side of the planet. But look in the mirror. Every time you answer your cell phone in traffic, squander your work day on YouTube, text a colleague during dinner, or turn on the TV to escape your kids, you’re leaving this world. You’re neglecting the people around you, sometimes at the risk of killing them.

“The problem isn’t that you’re a bad or weak person. It’s worse than that. The problem is that all of us are susceptible to being drawn into other worlds, and other worlds are becoming ever more compelling. In the old days, imaginary friends had to be imagined. Now you can see and interact with them. In cyberspace, they exist. They’re more alluring and less flawed than your friends in the physical world. And thanks to artificial intelligence and three-dimensional graphics, they’re becoming quite lifelike.”

Whoa. Time to catch some sunshine.

New film of the Hudson plane landing: Virtual history

We hate to replay Wired but this is worth seeing. (Forward the video above to 1:21 to get the real kick.) Kas Osterbuhr, an engineer at K3 Resources, has built an incredible virtual recording of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 taking off, being hit by geese and then splashing into the Hudson, complete with actual voiceover from air-traffic control. Osterbuhr is a specialist in data visualization and points us to a future when real events could be replayed from any angle, thanks to the GPS and other devices tracking the location of everything. No matter if cameras weren’t present to record it; a little data augmentation, and you can watch history anyway.

Wired has details here, and Osterbuhr has additional views here.

SXSW attention deficit disorder has some ‘real’ advantages


So we got home tonight from SXSW Interactive, the web-internet marketing festival, having learned a few things. Facebook is emulating the Twitter live “stream” (to become the Experian prospect database of the now). Mobile advertising still doesn’t exist in any scalable form (but like the Great Pumpkin may be just around the corner). Quants can predict outcomes of baseball and elections but not stock movements (because too many public companies lie). The psychology of game play can guide better design (in web sites, product usability, and marketing campaigns).

But the real finding is the web is now merging with reality.

This is both a good and bad thing. Bad, in that people no longer pay attention. The geeks (OK, and us) spent much time ignoring elite speakers to type their own commentary on iPhones or laptops into Twitter, with hashtags (brief codes beginning with an “#” symbol) allowing others to search for the backchannel snark. Everyone justified this as a new way of adding personal value to the presentations, but face it, if you’re typing you can’t listen, or at least listen well.


The good spin, though, is sometimes the backchannel created a powerful overlay on reality — real insights from your peers on the current debate; the contact who finds you in a room of 1,000 people after you text your shirt color; the location of the person you need to meet on the roof of the Mashable party. We think Todd Sanders did it best — this Wisconsin-based webmaster couldn’t make SXSW, so had friends email him photos with vacant areas allowing him to be photoshopped in. The entire series is hilarious, bordering on art masterworks. Here, Todd arm-wrestles Plaid interactive agency president Darryl Ohrt over a booze bottle, when Darryl was actually holding nothing. Soon numerous people were staging photo shoots to feed Todd; uberblogger Chris Brogan posed with his arms around air; Todd became a meme within the SXSW hip crowd, who in turn looked for his next photoshopped feed back.

It’s scary people don’t listen. It’s cool that ideas, moving from the virtual web community into reality, give us new things to listen to.

TED shocker: See the internet in the air, with no geeky glasses required

Pranav Mistry, a student at MIT Media Lab, has created something that will change your world in a few years: A wearable device that allows you to interact with the web while you walk through reality. His mockup (demoed above by Pattie Maes) uses about $350 of off-the-shelf components — a small projector, camera and mirror hung from the user’s neck, and a cell phone with wireless internet access. The simple combination allows you to match images from the real world around you with cloud-based profile information, to find out if the tissue paper in the grocery store is good for the environment or whether your new college roommate likes to snowboard.

It all reminds us of a recent William Gibson book in which the protagonist, an über-hip-former-rocker journalist, uncovers an underground world of techies who are melding the virtual world with reality. As Gibson notes, most of us are already using virtual reality by sitting in front of computers for hours a day, but we’re trapped, unable to touch the information behind the screen. The next step will be unhinging virtual information to let it float over the reality we see outside our windows.

Via Eric Gonzalez.

‘Heavy Rain’: 2009 may be year when AI looks real

“Heavy Rain” is getting closer. This computer video game, scheduled for release in 2009, is developed for PlayStation 3 by French studio Quantic Dream and moves the technology of 3-D human rendering forward to include flowing hair, tears, wrinkles, and the type of twitching, blinking, pupil-dilating eyes only seen in people in reality.

If it works as planned, the game may be the first to overcome The Uncanny Effect — that slightly creepy feeling you get watching modern animation that still isn’t quite right, you know, Tom Hanks as the dead-eyed conductor in 2004’s The Polar Express. This unnerving effect was conceived by German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in 1906: artificial bodies, he said, that approach realism look even worse, like eerie dolls at Grandma’s house that are almost-but-not alive and therefore seem possessed.

Heavy Rain also poses some questions:

Artificial intelligence: When artificial human faces become totally believable, will we perceive artificial intelligence even if it does not yet exist? It’s one thing to set up computer simulations that act like intelligent responses; but if the face presenting it seems human, the mind behind it may suddenly seem real, too.

Dual standards for morality: What happens to the morals of society when our avatars, or self-drawn images that we present online, look real but still take actions that real society would condemn? It’s one thing to play an online video game where you shoot cartoon characters; when the game becomes total immersion in reality, are we then committing real murder?

A second economy in which all rules, including advertising, change: Virtual worlds have come and gone, but in each advertisers have failed to make an entrance (See: Second Life). When the virtual becomes so beautiful that it transcends our own world, the temptation to move our minds there will be huge. The early forays into virtual communication (online war games, social media communications) show that advertising from the “real world” is often unwelcome.

Put them together, and the appearance of reality in new worlds may make fiction seem real, causing seismic shifts in the morality of what we believe, the values in how we act, and the tools we use to build or exchange wealth. It all goes on sale in a few months on your Sony PS3.

What helps burn victims may hinder advertising

Physicians at the University of Washington have created a virtual Snow World to help burn victims ease their pain. It seems the human mind, when immersed in stimuli, bends the body to its perceived reality.

The intriguing aspect for communication professionals is that brains can only handle so many data inputs. Just as a burn victim processing a video game where he hurls cool snowballs at penguins forgets about his real agony, consumers taking in one form of communication may not register other messages. It’s not a stretch to be reminded of the failure of advertising models in social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook — where users are too busy creating content to peer at banner ads on the side.

This has dire implications for marketers as people begin grazing multiple media formats at the same time — watching TV while reading an iPhone while listening to music while texting a friend. Ad impressions are no longer impressions. Unwanted signals are filtered out. Why? We’ve found new social stimuli to ease our pain.

Via Dirk Singer. Backstory here.