Revolution in Virtual Reality: Google’s Cardboard Headset

cardboardgifWith the acquisition of the Oculus Rift headset, Facebook appeared ready to corner the market of the new virtual reality market. But at its annual I/O conference, Google declared that it was staking its own claim. At the end of the search giant’s keynote address, Sundar Pichai announced that everyone in attendance would get a nondescript cardboard package, but was coy about its contents. Turns out, it’s the firm’s attempt at a do-it-yourself VR headset.

Known as Cardboard, copies of the headset were handed out as part of a goodie bag, alongside the choice between a brand new LG G Watch or Samsung Gear Live smartwatch. Intended to be a do-it-yourself starter kit, Google Cardboard is a head-mounted housing unit for your smartphone that lets you blend everyday items into a VR headset. With a $10 lens kit, $7 worth of magnets, two Velcro straps, a rubber band, and an optional near-field communication sticker tag, you can have your very own VR headset for the fraction of the price.

box-of-cardboard-google-io-2014You can use household materials to build one, and a rubber band to hold your smartphone in place on the front of the device. Assembly instructions, plans and links for where to source the needed parts (like lenses) — as well as an SDK — are available on the project’s website. Google hopes that by making the tech inexpensive (unlike offerings from, say, Oculus), developers will be able to make VR apps that hit a wider audience.

According to some early reviews, the entire virtual reality experience is surprisingly intuitive, and is as impressive considering how simple it is. And while the quality doesn’t quite match the Oculus Rift’s dual OLED Full HD screens, and it is lacking in that it doesn’t have positional tracking (meaning you can’t lean into something the way you would in real life), the Cardboard is able to create the 3D effect using just a single phone screen and some specialized lenses.

google_cardboardMeanwhile, Google has created some great demos within the Cardboard app, showcasing the kind of experiences people can expect moving forward. Right now, the Cardboard app features simple demonstrations: Google Earth, Street View, Windy Day, and more. But it’s just a small taste of what’s possible. And anyone willing to put some time into putting together their own cardboard headset can get involved. Never before has virtual reality been so accessible, or cheap.

And that was precisely the purpose behind the development of this device. Originally concocted by David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris as part of the company’s “20 percent time” initiative, the program was started with the aim of inspiring a more low-cost model for VR development. After an early prototype wowed Googlers, a larger group was tasked with building out the idea, and the current Cardboard headset was born.

google_cardboard1As it reads on Google’s new page for the device’s development:

Virtual reality has made exciting progress over the past several years. However, developing for VR still requires expensive, specialized hardware. Thinking about how to make VR accessible to more people, a group of VR enthusiasts at Google experimented with using a smartphone to drive VR experiences.

Beyond hardware, on June 25th, the company also released a self-described experimental software development kit for Cardboard experiences. Cardboard also has an Android companion app that’s required to utilize Google’s own VR-specific applications, called Chrome Experiments. Some use cases Google cites now are flyover tours in Google Earth, full-screen YouTube video viewing, and first-person art exhibit tours.

google_cardboard2As Google said a related press release:

By making it easy and inexpensive to experiment with VR, we hope to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone.

Oculus Rift is still the most promising version of virtual reality right now, and with Facebook at the helm, there are some tremendous resources behind the project. But with Cardboard, Google is opening up VR to every single Android developer, which we hope will lead to some really awesome stuff down the road. Even if you can’t lean in to inspect dials in front of you, or look behind corners, the potential of Cardboard is tremendous. Imagine the kind of not only experiences we’ll see, but augmented reality using your phone’s camera.

But Cardboard is still very early in development. Its only been a few weeks since it was debuted at Google I/O, and the device is still only works with Android. But with availability on such a wide scale, it could very quickly become the go-to VR platform out there. All you need are some magnets, velcro, rubber band, lenses and a pizza box. And be sure to check out this demo of the device, courtesy of “Hands-On” by TechnoBuffalo:


Sources:
cnet.com, technobuffalo.com, engadget.com

The Future is Here: VR Body-Swapping

simstimOne of the most interesting and speculative things to come out of the William Gibson’s cyberpunk series The Sprawl Trilogy was the concept of Simstim. A term which referred to “simulated stimulation”, this technology  involved stimulating the nervous system of one person so that they could experience another’s consciousness. As is so often the case, science fiction proves to be the basis for science fact.

This latest case of science imitating sci-fi comes from Barcelona, where a group of interdisciplinary students have created a revolutionary VR technology that uses virtual reality and neuroscience to let people see, hear, and even feel what it’s like in another person’s body. The focus, though, is on letting men and women undergo a sort of high-tech “gender swapping”, letting people experience what it’s like to be in the others’ shoes.

VR_simstim2Be Another Lab is made up of Philippe Bertrand, Daniel Gonzalez Franco, Christian Cherene, and Arthur Pointea, a collection of interdisciplinary artists whose fields range from programming and electronic engineering to interactive system design and neuro-rehabilitation. Together, the goal of Be Another Lab is to explore the concepts of empathy through technology, science, and art.

In most neuroscience experiments that examine issues of empathy and bias, participants “trade places” with others using digital avatars. If a study wants to explore empathy for the handicapped, for example, scientists might sit subjects down in front of a computer and make them play a video game in which they are confined to a wheelchair, then ask them a series of questions about how the experience made them feel.

BeanotherlabHowever, Be Another Lab takes a different, more visceral approach to exploring empathy. Instead of using digital avatars, the group uses performers to copy the movements of a subject. For example, racial bias is studied by having a subject’s actions mirrored by a performer of color. And for something like gender bias, men and women would take a run at living inside the body of one another.

Bertrand and company have taken this approach to the next level by leveraging the tech of a paid Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, renaming it the Machine To Be Another. In the project, two participants stand in front of one another, put on their headsets, and effectively see out of one anothers’ eyes. When they look at each other, they see themselves. When they speak, they hear the other person’s voice in their ears.

VR_simstim1But things don’t end there! Working together, the two participants are encouraged to sync their movements, touching objects in the room, looking at things, and exploring their ‘own’ bodies simultaneously. Bertrand explains the experience as follows:

The brain integrates different senses to create your experience of the world. In turn, the information from each of these senses influences how the other senses are processed. We use these techniques from neuroscience to actually affect the psychophysical sensation of being in your body.

In other words, in combination with being fed video and sound from their partner’s headset, by moving and touching things at the same time, the Machine To Be Another can actually convince people that they are in someone else’s body as long as the two partners remain in sync.

VR_simstimIt’s a radical idea that Be Another Lab is only beginning to explore. Right now, their experiments have mostly focused on gender swapping, but the team hopes to expand on this and tackle issues such as transgender and homosexuality. The group is currently looking to partner with various organizations, experts and activists to help them further perfect their techniques.

It’s a unique idea, giving people the ability to not only walk a mile in another’s shoes, but to know what that actually feels like physically. I can foresee this sort of technology becoming a part of sensitivity training in the future, and even as education for sex offenders and hate criminals. Currently, such training focuses on getting offenders to empathize with their victims.

What better way to do that than making them see exactly what it’s like to be them? And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Machine To Be Another in action:


Source:
fastcodesign.com

IFA 2013!

IFA2013There are certainly no shortages of electronic shows happening this year! It seems that I just finished getting through all the highlights from Touch Taiwan which happened back in August. And then September comes around and I start hearing all about IFA 2013. For those unfamiliar with this consumer electronics exhibition, IFA stands for Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin, which loosely translated means the Berlin Radio Show.

As you can tell from the name, this annual exhibit has some deep roots. Beginning in 1924, the show was intended to gives electronics producers the chance to present their latest products and developments to the general public, as well as showcasing the latest in technology. From radios and cathode-ray display boxes (i.e. television) to personal computers and PDAs, the show has come a long way, and this year’s show promised to be a doozy as well.

IFA-2013Of all those who presented this year, Sony seems to have made the biggest impact. In fact, they very nearly stole the show with their presentation of their new smartphones, cameras and tablets. But it was their new Xperia Z1 smartphone that really garnered attention, given all the fanfare that preceded it. Check out the video by TechRadar:


However, their new Vaio Tap 11 tablet also got quite a bit of fanfare. In addition to a Haswell chip (Core i3, i5 or i7), a six-hour battery, full Windows connectivity, a camera, a stand, 128GB to 512GB of solid-state storage, and a wireless keyboard, the tablet has what is known as Near Field Communications (NFC) which comes standard on smartphones these days.

This technology allows the tablet to communicate with other devices and enable data transfer simply by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity. The wireless keyboard is also attachable to the device via a battery port which allows for constant charging, and the entire thin comes in a very thin package. Check out the video by Engadget:


Then there was the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, an exhibit which was equally anticipated and proved to be quite entertaining. Initially, the company had announced that their new smartwatch would incorporate flexible technology, which proved to not be the case. Instead, they chose to release a watch that was comparable to Apple’s own smartwatch design.

But as you can see, the end result is still pretty impressive. In addition to telling time, it also has many smartphone-like options, like being able to take pictures, record and play videos, and link to your other devices via Bluetooth. And of course, you can also phone, text, instant message and download all kinds of apps. Check out the hands-on video below:


Toshiba also made a big splash with their exhibit featuring an expanded line of tablets, notebooks and hybrids, as well as Ultra High-Definition TVs. Of note was their M9 design, a next-generation concept that merges the latest in display and networking technology – i.e. the ability to connect to the internet or your laptop, allowing you to stream video, display pictures, and play games on a big ass display!

Check out the video, and my apologies for the fact that this and the next one are in German. There were no English translations:


And then there was their Cloud TV presentation, a form of “smart tv” that merges the best of a laptop to that of a television. Basically, this means that a person can watch video-on-demand, use social utilities, network, and save their files via cloud memory storage, all from their couch using a handheld remote. Its like watching TV, but with all the perks of a laptop computer – one that also has a very big screen!


And then there was the HP Envy Recline, an all-in-one PC that has a hinge that allows the massive touchscreen to pivot over the edge of a desk and into the user’s lap. Clearly, ergonomics and adaptability were what inspired this idea, and many could not tell if it was a brilliant idea or the most enabling invention since the LA-Z-BOY recliner. Still, you have to admit, it looks pretty cool:


Lenovo and Acer also attracted show goers with their new lineup of smartphones, tablets, and notebooks. And countless more came to show off the latest in their wares and pimp out their own versions of the latest and greatest developments. The show ran from September 6th to 11th and there are countless videos, articles and testimonials to still making it to the fore.

For many of the products, release dates are still pending. But all those who attended managed to come away with the understanding that when it comes to computing, networking, gaming, mobile communications, and just plain lazing, the technology is moving by leaps and bounds. Soon enough, we are likely to have flexible technology available in all smart devices, and not just in the displays.

nokia_morphNanofabricated materials are also likely to create cases that are capable of morphing and changing shape and going from a smartwatch, to a smartphone, to a smart tablet. For more on that, check out this video from Epic Technology, which showcases the most anticipated gadgets for 2014. These include transparent devices, robots, OLED curved TVs, next generation smartphones, the PS4, the Oculus Rift, and of course, Google Glass.

I think you’ll agree, next year’s gadgets are even more impressive than this year’s gadgets. Man, the future is moving fast!


Sources:
b2b.ifa-berlin.com, technologyguide.com, telegraph.co.uk, techradar.com