Monthly Archives: October 2017
Monthly Archives: October 2017
The idea sounds very simple in principle: you strap on a headset, say the magic words (“Abracadabra” “Open sesame” or whatever) and instead of being in that pokey, dingy, stark or crowded office or that untidy home-office you were in a minute ago, you are now inside a luxury office with a panoramic view of New York City.
Yes, just a minute ago, you were Joe Public, crammed into a small office with three colleagues, or looking out onto a garbage-strewn backyard. Now you are Gordon Gecko looking down on Wall Street or Harrison Ford (in Working Girl) looking out across a panoramic view of Manhattan.
Once the dream of science fiction, we now have headsets with such high resolution that they can show you the office, the panoramic view beyond the window and one or more computer screens on which you can work. Or if you prefer, you can take your office with you to that sun-drenched beach. What is more, compared to the cost of downtown office real estate, it’s actually quite cheap. Even the most expensive VR headset costs less than a month’s rent per worker in Manhattan or London or Tokyo.
And with live streaming video feeds, you can plug an up-to-date view of the cityscape or the ocean into the background from pairs of 3D cameras mounted at appropriate locations the world over. Not a still picture, you understand. Not even a pre-recorded video looping through over and over again like in Trevanian’s Loo Sanction. No, a real time view of what you would see if you were actually there.
So why aren’t we all doing it already?
Some people would say that the reason is because the background would be too distracting. But that can’t be the answer. After all some people do work in offices in big cities with panoramic views. And some of those offices are comfortable – even luxurious. And there are people who take their laptops to the beach and even work. I’ve done it myself. I once wrote a thriller (under a pen-name) while sitting on a promontory sticking out fifty yards into the Dead Sea, listening to quiet music.
So it’s not the distractions that are the problem. Rather, the problem is best expressed in a recent article in the Guardian by Alex Hern (“I tried to work all day in a VR headset and it was horrible”):
It’s surprisingly hard to find and use the mouse and keyboard. You probably think you can touch-type. I certainly did… But it turns out that there’s a difference between being able to type without looking at the keyboard and being able to type without being able to see your own hands, even in your peripheral vision.
He goes on to describe the experience of “banging around the desk trying to find where I’d left my mouse without knocking over my coffee.”
And this is the only real problem. Although Hern also wrote about the problem of wearing the headset for too long, I think this was very much his personal experience and not representative of others. Many gamers wear their headsets for hours. And Aaron Frank, who wrote an article for Motherboard (“I Worked in a VR Office, and It Was Actually Awesome”) wrote, in contrast:
I wondered about the visual endurance required to stay in VR for such long periods of time, but Bob Perry, CEO of Envelop VR, said that some people in his company code in VR for hours a day without reporting any issues.
So, it is the practical problem of finding keyboard and mouse that is really the problem. The obvious solution would be to display a virtual keyboard and mouse in front of the user and to track their hands and fingers when they use it. The problem is that tracking technology is not that accurate… yet!
One solution might be to attach the keyboard to a tracker device and overlay the VR image with a positionally-matched virtual keyboard and a virtual image of the user’s hands (as tracked by the camera). This technology already exists. But it is at best a temporary, stop-gap solution.
However, two new technologies are making their way from the lab to the market and should be with us very shortly.
The first is accurate finger tracking. Qualcomm’s Spectra Module program has created a Computer Vision kit and Premium Vision kit. These can be used to carry out passive and active depth sensing. Active depth sensing involves firing pulses of infrared light and capturing their reflection off a surface with an IR camera. The module uses over 10,000 depth points and can discern position up to 0.125mm between dots. They have used this system to accurately track a pianist’s hands as he played the piano.
And if they can do it with a 0.125mm accuracy, they can surely do it for a computer keyboard too. Moreover, as human fingers emit infrared radiation, they can presumably also achieve accurate results with passive IR.
But there is an even more potent – not to say esoteric – technology, just around the corner. An Article in Wired under the headline “Brain-machine Interface Isn’t Sci-fi Anymore,” described demonstration given by Thomas Reardon of CTRL-Labs in which he placed a “terrycloth stretch band with microchips and electrodes woven into the fabric” on each forearm and proceeded to type into a computer without touching the keyboard. He actually surprised the interviewer by starting with the keyboard and then pushing it away, while carrying on with microscopic finger movements. Yet his typing continued to appear on the screen.
Reardon explained that the electrodes in the armband were capturing the electronic signals travelling down his nerves and the software was interpreting with high enough accuracy to be able to determine which he key he would have been pressing.
Understandably, Reardon himself described the demonstration as a “mind fuck” and the interviewer could hardly disagree. The software was so accurate that it even pick up twitches from the fingers.
This technology is not yet on the market, but it is more than looming on the horizon. And with pixel density and resolution getting better, and Microsoft working with hardware partners to bring in the Windows headset, we at bestvr.tech confidently predict that the virtual reality office will arrive some time in 2018.
The big rush to release all sorts of products - and even mere announcements - in the field of Augmented Reality - can only mean one thing: Christmas is fast approaching. All the big companies, and many of the little ones, want to stake their claims to a share of this rich and fertile market. The trouble is, not many of them actually have a product.
A little backpedaling is necessary here. Many years ago - decades in fact - there was a headset that consisted of a small display that sat a couple of inches from one-eye and created a virtual image of a screen in front of one eye. The screen was monochrome (red specifically) and the image was produced by red LEDs that scanned up and down very rapidly. The product was never really a success, whether because of the price or because it was monochrome.
But now as augmented reality slowly but steadily hits the market, it looks like a case of plus ce change, plus la meme chose. Accordingly, in this review and comparison, we take a look at some of the new crop of augmented reality products and offer our recommendations.
The AR Glasses
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the Vufine+ is a wearable display that connects to your glasses, or the plain glass pair that comes with the display, if you don’t wear glasses. It creates a 720p virtual screen 4 inches across, about 12 inches from your eye, either in your principal line of sight or just below it. Okay, 4 inches might seem small, but it is no different to all but the biggest mobile phone displays and at about the same distance or less.
It can be connected via a micro-to full HDMI cable to a smartphone, computer, camera or drone. The unit is basically a Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) projector that projects the image onto your eye. It has three degrees of freedom: up-down, tilt, left-right.
The unit comes with a magnetic docking station, so that it can be attached to the glasses when needed and put in your pocket when you don’t, without having to remove the glasses or fiddle with them extensively. It also comes with a standard (non-magnetic) docking station and a carrying case. Best of all, it comes in both left-handed and right handed configurations (or rather left eye and right eye) and is available in the US and Britain. And because we are coming up to Christmas, it can be gift wrapped.
There are three viewing modes: Standard (for unaltered 16:9 viewing), Fit (for 33% increased landscape viewing in 4:3) and Zoom (for 77% increased portrait viewing in 4:3). The stated runtime from the internal battery is 90 minutes, which we found to be about right. We would have hoped for longer as it is a small device, but that of course also limits the room for batteries. However, while the makers claim that the resolution is clear enough for both video and text, we found that it fell considerably short in the text department. It is just too small and at this resolution can’t be read.
While it can in theory attach to any glasses, if the glasses frame is light (or loose fitting) it can pull down on one side, so you might have to use a counterweight. You can also purchase a separate hat or head mount, if you prefer this to mounting the unit on glasses.
In practical usage, this unit is extremely versatile. You can use it as an alternative smartphone screen to protect your privacy when viewing sensitive (or embarrassing) content. You can use it as an alternative screen for close-up or macro photography, when you need to get the camera into an awkward position but are unable - or unwilling - to squeeze your head and torso into that awkward position.
Perhaps the most obvious and enjoyable usage is when flying a drone. Instead of merely watching the drone, you can see where what the drone’s camera sees. If you try this through a mobile phone or laptop, you face the dilemma of whether to look up at the drone or down at the screen. It is very hard to do both simultaneously. But with the Vufine+ it’s a breeze! You just look up at the drone with both eyes and see what the drone’s camera sees on the virtual display through one eye, just below your main line of sight.
You can also use it as a virtual cinema. Although it may not be fully immersive, there are times and circumstances when you need to be aware of your surroundings, but still want to enjoy a private viewing of a movie. This is the ideal solution. And unlike viewing the movie on your smartphone, you do not have to worry about the issue of aching arms from holding the phone out in front of you.
Another obvious use, is for working on-the-go. It is lighter than a laptop or even a tablet. Now of course, you still need to input data, whether it be on a keyboard, screen keyboard or phone. But by using the Vufine as the screen, you can keep the phone or tablet on your lap and enter data, without having to stare at the phone or tablet screen. Of course, it would be nice if you could type your input on a virtual keyboard in mid-air - and also nice if the unit was cordless - but you can’t have everything. Not yet, anyway.
Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses (Grey)
Vuzix describes these Smart Glasses as “an Android-based wearable computer.” In addition to pre-installed apps, it features an integrated 5-megapixel camera (16:9 ratio) that can capture stills and 1080p video. It has Bluetooth 4.00 connectivity for pairing with other Android devices, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, 1GB or RAM and 4GB of flash storage - expandable to 32GB.
The M100 does not have its own phone connection. To use it as a phone you would have to pair it with an Android phone or iPhone. However, it is packed with pretty much everything else you can think of:
These are impressive specs on paper. But how do they stack up in performance?
The answer is is that they work well once you figure them out, but getting everything to work just right can be tricky. Think of the first time you got a smart phone and had to learn how to use it. That’s how it is with this product. It’s a steep learning curve, unless you’re a natural techie. And it’s not cheap.
The real question then is how much added value you can get from a product like this? If the product was a complete standalone device, without the need for a phone, it would be great value for money. Instead it is merely a good product, for those who want to get the technology quickly, at a high price, before it goes from being the latest “must have” to a stale old “everyone has.”
Google Glasses XE V2
Although already on its second life - and still far from all it promised to be - Google Glass is still the gorilla in the room of augmented reality. Or maybe that should be the elephant. The package contains Google Glass itself, RX Frames, mono earbuds, extra nose pads, a USB cable, charger, extra nose pads, a soft carrying case, a hard carrying case, a screwdriver and instructions.
The augmented reality display looks like a 25-inch television, eight feet away. It has a 5MP camera that can shoot stills and 720p videos. It also has an audio bone conduction transducer. This sounds ultra-modern but in fact is like the old-fashioned “bone fone” from four decades ago. It basically just produces vibrations in the bones (usually of the head) that are then conductive to the auditory nerves.
Various forms of connectivity are available, including 802.11 WiFi (2.4 GHz) 12 GB usable memory synced with Google Cloud. Battery life is about a day in normal usage, but with intensive use of battery-draining activities (like video) it can easily be a lot less. The kit includes a charger and micro-USB cable.
It is available for both Android and iOS. For Android it requires version 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) or higher and for iOS, it requires iOS7 or higher. (iOS 7 was first used in the iPhone 4 and iPad 2.)
The problem is that it is not clear where Google Glass is going and there are not too many apps that use it.
Optinvent ORA-2 Augmented Reality Smart Glasses Developer Kit
This is a developer’s kit rather than a final product. That means, there are limited apps and the price is high - although in practice no higher than the Vuzix. That statement actually has to be qualified. Limited apps, means limited dedicated apps. The ORA-2 is perfectly capable of running existing Android apps, just like any Android smartphone or tablet.
In terms of hardware, it comes with a powerful spec: front-facing 1080p 5 MP camera, 9-axis motion sensor (gyro inertial sensors, accelerometer and magnetometer), Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi, GPS, a trackpad (mouse and swipe).
The 16.9 display has a resolution of 33 pixels per degree and the brightness level maxes out at 3000 Nits. Based on retinal projection, it has a feature called Flip-vu which offers two configurations: Augmented Reality and Glance. In the Augmented Reality configuration, the mini-projector is fully horizontal and in the path of the eye when focused on the distance through the upper part of the glasses lens. In Glance mode, the projector is 20° below the horizontal and you have to look down at it.
The overall system packs a punch in other respects too, with a dual-core 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex processor, built-in (noise-cancelling) microphone and ambient light sensor. The 1200 mAh battery lasts about five hours with the display of continuously. It is charged via a USB connection.
At present the product, comes with a disclaimer that it is not offered as a consumer product, but only as a development platform. This does not mean that you cannot buy it as a consumer, only that it is offered “as is” with no warranty express or implied and - perhaps more importantly - that it is not approved by the FCC or CE. Also, it can display the same content as the screen of the Android device to which it is attached, but it has no dedicated apps on the market just yet.
Moverio BT-300 Smart Glasses (AR/Developer Edition)
Like the Optinvent above, this is a developer edition, rather than a consumer product, and priced the same too. Using a transparent si-OLED display it features binocular projection providing views for both eyes. This means that unlike most Augmented Reality headsets (but like Virtual Reality headsets) these smart glasses offer the option of side-by-side 3D viewing - albeit at lower resolution. The result is a virtual 80-inch screen at “distance” of 5 meters to a 320-inch screen at a distance of 20 meters. This is only a 23° field of view. But for AR (as distinct from VR) that is perfectly reasonable.
But first, what’s in the box?
The glasses are unquestionably light. Indeed, according to the manufacturers, they are the world’s lightest Si-OLED-powered, binocular, transparent smart glasses, weighing in at only 2.5 ounces or 69 grams. They are powered by an Intel® Atom™ x5 1.44GHz Quad Core CPU.
In many respects, this product ticks all the right boxes, with a front facing 5MP camera, head-tracking, choice of wireless connectivity, six-hour battery life, etc. The display’s 720p falls short of the 1080p, but is par for the course with most AR glasses currently. With 24-bit color and a 30Hz refresh rate, the image is very clear, even in bright, sunny conditions - a key test for augmented reality glasses.
As it is a developer kit, it is again in the position of not having many dedicated apps. But it can be used out of the box for a multiplicity of functions, including pretty much anything you can do on your Android smartphone - and of course getting a bird's-eye view when you fly a drone!
You can wear these glasses over prescription glasses, so no problems there. They even have their own apps market from which you can download games, like Protocol Zero, and practical apps, like VR Architecture Walkthrough, a Virtual Reality Architectural Visualization app. These apps, and many others there, are free. There is even an app for drone control.
On minor drawback is the trackpad, which is rather tricky and fiddly to use. But once you get the hang of it, the inconvenience is minor.
While people speculate on the future of AR and ask questions like “Will Apple enter the fray with its own headset?”, “Will the Microsoft HoloLens become an affordable consumer product?”, “Will Google Glass come down in price and hit the mainstream?” and even “Will Amazon bring out an AR Kindle?” we are missing the point. AR, in some form, is already here.
Yes, it is expensive - although the Vufine+ challenges even this assumption – yes, it is a bit rough around the edges, both figuratively and literally. But it is here! There is a market for it. For those who really want it, the technology is affordable. And there is an element of choice.
You can be the owner of an AR headset this Christmas - ditto for your loves ones - if you’re ready to dip your hands into your pocket. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Some people may prefer to hold out. But there are no breakthroughs around the corner. And all products eventually wear out and need replacing. So, unless you are hoping for some big announcement in a year’s time and are willing to hold out that long, now is the time to buy a cool-looking pair of AR glasses.
Intel has closed it’s unit that makes AR goggles according to unofficial reports emerging on Sunday night. Intel acquired wearables maker Recon in 2015 for an undisclosed sum at a time when the microprocessor giant saw considerable promise in wearables and the AR market. The Recon brand specialized in augmented reality goggles targeted on sporting and industrial applications.
However, the company has already cut a third of the workforce and now an unofficial disclosure by an anonymous employee has revealed that the unit is to be closed completely, with the loss of a further 100 jobs. The employee – who asked not to be named because the announcement has not yet been made officially – said that the company will fulfil all existing contracts for the goggles.
A spokeswoman for Intel refused to answer questions about the Recon closure rumor, but assured us that the company will continue to develop Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality hardware, as it strives to expand beyond its microprocessor and Solid State Drive area of established expertise.
The decision has come as a surprise to those who expected the launch of Apple’s ARkit and the relaunch of Google Glass to make Intel even more bullish on the future of AR. Although a maker of niche products, the Intel acquisition of Recon was seen as testing of the waters for a bigger expansion into VR and AR.
However, there were some earlier signs that the handwriting was on the wall for Recon, not only because of the cancellation, but also because of the prior cancellation of Intel’s Project Alloy – a Virtual Reality project that Intel launched to much fanfare in 2016. The headset was originally scheduled for release in 2017. But on September 22, it was announced that the project was cancelled.
The VR headset was intended to be a Head Mounted Display with six degrees of freedom that was entirely self-contained. However, early designs were met with the criticism of “clunkiness” and Intel’s plans to develop the unit working with partners fell through due to lack of interest. The lack of interest in turn is due to the fact that those same partners (Acer, Asus and Dell) work with Windows and Microsoft has been working with them on the new Windows Mixed Reality headset.
However, while Intel has effectively withdrawn from the direct development of a consumer product, they continue (according to Kim Pallister, the Director of their VR Center of Excellence) to be involved in the development of components for VR products. This includes high bandwidth WiGig links for VR headsets, Movidius visual processing, Intel RealSense™ depth sensing, Thunderbolt, and Intel Optane™.
Pallister’s statement, however, made clear that untethered VR – whether built into the headset or with a wireless connection to an external box – remains the holy grail of VR development. “What we’ve learned through Project Alloy,” he said, “will inform future efforts.”
Whilst that might sound like putting a brave face on it, we wouldn’t bet against Intel technology appearing inside several new generations of VR products – even if it’s someone else’s name on the box!
Google has upgraded its Daydream View VR headset at a big media event in San Francisco. Google has long been one of the pioneers of relatively low-tech VR, starting with the Google Cardboard. Like Cardboard - and like Samsung’s GearVR, the Daydream View is a housing unit for a smart phone (i.e. the screen) combined with lenses, to focus the image. This in turn is backed up by software for creating images for each eye and controllers.
Samsung and Google are the two great rivals in this area, although both used phones running Google’s Android software. The principal difference is that the GearVR was almost entirely a hard plastic box, whereas Google used a plastic frame but with a largely padded fabric construction to make it more comfortable to the wearer than its competitor from Samsung
Now, in it’s latest salvo, Google has upgraded the Daydream View and launched it at the Pixel Media event in San Francisco. The price is $99, a $20 increase on the original, but still $30 cheaper than Samsung’s GearVR. The new Daydream boasts wider straps and a bigger field of view than its predecessor. It also boasts a partnership deal with Imax that allows Google to supply select Imax 3D movies free of charge. There are also some 250 VR apps available for the Daydream - a tenfold increase from the number when it was first launched.
The new version comes in a choice of pink, light gray or dark grayish black - although Google calls them Coral, Fog and Charcoal. (The old ones were called Slate, Snow and Crimson.) According to Andrew Nartker, Google’s Virtual Reality Product Manager, the new fabric designs are intended to resemble furniture upholstery. This is in response to Google’s discovery (based on earlier customer research and feedback) that the product is more likely to be used in the home than in public places.
The Daydream View can accommodate any of the following phones: Pixel, Pixel 2, Galaxy S8 & S8+, Galaxy Note 8, Moto Z 2 Force, Porsche Design Mate 9, Axon 7, Moto Z, Moto Z Force, LG V30, ZenFone AR, Mate 9 Pro. More are sure to follow.
Although already displayed, the official launch date is October 19. At that time, British, American and South Korean customers will get five popular games bundled free, provided they buy before the end of the year. And to show the versatility of the new Daydream View, Google is launching a variety of YouTube 3D video series for the Daydream, like Austin City Limits, a backstage fly-on-the-wall look at the music series, The Confessional, where Trevor Noah and fellow comedians make “confessions” to the viewers and the Female Planet, about businesswomen and women in positions of leadership.
In keeping with its status as a content provider that seeks to put the hardware “out there” to serve up the content, Google will continue to bundle the controllers with the View. In all cases, the color of the controller will be identical to that of the headset. The Controllers themselves are very sleak, elegant devices that look a bit like a small TV remote with curved lines and a couple of buttons on the front and two more on the side.
Not everything has changed about the headset. The phone is still placed in a “door” which is manually closed, rather than slotted in like the Samsung GearVR. However, the new custom-designed lenses are wider, providing a 10°-15° increase in field of view, depending on the phone screen size.
Other changes, include a redesigned face mark to even out the pressure distribution and a removable top strap to which the phone can be clipped. In the old versions, the remote could be placed into the front control panel. This had the effect of trapping heat in the front. Now, with the controller stored elsewhere, the front panel serves as a heat-sink for the phone.
The decision to revamp the Daydream View may have come as a result of disappointing sales figures for the original, compared to the Samsung GearVR’s 5 million units up to the start of 2017. There are no figures available for the Daydream, however the core app for the Daydream had only 1 million installs by mid-2017, compared to 25 times that number for the equivalent Google Cardboard app.
Although Steam is widely seen as the HTC Vive’s content platform, the Vive has a rival brother under Steam’s roof in the form of the Oculus Rift. According to a user survey conducted by Steam, the Rift’s market share of VR headsets is closing the gap with the Vive.
The monthly survey is used by Steam to monitor market trends in VR, the uptake of new technologies and the relative popularity of competing VR products, both hardware and software. The latest results show Vive at 50.2% and the Rift yapping at their heels with 46.9%.
Although the statistic shows a 3.1% gain in market share by the Rift, this is mainly due to a 2.1% drop in the Vive’s market share combined with a drop in sales of the Rift DK2 (development kit). As a development kit, rather than a commercial product, the DK2 holds a miniscule 3% of the market. But when factored into to statistics, it shows the Rift and Vive to be running virtually neck and neck in an increasingly tightly fought race.
However, the survey could actually be concealing a possible lead by the Rift. Firstly, participation is voluntary, so there is an element of self-selection. Secondly, while Steam is the unofficial content platform for the Vive, Oculus Rift users merely see it as a supplementary content supplier alongside the Rift’s own Oculus Home Platform. Thus, while many Rift owners use Steam, quite a large number don’t. This would inevitably tend to skew the results in favor of the Vive
On the other hand, the Vive also has its own Viveport Appstore. That together with the Viveport subscription service, could be reducing the presence of Vive users on the Steam site, thus skewing the results the other way.
We do know, from other sources, that the in the second quarter of of 2017, sales of the Vive plunged from 191,000 to 95,000. For the Rift, this trend manifested itself in reverse. Rift sales in that period rose from 99,000 in Q1 to 247,000. This may be due to the price difference, combined with the price war that broke out in summer (see our August 22, newsfeed: Price Wars Hit VR As HTC Slashes Price). This does not mean that the Rift now has a larger installed base of uses – only that it is getting there.