Category Archives for "Opinion"

April 23, 2018

Military augmented reality

Military augmented reality

In the past we reported in the past how AR is being used to reduce the maintenance skills gap in the US armed forces. So it should come as no surprise that even while AR struggles to get a foothold in the overpriced civilian market that military augmented reality technology is still going strong.

According to a 124-page report published by Research and Markets, the world’s military will spend about $1.79 billion on AR by December 1, 2025. Going back only as far as last year, the figure for 2017 was $511 million. This marks a compound growth rate of 17.4% per annum over an eight year span.

The report - Military Augmented Reality Market to 2025 – Global Analysis and Forecasts by Components, Product Type & Functions - takes both a broad and a detailed look at how developments in augmented reality is having an impact on the military.


Of course, one of the key differences between the military and civilian sectors is that price is no object to the military. In contrast, all but the wealthiest would balk at a set of AR goggles costing $3000. But that is peanuts for the military.

The key piece of military augmented reality hardware for the military is the so-called “heads-up” display: a Head Mounted Display (HMD). This enables the wearer to see the real-world about them, while at the same time, supplying the kind of data that would normally appear on a screen. Thus the wearer need never look down, or take their eyes off the surrounding environment. In the military, this is called “situational awareness”.

The main piece of data that military personnel need, while in the field, is navigational data. But they need to be aware of the presence and location of hostile forces and other dangers (e.g. land mines) at the same time.

Besides navigational data, heads-up displays can be used to supply information from HQ or other units, field orders, status updates, etc. This can facilitate better coordination between land, air and sea combat and intelligence units.

Military augmented reality in Future warfare

Future warfare

Old and new players

However, the most important and compelling use of military augmented reality is to assist combat units with rapid friend-foe identification. This is a vital component of combat readiness in order to avoid the horrendous mishap of friendly fire - which both costs lives and is extremely damaging to combat morale and national consensus.

But it is not just the big boys like the USA, Russia and China that are procuring these military augmented reality systems. It's not even just hi-tech countries with advanced military needs, like Israel and South Korea. On the contrary, hi-tech but recently peaceful Japan, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are buying into the new military technology.


And even less wealthy countries are getting in on the act. For example, South American market leaders like Brazil and Mexico, and third-world but populace India. Not to be outdone, the United States Defense Department is putting increased financial resources into military augmented reality technology, specifically to facilitate heads-up navigation.

One of the core technologies being developed for the US military is BARS (Battlefield Augmented Reality Systems). This development is being spearheaded by the Advanced Information Technology of Naval Research Laboratory. They are working in collaboration with Columbia University on this project.

But other companies such as the old mainframe computer manufacturers and some of the new hi-tech players are also getting in on the act. Companies mentioned in the report include: BAE Systems, Applied Research Associates, Inc, Google (now a subsidiary of Alphabet), Osterhout Design Group and Six15 Technologies.

But what is significant in this report, is that while the US and Canada remain the biggest procurers of military augmented reality, it is likely that their combined percentage share of the market will drop from its 2017 level of 70%.

April 19, 2018

Tracker glove brings virtual office closer

ZeroKey glove hand and finger tracker

The tracker glove from Canadian startup ZeroKey could be just what's needed to make the virtual office a reality.  

We've written in the past about the virtual office and the technologies that would be needed to make it a reality. Such technologies may include real keyboards positionally-mapped against a virtual counterpart, a wrist-worn gesture tracker (not a tracker glove as such. however depth sensing cameras that can track fingers to millimeter positions in 3D, or even technology that can sense the electrical impulses in the nerves of the lower arms, hands and fingers.

Other needed technologies are higher resolution and greater Field of View. This is promised by the the Star VR headset and the  Pimax 8K

But the latest visitor to the party is a hand and finger tracker glove from Canadian start-up Zerokey. They have developed a sleek and elegant glove that enables millimeter level tracking of your hands and even your fingers.

Zero key tracker glove

Zero key glove

The designers at ZeroKey have made the prototype gloves of an elastic microfiber material, that is porous, reducing sweat and discomfort. The elasticity, allows freedom of movement, while maintaining a tight fit, to ensure precise location tracking.

ZeroKey tracker glove in closeup

ZeroKey glove in closeup

Unlike many prototypes, this one doesn't have loose wires going all over the place. Even at this stage, they have thought about the aesthetics of the design as well as the functionality.The black microfiber that covers the hardware, has a quietly understated, conservative professional look. The blue lines - redolent of science fiction - are conductive fibres linked to the sensors.

Upon reflection, white may have been a better choice for the main color. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey. Come to think of it, consider how Apple Computers would have made it. But it's early days yet. At this stage it is only a protoype. ZeroKey are currently developing an SDK for the glove and are taking indications of interest from developers on their website.

March 22, 2018

Video game shooting – or shape-shifting, illuminati, Zionists?

Dijonae White - video game shooting victim

Passions sometimes run high when people play video games – or in this case, don’t play them – but on Sunday March 18, these emotions crossed the line into homicide when a nine-year-old boy shot and killed his 14-year-old sister (Dijonae White) when she refused to hand over a game controller in a tragic video game shooting incident.

The video game shooting took place in the Mississippi home of Dijonae White.  According to early reports, Dijonae (a pupil at Tupelo Middle School) took over playing the game and then refused to hand the controller back to her brother. He responded by going into another room, retrieving a 0.25-caliber gun from a nightstand and then shooting his sister in the back of her head. She was brought to Memphis children’s hospital Le Bonheur but died at 6.45 p.m.

Early reports claim that the gun belonged to the mother’s live-in boyfriend. At the time of the shooting, Dijonae’s mother was in the kitchen feeding three of her other three children..

Dijonae While victim of the video game shooting

Dijonae While

Video game shooting victim Dijonae White and her mom

Dijonae White and her mom

The video game shooting case falls under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Cecil Cantrell, who is taking a cautious approach and not jumping to any conclusions. Cantrell stated: “I’m not too fast to say anything because there are juveniles involved. We want to do what’s right and we’re going to get it right.”

Cecil Cantrell - the sheriff in charge of the video game shooting case

Cecil Cantrell - the sheriff in charge of the case

However, the sheriff also said: “In my opinion, kids watch video games where they shoot each other and hit the reset button and they come back to life. It’s not like that in the real world. I’m not saying that’s necessarily what happened, but kids now are different than what they were when we were growing up.”

Is the problem video games or guns?

The video game shooting case will throw a spotlight on the whole issue of violent video games, that President Trump raised after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Trump said at a meeting in February.

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump

At the White House meeting, Donald Trump raised the issue, not only of video games but the internet in general. “We have to look at the Internet, because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds and their minds are being formed, and we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it."

NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch

NRA spokesperson and former Breitbart writer and editor Dana Loesch

However, Trump’s assertions were seen by some as an attempt to distract attention from alternative explanation of gun killings generally and not just the video game shooting. That explanation - i.e. the TRUE explanation - would throw the blame onto the widespread availability of guns in the US. Despite the power of the National Rifle Association – which spends millions of dollars supporting politicians who oppose gun control and attacking those politicians who support gun control – the tide is beginning to turn against second amendment absolutists.

Paranoid/dishonest conspiracy theorists, gun control and the illuminati

People are now coming to realize that it is the abundance of guns – not their legality per se – that is the main cause of the problem. This also explains why the gun violence problem is so hard to tackle at the state level.  States that have strict gun control laws, can (and in many cases do) refuse to recognize gun licenses from other states, but once the guns are out there, controlling their use by criminals is well nigh impossible.

On the other hand, countries that have strict gun laws (like Britain and Japan) fare much better, despite the occasional anecdotal case that throws a spanner in the works. Indeed, it is the anecdotal evidence that is widely seized upon not only by the NRA, but also by the other joker in the pack: conspiracy theorists.

The internet is full of lunatic conspiracy websites, self-published Amazon Kindle books by paranoid people and of course YouTube videos by charlatons. These websites, books and videos claim variously that gun attacks outside the US prove that gun control is ineffective or that gun attacks and mass killings are “false flags” by people seeking to ban guns or create world government. Some the wackier conspiracy theorists claim that guns are necessary to "defend ourselves" against the “illuminati” shape-shifting reptiles or other such alleged conspiracies.

This explosion of stupidity and paranoia has been created largely to be exploited by the smarter, well-heeled conspiracy theorists, who monetize their websites at the expense of the gullible. It is tolerated and even fueled by companies like Google (owners of YouTube), Amazon and Facebook who prefer to maximize profits than employ enough people to provide human vetting of user-generated content.

But ultimately the victims are not the gullible people who believe the conspiracy theorists, but the secondary victims of the policies that such gullibility shapes. Thus, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is obliged to keep records of guns sold in the US (provided by the sellers) but are not allowed to have a searchable computerized database of such guns when they need to cross-check a specific weapon.

According to anti-gun-violence organization The Trace:

To perform a search, ATF investigators must find the specific index number of a former dealer, then search records chronologically for records of the exact gun they seek. They may review thousands of images in a search before they find the weapon they are looking for. That’s because dealer records are required to be ‘non-searchable’ under federal law. Keyword searches, or sorting by date or any other field, are strictly prohibited.

This is the legacy left by corrupt politicians in the pocket of the NRA and spineless politicians who care more about being re-elected than the lives of American citizens.

March 20, 2018

Avegant scales down AR project

Avegant AR light-field technology headset

A year ago, Bay area company Avegant (maker of a personal cinema system) announced that they were developing an Augmented Reality headset using their light field technology. But in February they replaced CEO Joerg Tewes with company founder Ed Tang. And now they have laid off 30 of their 50 workers.

Tang has said that despite the downsizing, the company remains committed to developing an AR headset. Avergant’s AR division is in direct competition with Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap. In some respects, the parallels to Magic Leap are stronger, because Magic Leap claims to have developed light field technology. But whilst Avegant has already demonstrated their technology in the Glyph – aiming light directly into the eye – Magic Leap continues to play its cards close to its chest.

Avegant demoed the technology to The Verge over a year ago and it was deemed superior to the HoloLens, despite the fact that HoloLens was a standalone wireless device, whereas the Avegant required the processing power of a high-spec PC. The main strengths of the Avegant headset were its superior field of view and the sharpness and clarity of its image display.

Avegant Glyph with light field technology

Avegant Glyph

The demo – in a conference room at Avegant’s corporate offices - included views of the solar system and the ocean floor. In the solar system view which one could see Jupiter’s red spot and a satellite orbiting earth. What was so impressive about this demo was that objects of different focal length could be shown in a fixed environment. The Verge writer gave the example of squinting until the sun went out of focus and then seeing the virtual Saturn in sharp focus, including its rings.

There was also a sea view that showed a sea turtle and small, aquatic creatures in sharp definition. The reporter was able to stick his hand into the images, but because the prototype didn’t yet have an advanced tracking system, it was not possible to interact with it. In the HoloLens demo, in contrast, one can tap on one’s coffee table to trigger a display of virtual molten lava.

The demo in fact used the public asset library of the Unity game engine for the images and off-the-shelf cameras for the tracking to identify real objects in the room. Avegant’s long-term strategy calls for inside-out tracking to avoid the need for external cameras or trackers.

Ongoing Mysteries

To some extent, Avegant is also somewhat secretive about its technology. While refusing to reveal precisely how the company implements light field technology, Founder and new CEO Tang hinted that the HoloLens is based on conventional 3D stereoscopy. Microsoft’s own secrecy policy has prevented them from revealing details of their “light engine”.

Similarly, Rony Abovitz, the CEO of Magic Leap, has criticized Microsoft’s image creation technology and claimed that Magic Leap’s is superior. However, given the absence of evidence that anyone outside Microsoft knows what technology they are using – and given Magic Leap’s own secrecy, there is no way of knowing who has the best technology. All we know for sure is that Avegant has had practical market experience of light field technology, while Magic Leap has had $1.3 million in funding and backing from Google parent Alphabet, while Microsoft has huge size and a range of experience.

Man wearing an Avegant headset

Man wearing an Avegant headset

It might be the financial disadvantage that has forced Avegant to scale back its efforts in AR. It is worth noting that despite Microsoft’s size – or maybe because of it – they released what was essentially a far from finished product and then charged $3000 for it. In contrast, Avegant’s personal cinema retailed for $799 – the price point for many high-end VR and AR products.

Avegant still in the AR race

The sudden downsizing and replacement of the CEO suggests that Avegant is having trouble matching its larger competitors when it comes to funding. Ed Tang himself has said that the company is in the process of closing a $10 million funding round that would bring their total capital raised to $60 million since the company’s inception in 2012.

Avegant AR light-field technology headset

Avegant AR headset

However, there are several more serious omens that bode ill for the company. It has noticeably lowered its public profile on Facebook and Twitter in the last few months, despite a very active and vigorous presence before that. And the last time it posted a new video on its YouTube channel was half a year ago.

This can suggest one of two things: either it is going through some kind of malaise that threatens its very existence, or it is legally obliged to go quiet because it is planning to announce an initial public offering and doesn’t want to be seen as hyping a product still in development, that is nowhere near market ready. The downsizing suggests the former. However, it could also be a strategy to ensure that the company is optimized for efficiency when it launches on the stock market.

February 7, 2018

Virtual Reality finds its way into the classroom – in a high poverty district

Susan Dunning and student

People have been talking about using Virtual Reality as a teaching aid in the classroom for a long time, but not it is finally being trialed in a high-poverty educational district in Pennsylvania.

An article by Eleanor Chute in the Hechinger Report, highlights the use of Virtual Reality to broaden the minds of junior highers in the Cornell School District of Coraopolis Pennsylvania. The article gives the example of Jada Jenkins, an eighth grader who was transported into the very different world of a forest by the VR headset.

In a scenario that might have come straight out of a James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Jada and her classmates were given their own avatars and were able to wander around the virtual forest and find each other. Rather than actually walking around, they moved their avatars with hand-held controllers. This meant they could interact in the virtual forest without the risk of bumping into each other.

Voyage 2

People in a forest

But this was only the beginning. After a period of acclimatization, Jada and the other students were assigned to teams and sent off on a scavenger hunt. They had to solve clues to win. For example, Chute gives the example that they had to identify which omnivore might forage for nearby plants or animals after awakening from hibernation. In this case, the answer was a black bear and the winning team could plant their flag to claim victory.

Korzeniowsky-Julian-1

Julian Korzeniowsky

The project, called Voyage, was developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University. Julian Korzeniowsky, a graduate student who worked on the project, describes VR as:

 “another tool teachers can use to hopefully increase the learning gains of their students through engagement.”

In the Voyage “game” - if one can call it that - the students also hear realistic sounds like flowing water or animals in the distance.

The immersive realism was a high motivating factor. It turned learning into fun - always a good way to hold children’s attention.

This is one the strengths of Virtual Reality. It can bring situations to life in a way that books or even TV and movies can’t. But at the same time it is cheaper than field trips. And when the place is a forest with black bears, it is also a lot safer! Other students have witnessed 3D scenes in Syrian refugee camps, according to the Hechinger Report article. This has broadened their horizons without putting them in danger. Other VR scenarios can give students a glimpse into history, re-enacted in three dimensions.

Kristopher Hupp, director of technology and instructional innovation in the Cornell School District explained the reasoning behind the project: “Virtual reality allows students to explore places and structures in a way that is as close to real life as possible, without actually leaving our campus.”

Meanwhile, a company called Schell Games founded and headed by Jesse Schell, professor of the practice of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University is developing a virtual chemistry lab. The concept has been around for decades. The classic example was the experiment that “blows up the lab” and teaches the students about the dangers of explosives without actually killing them. But doing it on a computer screen was never quite the same as doing it in 3D as if you are actually there in the lab, mixing the chemicals and heating them up over the bunsen burner.

Schell believes that the main value of VR is in helping students to visualize, rather than leave it to the imagination alone. As to the fact that VR has not yet made major inroads into the classroom, Schell compares this to the initial resistance to computers, in the eyes of educators “between 1978 and 1990.”

Susan Dunning and others

Susan Dunning and others

These days, of course, computers are no longer as expensive as they were up till the mid-eighties. And their value as educational tools is beyond dispute.

Cornell School District has been described as a “high poverty” area. But they were helped out by a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional public school service agency. This grant enabled them to buy 15 Google Daydream headsets, a similar number of Mattel View Master VR viewers and also 15 Google Pixel phones. The Daydream headsets were for the older students, while the younger ones got the Mattel View Masters.

In order to keep an eye on the situation, the teachers don’t wear headsets, but use iPads to monitor what the students are seeing. But it doesn’t stop there. The district has bought two 360-degree still cameras to enable the teachers to develop their own content.

Google-Daydream

Google-Daydream

It was in fact only after the school district bought the VR hardware - without a specific project in mind - that Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center got involved. As the Voyage blog explains:

The idea started with a spark from Sharan [Shodhan]. He heard that the Cornell School, a high school in the Pittsburgh area, acquired a bunch of Google Daydreams and Pixels, but didn’t really have anything to do with them. Sharan wanted to combine the power of VR (great immersion, but somewhat isolating) with the power of the classroom (collaborating with your friends and working with the teachers). This turned into the idea to create a multiplayer VR experience for the classroom that we will integrate into the Cornell School at the end of the semester.

Thereafter the project was developed by the Carnegie-Mellon team, with feedback from the teachers and students at the school. The results were impressive. While the students found the app “cool” the teachers noticed that it was also a very effective learning tool. As history teacher Andrew Erwin said: “But with virtual reality, even with one try, I could tell that there is some educational value. The kids do remember facts better when they use virtual reality.”

So far, the team have merely been testing the waters. But as it’s now finding its way into the classroom, it’s only a matter of time before we see a whole lot more of it.

January 29, 2018

Airbnb planning to use virtual (and augmented) reality

airbnb-ar

Airbnb has just announced that they are going to start integrating virtual and augmented and reality into their business model.

The company - having started off using the internet as an aggregator to link property owners and short-term tenants and tourists, is now adding AR and VR as an extra layer to enhance the user experience. The company has divided the use of these technologies into two areas of application: Before the trip and During the trip.

Before the trip, Airbnb explained on their website, potential travellers could use VR to enable potential customers to view properties that they were considering renting and explore them in more detail than pictures alone can facilitate.The idea is that hosts would be able to scan the apartments and houses creating 360 degree images that could then be viewed either flat (on computer monitors and phone screens) or in VR head-mounted displays. They explain:

Virtual reality gives us an opportunity to reshape where inspiration is drawn from, and take travel planning to the next level. It can also allow people to connect with their destination, host, and co-travelers. Capabilities like 360 photos and 3D scans allow a person to step inside a home or city and understand what to expect and how to orient themselves before they leave the comfort of their own home.

But the company doesn’t stop there. They are also considering ways in which augmented reality could be used to assist travellers in making use of the facilities in the house or apartment. For example, the system could also allow for customers/tenants with AR glasses to see instruction notes overlaid on specific areas of the property or even instructions for specific appliances.

...it can also be stressful when someone doesn’t know how to unlock the door or turn on the hot water for a shower, or when they’re hopelessly lost and everything is in a foreign language.

Augmented reality and related technologies let us recognize surroundings and provide contextual, timely information to navigate these pain points. Just think how welcome, pulling up  directions to the coffee mugs on a mobile device will be first thing in the morning. Or, instant translations on how to work that German thermostat.

However, Airbnb is going further in its ideas of how to enrich the customer experience:

Augmented reality can also breathe life into a space and tell the story behind the personal items to connect a traveler with their host and a new city in richer, more immersive ways.This last idea might seem less practical and more a way of stretching the concept. But it shows that Airbnb are really using their creating imagination to extract maximum value from these emerging technologies.

January 29, 2018

Is Virtual Reality safe for children?

kid with VR

The question’s been around for some time, but parents tend to be all too blase about it. At least that’s the impression you get when you see how little online debate there is about it.


There’s massive hype around the technology itself. But the effect of VR on children doesn’t even seem like it’s an issue at all. We’re always hearing about some new breakthrough in the technology - much of it pure vaporware - but when was the last time you heard any serious, adult, discussion on the child safety aspect of VR?

The Oculus Rift manual actually warns users of all ages that “prolonged use should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance and multi-tasking ability.” More specifically, regarding children, the Oculus Rift (now owned by Facebook) has a 13+ age rating - which is consistent with Facebook’s 13+ membership requirement.

kids and VR games

Who says VR games are a solitary pastime?

Sony’s Playstation VR is rated 12+, while Samsung’s Gear VR matches the Oculus 13+ rating. The HTC Vive doesn’t specify an age limit, which might explain why the Vive was singled out for some harsh comments in an article by Sandee LaMotte, on the CNN website, covered by us on 15 December last year. In fairness, HTC gives a general warning against allowing young children to use the headset.

Whose going to police it?

But who’s going to enforce these restrictions? The hardware companies can’t. Nor would they even want to. Children may not have autonomous spending power (the X factor of the business world), but they have nag power (the Y factor - as in “why won’t you buy it for me?). That makes them great customers!

The legislators? Forget it. Money buys votes. And politicians these days are always thinking about life after politics. That usually means lucrative consultancies with the private sector. But you can’t piss people off and then expect them to offer you a job. So politicians are in no hurry to pass the kind of laws that’ll alienate big business!

Of course, there are laws about selling certain video games to children - at least in some jurisdictions. Even politicians can’t stand up to the might of outraged, self-styled “moral crusaders!” But these rules and regulations don’t apply to the hardware. Ultimately it is up to parents to set their own standards and police them. What the makers offer is no more than advice.

But is the advice backed up by solid research? Or did they just lick their index finger and hold it up to the wind? And what is the motive behind the advice? To help parents make an informed decision?  Or to cover their corporate asses against legal action? Let’s fact it, the west is becoming increasingly litigious (following guess-who’s lead). And while rich, powerful corporations can defend themselves against lawsuits and large payouts, it helps to create a built-in defense, to nip any cause of action in the bud!

Superman kid

You're never too young to be a superhero

What the academics say...

According to  Martin Banks, Professor of Optometry, Vision Science, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley “So far I’ve seen no so-called smoking gun, no concrete evidence that a child of a certain age was somehow adversely affected by wearing a VR headset. My guess is that all they’re doing is saying that kids are developing and development slows down when they reach adolescence, and so let’s just play it safe and say that while these kids are undergoing significant development, we’ll advise people not to let them use it.”

That’s what Professor Banks says, wearing his psychology hat. However, wearing his optometry hat, he sounds a different tune “There is pretty good evidence, particularly among children, that if you do so-called near work, where you’re looking at something up close, like reading a book up very close or looking at a cellphone, that it causes the eye to lengthen and that causes the eye to become near-sighted.”

Child eye test

Eye test

Indeed a study published in Jama Opthalmology (Increased Prevalence of Myopia in the United States Between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004, Susan Vitale, PhD, MHS; Robert D. Sperduto, MD; Frederick L. Ferris III, MD) found a statistically significant increase in myopia (near-sightedness), stating in their conclusion:

When using similar methods for each period, the prevalence of myopia in the United States appears to be substantially higher in 1999-2004 than 30 years earlier. Identifying modifiable risk factors for myopia could lead to the development of cost-effective interventional strategies.

They went on to state:

In the earliest report from a nationally representative sample of the US population, the prevalence of myopia was estimated to be 25% in persons aged 12 to 54 years. Recently, several studies have documented an increased prevalence of myopia in younger birth cohorts,suggesting that environmental risk factors for myopia may have become more prevalent. In particular, studies in Asian populations have reported epidemics of myopia in younger generations, possibly attributed to the near-work demands imposed by more intensive education.

In other words, activities like working with computers, as distinct from, say, looking at a blackboard or whiteboard as in the old days of education. And with a VR headset, one is looking at something even nearer - which might suggest that near-eye headsets are even more of a problem. However, it isn’t quite as simple as that, Professor Banks explains:

Let’s contrast a kid using a VR headset compared to a kid using a smartphone. When they use the smartphone they typically hold it very close to them and so they have to focus their eye close. You might think that with the VR headset they’d have to do the same thing because the image is close to the eye, but they have optics in the setup that make the stimulus effectively far away. So, in terms of where the eye has to focus, you have to actually focus fairly far away to sharpen the image in the headset.

Two kids with Vr headsets

Two kids with VR headsets

Professor Peter Howarth, a senior lecturer in Optometry doesn’t believe that VR adversely affects a child’s eyesight. After all, the principle of VR is to provide different eye view to facilitate stereopsis (3D vision and perception of depth of field). Howarth even argues that the makers of near-eye stereoscopic headsets could actually provide software to test for vision problems.

But what about other problems? Like dizziness and motion sickness.

Problems arise when what you see with your eyes doesn’t match what you feel with your body. If the visual image tells you that you’re moving forward fast, but your body tells you that you’re stationary, it has a disconcerting effect. If your eyes tell you that you are spinning, but your semi-circular canals tell you that you aren’t, you might feel dizzy. But this applies to adults as much as children if not more so. In fact, children are very often more resilient.

htc-vive-kids

Action!

Then of course, there’s the danger of playing VR games and moving around a room in which there are solid objects. And the risk is even greater if the headset is tethered to a computer. Of course, this risk also applies to adults. And the major players (Vive and Rift) offer built-in warning systems to map out the area and warn the player if they’re in danger of stepping out of the safety zone.  But what if a child innocently strays into the safety zone while big brother is battling with zombies? Tommy Toddler may not be aware of the danger, while Terry Teenager is too wrapped up in a world of his own to notice, and remains totally oblivious to Tommy’s presence until impact!

You get the picture.

Brain development

But what about the long-term effect of VR on the development of the child’s brain? This is the Great Zone of Ignorance. We have centuries of experience regarding the impact of the printed word and stage drama. We have decades of information about the effects of cinema, radio and television. Heck, we’ve had 30-40 years to learn about the impact of personal computers!

​But VR is different. And even mobile phones and social media have been identified as weapons of mass distraction! There is already evidence that instant on-the-go access to information and remote contact with friends is affecting the developing brains of teenagers in terms of their expectations. And it also affects their mood when they find themselves deprived of those expectations.

VR is even more of a game changer. And children are even more in a stage of susceptibility to the environmental factors that shape them for life.

But it’s a hard area to study for two reasons. Firstly, VR is newer and has yet to achieve anything like the market penetration of the smartphone. (It is questionable if it ever will.) Secondly, it would take a formal study many decades to accumulate and evaluate the information. And how will one hold constant for other factors? Most academic studies require a control group that is not subject to the stimuli or causal factors that are being tested. But where is such a control group to be found? The Third World? The Amish? Children with strict parents?

Clearly then, the only thing we know about the effects of VR on children is that we know every little. So maybe it is better to err on the side of caution and keep the VR headsets away from children. Let them explore the real world first - something that millennia of evolution has primed them for - and then when they understand reality, let them play with its alternatives inside a little electronic box!

January 25, 2018

Will 2018 be the Magic Leap year?

Florida-based Magic Leap is a very mysterious company, by any standard. Founded in 2010 by Rony Abowitz. it has raised between $1.4 billion and $2 billion (depending on who you believe) in several rounds of financing. And all this without releasing a product. But in 2017 they did finally announce the forthcoming release a developer’s model and SDK, along with documentation and “learning resources” in 2018. Could this be one more to be added to our best VR list.

What they have developed is a display that projects light into the user’s eyes. This display is something between a full Head Mounted Display, of the kind that one sees with Virtual Reality, and a pair of glasses with attachments of the kind one sees on Augmented Reality hardware.

AR glasses

A gimpse into the future?

The company has raised $1.9 billion dollars in several funding rounds based on its R&D, the track record of its personnel and whatever technology it has demonstrated in private to its investors. And while we’re on the subject of investors, they include Google parent Alphabet, Alibaba and Qualcomm. And although not yet out there in the market with a product, they have been busy on several other fronts.

For example, on February 11, 2016, they joined the Entertainment Software Association and a week later they acquired the 3D division of Dacuda, a Swiss computer vision company. Then, in April of that year, they acquired Israeli cybersecurity company Northbit. Two months later, they announced a partnership with the R&D unit of Lucasfilm (a Disney subsidiary).

Magic Leap patent application

A numbers game? No, the Magic Leap patent application

Although a highly secretive company, some of their known activities suggest that they are also a highly enterprising venture. For example, as far back as December 2014, they had appointed science fiction author Neal Stephenson as “Chief Futurist”. (How many companies have one of those.)

The company’s history is also quite unusual, if their Wikipedia entry is anything to go by:

According to past versions of its website, the startup evolved from a company named "Magic Leap Studios" which around 2010 was working on a graphic novel and a feature film series, and in 2011 became a corporation, releasing an augmented reality app at Comic-Con that year.

A beautiful view

A beautiful view

However, by late 2014, their publicly available patent and trademark applications suggested that they were aiming to create, not content but actual hardware - specifically augmented reality glasses. Moreover, the design of the product they have now released, suggests that they are aiming for a product that can superimpose a virtual image over a real-world view (i.e. augmented reality) whilst being able to block out the outside world when desired (i.e. virtual reality).

Magic Leap remains highly secretive about the technology, but analysts who have examined their patents have concluded that they use stacked silicon waveguides to project an image directly onto the retinas of the user’s eyes.

Where monsters come to life

Where monsters come to life

Early videos showing not the hardware but input through the device, suggested that it required further development. Overlaid “reflections” were not always where they were supposed to be and overlaid objects did not appear to be fully opaque and were therefore incapable of blocking out light from the real-world objects that they were in front of. This would prevent the Magic Leap from being fully immersive or even as versatile as augmented reality glasses ought to be.

But that was two years ago, and a lot of R&D has gone into this hardware since then.

Leap with your eyes not your feet!

Leap with your eyes not your feet!

Unfortunately, Magic Leap has still not given out any information on the price or release date. We know that it will need to be connected not to a computer, but to a dedicated device called a Lightpack. But we know very little else. The company says that the hardware will have sensors, but just what type and what they will “sense” remains a mystery. Visual sensors? Real-space location? Motion?

Magic Leap has hinted that the device will actually be able to “remember” an environment and recreate it later, or at least know how the environment is laid out. They also claim that the full caboodle will respond to voice and gestures and be able to track head and even eye positions. They also say it will have a handheld remote - although why it would need one if it can track gestures is not clear.

Robo person?

Robo person?

Evidently, then, this is a company that prefers to “get it right” behind closed-doors rather than release a kludgy, unfinished product. They have spent a lot of time getting it right and managed to raise a lot of money from companies that understand technology. If I were placing a bet on the breakthrough consumer technology company of 2018, Magic Leap would be a good candidate for my money.

December 28, 2017

What is coming in 2018

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VR predictions for 2018 - we reserve the right to be wrong

2017 was supposed to be the breakthrough year for VR and AR, according to our predictions - and in a way, it was, for VR at least.

A lot of headsets were sold: Vive, Rift, PSVR, Samsung Gear VR. The Oculus Go was at least announced as was the Microsoft Mixed Reality headset. Others like the 200-degree FoV Pimax (3840x2160) and 210-degree Star VR (5120x1440), were also announced, although they were not actually demonstrated and could yet be vaporware.

In the AR world, things were a bit different. So far all we have seen is the ability to overlay a camera view on a phone screen with a virtual supplementary image and a few high-priced headsets that are intended for developers, with no indication of when the price will down to a level that will actually attract consumers.

Credit HTC 

​More games and apps became available, and other used were pioneered like education, consumer visualization and - our pet project of the future - office applications.

Progress was also made in letting the “astronauts” walk untethered, with wireless relay closing the gap with wired connection and inside out tracking (relying on gyroscopes and accelerometers), closing the gap with external tracking that relies upon lighthouses and cameras. Some of the diehards moaned about poor latency and dropped frames. But the problem of the pigtail and the prospect of strangulation in one’s own living room, made it inevitable that cordless would elbow its way into the market.

In due course the latency and dropped frames problem will be solved. Some hardcore gamers will hang on to their ponytail headsets until that happens. Others will opt for the cheaper cordless models now. I had an argument about this a few months back, with a hardcore gamer insisting - with that characteristically adolescent sense of entitlement - that low latency and smooth motion were “basic requirements” for Virtual Reality. I pointed out to him that this was like a rich man saying: “one simply must travel by Rolls Royce or not travel at all.” Needless to say, the rich boy with his toys did not like that one bit!

Royole 3D Moon Virtual Mob

I have also pointed out that the aesthetics of VR headsets leaves a lot to be desired. At the moment they are so kludgy, Apple will not touch them with a ten-foot pole. Until they can achieve the elegance of the Royole Moon personal theatre, I can’t see Apple changing its attitude towards them.

​But where do we go from here?

According to a survey by the International Data Corporation, spending on AR and VR will almost double next year - from $9.1 billion in 2017 to $17.8 billion in 2018. And in the medium term, IDC projects that this growth rate will hold until at least 2021. But what is particularly interesting, is that IDC sees the biggest share of the market being held not by the games sector, nor by hardware or retail showcasing, but rather by what they call “others” - a somewhat vague and amorphous concept, covering pretty much everything that we don’t know about the VR and AR markets.

​One thing they are clear about is that the biggest growth area will be the public sector - infrastructure maintenance and government training.

On the subject of VR-based training, IDC estimates that market revenue in the sector will reach $2.2 billion by 2023. However, this is predicated on a fast rollout of 5G telecoms standards. These standards have not yet even been finalized, but IDC appears to believe - probably wrongly - that 5G will begin commercial deployment in 2018! The faster speeds that 5G promises will no doubt play a part in bringing VR to a wider audience - as it will then be possible to transmit and narrowcast VR to targeted users. But even the standards won’t be finalized until 2018 - and rollout won’t begin until 2022. So, the IDC prediction on VR training, might itself be out by two years.

While I am reluctant to make more predictions after some of our prophecies for 2017 fell short, I will still my neck out by saying that with the Vive releasing the Vive Focus, with the Oculus Go and with others poised to enter the market, we feel that 2018 will be the year of the standalone VR headset.

And as for Augmented Reality, to quote Dostoyevsky: that is the subject of another story...

December 15, 2017

The Health Dangers of Virtual Reality

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An article by Sandee LaMotte, on the CNN website, is warning of what they call the “health dangers” of Virtual Reality.

The article - which tended to focus on the Vive and let the Oculus Rift off rather lightly - started rather trivially by pointing out the obvious dangers of using a VR headset in a crowded public space “without supervision.” While this warning might seem to come straight out of the “no shit Sherlock” Department, LaMotte goes onto warn of the inadequacy of the HTC Vive’s chaperone system - something that HTC itself acknowledges.

But in order to show that they are not limiting themselves to the Vive, the article quotes Marientina Gotsis, an associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern California to the effect that: “"I see more falling than anything else. You can trip and hit your head or break a limb and get seriously hurt, so someone needs to watch over you when you are using VR. That's mandatory."

In other words: back to the no-shit-Sherlock school of logic.

Credit shutterstock ​

But from there - in fairness - the article takes a turn in the direction of seriousness and started discussing such issues as the effect of VR headsets on the eyes.  They quoted Martin Banks, a professor of Optometry at UCL Berkeley to the effect that "Looking at tablets, phones and the like, there's pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase risk for myopia." But he qualified his apparent certainty, by adding: "We're all worried that virtual reality might make things worse."

The problem is that in real life, we look at a single image with both eyes and focus on whatever we are looking at. With VR and indeed with any immersive 3D headset each eye is served a separate image to create the illusion of 3D. In effect, the system is doing our brain’s work for us. Also, with VR we are looking at an image near the eye, that is then focussed by the hardware onto the retinas of the left and right eyes respectively. In real life the object of our attention is usually a lot farther away and the lens of our eyes does all the focussing (sometimes aided by eyeglasses or contact lenses).

Walter Greenleaf


Walter Greenleaf, a veteran behavioral neuroscientist who works with Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab admits: “We’re tricking the brain and we don’t know the long-term effect of this.”

VR Manufacturers advise taking breaks from VR immersion. But no one knows how frequently or for how long these breaks should be taken. Any specific suggestions are based on guesswork.

Another problem is that people playing video games might become so absorbed in the game that they are reluctant to break off, even if they feel eye strain. As visible eye strain is a warning mechanism, ignoring it for the sake of finishing a game could be harmful to the user.

Other problems raised include high volume to screen out ambient sounds (which conditions the brain to treat high volume as normal) and dangers of seizures in young people with no previous history, motion sickness and difficulty in re-adjusting to the real world when removing the headset.

The range of dangers is quite broad, from the physical (like spreading contagious diseases by sharing headsets) to the psychological (game addiction, mental fatigue).

virtual-reality-headset-vr-kid

The article warns that the risk is greatest for children, because they are least likely to know when there is a problem or how to communicate about it, even if they notice something. Children are also more vulnerable to latent fear and the after-effects of games they play - even if they are not frightened at the time.

Some manufacturers give advice and even propose parentally-enforced age limits. For Playstation VR, Sony advises that it shouldn’t be use by those under 12. HTC warns that the Vive isn’t “designed to be used by children.”

Ultimately it is up to parents to decide for their children and adults to decide for themselves. The problem is that there is not currently enough information upon which to base one’s decision.