Category Archives for "Opinion"

January 2, 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Credit Shutterstock

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 (3840×2160) and 210-degree Star VR (5120×1440), 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

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

Credit shutterstock

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

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 GreenleafWalter 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.

December 12, 2017

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.

December 5, 2017

“Game over for VR” says the Economist in convoluted prophecy of doom

HTC Vive

A recent article in The Economist (1st December) has suggested that Virtual Reality may be heading for the knacker’s yard before it’s even over the second fence. They go on to suggest that consumers are opting for Augmented Reality as an alternative to VR!

They start off by pointing out that prices for VR hardware are falling since the items were first introduced – as if this phenomenon were something entirely new, rather than par for the course. They portray this not as a normal process for a slowly maturing technology, but rather as a sign of desperation in the industry.

“Virtual reality has failed to live up to its hype,” the article declares imperiously, “and mainstream consumers never really bought into the technology. Even ardent gaming fans have been slow to embrace VR.”

At bestvr.tech we have always maintained that the reason VR has been slow to catch on is precisely because it has been targeted to heavily at gamers and not enough on users. That is why we have been campaigning for so long for the virtual office.

But that is not the central thrust of the Economist’s argument. Nor have they taken the “cup is half full” approach and held out the hope that the slow uptake of VR will eventually be overcome by a breach of the floodgates. Instead, they predicted that Virtual Reality would go the way of 3D TV.

But part of the problem is surely that the bar was set too high for VR and too low for 3D TV. In the case of VR, it was decided, by the business powers-that-be, that it is not enough just to let people watch a video passively in immersive 3D. Instead, it must let them interact with the view as gamers, not only sitting on an armchair, but even on their feet! It must have head tracking, change the POV accordingly and even let them dance around the living room – instead of letting them do the sensible thing and go out of doors to play their sports out in the open with real people.

On the other hand, with TV, it was decided that it was too much for people to watch a 3D movie on a personal headset. No, they had to share the experience by watching it on a big screen. But to do that, they still needed special viewing glasses. These could either be “active”, opening and closing alternate eye-views (causing dizziness), or “passive”, based on vertically or horizontally polarized light.

Avegant Glyph

Avegant Glyph

If instead, the decision-makers had simply opted for the middle ground of passive viewing of 3D content via a personal headset, we’d be there already. Both the Royole Moon and the Avegant Glyph cater to this market.

Having said that, I would have to add the caveat that these products are wildly expensive – the Royole Moon especially – considering that they have no head-tracking, no body tracking and only limited interactivity. While this lack of excess features may give them broader market appeal, it should certainly not add to their prices. One does not pay more for fewer features!

Royole 3D Moon Virtual Mobile Theater-2

Royole 3D Moon Virtual Mobile Theater

But even in its own terms, the Economist article is clearly wrong. They say of VR that “the content has been underwhelming.” Yet there are over 1700 games and apps available for the HTC Vive and 2000+ for the Facebook (formerly Oculus) Rift. That doesn’t sound “underwhelming” to me!

The article also bitches about the expensive and voluminous hardware needed. But where is it written that great technology starts out in miniature? Great technology always starts off bulky and then slims down. Computers that once filled a room can now be balanced on the tip of your finger. Maybe it is just that expectations have grown faster than electronic components have shrunk!

Osmose Virtual Reality Headset -9

Surprisingly, the article that is so heavily “down” on Virtual Reality is surprisingly upbeat on Augmented Reality. Thus, they praise “last year’s overnight success of Pokémon Go” without considering that the “overnight success” was more like an overnight fad – a classic example of Peter Thiel’s dictum “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” writ large across the business-scape.

The fact that the Economist goes on to praise Pokémon Go for bringing “people closer together” and “promoting a powerful sense of community” says it all. George Orwell’s “two minutes hate” and the populist rallies that inspired it, also brought people together. That doesn’t make it useful in any positive way, let alone marketable in the long run.

They also haven’t considered how useless and impractical it is to hold up a small phone and stare at a small screen. As a passing fad it worked, but like the hoola-hoop, the pogo-stick and the space-hopper, that stimulating bounce – both the market and the physical variety – is soon dampened.

10-VR NEWSFEED - June 21 2017 - Applie iPhone 8 and VR Speculation

Of course, you don’t need a tiny phone screen for AR, notwithstanding Apple’s much hyped ARkit. There are AR glasses too. But their prices dwarf those of the VR headsets – and for even less utility and added value than current VR.

Of course, we need more content. And more will surely come. And of course, we need better hardware: smaller, lighter, higher resolution, bigger field of view, inside-out tracking with lower latency. And, most important: cheaper! But it is very much a chicken and egg question. Both more software and better hardware depend on the prospects of greater uptake. And greater uptake depends on lower prices, more titles and better user experience.

1_Vufine+ - 1

But don’t write VR off just yet. And don’t write off 3D TV either. Maybe the two technologies will converge. Not everyone wants to play. But most people – like Chance the gardener – like to watch. All we need is a high-resolution 3D video headset.

And the Royole Moon and Avegant Glyph are lighting the way. Now, about that price issue…