Tag Archives: augmented reality

GDC 2014: The Pursuit of Loneliness

26 Mar

Last week, I attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — it’s pretty hard to find a group of companies and people that is so unapologetically hell-bent on mind-melting. I won’t be providing yet another rehash of the headline-making announcements from Sony and Oculus, but I am excited to share some of the other experiences that caught my attention.

Before we get started, about a year ago, I had a lot of good things to say about my first experience wearing Oculus Rift. I’m still a big fan, but it was interesting to see the number of different ways that exhibitors incorporated it into their demos at GDC. Instead of being the star attraction, it was often a complement to some other amazing technology that the company was showing off. Not only is the experience of total audiovisual isolation/replacement evolving into a mainstay, but additional technology is being incorporated to allow one to remain in the experience longer and deeper.

OK, enough reflection. Onward into the bold, bright, and lonely future!

IMG_0682

Also effective as sunglasses

Sulon: I think the business plan for this company is, “Let’s take everything and then do that.” The Cortex (the crazy thing on my head in the picture)  uses an Oculus Rift to provide both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in conjunction with spatial scanners, handheld game controllers, wireless technology, a video camera, an Android tablet, and who knows what else. What does this mean? The camera provides a video feed of your environment that is displayed within the OR, but it is “augmented” with virtual objects that you could shoot at using the controllers. One of the augmentations looked like a teleporter beam and when I walked into it, the entire environment changed to virtual reality. However, in both cases, the sensors incorporated the physical walls of the room into the digital environment. In VR mode, it was possible to physically walk through the real room, experienced as a purely digital room, and proximity sensors would beep to let you know if you were about to walk into a wall. The Cortex is an ambitious mashup of cutting-edge technology and if they can work out the kinks, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.

Condition One Camera

Be careful where you point that thing!

Condition One: This camera was quite a spectacle on its own. It shoots in 360 degrees simultaneously in high resolution and at a high frame rate. At the booth, I used Oculus Rift to watch a short movie that was shot with the rig. Actually, it was three unrelated shorts that provided a good showcase of different styles and content. This was probably one of the only booths at GDC that featured an OR in a non-interactive context. However, part of the allure of VR is the experience of being instantly transported to another world. In a gaming context, I often forget what I’m supposed to be doing because I enjoy luxuriating in the visually rich, all-encompassing surroundings. It was a nice change to be able to relax and observe and not worry about being shot at or accomplishing something. It was also refreshing to see live action content as opposed to CG. Although these shorts had a non-narrative, verite style to them, I could see how this type of production could also be effective for a sophisticated and complex narrative piece.

Not me on Virtuix Omni

Not me rigged with PrioVR

Virtuix & PrioVR: I’m lumping these companies together because they fall into the category of, “Wow, this looks super cool, but it’s taking too long to cycle people through the demo so I’m going to pass.” Both companies feature technologies that complement the Oculus Rift with a sense of full-body immersion. The Virtuix Omni allows you to physically pace through a virtual environment using an array of proximity sensors embedded in a treadmill that parse data generated by special shoes that you need to wear. Seriously. PrioVR uses inertial sensors attached to various parts of your body to provide full body tracking. If any of this sounds remotely interesting and you were alive during or heard of the 1980s, I highly recommend Ready Player One. This book seems incredibly prescient except that many of the things that it anticipates happening 30 years from now happened last week. And it was written two years ago. Oops.

IDNA: In their own words, “IDNA is a new kind of storytelling experience at the crossing between an animation film, a choose-your-own-adventure book, and a video game. Each scene of the story is designed in 360 degrees; it’s up to you to decide where to look, simply by moving your device around you. The narrative is never twice the same, as your focus will seamlessly influence the course of the story.” Basically, it’s the narrative experience I was jonesing for in my blurb about Condition One. Talk about wish fulfillment. Recognizing that not many people have an Oculus Rift, they developed a “poor-man’s VR” version using an iPad. Holding the iPad up and rotating in a circle provides a decent emulation of wearing a HMD and turning your head. At the worst, you might be mistaken for one of those people who uses their iPad as a camera. I know it sounds like I’m poking fun at them, but I’m not; I think it’s a great idea, and a clever and effective workaround for a technology that is still very much in transition. Even better, this is basically the product of a handful of smart folks from Switzerland who are doing something creative. It’s incredibly annoying when Google/Motorola do essentially the same thing, restrict it to a phone that nobody wants, and make it sound like it’s the second coming of bread.

There was more to GDC than VR, and I was glad to see it. After spending about ten continuous minutes in one of these demos, I found it very difficult to reintegrate with my surroundings. I was trying to have an intelligent conversation with one of the representatives at the booth, but the part of my brain that was responsible for speech and words had come totally unhinged. Welcome to your future.

And now for some more than honorable mentions of people who are just doing fun, cool, stuff for its own sake.

A group of people playing together. No, this wasn’t the history exhibit.

Hot Shots: This game won the All In One Platform Award in the Intel App Innovation Contest. There’s no immersion and no storytelling, but I’m mentioning it for a couple reasons. 1) The developer was hosting the demo, and he was very excited to be there. In his own words, winning this contest created a massive change in his life and he was thrilled. It was contagious to see someone so excited and optimistic and talented. 2) His game was fun. It supported up to nine people playing it at once around a fairly big touchscreen. I appreciated that it’s too epic to play on a phone or a tablet, not really playable on a wall-mounted TV screen, and basically designed to bring people together to have fun. Total chaos. I was horrible at it. Still had a great time. Hope this is the first of many wins for this team.

Sorry, no points for urinating in the classroom

Tenya Wanya Teens: This game was in the alternative control exhibit. It’s a self-described “party game” for two players who each have about 16 buttons. The gameplay is simple. Press the colored button to trigger the action that’s appropriate for the situation. Actions include urinating, farting, kicking, punching, confessing undying love, etc. There’s just one wrinkle: the colors of the buttons keep changing, so not all actions are appropriate for every situation. The game lasted about five minutes and we laughed the whole way through. Unexpected, random, zany fun.

Goat Simulator: Thinking about the fact that people got together to make this has become my new happy place. Follow the link, watch the trailer. This is why we have games. Thank you Coffee Stain Studios.

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AWE 2013 Highlights – Part 2: ChatPerf, Seebright, Hermaton

2 Aug

In Part 1 of my highlights from AWE 2013, I focused on the challenges that attend the quest for the holy grail of Augmented Reality: a wearable solution that provides a seamless experience. It’s a high-stakes game with a lot of heavy-hitting players and the outcome will potentially have significant impact on the high-tech sector, and possibly society in general. In this post though, I want to touch on some organizations that charmed me because they seemed to be doing things that nobody else was doing, yet still pushing the envelope and having a lot of fun doing it.

ChatPerf

Scent never looked so good

ChatPerf: You can watch movies and listen to music on your phone. With haptics, your phone can even generate some useful, if rudimentary, tactile feedback. But smell things on your phone? Admit it, you’ve been waiting for it, and it’s here! I would have been happy to trade the sheer novelty of experiencing scent coming from a phone for a certain lack of polish in a product that still seems to be in the first-gen/preorder phase of its lifecycle. However, what charmed me most about ChatPerf is that they have already managed to make this product attractive and fun. It comes in different colors, and the overall aesthetic does not necessarily clash viciously with the well-considered design of the iPhone. You literally plug it into an iPhone, and then tap a button on the screen which causes the device to emit a fairly potent aromatic puff. Yes, you can literally see it puff! There is a Willy Wonka/steampunk aspect to it which is delightfully dissonant and unexpected. The developers at the booth told me that each unit is good for 200 blasts (trust me that’s more than enough) especially since each unit can only generate a single scent. However, they said that they are working on a single device that will generate 1000 different scents. Yeah, kind of stopped me dead in my tracks, too. Now that I’ve crossed that off my list, I’m hoping that there will be at least one lickable smartphone at AWE 2014.

Seebright Spark

Has anyone seen my phone?

Seebright: As I’ve previously indicated, the Holy Grail won’t be found anytime soon. Personally, I think the folks at Innovega are on the right track, but that’s a whole other discussion. However, we clearly live in an age where we are essentially undaunted by the prospect of technical limitations, and when we want something, we want it now! At least, that’s what the folks at Seebright seem to be thinking. I hesitate to oversimplify what they’ve done, but I haven’t come across anybody else who is doing it, and it works, so here goes. The Spark is a piece of headgear into which you insert your phone, that uses optics to beam an image of the phone’s screen into your line of sight. Once you’ve played with AR long enough, you get to an apex of frustration where you want to take duct tape, an old watering can and a thick rubber band, and attach your phone to your head. Seebright feels your pain, but they put a lot of thought into it, and the Spark looks and works quite well, despite seeming to be a somewhat low-tech solution. It seems to be an intermediate step that may see itself made obsolete by the HUD that currently only exists in everyone’s dreams. However, so far we’re hearing a lot of talk without a lot of results, whereas the Spark makes you feel like we’re getting somewhere and tries to scratch that itch. I think that technology like this can facilitate prototyping of new experiences since they bridge a gap that is currently too wide, impractical or expensive to traverse from where we’re currently standing.

Hermaton

And you thought your dreams were weird

Hermaton: A central feature of AR, and one of the reasons why it has such a magic quality, is that there is no substitute for experiencing it firsthand. Nowhere is this more evident than with Hermaton from Darf Design. By definition, all AR requires a real-world object to serve as a “marker” to anchor one or more layers of virtual content. While this marker can be anything, it’s typically something 2-dimensional like a page in a magazine, or with the rapid development of computer-vision algorithms, a 3D object. In most cases, you’re dealing with an “average-sized” object, although there are some impressive examples of augmenting an entire building. However, Hermaton is basically a marker that you can walk inside that surrounds you. Words and pictures simply won’t do this justice. Even the marker, which was deployed as two full walls of a booth, is a compelling piece of abstract art. Hermaton succeeds as installation art, architectural statement, immersive game/story, and most importantly a satisfying experience. My experience walking through it was to temporarily lose myself in a novel form of exploration. There are interactive components on the environment, but they can be difficult to access, which requires you to slow down, absorb your surroundings, and enjoy the journey. It’s a powerful archetype for immersive storytelling, and I’m sure there will be followers and copycats. However, I can’t wait to see what’s next from this group.

AWE 2013 Highlights – Part 1: Epson Moverio

14 Jun

I made the journey from Oakland to Santa Clara to attend the Augmented World Expo (AWE 2013) last week, and enjoyed a day dedicated to the magic of Augmented Reality (AR). AR is a rapidly developing technology that has the potential to be a real game-changer in the development of immersive experiences and entertainment. There was a lot to absorb and discover and I will be sharing some of my personal highlights over the next few posts.

First some background. AR is hardly mainstream; it has only been deployed in a commercial context in the past few years. AWE is only in its 4th year, and the event has an electric air of excitement, novelty, and discovery to it. I attended it last year, and I was surprised and happy to see how much it had grown in terms of attendees and exhibitors since then. At last year’s event, I had been hoping to try a Heads-Up Display (HUD), which is basically a fancy term for futuristic eyewear that allows you to experience the world like Tony Stark or The Terminator.

Governator

As seen at AWE 2029.

The development of a high-quality, consumer-grade HUD is the type of holy grail achievement that would have a dramatic, transformative impact on the mainstream engagement with AR. In my opinion, as it’s currently conceived, Google Glass will not provide the type of game-changing, HUD-enabled AR that I am referring to. However, based on the attention that it’s getting, despite the fact that it’s not even for sale yet, it seems clear that this concept is captivating the public’s collective delight, or disgust, depending on your perspective.

To my recollection (and disappointment), there was not a single eyewear exhibitor at the 2012 event. This year though, an entire section of the expo was dedicated to eyewear and the topic of wearable computing was very hot. What a difference a year makes! I made a point of visiting every single eyewear booth, and attempting to try on every single product I could get my hands on. For pure entertainment potential and application, I was most impressed by the Epson Moverio.

Somehow, not that cool.

Epson Moverio BT-100: Not quite cool.

Don’t get off your horses just yet — this is not the grail, but it does seem like a step in the right direction. When you look at this image, remember: this represents the best effort from the marketing department of a multi-billion dollar, global corporation to make their product look cool. If they can’t pull it off, it’s probably not there yet. Does he look relaxed in that picture? Actually, he’s just rendered slightly immobile by the sheer weight of the glasses. OK, it’s not quite that bad, but it basically takes quite a bit of hardware to pull off what is otherwise a very impressive experience. The glasses project video content so that it looks like you’re watching a screen from a few feet away. The gear also natively supports 3D content without any additional enhancements or hardware. I could almost, almost look forward to a long airplane flight if I had this handy, which incidentally is probably one of Epson’s most compelling use-cases.

However, the glasses are essentially see-through, so that when you’re not watching any content, you can still see the world around you. Enter AR. Epson has been working closely with interested partners to support the integration of aftermarket components with some impressive results. Rig up a standard-issue webcam and load up a custom application on the Android-powered hardware that ships with the glasses, and you have a very compelling wearable AR solution. In fact, Scope Technologies was exhibiting alongside Epson and was demo’ing an impressive AR-driven training solution that was built on their “hacked” version of the Epson platform. Although I was only watching a monitor of what the glasses were projecting, and was not able to experience it myself, it was a promising glimpse of something real which I’d previously only thought of in conceptual terms.

In general though, this integration was a mess. Cables everywhere. 3rd party accessories mashed into each other and poking out at odd angles. A bit of showmanship and legerdemain to create the illusion of a seamless experience. One developer had to integrate an Android tablet into his setup to provide some missing functionality in the Epson-supplied box. The end result was . . . cosmetically challenged — about the furthest thing you could get from the elegance of an iPhone or the milligram design precision of Google Glass. However, there was a DIY sensibility to it that was driven by the fire of wanting to touch the future NOW, and not when some massive corporation hands it down to us from on high. I loved it!

In Part 2 of my posts about AWE 2013, I talk about some of the smaller exhibitors who are breaking exciting, new ground.

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