Tag Archives: San Francisco

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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Shhh, There’s a Speakeasy Coming to San Francisco!

7 Oct

No, not that one. Nope, not that one either. This one’s the real deal, and it’s opening in January 2014, but I might be able to get you a sneak preview!

A couple weeks ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with an associate at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco, a suitably appropriate place to evaluate various plans for making the world a more entertaining place. At the end of the meeting, he asked me what I was doing the following night, and proceeded to give me a silver pocketwatch with a dog tag conspicuously attached to its chain. He said, “Call the number on the dog tag, they’ll tell you what to do.”

Once I got home, I called the number and received further instructions on where to show up and what to say when I got there. The following evening, we left the nighttime streets of 21st Century San Francisco, walked through the doors of a nondescript building, right into the year 1923 and the world of The Speakeasy.

The Speakeasy will be a work of immersive theatre. Like many newly-minted terms in art, technology, culture, etc., it’s both challenging and somewhat pointless to attempt to concretely define immersive theatre because every new show seems to expand the scope of what it can encompass. Generally though, it refers to a theatrical experience which “breaks the fourth wall,” which is a fancy term for saying that the conceptual, invisible barrier that typically separates the audience from the players is understood to be nonexistent. In short, when you come to an immersive theatre show, you should expect to find yourself onstage. I am personally very interested in this concept, because it employs many of the storytelling sensibilities that are found in the world of themed entertainment and theme parks. If you think of a theme park as a giant work of immersive theatre, then you can start to get a sense of the exciting possibilities for both of these types of entertainment.

Back to 1923. I can’t really tell you what went on in there, but it was a lot of fun. It might have involved classic cocktails and casino games. If you’re curious though, the theatre company that is producing the show had a successful Kickstarter campaign that will give you a flavor of what they’re creating without spoiling any surprises. As I mentioned, The Speakeasy will not be open to the public until January 2014. However, in the interim, they are running exclusive previews on Friday nights to test out ideas, generate buzz, and engage potential supporters. These aren’t actual performances, but if you’re interested in the bleeding-edge of the local theatre scene, it’s a great opportunity to meet the creators and producers and get involved in the early stages of a very unique experience. If you would like to attend a preview, please contact me and I’ll see if I can let you borrow the pocketwatch for a night.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 2

16 Aug
'Nuff Said

‘Nuff Said

In my previous post, I talked about some of the highlights from the 2013 Neurogaming Conference and Expo. Did I mention that the Expo was in a nightclub? So basically on a pleasant weekday in early May, while you were probably engaged in performing or avoiding something at work, I was hanging out in a nightclub making drones fly around with my brain. Man, I’ve always wanted to say that!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the bar had just opened. My go-to industry event cocktail tends to be a Gin & Tonic. It tastes great in a plastic cup and it’s almost impossible to screw up. So drink in hand, I continued my explorations.

Tactical Haptics: These guys are developing a technology called Reactive Grip which is partially based on technologies developed out of the University of Utah. I’m not a gamer, so please feel free to correct me if I get some of this wrong. In a sense, they are extending the general paradigm of a motion-based game controller such as the Razer Hydra by Sixense by adding haptic feedback. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s not. It was one of my favorite demos at the Expo, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Basically, my limited experience with haptic feedback is that it’s like the 3D of the gaming world. With rare exception, studios are churning out 3D movies because they feel like they’re supposed to, and the end result is an obligatory, thoughtlessly-executed assault that is ultimately distracting. Haptic feedback can be the same way: I’m firing a big gun or driving a big car, my hands are buzzing, OK, I get it, tell me something I don’t know. I don’t feel that much more involved in the experience just because I’m feeling the exact same buzzing sensation too many times at totally predictable points.

Michael Buffer doesn't need Tactical Haptics

Michael Buffer doesn’t need Tactical Haptics

Tactical Haptics takes it much further. First of all, the haptic feedback in Reactive Grip is palm-facing so it’s accessing what is probably a more vulnerable and sensitive part of your hand. As a result, it lends itself to enhancing the types of actions that you would perform while gripping something with your palm and fingers. I have found a disconnect between the way you hold a standard haptic game controller and the object it intends to emulate, e.g., steering wheel, gun, etc. However, the form factor of Reactive Grip maps pretty closely to how you would hold a sword, for instance. In fact, one of their demos featured a virtual on-screen mannequin that you could hack with a sword. The continuity of what you see on the screen with what you feel in your hand is unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Even the level of feedback was regulated based on whether you were “touching” the mannequin or attempting to cut through it. The effect is uncanny, which is usually a good indication that you’re on to something big. Rather than providing a token enhancement, this technology really pulls you into the experience by engaging a critical sense in a well-considered way. These guys are looking to launch a kickstarter and they’re hustling on the road, making appearances at Meetups in the Bay Area. Worth checking out!

NextGen Interactions: I had been wanting to check this out for a while, because it allowed hands-on (or would that be heads-on) experience with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. One of the guys in line mentioned that there had been “a line to get into the line” to try Oculus Rift at the recent Game Developers Conference, so waiting for a few minutes seemed like a good deal. Jason, the founder of NextGen Interactions, was allowing visitors to experience a prototype of a game that he was developing that featured the headset. At this point, it’s hard to say anything about experiencing Oculus Rift for the first time that hasn’t been said before, but the general consensus, with which I agree, can be accurately summed up as HOLY $#!+!!!

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

It’s real easy. You sit down in the chair, put on the goggles, and the world that you know disappears. Let me say that again. The world disappears. The first thing I did when I put on the goggles was look up and then look behind me. Yup, looking up at a tall building or back at an empty landscape. Total 360 degree immersion. Jason incorporated Razer Hydra as the controller which makes for a very intuitive way to move around, and once you start moving, it is impossible to continue believing that your chair is not actually moving. Actually, you basically forget all about the chair. Jason patiently walked me through the level he designed, where he had embedded some features that I appreciated including puzzles that required you to interact directly with your environment like picking up objects, stacking them, etc., which you literally do with your hands, thanks to the Hydra. As a testament to the level of immersion though, I found it very difficult to focus on what he was saying, because the whole concept of his voice coming in from some nightclub in San Francisco was totally alien to what was “real” for me, which was a post-apocalyptic landscape that I was intent to explore. After about ten minutes of this, it was time to move on, and I actually found it somewhat disappointing to return to the real world. Jason was meticulous about collecting feedback, and apparently my enjoyment of the Gin & Tonic made me a subject of interest with regard to the potential for motion sickness. I admit to a slight feeling of queasiness which I think I would have felt even without the drink. Hopefully, he had a control group. Oculus Rift did not invent virtual reality, but they seem to have figured out a way to engineer it in a way that will be consumer-friendly (i.e., it won’t cost thousands of dollars.) With developers like NextGen Interactions building content for the platform, it shouldn’t take long to catch on.

Coming Soon: Isaac Asimov posthumously sighs at what I’m getting out of the Foundation Trilogy.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 1

15 Aug

In my previous post, I talked a bit about Neurogaming in general. However, how does one even find themselves at a Neurogaming Conference? Good question, and someone should really aggregate a list of responses, because I’m sure it would be a fascinating read. Speaking for myself, earlier this year, I was searching for a project that would allow me to learn about robotics, Arduino, interactivity, etc., and I came across a book called “DIY Make a Mind-Controlled Arduino Robot.”

Lead me not into temptation

Lead me not into temptation

For $4.99, if your curiosity can resist this type of temptation, then your willpower is an order of magnitude stronger than mine. The details of this project are best discussed in a future posting, but in short, it makes use of a NeuroSky MindWave, which is a consumer-grade EEG headset priced at less than $100 that performs rudimentary analysis of your brainwaves, and interfaces with a software development environment and an “app store” featuring games, brain training, interactive films, etc. It didn’t take long to discover that there is a thriving community of makers, researchers, artists, and hobbyists who are actively monkeying around with these types of devices with astonishing results. From there, it didn’t take long to stumble on the conference.

The conference featured an excellent lineup of speakers participating in panels on a wide variety of topics, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the Expo. There were a modest but diverse array of exhibitors ranging from EEG headset manufacturers to research organizations to gaming startups to the city of Helsinki which apparently has a high concentration of both the gaming industry (Angry Birds) and neuroscience, go figure. For my part, my body was just moving my head around the room trying to figure out what I could plug it into, so here are some of the highlights.

If you look closely, you can see the headset

If you look closely, you can see the headset

Puzzlebox: The Puzzlebox booth allowed visitors to test-fly their Orbit product, which is a small helicopter that you can control with your brain using a NeuroSky headset. Because I had some prior experience with this type of headset, I was able to sustain flight for approx. 20 seconds on my first try. At this point, the level of control is essentially limited to on/off, or in this case fly/don’t fly. From what I understand about NeuroSky’s platform, it would be tricky to develop a product that you could both fly AND direct (e.g., turn right, turn left, etc.). The employee at the booth told me that they are planning to release additional functionality in the form of software upgrades to combat the trend of planned obsolescence that seems to be the norm in toys (and pretty much everything else) these days. She also mentioned that the founder had designed a mind-controlled pyrokinetic installation, but that it wasn’t quite ready for public consumption. So, basically, you’re one EEG headset away from recreating Stephen King’s Firestarter in the comfort of your own home. On a serious note, there is clearly a lot of creativity and energy at this company, and I have a lot of respect for their commitment to maintaining the value in their products through periodic updates. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Foc.us: The founders of this company were among the friendliest people at the whole conference. They market a different sort of headset. Rather than trying to figure out what electrical signals are being generated by your brain, their device actually stimulates your brain using a method called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The foc.us is marketed toward gamers, but the technique has a history of therapeutic application and as a cognitive aid. This device is unregulated by the FDA and was essentially self-funded, but when you think about the things that are FDA-approved and funded by institutional capital, you quickly realize how this might actually be a good thing. So I tried it. The guys advised that you probably shouldn’t use it for more than 40 minutes in 1 day. I wore it for about 7 minutes., and probably would have kept going, but there were people waiting. The sensation can best be described as “prickly,” and lives in a grey area between “annoying” and “not quite painful.”

I'll take this over Olestra any day

I’ll take this over Olestra any day

It reminded me of how I feel about exercise — you’re basically lying to yourself if you think that it feels good, but you exert a temporary override on your subjective definition of “tolerable.” So did it do anything? I’m glad that I tried it, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the effects after only one trial. I do know that while I was wearing it, I was talking the founders’ ears off by providing them unsolicited business advice about the product. They seemed like good ideas at the time! I want to say that I felt a little bit more tuned in and focused afterward, but in the interest of full disclosure, it was evening, and I realized the bar had just opened. Generally, it’s exciting to see technology that was previously the domain of medical research and military training make its way into the mainstream.

In my next post, I’ll share a few more mind-blowing highlights and more about the bar.

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