Sansar and VR / AR in the press

AppliedVR: VR support for hospital patients. Credit: AppliedVR (see below)

This month has seen some interesting press pieces popping up concerning VR and Sansar since the opening of the Creator Beta. However, three in particular have so far caught my eye as they appeared, as they offer interesting perspectives and discussion points both on the Lab’s new platform and on VR and AR as a whole.

The first – and most recent, is Barely into Beta, Sansar is making social VR look good, by Alice Bonasio, which appeared in The Next Web on August 18th. The title caused some to question Sansar’s social capabilities, but the article itself was more about Sansar’s overall status and development, rather than zeroing directly into the medium of “social VR” per se. In this respect, it opens by clearly underlining the platform is still in its early days, and there is still much to be done, using a quote from Peter Gray, the Lab’s Director of Global Communications, to do so:

We wanted to make Sansar available to everyone as early as possible, and there are still a lot of features and capabilities that we’re excited to add to the platform soon, as well as many improvements to the current featureset.

Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar

From here, Ms Bonasio makes the point that despite the lack of features and capabilities which will be needed to fulfil on its promise of being a social hub, it already looks good and offers a lot to see, much of which points to the platform’s potential.

The piece also delves into some of the technical and economic factors which set Sansar apart: such as Linden Lab’s partnerships with IKinema and Speech Graphics. The former is key to the Sansar avatars utilising Inverse Kinematics in an advanced way, and which are and will play a key role in the Sansar avatar’s development. The latter is key to synchronising facial animations automatically to match speech patterns, a capability key to many of the social interactions Linden Lab hope will be occurring within Sansar.

The article also touches on some of the key differences between Sansar and Second Life, the ability Linden Lab has to take fourteen years of running a virtual world to help shape the philosophy and approach it takes with Sansar. Passing – but important – mention is made of the Lab’s ability to self-finance Sansar; given the topsy-turvy situation with Altspace VR (which may have been saved from having to close), this is an important fact to keep in mind.

As noted above, the piece has received some feedback questioning the “social” element of Sansar at it stands at present, which given the broader thrust of the article might be considered a little out-of-context. However, it is fair to say that right now Sansar does currently lack elements which could be regarded as essential to supporting larger-scale social activities. Similarly, while social interactions are possible – as demonstrated through the daily meet-ups held “in-worlds” – it’s also fair to say these can be confusing and limiting for some. For example, undisciplined voice chat can mean that that multiple conversations in a single locale can overlay one another and become confusing to those not used to voice chat.

Hopefully these issues will be addressed, along with the provision of other social elements, and I’ll doubtless have more to say on them myself in the future 🙂 . In the meantime, this article provides a good summation of Sansar for the curious / those wishing to catch-up on things.

Samantha Cole examines VR’s role in conference calls

Over at The Fast Company, Samantha Cole uses Sansar to ask Will Virtual Reality Solve Your Conference Call Nightmares?

I’ll say up-front that I’m one of the non-believers that VR will become ubiquitous for business-style conference calls for a number of reasons, and its fair to say that Samantha Cole does a balanced job of presenting both sides of the argument – whilst also offering side pointers to those areas where VR is already showing benefits (and which I’d suggest Sansar could leverage).

Much has been made of VR’s abilities to add body language, hand movements, eye movement and contact – all vital elements in adding subliminal feedback / context to our day-to-day, face-to-face interactions to one another – to give more depth and meaning to tele- and video-style conferencing. In doing so, the likes of the telephone and “traditional” means of this type of conferencing have been somewhat “demonised”. Emphasis is laid on things like network latency, or the extra mental effort involved in reading into people’s words when you can only hear their voice or see their head / shoulders, as “limiting” such interactions.

But the truth is, we’ve been using the telephone for decades as a business tool. It’s fast and convenient, and as adults, we’re all pretty adept on picking-up on vocal nuances. We’re also, in a business context, far more prepared to communicate directly with colleagues; if there is something worrying / irksome within a work environment / business project, most of us are pretty willing to make thought known, be they over the ‘phone, face-to-face or via e-mail. So even with the faster, lighter, better VR technology we’re promised will be coming down the pipe, is it really any kind of “killer app” for business conferencing?

Eric Boyd, a professor of marketing at James Madison University points to emerging trends within the workplace as a whole being more a deciding factor here. Many companies have experimented with remote / home working over the past 2 or so decades, and the pendulum tends to swing back and forth. Right now, as the article points out, one of the first to enter the arena of remote working, IBM, is currently backing away from it. Thus, if working practices remain centralised, it’s hard to see VR overturning technologies already in place and supported by existing corporate infrastructure, no matter what the perceptions of their “limitations”. But for those organisations continuing to embrace remote working, VR could become a useful meeting tool.

Certainly there would seem to be far better uses VR could be put towards within a business environment: prototyping, training, simulations, and so on, which seem far more likely to drive its adoption by business and industry far more than the humble conference call. In this, Cole’s pointing to VR’s potential in training and simulation and in architecture is very salient; these are very much markets well suited to VR / AR / MR – perhaps more so that conference calls.

Amitt Mahajan – taking the temperature of the VR / AR market

Writing for Xconomy, Bernadette Tansey sits down with Amitt Mahajan, a Managing Partner at Presence Capital to take the temperature at VR / AR at mid-year., which also touches on the potential for both as business platforms / tools.

While Sansar is only mentioned in passing (together with the downs and ups of AltspaceVR), the article is interesting as it encompasses the viewpoint of a company investing in VR and AR start-ups with funding in the US $100,000-500,000 range – which is small when compared to the likes of the big players, but has allowed the company to bask some significant start-ups, including STRIVR, who are in the VR training a simulation field mentioned above.

The article opens which a rapid-fire overview of the VR / AR market – including its niche status at present, which could be said to be largely down to the limitations of the current hardware (or lack thereof in AR’s case, although that is beginning to change) rather than anything else. However, the meat of the piece is where Mahajan sees the technologies going over the next several years.

What’s interesting here is that within Presence Capital, they are moving away from consumer-focused VR endeavours and more towards business and business-to-business (B2B) / enterprise VR applications as well as for AR; he points to the likes of AppliedVR and their development of an immersive platform to help comfort patients  undergoing painful procedures, and also underlines VR’s application in training.

This year’s swing towards AR is also examined: Google, Apple and Facebook are all looking to develop AR platforms, and the discussion looks at these and at the questions of standards, formats, and enabling technologies. In this, Mahajan points somewhat towards the eventual merger of AR and VR to produce Mixed Reality, indirectly pointing to how AR – augmented reality – could actually become an enabler of VR (something the likes of Qualcomm are working towards with Android and their snapdragon chipset), simply because it will allow both to coexists as tools people can switch between according to needs.

All three article make for interesting reads, presenting a broad range of perspectives not just on Sansar (in the case of Alice Bonasio’s piece) but on VR and AR as whole.

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Google Glass – the comeback?

Glass Enterprise Edition: targeting the manufacturing and service sectors – and beyond? Credit: Alphabet X Company

Five years ago, Google Glass leapt (literally – the product launch included a team of skydiving Glass wearers) into the public consciousness. At the time it went through a pretty rapid-fire hype cycle: from the kit everybody would want (with no clear understanding of what it was really for), to the reality of a buggy, poorly implemented system to over-hyped fears of privacy invasion and a slew of resultant bannings of the hardware from all manner of places.

So rapid was the rise and fall of Google’s premature launch into the world of augmented reality (from arrival to apparent death in three years) that many in the media wrote it off as the butt of jokes and pointed to it as a reason why AR and VR could well be fads.

Only, as Google revealed on Tuesday, July 18th, and as superbly  reported on in depth by Steven Levy for Wired’s, Backchannel, Google Glass never actually died. Google just did the sensible thing – admitted they’d got their original vision for the product wrong, quietly turned the page on Glass as a consumer product and focused on developing the technology into something people actually wanted, and were themselves working to create using Glass.

These “people” were companies in the manufacturing and service sectors who had seen the potential for the headset system and had started buying units and developing software to use with them.  Companies like General Electric, GE Aviation, Volkswagen, Boeing, DHL, agricultural equipment manufacturer AECO (featured in the Wired piece) and healthcare system provider Augmedix all got involved with Google Glass. What’s more, Google noticed, and started re-aligning the headset’s development. Hence why in January 2015, the consumer version of the headset was brought to an end with the comment posted the Glass website: “Thanks for exploring with us”— The journey doesn’t end here.”

GE Aviation uses Glass EE to take maintenance manuals which are the heart and soul of an airline mechanic’s world, constantly referred to and checked during aircraft servicing, and delivers all of the information – text, diagrammatic overlays, videos – directly to the mechanic whenever the information is required, right at the point at which it is required. Credit: Alphabet X Company

Alphabet X, the R&D arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, took over the development of Glass, working closely with the companies putting it to work. Although based on the 2013 Google Glass Explorer Edition chassis, the new Glass Enterprise Edition (“Google” has been entirely dropped from the name) is an almost new headset, featuring:

  • Improved electronics – camera (complete with a red recording light to let others know when the camera in being used), wifi, processor.
  • Improved battery life and recharging.
  • A removable”Glass Pod” containing all the system’s electronics, which can be mounted on safety glasses, allowing Glass to be used in environments where eye protection is required, or used with prescription glasses.

In his piece, Steven Levy dives into some of the areas where Glass is already being used to great effect by several of the organisations mentioned above, and the list of blue-collar and service environments where Glass is being used is interesting and diverse, offering a glimpse of the potential for AR.

Augmedix, for example has been pioneering the use of Glass with a number of healthcare organisations to help improve doctor / patient interactions.  The headset is use to access medical data and help keep the doctor away from a computer screen, allowing them to decrease the amount of time per consultation they are spending working on a computer whilst increasing the amount of face-to-face direct interaction with patients. Further, thanks to the use of an unseen “scribe” – a medical student or trained medical transcriber – who might be down the hall, in another state or even in another country, the doctor can dictate updates to the patient’s records, provide information on prescriptions, etc., removing the 2-3 hours a day they otherwise need to spend managing the records on their own – again allowing more time to be spent with those in their care.

The other point to note here is that this is not the announcement of some beta programme; it’s the launch of an actual product by Alphabet. “This isn’t an experiment,” Jay Kothari, Glass Project Lead, said. “It was an experiment three years ago. Now we are in full-on production with our customers and with our partners.” Not bad for a product written off as dead just 24 months ago.

The announcement also means that the companies that have helped developed the software etc., to run alongside of Glass – as with Augmedix – are now free to roll Glass out as they need, and to start marketing their products developed to work alongside Glass. Google also have plans of their own to further extend Glass’ reach as an enterprise tool – although they remain silent as to whether the consumer product will be resurrected.

The announcement about Glass points to 2017 as possibly being the year in which AR / MR starts on its rise to practical prominence. It joins Microsoft’s HoloLens as an enterprise tool, while Windows 10 offers a platform for MR development (and Microsoft are working with hardware manufacturers to provide consumer focused headsets). Elsewhere, Qualcomm – as I recently reported – is leading the charge with Android-based enterprise and consumer AR / MR headsets. It’ll be interesting to see where all the leads, both in the work place and – in time – at home.

CastAR closes, IP for sale?

The CastAR dream: a slimline, lightweight set of glasses capable of projecting interactive 3D images onto a retro-reflective surface. Credit: Technical Illusions / CastAR

Augmented reality headset maker, CastAR (formerly Technical Illusions), and which I’ve been following and reporting on in this blog, has apparently closed its doors.

The company first came to prominence when the system – designed to use a glasses-like headset to project holographic images onto a retro-reflective surface and / or before the wearer’s eyes via a “VR clip-on”  – was shown at the 2013 Maker Faire in New York.

At that time, the idea was very much fledgling and more spirit gum, soldering, tape and wires than it was a commercial venture – but that was enough to convince the pair behind the system, Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson they had a potential product on their hands, so they went ahead with a Kickstarter campaign to raise US $400,000 to start development in earnest – and ended up raising over a million.

The Head Crab – Jeri Ellworths’ initial approach to what became CastAR. Image courtesy of Jeri Ellsworth

The system, called CastAR due to its primary function of projecting images onto that retro-reflective surface, actually came about by accident. In 2012, Ellsworth was working on another project at Gabe Newall’s Valve when she accidentally found she could create holographic-like images on the surface.

The potential of the idea excited her and (then) fellow co-worker Johnson, so they started delving into the idea. Then, in February 2013, they were among a group of staff let go by the company – and in a generous move, Newall allowed them to take the IP for the CastAR system with them, even though almost the entire development up to that point had been made on Valve’s time and with Valve’s resources.

 

The Development Kit / Kickstarter version of the CastAR headset. Credit: CastAR

From here, the story does suffer the hiccups. The Kickstarter raised US $1 million, enough to fund development of an initial headset system, but it was not entirely what Ellsworth and Johnson were hoping it would be. There were delays,  funding seemed (from the outside) to be slow in coming in and delivery dates for the initial Kickstarter headset got pushed back, although there was sufficient for the company to establish operations, hire a CEO (initially David Henkel-Wallace), refine the headset design, develop games to run on it.

But the company kept doing the rounds of VR / AR shows and the like, garnering publicity, generating interest and towards the end 2015, secured US $15 million in funding. The majority of this came from Playground Global, co-founded by Andy Rubin of Android Inc. fame, and Rubin persuaded Ellsworth and Johnson to back to basics and design the system they wanted.

Playing a projected game using CastAR (simulation). Credit: Technical Illusions / CastAR

As a result, in 2016, the company announced a significant change in direction. The US $1 million raised via the Kickstarter was refunded, together with a promise all backers would receive a “consumer” version of the headset,  CastAR hired talent to open its own mixed reality studio in Salt Lake City and acquired entire Eat Sleep Play development team, responsible for the Twisted Metal series and God of War. All of this was done with the aim of developing a complete consumer package – headset, controllers, game surfaces and games – which would be low-cost and playable “right out of the box”.  2016 saw LucasArts chief Darrell Rodriguez take over as CEO, with former Disney executive Steve Parkis as its president and chief operating officer.

Now, according to an article appearing in Polygon on Monday, June 26th, and since widely circulated in the tech media, CastAR has closed its doors with up to 70 people being laid off. There has been no official statement on the matter from either CastAR – the corporate website continues to reference a consumer product launch in 2017, although it doesn’t appear to have been updated since around the start of the year – nor Playground Global, despite attempts by a number of outlets to secure a comment. However, the Polygon piece suggests the reason for the closure is Playground Global’s refusal to provide further funding for the venture after CastAR failed to obtain investment from other sources.

The CastAR headset and “wand” hand controller as they looked in November 2016. Credit: CastAR

Following the story breaking, Polygon later updated their article to reflect sources stating that a small team has been retained by CastAR to oversee attempts to sell the company’s IP. But again, there has yet to be an official statement from CastAR.

This might be seen as a blow to the fortunes of AR. However, as innovative as CastAR was (and as much as I found their approach fascinating), the system took a markedly different approach to AR / MR than is the case with the likes of Qualcomm (see here) and others, simply by its reliance on a retro-reflective surface. While the latter is well suited to gaming, and the company tried to suggest it could have practical applications through their promotional videos, it still might have been seen as a limiting factor in the system’s broader appeal.

Enter the Snapdragon: Qualcomm and “XR”

The ODG R9 AR headset. Credit: Osterhout Design Group

It’s no secret that when it comes to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), I’m swayed more towards AR and “mixed reality” (MR) as potentially being the “thing” of the future. Not, as I’ve often said, that I don’t believe in VR – it will in time grow to fill various niches and requirements. Rather, I just feel that AR / MR have a much wider field of application when it comes to impacting our daily lives.

I mention this because earlier in June I read an interesting piece by Dean Takahashi, examining Qualcomm’s emerging role in what they like to call “XR” – or “eXtended Reality”, which they define as a fusion of VR, AR and MR.

Qualcomm spells out the hurdles to ‘extended reality’ glasses offers a transcript  from a chat Dean had with Tim Leland, Qualcomm’s vice president of product management, on the company’s goal and the challenges they see in bringing headset-style devices to the market.

Qualcomm, of course, is the company behind the veritable Snapdragon family of processors. In 2016, they announced their intention to make the Snapdragon 835 chipset the heart of a new range of self-contained VR and AR devices. To that end, they are about to start shipping the Snapdragon 835 VR HMD to OEMs wishing to produce Android-powered VR headsets using the chipset and Google Daydream.

More particularly – from my perspective – Qualcomm has already partnered with Osterhout Design Group (ODG), to develop a range of Snapdragon-powered AR headsets. I first became aware of the first of these units, the R7, in mid-2016. Intended to be a heads-up AR system for enterprise solutions (selling at US $2,750), it has gained a degree of traction in a number of fields – hazardous environments (oil exploration and production, chemical production and pharmaceuticals, healthcare and surgery), and has been involved in tests helping the visually impaired.

In 2017, ODG are due to release two more units – the “prosumer” R8 (around US $1,500) and the “consumer R9 (at “sub-$1,000”). Again, these are Snapdragon 835 based, and will be fully self-contained units with Android and their operating system.

It is the self-contained aspect of such headsets which Qualcomm sees as being one of the keys to the future success of “XR”.

“Any type of cable is just a non-starter,” Leyland notes. “Fans will not exist. We think there might be a niche market for glasses that maybe stream to a PC, but that’s a small part of it. The big part is everything self-contained in a mobile device. All the visual processing systems are very close to the inertial sampling systems, so everything is very fast.”

Qualcomm see “XR” systems potentially becoming a mainstay of our daily lives, fusing VR and AR into a single headset unit which can meet a variety of needs at any given time, and which can also be used as the basis for specific use-cases.

A conceptual “first responder” XR headset for fire fighters. Credit: Qualcomm

In this Qualcomm see XR units being both general purpose and specific to market sectors. The company is already looking at a concept for a “first responder” headset for fire fighters. Containing night vision capabilities and thermal imaging sensors, the headset could allow fire fighters overlay their field-of-view with floor plans of the building they are in, helping them find their way through the smoke, while the thermal sensors warn of potential hotspots and possible behind-the-door risks of backdraft – and could even guide them to people trapped in a burning location.

A simplified rendering of the kind of information the “first responder” headset might provide. Credit: Qualcomm

For more general use, Qualcomm are looking at headsets which integrate much of what they’ve developed with the likes of ODG – multiple cameras, integral motion tracking, the ability to track eye and hand movements, etc., but in a very lightweight, unobtrusive form-factor with a low price point which makes them an attractive proposition.

Not that this is going to happen overnight. A refreshing aspect of Qualcomm’s view is that they are looking at a development / adoption curve measured in at least a decade. As Leyland notes, the ability to have AR and VR heads headsets exists today, but there are hurdles to be overcome before they are as ubiquitous as the mobile phone for many of the tasks we perform today.

Some of these hurdles are being independently addressed – 5G, for example, is expected to be of huge benefit to those uses which require a lot of rendering and so are latency intolerant. Others are going to take time to progress and solve:  display requirements – the vergence and accommodation conflict, human field of view (190ox130o) etc; common illumination); motion and tracking for intuitive head, hand and eye movements; and power and thermal issues.

The technical hurdles “XR” needs to overcome. Credit: Qualcomm

Leyland doesn’t see any of these hurdles as being problematic – he just emphases that the time frame required to solve them is not going to be as compressed as some of the more bullish predictions about VR growth made in 2016 would have us believe. Instead, he points to 2020 as still being a year when numbers of shipped headset units of all types is still measured in the hundreds of millions, although he does see it growing from there.

IDC VR shipment numbers (in thousands), have been seen as a means to question the reality of the VR market

But will these systems ever reach the ubiquitousness of the smartphone? Right now, going on the shipments of VR headsets some are quick to pooh-pooh the entire mixed reality (or XR if Qualcomm prefer) ecosystem in favour of alternatives. On the surface, they would seem to be right – but on a longer-term look? I’m not so sure. Again, this is where the much-hyped smartphone analogy with VR is misleading – as Leyland points out in talking to Takahashi.

While it is true the first “genuine” smartphone as we know them today only appeared a decade ago, the fact remains that it was founded on some three decades of cellular phone development. right now, headset capabilities are roughly in the “1990s” phase of that overall curve – so there is a way to go. As such, while headsets that more closely resemble glasses / sunglasses may not necessarily become as all-pervasive as smartphones are today, there is little reason to doubt they could – if they have an intuitive ease of use – take over from handsets (and associated wearables) for a wide variety of tasks / uses.

Qualcomm isn’t alone in pursuing a convergent future of mobile VR / AR / MR capabilities. However, through Dean Takahashi’s article (and courtesy of Qualcomm’s Augmented World Expo presentation, it is good to see how level-headed is the approach being taken be tech companies to bot understand the technology , its potential and to look beyond the buzz phrases like “killer app” or order to make “XR” work.