This is based on a version of the same talk presented in person by me at the VR For Good conference, held on in November 2018 at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona, USA.
(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )
With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!
Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.
Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.
In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.
One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.
The presentation above is a recorded version of the same one delivered at the 2018 VR Voice ‘VR in Healthcare Symposium’ held at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.
Please follow the link below to access a PDF version of the full paper from the above presentation, including the results of the survey conducted on the experiences and awareness of VR and AR within the veterinary profession.
Click link below to access paper
What a great day checking out the VR/AR Association startup zone at #IOTX in Dubai. Great ideas, great products, great people, such as Shujat Mirza (VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter President) & Clyde DeSouza (VR Filmmaker) – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
AWE (Augmented World Expo)
- Seeing how much bigger the event has become, even over the last three years. One could really get a sense of VR and AR starting to be embraced by the mainstream and the energy during the event certainly felt like it had been etched up a notch from the previous year.
- Getting to speak. I was one of several speakers who took to the stage on the Life track and thoroughly enjoyed being able to deliver my vision of where I see VR in Veterinary currently standing and where I see it going in the future. I believe I am correct when I say that I might have been the first veterinary surgeon to speak at the event so representing the veterinary profession in such an exciting and rapidly advancing industry was truly an honour.
- Checking out Lllama Zoo’s HoloLens dissection experience. Charles and Kevin from the company had made the journey down from Canada and both my friend, Deborah, and I were privileged enough to be given a live demo of their augmented reality canine dissection tool, using the Microsoft HoloLens. With each of us wearing a headset, we were both able to see a high resolution holographic image of a set of lungs and heart floating in midair and move around it viewing it from different angles, remove layers and learn about the specific anatomy of this part of the body. The image quality was superb and I was not aware of there being any flicker or issues with the hologram staying fixed in position. A very compelling demonstration and a real glimpse at the future of anatomy teaching in vet and medical schools.
VR in Healthcare Symposium (VR Voice)
With the hardware set-up and the software installed it was finally time to don the HTC Vive headset and enter my own VR for the first time. I am pleased to report that it was as awesome as I had imagined.
A little like scuba diving, which similarly requires the wearing of rather bulky, somewhat cumbersome equipment but whose experience is instantly transformed once in the medium for which it was designed, VR, as it currently stands, is much the same. The headset, whilst attractively and elegantly designed, is undeniably bulky and has some noticeable weight to it. It also looks pretty dorky if truth be told. No-one, I would posit, looks anything other than intensely nerdy wearing a VR headset. Still, as soon as the headset is placed on the head and the eyes drink in the rich graphics being streamed through the displays then, well, all that other stuff becomes instantly irrelevant. Like entering the water as a scuba diver, entering VR is met with the same perceived change of physical state. The weight of the headset is forgotten. The fact I looked like a dork was forgotten. I was, however, in a new world. Sure, I knew I was physically still in my room but then again I wasn’t. I was somewhere else entirely. That is the magic of VR.
The first experience of VR that any new owner of an HTC Vive will have is almost certain to be the tutorial. This takes place in a large white dome-like space, much like the O2 arena in London back when it was the Millenium Dome, complete with an echoey acoustic that one would imagine such a cavernous and empty space to possess. Whilst I was having an initial look around this new space I heard a voice from behind and turned to see a robotic sphere, complete with a central ‘eye,’ somewhat reminiscent of HAL in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 but friendlier. It was this levitating robotic head that was talking and it quickly became apparent that he was to be my tutor.
What followed was a systematic yet thoroughly entertaining introduction to the basic fundamentals of VR, from the principles of the play-area boundaries and the various functions of the controller handset buttons, neatly demonstrated by means of balloons, fireworks and laser beams emanating from the ends in response to each button being pushed. The balloons were especially fun as it quickly dawns on anyone going through the tutorial that one can interact with them, for example, by batting them away as one would do so at, say, a music festival. One of my friends, whilst undergoing the tutorial for the first time, released a swathe of balloons that floated gently towards the roof of the dome before quickly switching his controller over to serve as a laser beam and proceeded to shoot the balloons in a digital, VR version of clay pigeon shooting! Classic!
With the basics of the Vive explained in what I can honestly say is the most engaging, memorable, fun and effective computer setup tutorial I have ever undertaken, one of the key values of VR, and indeed spatial computing, as a medium was apparent: being immersive and interactive, including physically, serves to massively reinforce learning in a way that standard, screen-based tutorials just cannot. Can you imagine how much more engaged and willing to listen to the helpful Microsoft Office paperclip you would have been were you able to feel as though he was there in the room with you? If a simple start-up tutorial could have people grinning and feeling engaged then one can only begin to imagine the potential value of spatial computing for wider education. I have always believed that this technology will revolutionise learning and having now been able to experience it first-hand I am as convinced as ever. Going to school in the next five years is going to be awesome if the classroom experience is going to embrace the power of this tech – almost makes me want to regress back!
The kit has arrived and you are one step – physical that is – closer to taking that first virtual foray into an exciting, immersive new world. It’s just a case of opening the box and getting going, right? Not quite.
It took me about a week to finally get in to VR for real after taking delivery of my Vive, partly due to the fact that I moved house but also on account of one needing to put aside a reasonable chunk of time to dedicate to actually setting up the system. I’ll run through the steps I took in a moment but first it would be useful just to recap what I actually needed to have in place before being able to enter VR:
VR Headset, Trackers & Controllers – I opted for the HTC Vive and ordered it online from the US via Amazon. In the box was everything I needed to get going, other than the powerful PC to run it all.
PC – VR is processing hungry and requires a top-of-the-line graphics card in order to render everything properly. More and more ‘VR-compatible’ packages are coming onto the market with each passing day but, in essence, I knew that I needed to get a gaming PC as this was certain to have the grunt power necessary to fulfill my VR aspirations. In the end I opted for an Alienware 13″ laptop – it was a brand I was aware of, even as a non-gamer, and a laptop offered the portability that I wanted to be able to take my VR set-up to other locations in order to demonstrate it; not something that would be as easy with a chunky desktop.
The actual process for getting set-up and into VR involved:
Setting up the Lighthouses – in order to be able to do room scale VR at present, it is necessary to have a minimum of two scanning sensors, positioned roughly opposite one another, in order for the computer to be able to track the headset and controllers and define a virtual “play space.” It is this process that ultimately took the longest to achieve, principally for practical/ DIY reasons rather than technical ones. The sensors that come with the Vive are known as Lighthouses and were significantly bigger, and heavier, than I first imagined they would be. I’d figured that I would be able to easily hang them from the wall using a picture hook, a pretty quick and simple task to install. When I examined them, however, I discovered that they weighed a fairly decent amount and had no hole or the like from which to hang via a hook. Besides, realising how important they were to the entire virtual experience the idea of hanging them loosely on the wall lost it’s appeal.
Each had two spiral sockets to allow them to be screwed onto a camera mount, like the one that you would use to mount an SLR camera onto a tripod. With one on the back and one on the base, there were two options for how I might mount mine. Included in the box were two pivoted brackets that were intended to be screwed to the wall, a step that would necessitate drilling holes in the wall of my room. In spite of my landlord initially saying it would be fine to do so he seemed a little less keen when I broached the subject again at a later date, and the fact was that I didn’t readily have access to the necessary tools to facilitate the mounting. That and the concern about drilling into walls where I had no idea about the location of power lines – receiving an electric shock would not be a great introductory step to VR! I also wasn’t certain about the optimal location for the two Lighthouses and felt that getting that figured out might be a smart move before committing to making holes in the wall. I also wanted to retain the option of moving the system easily, for example by taking it into work to demonstrate VR to my colleagues, and so a more temporary yet similarly stable solution was preferable. This set me off on a research effort.
Various options were considered and promptly scored off the list. These included mounting the boxes via heavy duty velcro attachments (not reliable enough); setting up tall camera tripods (too much of a wide footprint to be practical in a limited space); using GoPro handlebar mounts to attach the Lighthouses to curtain rails (I did, ultimately, do this for one of them), etc. One option that seemed to be getting a lot of attention online was that of using adjustable support beams (see an example here), which have the advantage of being easy to position, set-up and move again if necessary, as well as being secure. Coupled with pole grips like the aforementioned handlebar mounts for cameras this idea certainly appealed. The issue, however, was in trying to source said poles. Nowhere I looked in Dubai seemed to have what I was after and once again I looked to the internet. They had what I thought I wanted on Amazon but being fairly expensive (about $50 each) and pretty bulky I wasn’t sure if I could even get them delivered.
Desperate to actually get going I even looked into whether it was essential to mount them in the first place. According to one video blog on the topic it seemed as though the Lighthouses could scan and track adequately even whilst placed on the floor. This, I realised, was not a practical medium to long-term option and getting them at the suggested ‘above head height’ was still preferable. In the end I actioned what I intend to be a temporary solution: one I attached via a GoPro handlebar mount to the end of one of the curtain poles in my room – thankfully the power cable just extended enough to permit this – and the other I positioned on top of a tabletop mirror that thankfully happened to be as wide as the Lighthouse itself. In a bid to reassure myself that it was moderately secure I did enlist the use of some sticky tack to try and plant the base onto the surface a little more securely than it might otherwise have been. I wasn’t entirely certain if this positioning would work as this second station was sitting not angled down towards the floor but rather horizontally. I wondered whether this would adversely impact it’s ability to scan and therefore track me correctly in VR. I needn’t have worried.
With the Lighthouses positioned, powered and synched with one another (wirelessly and automatically) it was now time to fire up the headset and controllers.
Connecting the Headset to the PC – whilst there are now systems available to allow for un-tethered headset connection, the vast majority of VR newbies will, like me, have their first experience via a fully tethered system, meaning that the headset is directly attached to their computer, via a long cable. With the Vive this cable has three components, all of which connect to the PC via an intermediary little box (included with the Vive). One of the cables plugs into an HDMI port, the second into one of the USB ports, and the third, a power cable that plugs into a power outlet. One of the cables and ports at the back of the headset is there to allow a set of headphones, or ear buds, to be plugged in – sound is a pivotal component of the immersive experience of VR – and the Vive comes with a simple set of ear buds included. I, like most however, have ultimately opted to spend some more and get a decent pair of headphones.
Switch on the PC and Set-Up – setting up the Alienware laptop itself was simple enough. These days computers pretty much come out of the box ready to rock and roll so I have skipped a description of that stage. With the headset plugged in it was now time to download the Vive software, via the Vive.com website. This very intuitively guided me through the set-up process, including checking that the Lighthouses were scanning correctly – they were 🙂 – and that both the headset and controllers were being tracked – they too were working well.
Once the system had established that they could see both the headset and controllers I was walked – literally – through the process of setting up the ‘play area,’ the term for the space in which I could safely immerse myself in VR without tumbling into and over furniture and the like. Unbeknownst to me until now my previous room was simply not big enough to meet the minimum floor space requirement for a play area, a fact that would have severely pissed me off had I discovered the hard way. As I say, I had thankfully just moved house and it turned out that my bigger room had just the right amount of ‘spare’ floor to permit a VR play area. Phew! In terms of defining this area, I was prompted to take one of the Vive controllers and sketch out, in mid-air, my area. That is I actually walked around the area in question whilst pressing the trigger of the controller to, in effect, draw an invisible chalk-line around the perimeter of my VR area. I had to repeat this process a couple of times as I was, initially, just shy of the minimum area requirement, but once it was done I could see on the computer screen a digital rendering of the outline of my safe VR play space.
Download SteamVR – a platform through which VR experiences, games and the like are available, I needed to download and install Steam in order to use my system. Again, much like installing the Vive software, it was a painless process to get Steam installed. Once it was and I had created an account and was logged in it was time to finally don the mask and enter my very own VR for the first time…..
Mixed Reality & Virtual Reality
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to be at one of the conference parties where someone happened to have two Microsoft HoloLens headsets and was demonstrating them to the small crowd of curious nerds that had gathered around him. Well, I was one of those nerds and before long had the pleasure of donning one of the sets and so was introduced to the wonders of true mixed reality.
Much like a small welding mask, in both look and feel, the HoloLens is essentially a set of transparent screens that sit in one’s field of view by means of the headstraps that keep the device in place. Whilst not especially comfortable and certainly not something anyone is going to ever be in a rush to wear out in public on account of looking, frankly, ridiculous, the experience that it delivered was compelling. With the use of a simple gesture, specifically an upward ‘throwing’ movement, a menu popped into view suspended perfectly in mid-air and crystal clear as if it were right there in the real world in plain sight of everyone around me. Of course it wasn’t and the only person able to see this hologram was me. Selecting from the menu was as simple as reaching out and ‘touching’ the desired option and within seconds a holographic representation of the Earth was spinning languidly before me. I could ‘pick up’, ‘move’ and otherwise manipulate the item in front of me as though it were a physical object, and if I did move it, for example off to the right, out of my field of view, that is precisely where it remained and where I found it again when I turned back round. The human body application was similarly cool, as I was able to explore the various layers of anatomy through interaction with a highly rendered hologram. Whilst comical for onlookers not wearing a HoloLens, as I appeared to apparently be pawing away at thin air like someone suffering a particularly lucid acid hallucination, the thrill of what I was actually seeing and engaging with myself allowed me to ignore my daft appearance.
What are the medical education applications for such mixed reality technology? Whilst holographic visual representations of anatomy are, at first, a magical phenomemon to experience and a pretty cool party piece, it is the fact that mixed reality sees realistic holograms merged, or so it appears to the user, onto the real world, in contrast to virtual reality, which replaces the real world experience with an entirely digital one, that lends itself to unique educational applications. Anatomy instruction by being able to accurately overlay and track in real-time deeper layers onto a real-world physical specimen, enabling students to understand the wider context in which various anatomical structures sit is a far more compelling and useful application of MR than a simple floating graphic. Similarly, surgical training involving holographic overlays onto a real-world, physical object or combined with haptic technology to elicit tactile feedback, offers the potential to deliver programmable, repeatable, easily accessible practical training with minimal expense and zero waste on account of there being no need to have physical biological specimens.
Imagine: a fully-functional and resourced dissection and surgical training lab right there in your clinic or home and all at the press of a digital button. Imagine how confident you would become at that new, nerve-wracking surgical procedure if you had the ability to practice again and again and again, physically making the required cuts and placing the necessary implant, being able to make the inevitable mistakes that come with learning anything new but at zero risk to your patient. Being able to step up to the surgical plate for real and carry out that same procedure that you have rehearsed and developed refined muscle memory for, feeling the confidence that a board-certified specialist with years of experience has, and all without having had to put a single animal at risk – that’s powerful. That’s true action-based education at it’s most compelling and it is a future that both VR and MR promises.
I predict that the wide adoption of graphically rich, immersive and realistic digital CPD programmes, through both VR and MR, will result in a renewed engagement of professionals with CPD training and ultimately lead to more confident, skilled, professionally satisfied and happier clinicians. I, for one, know that were I able to complete practical CPD by simply donning a headset and loading up a Vive or HoloLens experience from the comfort and convenience of my clinic or home, all whilst still being able to interact in real-time with colleagues both physically present and remote, my CPD record would be bursting at the seams. That has to be a great thing for the profession, our clients and society in general.
After learning as much as possible about all things VR over the past couple of years I finally took the plunge and invested the significant sum required to become ‘VR Enabled.’ This involved purchasing both a high-end VR system, requiring the decision to be made between two competing devices: the HTC Vive, which sits on the SteamVR platform in terms of content provision, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, the original poster child for VR and with its own online VR content store. I had visited Upload VR in San Francisco back in June 2016 fully thinking that the Oculus Rift was the device I wanted but was totally won over by the Vive, especially once it became clear that the Vive was able to do room-scale VR whilst the Oculus was only offering a seated experience and had not yet launched the Touch controllers.
The three experiences I enjoyed with the Vive (Google Tiltbrush, Universe Sandbox, and WeVR’s The Blu) had me grinning from ear to ear the moment I donned the headset and I spent hours crouching, circumnavigating, exploring and generally loving the immersive world into which VR had placed me. It was easy to forget that I was still stood in a room next to a PC and not in each of the magical playgrounds that I sequentially jumped into. You can read about my experience at UploadVR here.
I would’ve rushed out immediately and got myself set up with a VR set were it not for the considerable outlay of mullah that doing so requires and so I did what any good procrastinator does when it comes to making big decisions: I procrastinated and analysed the shit out of it!
So what made me finally decide to make the investment and jump into VR? A number of contacts I have made in the VR community over the past two years have all said the same thing: to truly understand VR and it’s potential it is important to actually experience it and become familiar with it. One VR expert pretty much told me to get a headset and spend 100 hours minimum in it! Like anything in life, whether it be language learning or training for a big sporting goal, full immersion is usually the best way to learn, grow and generally get good at whatever activity it is. Coupled with reading an advance copy of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book, The Fourth Transformation, which focuses on the rapidly growing sectors of virtual, augmented and mixed reality, this collective advice made me realise that if I truly wanted to understand VR there was only one thing I could do.
Ordering…… then Waiting
Decision made. Credit card in hand. Where and how to get hold of my own VR set up? As much as the Oculus Rift has come on leaps and bounds, especially since the launch of the Touch Controllers, which are, according to the reports, much better than the Vive’s, the fact that the HTC Vive comes as a complete package and does room-scale VR straight of the box, in addition to knowing about some of the applications available for it, I headed to the Vive site and attempted to place an order. Unfortunately there was no way to order easily from Dubai and the only way to order directly from Vive was to have a US credit card. So no go there unless I could persuade a US friend to do me a huge favour. Amazon, however, saved the day as I was easily able to order via their international site using my UAE credit card, and arranged to have the order delivered to me via the Aramex Shop & Ship courier service. One concern I had after placing the order was whether or not I had inadvertently been duped and perhaps purchased a convincingly presented fake. I had visions of taking delivery of a cheap, knock-off and the headaches of having to then get my money back. Thankfully I need not have worried as the genuine article duly arrived about a week later. Stage 1 complete and about $800 plus delivery of $160 in expense. Now all I needed was a computer capable to powering the device and I would be on my way.
Sadly neither of my Apple computers are even close to being up to the task of powering a high-end VR system, so I knew that I was going to need to fork out for a PC with a powerful graphics card. I had already looked around the stores in Dubai and found some pretty impressive machines on offer, all with equally impressive price tags. Convinced that I would be able to find a similar offering online, albeit significantly cheaper, I began doing some research. This is where I found the difficulty in being able to make a decision: what do I go for that would enable me to experience VR and that would be relatively future-proof without going insane and spending many thousands? I am not a gamer and so have no real experience or knowledge of what makes for a decent gaming PC. What I did know, however, was that Alienware was a brand that I had heard of and knew were big in the gaming world. I soon discovered via their website that they are part of Dell and so set to exploring the models on offer.
One of the first questions to answer for myself was whether I wanted to opt for a laptop versus desktop. I knew that I wanted the portability of a laptop so that I would be able to take the system into work, or to friends’ houses, but knew that desktops offered a much easier time of it in terms of expansion in the future, in addition to generally being cheaper to purchase. After much thought I did eventually opt for a laptop, going for the compact yet graphically very powerful Alienware 13” R3, with an Intel i7-6700 Core processor (a very powerful one I was informed) and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card. With added anti-virus software and UK VAT (I ordered via the UK site after clarifying with online customer support that I could a) use a UAE credit card and b) have the order sent to me via a UK routing address, Shop & Ship again), the total cost was about $2180. Unfortunately I was also liable to pay UAE Customs when the laptop arrived (eventually) from Dell. I did question whether with all the extra costs it might have just been better to buy a similar machine here in Dubai but came to the conclusion that it was still more cost effective to tread the path I did.
One note of caution for anyone looking to order overseas and have their computer delivered to them is to bare in mind that there might be unexpected issues. In my case the issue was that in spite of clarifying at the order stage that I was able to order using a non-UK card and to have it sent to me via a courier routing service, I received an email shortly after confirming — and paying for – the order from someone in accounts urging me to contact them within the next 24 hours as I had to confirm this, that or the other. This is where Dell fell down badly as trying to get in touch with the person in question, in spite of the urgency of their message, was impossible. I did eventually manage a stuttered email exchange, with the message being delivered to me being that my order was not able to be finalised as I could not verify the delivery address. I politely but pointedly highlighted the fact that I had asked right at the outset whether any of the specifics of ordering from out of country were going to be problematic and was assured that they would not. Now I was being told they were. How to frustrate and piss off a customer! Long story short I tried to get further clarification on the matter, advising Dell that if it was an issue then they simply had to refund my payment, cancel the order entirely and I would either find another option for ordering from them or buy said computer locally. Thankfully I was able to get some kind of clarity via a very nice customer service rep who chased up my case and eventually confirmed that my order could, after all, proceed. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had confirmation that my order had left China, where it was being built – ?! why then was I a) paying UK VAT, and b) having to have the item delivered to me via the UK when it more than likely touched down in Dubai on route to the UK anyway?!
Still, I was now, finally, in possession of the necessary tools to enable me to enter VR.
Spatial computing, once a preserve of science fiction, is slowly but surely creeping into real life and whilst there are a number of companies working on industrial applications of Augmented Reality (AR), with true use of a headset/ glasses there is not yet a convincing consumer solution to herald in the age of smart glasses.
The promise of AR and of smart-glasses is to seamlessly overlay digital information onto the real world such that this information adds to the experience. There are myriad potential applications where such a capability might prove either useful or just entertaining. For example:
- Video calls – speak with a person on Skype or FaceTime (other video chat applications available) as though they were literally standing/ sitting there in front of you, in realistic hologram form.
- Educational experiences – visits to galleries, museums or even city tours would be so much more entertaining and interesting with the ability to see projections of artists, historical figures or scenes played out in front of our eyes as though they were happening live. A visit to a famous battle scene or, for example, StoneHenge would be a richer learning experience if the subjects of our learning were walking about around us. How much better would we relate to our history if we could see, with our own eyes, such histories played out on the current world? Would it lead to a greater sense of the important lessons of history and reduce the risks that we repeat the same errors, a concern that holds resonance at this specific time of political uncertainty in the world.
- Navigation – whether it be in a car or walking about an unfamiliar city, staring at a screen has its obvious disadvantages. Contrast that with seeing clear directions mapped out onto the real world in front of our eyes, negating the need to take our focus off the real world. This will be further enhanced by the use of real-time translation, such that foreign road signs are automatically presented in their translated form.
- Many others…..
What AR experiences are already available?
Most of us will have first heard of or experienced AR through social apps such as Snapchat, whose filters allow for some silly but otherwise fun effects to be added to live video, such as the addition of rabbit ears and a nose that respond and change in real-time with our faces. Others might have used an AR app to scan a physical marker in, say, a magazine and seen a digital object, such as a movie character, materialise on our screen but viewed as though they were there in the real world. Companies such as Blippar do the latter and have a thriving business in using AR for brand marketing.
Who is doing interesting things in AR?
There are a number of companies working on AR, whether it be via smart glasses or the screens with which we interact with daily, such as tablets and phones. As already mentioned, social media is likely to be one of the first experiences of true AR that many of us have and it isn’t just Snapchat playing a role. Facebook are also players in this market with their purchase, this year, of the AR start-up MSQRD, whose technology does much the same thing as Snapchat’s. The technology behind such whimsical entertainment is actually pretty exciting and you can learn more about it here.
Aside from marketing and social media/ entertainment, other major applications for AR are in both industry and education, with a few vet schools even dabbling with the technology.
Form Factor…. The Big Issue
As much as I am truly excited by the promise of AR to revolutionise how we interact with digital information, form factor is still, for me, THE biggest issue. Until we move beyond the bulky, cyborg-esque headsets, that feel akin to wearing a welders mask, to lightweight, stylish eyewear or, preferably, a completely off-body solution then wider adoption of this tech will be slow. At present, the most accessible and reliable method by which to engage with AR for the vast majority of us is via our phones and tablets. In other words, handheld screens with cameras attached.
Phones work in as much as they do some incredible things for us and work the same regardless of personal factors and are situationally flexible (i.e. they work much the same way regardless of whether you are at home, work or, perhaps, out and about in a sporting or outdoors setting). They also have the advantage of being discretely held on person if necessary, a feature that an expensive pair of smart-glasses clearly lacks. For example, in areas where openly advertising the fact you have a powerful – and valuable – computer on your person would be ill-advised, it is perfectly possible to keep a phone hidden and, perhaps, access necessary information via other, more discrete methods, such as a smart-watch. Obviously wearing a pair of smart glasses, especially in their current form, would create not only some degree of social stigma, as was seen with Google Glass, but also a personal risk from theft as one would effectively be advertising the fact that they were in possession of a very valuable piece of personal computing equipment.
What of the issues pertaining to eyesight? I, personally, need corrective lenses, whether they be in the form of contacts, which I personally can’t stand wearing for very long and that do little to really improve my eyesight anyway, or spectacles. What solutions do smart-glasses have in store for users such as me in the future? Will I be forced to have to wear contacts whenever I want to wear and thus use my smart glasses? Or will I need to make an additional investment to install corrective/ prescription lenses, instantly increasing the overall cost of adoption and complexity of the product, and making it more of a tricky proposition to resell the device when it comes to upgrading. I wouldn’t be able to easily share/ lend my device to others unless they too shared my prescription, unless they automatically contained technology that corrected for the current user’s eyesight – maybe that’s the key?!
Then there are situational factors governing ease of use. I can currently use, or otherwise carry, my phone in virtually all circumstances. The design and form of the technology gives it this feature. At work it can remain in my pocket and be accessed should I need to quickly use the camera, or search an ebook or perform an information search online, whilst during exercise, such as on my bike, I can easily carry it using a sports-pouch and enjoy music and other services, such as GPS tracking and metrics apps like Strava. Paired with a smart-watch I can also interact directly with the device, accessing key performance data, all in a comfortable manner that the device is designed to be able to cope easily with. Smart-glasses, on the other hand, do not seem to be as flexible. For example, I doubt that I would want to wear the same style of smart glasses at work, interacting with clients and colleagues, and with the constant risk of getting blood etc on them, as I would whilst training, when the need is for eyewear that is sporty, aerodynamic, lightweight, sweat-resistant and aesthetically totally different to other situations. Personally, I even keep different styles of sunglasses depending on the situation in which they are worn. My everyday, casual pair are totally different to my sports/ training/ racing pair. Would I need to have several different pairs of smart glasses to achieve the same result? I only have a single smartphone and can use that in all of the settings mentioned.
Then there is the issue of social stigma and resistance to smart ‘facial-wear.’ Nerds get why people would want to wear a computer on their face – I am one of them. But as Google Glass, when it was first released, demonstrated, the wider public are generally suspicious of and occasionally outright hostile to the idea. Is it simply that wearers of such devices look alien and so instantly stand out as different? Is it the fact that people know such devices include cameras and so fear the perceived invasion of personal privacy that comes with being surveiled, even though we all carry smartphones with incredibly powerful, high resolution cameras that capture content constantly and may well be recorded multiple times per day by other users without our even being aware? In fact, unless you live in a rural area then it is highly probable that you are already being constantly recorded such is the pervasive nature of CCTV. And yet we’re collectively fine with this whilst being instantly suspicious of a person openly wearing a recording device in the form of smart eyewear.
This will need to change before smart glasses become universally accepted as ‘normal.’ A really interesting historical point was made at this year’s AWE (Augmented World Expo) by one of the speakers who talked about how prior to the First World War, wristwatches were generally considered to be pieces of womens’ jewellery and men typically carried a pocket watch. Any gentleman thus wearing a wristwatch would have been stigmatised. That was until the war when, due to the practical constraints of the battlefield, having a timepiece easily accessible, lightweight and handsfree was a big advantage. As a result officers sported wristwatches and continued to do so upon returning from active duty. The comical comment was the suggestion that no-one in their right mind would have ridiculed a tough soldier for wearing a piece of jewellery and so before long tastes changed and the idea of wearing a wristwatch became the accepted norm that we know today. Will the adoption of smart eyewear follow the same path? Who will it be that leads the way in changing public opinion? Will it once again be soldiers, after perhaps first experiencing smart-glasses in the military, or sports-stars perhaps? Regardless of who it is that ultimately leads to a change in opinion there first needs to be a compelling reason for why smart glasses are a preferable option over sticking with the good old smartphone and it is this that I cannot quite yet see.
If No Smart Glasses, Then What?
If smart-glasses, in the typical spectacle form, are not the answer then what could the future of AR look like? To answer this it is worth considering our experience of AR in two different contexts.
Fixed Position Interface
As we have already discussed, AR is already experienced by many of us via traditional screens, with the augmented content over-layed onto the real world as long as we view it through the screen itself. As such, any context in which a transparent surface is involved lends itself to AR. Obvious case examples include driving, with our view of the world outside of the car/ transport medium being through such a transparent ‘screen.’ Companies such as BMW have already explored this idea, for example with the Head-Up Display that shows important journey and vehicle information ‘on the windscreen’ such that the driver need not take their eyes off the road in front of them to still benefit from such data. Navigation information is another very obvious application for this concept, with drivers ‘seeing’ the route mapped out on the road and surrounding world without having to divert their gaze away from the road and towards a separate screen. Imagine how much less likely it would be to miss that rapidly approaching highway slip-road if you could ‘see it’ in advance by a change in colour of the road in front of your very eyes. Once we truly herald the arrival of fully-autonomous driving then the very same vehicle ‘screens’ that previously kept us informed of important driving information will give themselves over to becoming entertainment or productivity screens.
Other settings in which screens (as in what we currently think of as windows or transparent barriers) are currently employed and which promise to provide AR interfaces in the future include places such as zoos, museums, shop windows, or even our very own home windows. Basically anywhere that a transparent ‘screen’ could be found.
Until we somehow come up with a reliable, safe method by which to wirelessly beam AR directly into our brains, currently the most obvious alternative to smart-glasses is the smart contact lens. There are groups working on such stuff of science fiction as this very thing, with Samsung having patented a design for the same, although the power and processing would come from a tethered smart-phone, making it more of a smart screen than anything. I have already voiced my own personal objections to contact lenses and cannot see how adding hardware, however small, to them is going to overcome their obvious shortcomings. Assuming for a moment that the visual effect is staggeringly compelling, with beautifully rendered digital content seamlessly added to the world as if it was always there, designers are going to need to solve the following problems before we all don contact lenses:
- comfort – many people either find them out and out uncomfortable or can only really stand wearing them for short periods of time.
- ocular health – in some professions, especially medical, ophthalmologists recommend daily disposable lenses as, on balance, they are a more hygienic option when compared to longer term-use products. Will smart contact-lenses be cheap enough, and will it be socially and environmentally acceptable or sustainable even, to dispose of our high-tech lenses each day? What of the potential health issues associated with having a heat-generating, signal transmitting/ receiving device actually in contact with our eyes? Do we know what, if any, health risks that might present?
- cost – whilst not especially cheap, I do not get too upset when I have to sacrifice a pair or two of contact lenses in any single day, either because some debris makes it way onto the lenses and renders them uncomfortable or my eyes just need a break. I would be less quick or willing to whip them out, however, if they had cost me a significant sum to purchase, and if I were forced to then I’d be resentful of having to have done so.
- tethering – whilst not a major issue, having to keep a smart-phone in close proximity for such lenses to work as desired does somewhat dilute some of the real magic and potential of a truly untethered AR experience.
Whilst the future is one in which Augmented Reality is definitely going to be HUGE, with companies such as Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft (with the Hololens) creating some truly incredible technology and experiences that defy conventional belief and result in childish grins from anyone who tries them, there are still some significant and fundamental obstacles to overcome. Form factor is, I believe, one of the key issues that pioneers of this technology are yet to crack but when a compelling solution is found then, well, get strapped in and prepare for a technological shift the likes of which come around but once in a generation!
For more information on Smart Glasses, take a look at the AR Glasses Buyers Guide (www.ARglassesbuyersguide.com)