Thursday 17 October 2013

Walking With Avatars in Virtual Reality

Recently I posted a topic about virtual reality headsets and glasses to Opensim Virtual, the Google Plus community pages for sharing information about the free Metaverse and said I would certainly prefer these rather more stylish glasses illustrated on the cover of Clyde DeSouza book, MAYA  than the
present Oculus Rift head set, and wouldn't it be nice, I added, if it was equipped to read the wearer 's brain wave patterns to enable hands free keyboard and mouse functions? Well, it so happens that brain wave readers, or Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have been around as long as those old cumbersome head sets used from the 1980's onward to explore virtual reality. Even back then great big expensive embedded electroencephalograph (EEG) readers were used in the laboratory to send neurofeedback to equally expensive mainframe computers for analysis. But now there are relatively cheap head sensors and software that could be adapted to work with the Oculus Rift and the other new headsets in development.

Emotiv Insight, developed by Vietnamese emigre, Tan Lee and funded by a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign raising $1,643,117 recently, is a "sleek, multi-channel, wireless headset that monitors your brain activity and translates EEG into meaningful data you can understand" according to the makers. It is expected to start shipping in early 2014 and will be compatible with Android, iOS, Mac, Linux and Windows Platforms. The company will also be supplying an API and SDK for developers and researchers.

Picture Credit: Emotiv Insight
Basically, the Emotiv Insight can do exactly what I thought would solve the problem of hands free control while experiencing virtual reality. You just train the Emotiv Insight by thinking and making facial movements. The makers say, "the brainwear can understand and decipher basic mental commands. It can detect commands such as push, pull, levitate, rotate and even commands that are harder to visualize such as disappear. It also detects facial expressions such as blinks, winks, frown, surprise, clench and smile."

Couple all this with advanced haptic devices such as Fundawear, the high-tech vibrating underwear developed by the Condom manufacturer Durex which stimulates intimate parts of the body at the touch of a button, and you have all that is needed to engage in long-distance relationships over the Internet in a shared virtual setting.

In the novel mentioned above, MAYA, the author refers to Dirrogates, or Mesh-clad digital surrogates inhabiting a virtual space. They are not really the same as the characters from Neuromancer by William Gibson who where cybernetically enhanced humans that could "jack in" to cyberspace and when you consider some of the technology I am discussing here you can't escape the cross over between what is real and what is virtual. I mean, some of the headsets do actually allow one to mix realities in that the real world is overlayed on the virtual to whatever degree the wearer chooses and we, as 
Movie: Neuromancer. Credit: Interplay
users of the technology, will be closer to Molly Millions of Neuromancer fame than the Dirrogates of MAYA. We are perhaps more familiar with the term "avatar" though which we use to represents ourselves when we don a Rift and an Insight sensor to experience virtual reality. Whether we are able or disabled we would now be able to interact on equal terms with anyone, anywhere in the world. We could work, live and play and even experience sexual pleasures with the aid of devices like Fundawear and, to some degree, a certain level of danger and shock horror too. With mind control, advanced visuals and haptic devices we can indeed sit back and inhabit the Matrix.

This all holds out exciting possibilities for virtual worlds like Open Simulator or the many others. Opensim is, in my view, well placed and already feature rich enough to take full advantage of the virtual reality equipment that is fast becoming available and, moreover, anyone can pick it up and start to use it in anyway they want. No doubt, the online sex industry will take a lead and why not? Second Life was built on Adult themes. Educationalist that have flocked to Opensim since Linden Lab canceled the discounts they enjoyed may not approve of adult entertainment in Opensim grids but they lived with it in Second Life for years and had no control at all. At least with Opensim they can exercise a level of control unheard of in Second Life so they can isolate themselves much easier from it.

The future looks exciting!

The march of technological advancement is relentless and, judging by the truly amazing stuff in development mentioned above it remains only for me to list some of the headsets starting with the one's I think hold out the most promise...

Former Valve engineers Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson have launched a KICKSTARTER campaign to fund development of the castAR, a 3D augmented and virtual reality headset. The castAR system bridges the gap between the physical world and the virtual world. The final retail glasses are expected to weigh less than 100 grams, which is only slightly heavier than a pair of 
Credit: Technical Illusions

sunglasses, and requires no calibration or adjustment. If you wear prescription glasses, castAR is designed to sit easily on the outside of them. The aim of the designers is to make castAR the most versatile head-mounted display available. They also offer an attachment that transforms castAR into a true virtual reality system as well as a true augmented reality system. Whichever reality you prefer, there is now a single system capable of taking you there, they claim. The company, Technical Illusions, launched the KICKSTARTER campaign to raise $400,000 and it has already gained 1,086 backers pledging $260,821 with 30 days still to go at the time of writing this.

The castAR system has been quietly in development for the past 18 months while Oculus Rift has enjoyed the limelight. However, castAR looks more sophisticated and, together with other headsets about to come onto the market in the new year the Oculus Rift team might be hard pushed to maintain their present lead. In any event I should watch this space because Linden Lab, owners of the Second Life virtual world, are keen to support Oculus Rift according to CEO Rod Humble and maybe are looking for a project to buy up themselves. Linden Lab has been busy diversify their product range in the past few years since Humble took over and has released a number of video games as well as adding video game development features to Second Life. They have also bought up Desura, the game distribution site and my guess is they would surely like a virtual reality headset to add to their product range as well.

Not to be out done a bunch of students have demonstrated yet another virtual reality system which uses Oculus Rift together with PlayStation Move for positional tracking and Razer Hydra for in-game control. However, the weight load is high as demonstrated by Richard Mitchell at IndieCade 2013. "All the components are self-contained with a backpack and a helmet," he said,
Credit: Richard Mitchell
posting to joystiq, "meaning there are no wires to trip you up, allowing you to actually 'walk' inside of virtual space. I took Project Holodeck for a spin," he went on, "trying my hand at some virtual zombie slaying, and the experience was certainly unique." So, the system needs a backpack, a helmet with huge post device on top which I'm sure dirty minds out there will find amusing, and finally Oculus Rift to provide the viewer experience.

However, as I said, there are more headsets in the running now and Maria Korolov, writing in Hypergrid Business, has listed a number including Durovis Dive, which offers 3D Virtual Reality Gaming on a Smartphone, Eyedak vrAse who also ran a KICKSTARTER campaign to raise $55,000 back in August.

Avegant which, they say, "your eyes no longer have to focus for themselves the gadget does it all for you." According to Avegant CEO Ed Tang, this effectively mitigates the problem of eye strain, and makes the device easier to wear for extended periods of time.
Credit: VUZIX

Finally, Maria lists three others which are aesthetically more pleasing but appear to lack the functionality that makes a true virtual reality headset. These include Sony HMZ-T3 Personal Viewer, Vuzix Wrap 1200AR, and the Zeiss Cinemizer OLED.


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