Why Your Next Display will be VR Glasses

Anyone who has been in IT for the last few decades has seen a steady progression in displays. When I started as a programmer in 1988 I was in the first group of programmers at our company that was issued a terminal.

True story.

The programmer’s job was to read a specification, design a program, then code the program on handwritten coding sheets, which were transcribed by (punch card) operators onto punch cards, and fed into the (mainframe) computer.

As n00bs, we were considered quite privileged to get an 80 char wide, green, monochrome terminal, so we could code our program directly into the machine.

Roll forward 28 years and we’ve seen the advent of the PC originally with 14″ monochrome (green or orange) CRT monitors, through various iterations of colour CRT monitors (CGA, VGA, XGA etc), to the introduction of LCD flat panel displays (originally only on laptops), to the LED and OLED screens of today. At some juncture in the last decade, these displays have made their way onto increasingly small devices like phones and watches, and increasingly large devices like TV’s.

HMD

And now we’ve come to a nexus. The Head Mounted Display or HMD.

Hardly a new concept I know. But finally the technology is advanced and minituarised enough for reasonable resolution, and portability.

This is crucial technology for Virtual Reality (VR). The general idea is to wear a headset that provides a display to the user (hence the name) and immerse them inside a 360 virtual environment. This could be a ‘real’ environment captured via videography – think 360 degree movie – or a simulated environment that is created by computer graphics – think 360 degree video game.

This year, Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear, are all releasing consumer VR HMD’s.

Until now, I’ve only been thinking about use cases for a virtual world. But I’ve been remiss.

The Portability/Usability Dilemma

For at least a decade I’ve been talking about the next logical leap for mobile computing. Split I/O peripherals like screen & keyboard from the device. Here’s why:

When you make a computer mobile there are two tensions:

  • For portability you want as small a display as possible. The smaller the display, the smaller & lighter the device. Not to mention less power needed to run the thing, so longer battery life.
  • For usability you want as large a display as possible. The larger the display, the more information and insight you can manipulate and present.

The most logical solution is to split the display from the device. Then you can connect to large displays when you need them, and small displays when you’re on the move in a cab, on an aeroplane etc. The battery life of the device will improve significantly, and the size can decrease along with Moore’s Law.

Note: Continuum on the new Windows 10 Mobile devices provides a good compromise here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oi1B9fjVs4&w=800&h=480]

So why hasn’t this happened yet? (After all I can’t be the only smart person thinking this through) Probably a couple of reasons:

  • Vendors have a vested revenue interest to sell you expensive screens 🙂
  • The technology to connect to any display, at least wirelessly, is still pretty nascent
  • Most displays are already connected to computers, so not available

What If?

But what if you could have a display as large as you want, whilst still portable?

What if the display was physically no larger than a pair of headphones?

Roll in VR glasses.

Both at work and at home I have multiple 24″ monitors that I dock the 12″ laptop, to give me 3 displays. This is not ideal from a power, wasted physical space, and cost perspective. Even so, there are times I simply still do not have enough screen real estate, so on the Mac I run multiple desktops which I can swap to at any time.

Added to this there are some times you simply don’t want to advertise what you’re working on to the world. Confidential reports, company secrets, and the like.

But what if I simply connected to a VR headset, or HMV. Then I could have multiple 80″ monitors arrayed around me. And I could have this single device for all of the places I work: On public transport, in an airline lounge, at home, in the office, in a park.

This would save significant dollars. This would save power. This would redesign offices and homes to more collaborative, functionally aesthetic environments. Sharing a presentation would be a simple as broadcasting to multiple HMD’s.

Challenges

Of course there’s still a reason why we aren’t all sitting in the office with HMD’s attached to our heads. Quite apart from the social awkwardness, although I suspect that will pass given already people in an open plan office wear noise cancelling headphones to avoid being interrupted.

No, the biggest challenges right now include:

  • The artificiality of the display on our eyes can cause fatigue and even nausea
  • The weight of HMD’s could cause head, neck, and shoulder injuries with long use
  • The resolution of the HMD’s is still not quite there yet.

The Avegant Glyph

Today I saw a new HMD, apparently released last year, but updated for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show for the consumer market.

This uses ‘micromirrors’ to reflect light onto the retina in much the same way we actually see reflected light in the real world. This:

  • Removes the fatigue and nausea issue.
  • Makes the device much lighter than competitive devices, and
  • Totally removes the resolution issue because of the different display technology

In short, this could be the device, or the beginning of such devices that could replace displays in the workplace.

This isn’t just about the new things you could do, this is about replacing the old.

It will be interesting to see the first workplace that replaces monitors with HMD’s

[vimeo 148902651 w=800&h=480]

6 Ways VR Will Impact Your Business in 2016

Ah Virtual Reality, heralded since before the 90's. Much vaunted aspiration for entertainment both for immersive movies and games. Until now, however, the tech hasn't matched the aspiration of the vision: Too heavy, poor resolution, not enough processing power. Moore's Law is as ever our friend, and we all have mobile devices, smartphones, with tiny accelerometers and insane displays. Add these to the power of a modern desktop processor, not to mention GPU's, and VR is finally within the affordability of the consumer. (Admittedly a rich consumer in the developed world)

Like so many technologies before it: digital mobile phones, Wi-Fi, Cloud Services, Smartphones, and Tablets, I expect consumers will adopt VR before the Enterprise. There is a reason Mark Zuckerburg invested in Oculus Rift.

But I believe that it's in the business that VR will make its mark. In the enterprise where there are compelling use cases, currently too expensive to service, that the affordability, portability, and power of VR will dominate.

Here are just a few of the ways where I'm currently working with organisations right now to realise business value from Virtual Reality:

1. Simulation for Training Purposes

Of course airlines, space agencies, and even the military have been doing this for years. Admittedly with far more expensive equipment. So these facilities are resource constrained and access is restricted. But with affordable VR systems, you can set up simulations for any training purpose from learning and maintaining expensive equipment like trains or bridges to performing complex procedures like sales calls, presentations, even surgery.

2. Simulation for Exploratory Purposes

 

Let's say you're a bank and you want to A/B test a new branch concept with customers. Until now you've had to physically build the various alternatives for customers to try out. Now you can render almost unlimited options, and get customers to experience them in VR. Then observe what they actually do, where they look etc. The cost of recreating different environments is negligible.

3. Try Before You Buy

Any area where you can give an immersive experience to someone about your product, wherever they are, is a use case for Virtual Reality:

  • Allow people to have a wander around the yacht
  • Sell an event or tradeshow exhibit
  • Let people walk through a new house for sale, and put their pictures on the wall, their furniture in the room
  • Give various travel experiences before people choose a holiday package
  • Take a new car, or motorbike for that matter, for a test spin
  • Sit in a bunch of lectures before deciding what courses you want to take.

I'm positive you can think of many more examples. It just needs to be immersive, and hard for people to experience because of time, location, or expense.

4. Remote Collaboration

Let's be honest, there is nothing like being face-to-face with someone. Current conference tools range from crude to downright painful. We've all seen and laughed at the YouTube parodies of meetings run as if they were virtual conferences.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYu_bGbZiiQ&w=800&h=450]

But what if you could see peoples facial expressions, sense their body movements. What if you could whiteboard something together, or even work on a 'physical' object? Change a part, change the colour of a room, instantly. What if you could do that without flying?

We're not entirely there yet, but we're not far away from being there.

5. Post-mortems, forensics, and replays

Sometimes things go wrong. Not only in medical procedures, or crime scenes, but in every day business. Sometimes a meeting goes south, or a pitch is rejected. Perhaps you bombed an interview. Wouldn't it be good to go back to before things go wrong and see in 3rd person just where the trouble started.

With 360 degree cameras and VR, this will become more and more commonplace.

6. Data Visualisation.

For me this will be the most compelling use and driver of VR in business. Being able to immerse yourself, and others, in massive sets of complex data, and physically see patterns, anomalies, and insights that you simply couldn't in 20 charts and spreadsheets (Or 100. Or 1000).

There are three ways visualising data in VR will add very real business value:

  • Accelerating insights to domain experts.
  • Giving complex domain insight to non-experts
  • Answering questions we haven't thought to ask.

Get Your Gear/VIVE/Rift on.

There is no question that this is the year VR comes into the mainstream. Yes in entertainment, but as you can see, also within the enterprise.

If you're a developer, this would be a very good time to make the switch to a platform that enables these solutions: Hadoop, R, for data analytics and the visualisation engines: Unity3D and/or Unreal for creating immersive VR experiences.

If you're an IT Pro in the business, find a geniune business challenge (not a technology one) like reducing the time to market of a new product, or reducing travel budget for meetings, or improving complex skills in various business units, then start running Proofs of Concept with VR.

If you're a videographer, this would be a good time to get a 360 camera and start shooting immersive experiences for various business sectors.

If you're a Marketing, Information, or Technology Director considering whether this is a Yo-Yo (i.e. new fad) or Fire (i.e. game changing progress), call me. I'd love to work with you and explore this new technology together.

 

Your Avatar

One of the most promising emergent technologies is Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. Combine this with Digital Assistants (e.g. Siri, Google Now, Cortana etc.), the amplifying nature of the Internet, Virtual and Augmented Reality, and the opportunities become boundless.

Consider the number of interactions you have in a given day, how many are simply interactions with a service provider? Think about say, a check-up with your GP, call to an insurance agent, or parent-teacher consult. How much of “you” do you actually need for each of these meetings? Probably not as much as you expect.

Your GP certainly needs to see your physical telemetry, something that's easy enough with wearable technologies available today (blood sugar, BP, pulse, sleep, diet, weight & exercise patterns). But apart from that may simply question how things are at home, at work, with the family, and then prescribe medication or a course of action.

Imagine if you will that an AI avatar is programmed with enough of your personality to answer questions for the doctor. She can already access a comprehensive history of your medical health, ask questions about symptoms, and give the AI instructions. Later in the day (or immediately if necessary) your avatar can catch up with you to debrief on what you should be doing, and what medications to pick up (or print on your Bio3D printer)

Or you need to call the insurance company about a change in your home policy. Rather than waiting 40 rings to navigate an IVR through 3 departments to get to the right person, your avatar could call the insurance company. They will never get frustrated, annoyed, or impatient. As you they'll answer questions about your finances, new purchases, and cover you need. When you arrive home from work, your avatar simply informs you the insurance is done.

And then that call from your daughter's teacher. Teachers tend to work at really challenging hours for most people to arrange an interview. It's usually inconvenient for most to get from the workplace to the school at a time that is convenient for a teacher. (Disclaimer: Lucy, my wife is a teacher) But it is important. Arguably more important than work. Of course, your avatar knows the questions you'd ask about behaviour, effort and achievement. It is programmed with your concerns about peer relationships and bullying, and can answer any questions about what's happening on the home front. You can then have a non-emotional discussion about progress with the avatar that evening.

In fact we already do this, just not with technology. As a father of four girls, often Lucy and I would “divide and conquer” to get to all the teachers. But Lu is different to me. She's less concerned with a strategy for maths, I probably err to academics over emotional and social development. How good would it be not to have to divide the tasks up, and be assured that “you” are asking the questions you want answers to? And for the teacher that they can get a whole picture from both parents?

Let's take this a step further. How much of a teacher's personality and knowledge would you need to program into an Avatar to interact about a given subject? Again I argue not very much. And now you have this digital AI, you can scale this to provide extremely small ratios of teacher to students. And you could do it contextually. So with a general introduction to algebra maybe your best maths teacher AI interacts with 12 students, but with a thorny section on calculus, you could scale down to 1:1. And of course, you could repeat a lesson ad infinitum. Because this is an AI copy of the teacher, the student can ask different questions every time, or the same questions. The avatar remembers the interactions and can adjust expectations and activities accordingly.

Indeed with VR a university could offer courses with world leading professors, lecturers, and tutors to unlimited numbers of students, and times convenient to the students. Actually in VR and with Wearable Technology you can simulate physical skills as well. Are you holding the scalpel correctly? Is your fingering on the flute right? You'll be able to non-destructively practice skills, with expert coaching and feedback. This will absolutely accelerate and enhance learning.

With Augmented Reality, the avatar could appear with you in a physical location too. Imagine a dancer patiently showing you choreographed moves in the dance studio you're in, then giving you real time feed back as you dance. Then debriefing your “real” instructor on your progress. Teacher AI's able to go over homework with children, music teachers able to practice daily with students.

This world is not that far off at all. In fact when I did my Master Degree, over a decade ago, I studied the entire course online. But Powerpoint presentations, and forum chats for interaction, were a very crude way to deliver teaching. Being able to ask a complex question, with a multi-layered answer, at any time of day or night, certainly would've helped me understand encryption based on large prime numbers, and the ethics of Thorac-25.

Today Internet delivered audio and video lessons (e.g. Audible Great Courses, Udemy, Kahn Academy etc) are far more effective, but still lack intelligent interaction and feedback for practical skills.

In short, we'll be able to timeshift and location shift our interactions in the same way we do with TV programs today by recording on a DVR.

So if you could program yourself into an AI avatar, that constantly experiences the world as you do, and can intelligently interact with others, what interactions would you time shift?