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A ramble of the past two weeks

Posted: 04.01.14

We truly do live in exciting and interesting times

We saw the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and then the GPU Technical Conference (GTC), and all sorts of associated events. At the GDC, the world was introduced to the Immersive Technology Alliance, got a look inside Mickey Hart’s brain, and was stunned by an insane acquisition.

Richard Marks, the lead developer at Project Morpheus, shows Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group the Mars Rover in VR.

 

GDC was notable for the many announcements and crazy demos. GDC is more of a PC gamer conference, unlike E3, which is a console gamer’s conference. The big news at GDC was Microsoft’s reaction announcement on DirectX12— it’s coming, no, really, next year, for sure. Microsoft and few of its friends felt the need to prove that AMD’s Mantle wasn’t the only way to shed driver overhead and “get closer to the metal.” The Khronos Group also pointed out that OpenGL could be wrangled to approach the zero-driver model. In the meantime, Crytek announced it will support Mantle, and 15 games have been reported to support Mantle.

In the “not of this world” category we saw three major developments:

• The Immersive Technology Alliance (ITA) announced itself, and held its inaugural meeting during GDC. The “I” in ITA includes AR, VR, and associated things like simulators, CAVEs, and potentially even Imax. The first members include VR companies—like CastAR, Prio VR, Avegant, Middle VR, Epson, Vrelia, FPS Creator, and Gameface Labs, to name a few.

The ability to multitas k—or switch rapidly between tasks—declines rapidly over the adult lifespan, something that researchers refer to as “multitasking cost.” But after just one month of training on the NeuroRacer game, researchers found significant improvement in study participants.

 

 

• Sony introduced its VR headset, Project Morpheus. Sony has style, and a smart approach to an immersive headset. The Project Morpheus system has a 5-inch LCD panel with 1920 x 1080 resolution that yields 960 x 1080 pixels per eye with a 90-degree field of view. There’s also a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope. No date on when it will be commercially available, but certainly no later than this holiday season. 

• And talking about head cases, Facebook bought Oculus VR, the popular VR startup that lit people’s imagination and rekindled interest in VR. Why Facebook would want or need a VR headset was and is anyone’s guess. But the most astounding thing is the price they paid—$2 billion. VR is interesting, and fun, for a little while. My guess is there are maybe, maybe a million potential users, people who will pay $300 to $500 for a face-sucker that cuts you off from the real world and makes you look silly. Of course, Facebook will focus heavily on the potential for virtual reality within the social network environment (giggle). So let’s assume Oculus makes $50 on each unit, and the market is ten times my estimate, and they get half of it (Sony gets the other half), then they can make $250 million. Now if they could sell that many a year, every year (which, of course, they can’t), then the investment pays itself off in a mere eight years. Back to the future, VR, and the new Internet bubble of insane valuations.

Neuro Drummer Mickey Hart wearing the Mickey Hart brain hat. The electrical impulses of Hart’s brain are shown behind him and in the VR headset of the man next to him.

 

At GTC the high point was Adam Gazzaley, the director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), talking about how game playing can improve cognitive awareness. Gazzaley said they have found a way to reverse some of the negative effects of aging on the brain, using a video game designed to improve cognitive control. In the game, which was developed by the UCSF researchers, participants race a car around a winding track while a variety of road signs pop up. Drivers are instructed to keep an eye out for a specific type of sign, while ignoring all the rest, and to press a button whenever that particular sign appears.

In the chart on the next page, a perfect multitasking score is 0% (misses). An 8-year-old gets about 70%, and we peak at 20 years at approximately 25%, and then decline. But playing the game increases an older person’s abilities better than those of a 20-year-old.

In an unforgettable demonstration, Gazzaley invited Mickey Hart, the famous Grateful Dead drummer, to play the drums while wearing an Oculus Rift headset and play an asteroids game through it. At the same time, another participant on stage, also wearing a Rift, looked at the brain imagery of Hart’s brain while he wore a skull cap with 50 surface electrodes to measure his EEG. The amplified output from the sensors was then constructed into a 3D map and seen by the other participant.

Final thoughts

When VR was first being popularized in the 1980s I said I’ll see it when I believe it. I never did—and I really wanted to ever since Star Trek lit up my imagination (Jaron Lanier coined the term “Virtual Reality” in 1980). It’s not a new concept; in 1956, Morton Heilig began designing the first multisensory virtual experiences. Sutherland designed the Ultimate Display in 1965, which was some of the inspiration for the Holodeck in the 1970s. Contrary to popular belief, CAVE came much later, in 1991. And if you’ve read my book, you know the ultimate VR headset is the Elbit Systems/Rockwell-Collins Helmet Mounted Display System for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If folks rejected S3D because they didn’t want to wear goofy glasses, why would you think they’d want to bury their face in a heavy plastic mask? Also, if Google Glass is socially unacceptable, would rolling your head around with the Alien stuck to your face be more acceptable? You should only wear VR masks in the dark, by yourself, where you can’t be seen or embarrass yourself and those around you. Two billion dollars? Laughing all the way to the bank.