Monthly Archives: January 2015

MergeVR – a bit of HoloLens but now

If you are getting excited and interested, or just puzzling what is going on with the Microsoft announcement about Hololens and can’t wait the months/years before it comes to market then there are some other options, very real, very now.
Just before christmas I was very kindly sent a prototype of new headset unit that uses an existing smartphone as its screen. It is called MergeVR. The first one like this we saw was the almost satirical take on Oculus Rift that Google took with Google Cardboard. A fold up box that let you strap your android to your face.

MergeVR is made of very soft, comfortable spongy material. Inside are two spherical lenses that can be slid in and out lateral to adjust the divergence of you eyes and get a comfortable feel.
Rather like the AntVR I wrote about last time, this uses the principle of one screen, split into two views. The MergeVR uses you smart phone as the screen and it slides comfortably into the spongey material at the front.
Using an existing device has its obvious advantages. The smartphones already have direction sensors in them, and screens designed to be looked at close up.
MergeVR is not just about 3d experience of Virtual Reality (One where the entire view is computer generated). It is, by its very name Merge, about augmented reality. In this case it is an augmented reality taking your direct view of the world and adding data and visuals to it. This is knows as a magic lens. You look through the magic lens, and see things you would not normally be able to see. As opposed to a magic mirror which you look at a fixed TV screen to see the effects of a camera merging with the real world.

The iPhone (in my case) camera has a slot to see through on the in the MergeVR. This makes it very difference from some of the other Phone On Face (POF – made up acronym) devices. The extra free device I got with the AntVR, the TAW is one of these non pass through POF’s. It is a holder, and lenses with a folding mechanism to adjusts to hold the phone in place. With no pass through it is just to watch 3d content.

Okay so the MergeVR is able to let you use the camera, see the world, and then you can watch the screen close up without holding anything The lenses make you left eye look at the right half and the right eye at the left half. One of the demo applications is instantly effective and has a wow factor. Using a marker based approach a dinosaur is rendered in 3d on the marker. Marker based AR is not new, neither is iPhone AR, but the stereoscopic hands free approach where the rest of the world is effectively blinkered for you adds an an extra level of confusion for the brain. Normally if you hold a phone up to a picture marker, the code will spot the marker, the orientation of the marker and relative position in the view then render the 3d model on top. So if you, or the marker moves the model is moved too. When holding the iPhone up you can of course still see around it, rather like holding up a magnifying glass (magic lens remember). When you POF though your only view of the actual world is the camera view of the phone. So when you see something added and you move your body around it is there in your view. It is only the slight lag and the fact the screen is clearly not the same resolution or same lighting as the real world that causes you to not believe it totally.
The recently previewed microsoft Hololens and the yet to be seen Google funded Magic Leap are a next step removing the screen. They let you see the real world, albeit through some panes of glass, and then use project tricks near to the eye, probably very similar to peppers ghost, to adjust what you see and how it is shaded, coloured etc. based on a deep sensing of the room and environment. It is markerless room aware blended reality. Using the physical and the digital.

Back to the MergeVR. It also comes with a bluetooth controller for the phone. A small hand held device to let you talk to the phone. Obviously the touch screen when in POF mode means you can’t press any buttons 🙂 Many AR apps and examples like the DinoAR simply use your head movements and the sensors in the phone to determine what is going on. Other things though will need some form of user input. As the phone can see, it can see hands, but not having a Leap motion controller or a kinect to sense the body some simpler mechanism can be employed.
However, this is where MergeVR gets much more exciting and useful for any of us techies and metaverse people. The labs are not just thinking about the POF container but the content too. A Unity3d package is being worked on. This provides camera prefabs (Rather like the Oculus Rift one) that splits the Unity3D view into a Stereo Camera when running into the right shape and size, perspective etc for the MergeVR view. It provides extra access to the bluetooth controller inputs too.
This means you can quickly build MergeVR 3d environments and deploy to the iPhone (or Droid). Combine this with some of the AR toolkits and you can make lots of very interesting applications, or simply just add 3d modes to existing ones you have. With the new unity3d 4.6 user interfaces things will be even easier to have headsup displays.
So within about 2 minutes of starting Unity I had a 3d view up on iPhone on MergeVR using Unity remote. The only problem I had was using the usb cable for quick unity remote debugging as the left hand access hole was a little too high. There is a side access on the right but the camera need to be facing that way. Of course being nice soft material I can just make my own hole in it for now. It is a prototype after all.
It’s very impressive, very accessible and very now (which is important to us early adopters).
Lets get blending!

(Not the phone is not in the headset as I needed to take the selfie 🙂

Another VR headset – AntVR

I backed a project called AntVR to produce another VR headset and it recently arrived. Whilst all these things may looks the same this is a slightly different approach the now famous Oculus Rift.
The box arrived via UPS, unfortunately there seems to have been a mistake on the shipping. Whilst this was included in the Kickstarter price I had to pay the delivery man another £35. That’s early adoption for you!

The main headset unit is about the same size and weight as a Oculus DK2. The main cables rather than passing over your back drop down either side of your cheeks.

The inside view is not two round lenses as with the rift but 2 much flatter rectangular lenses. It fits over my regular glasses (though being varifocals are not idea for any of these headsets)

The reason for the different in sense shape is quite fundamental to the entire design. The AntVR uses one screen inside the headset. The lenses direct the eye to focus on that screen. The Rift appears to have 2 screens one for each eye, each eye has a spherical image projected onto it. The AnyVR is really a regular monitor looked at up close.
Whilst the latter is a lesser experience it does have a major advantage. The AntVR has a mode button on it to let it just be a regular desktop screen. This makes for much less messing around (particularly in windows) with which monitor is which. Often with the Rift you find yourself trying to half look at the regular desktop when working in extended mode or swapping the primary monitor when an application doesn’t use direct mode.
So once in the AntVR you are looking at a big screen. The mode button on the unit lets you switch to side by side 3d. So anything, like youtube, that has SBS video you can watch straight away, looking at a normal view, navigate to the browser etc. Switch to full screen then press the button on the unit and you have 3d. I did find on Windows 8.1 internet explorer seems to refuse to show SBS video on youtube. The stub bar shows side by side images but the main window just the one. On chrome it was fine. Initially I though the headset was causing it but I think it was just the browser being the browser it is!
The unit has two sliders to move the lenses outward and inwards laterally to adjust for your own eye comfort.
The headset acts as a mouse pointer with the accelerometers in it moving the mouse around, which is not always very helpful to start with.
The kit then diverges from the Rift in what it provides.
Firstly it will plug into any HDMI source (needing USB to power it). Because it is not always in SBS 3D it doesn’t need the spherical processing the Rift has to do. Obviously that flexibility is a trade off with the field of view of the Rift and the comfort factor on the eyes.
The AntVR also comes with a peripheral. It is rather like some Klingon device, a few parts clip together and you have what looks like a gun controller.

This controller can also morph, with 2 handles plugged together, into a joypad. Both parts are charged by USB so are both active units.
In addition to the “gun” there is also a cleaning device, a small rubber bladder and nozzle for blowing dirt out of the lenses. They refer to this as the “hand grenade”.

All this came through the post from China. I suspect the delay getting here may have been some puzzled customs people.
There are demo games that are ready to download. These are designed to be 3d SBS, they are both horror/zombie ones. I am not sure if I configured things correctly, but the thumbstick on the back of the gun did allow me to move my character in an FPS environment. The gun trigger worked but it was a little odd using my head to turn and look at the bad guys but holding a gun that it didn’t matter where I pointed it. I think I needed to plug a few more things in.
Another interesting feature is a little sliding trap door underneath the headset that lets you peer down and see your hands. Great for typing !
So fr I have only tried the unit on my windows laptop. For gaming, Elite Dangerous for example the Rift DK2 with its head position sensor and spherical eye view is much more comfortable and immersive. However getting the thing running can be a pain with some many different ways windows likes to mess with graphics cards and extended monitors.
AntVR seemed to just work out of the box, the gun controller might be a bit over the top but the ability to work on anything and look at any content without too much hassle is interesting.
Next up I need to write about the two smartphone as a VR screen devices I have here, one of which was an extra thrown into the box with the AntVR.
We are creeping towards devices that anyone can use without too much faffing about but we have not got there yet. Then of course we need the content. The environments, the user interfaces and the new ways of engaging.

From ICE to EV – Test driving Nissan Leaf

Just before Christmas my Subaru Impreza had a seemingly catastrophic coolant problem. I arrived at my school governor training (4 miles away) in a cloud of steam from my bonnet. The car needed a low loader to get it home, but all that took a while, so it was lucky I had the course to attend.
We had been considering a new car. We have a Honda FRV with has 6 seats and loads of room, is automatic etc. Then we have my scooby which doesn’t really get the chance to get used as much. as I work from home almost all the time most of my journeys are to take @elemming to the train station and pick her up. Driving to the supermarket or shops and most importantly heading off to Choi. All of which are about 6miles round trip.
I have an interest in tech of course, so electric vehicles (EV’s) always sounded interesting but there is a problem with causing the entire family to be early adopters if it is just for the sake of early adopting and spending significant money.
We had looked at normal Internal Combustion Engine cars (ICE). All very nice, but very few things were going to be as close to my driving experience with the Scooby. Hence all the new cars I figured would disappoint in some way. I have had the scooby since before predlet 1.0 was born so that’s 11 years. So it has seen some major changes in life, predlets born, leaving corporate life, moving house, taking up a martial art etc. It has also been very reliable. However things have to move on.
We took a punt and test drove a Nissan Leaf. This was particularly good test drive wise as they gave it to us for 7 days. Having an EV for a week gives you a chance to see if it really does fit the in with the family and out needs. It let me do some experiments too.

The first objection most people have to an EV is the range. Unless you buy a £100k Tesla you are going to be getting a car that has a 100 mile range, a 50 mile round trip. When you are used to 250-350 miles in an ICE that seems not great. However, remember I only needed this for the short 6 mile round trips. You can get a lot of those on 100 miles of battery, plus they return home, where a recharge can occur is need be. In addition we already still have a petrol Honda FRV for those long journeys. So really the range is only a problem if the other car is in use and one of us need to do a longer range journey. If this situation is going to occur is can be planned for as many EV suppliers offer petrol hire cars as part of the package. Of course this is assuming you couldn’t charge on a journey. Which you can.
So on these short hops locally an EV is ideal. It has plenty of charge and plenty of scope to just jump in and use it.
One of my concerns that any car would just not be as entertaining as my Scooby was kicked right into touch straight away. Even a relatively low end car like the Leaf has a fantastic feel to it. They feel very light, in a responsive lightness not a flimsy lightness. They also accelerate. The 0-60 on the Leaf is abut 7.5 seconds. My Scooby was about 5.9 when it was new. However… the profile of an EV means it has constant torque through the entire range. There is no specific gearing. Even a ICE automatic changes gear, or has kick down to accelerate. The Leaf just accelerates, whatever speed its goes. Without the engine noise it, and very little road or air noise the speedometer is really the only indication of speed. You hit 50, 60 and 70 very quickly on the motorway, but once at them the speed almost feel the same. This is a good thing, it means cruising at any speed is easy and acceptable. You are not between gears or struggling to justify the 5th gear change.
My drive to Hedge End I did firstly just normally in regular drive mode having not topped the car up after the station and school run. So I was on about 85/90% battery. So I very quickly experienced the anxiety that all EV driver get. In ICE you have a petrol needle, its not very accurate but you know you have a few miles left after any warning light or hitting the red. Up until that point you just drive. The you maybe have to eek it out a bit more to make it to home or a petrol station. In the EV you have a lot of information, accurate information, telling you battery levels, power usage and estimated range. If you hit the aircon/heating and floor the accelerator on the motorway you see you project range tumble. The climate control knocks 7 miles off the range. I realised I was burning too much as I reach what would have been a half way point and headed for home, this time with the eco button and full mode B energy recovery. I approached home and the warning lights started flashing. I only had 15 miles left of range. Panic!. The sat nav asked if I needed directions to a charger! PANIC!!!
Of course this is all slightly ridiculous as by now I am 3 miles from home. Even with climate control on full I would make it, but it does play on your brain.
The next day I thought I would try the same journey but top up to 100% at home before I went. Home charging is just plugging into a 13 amp plug (though you can install higher rate quicker chargers for a few hundred pounds). It means if you go to a friends house and need a top up you can (though thats a bit cheeky, I am not sure we have the social etiquette for that sorted out yet)
This time I drove on the motorway back down to the south coast on full Eco (where the max power is dropped and the effects of the throttle are lessened) and mode B where more engine braking is applied when you ease off and the battery is charged with that power.

So we have the simplicity of just putting in drive and pressing the accelerator, but we have the complexity and thought of energy management and recovery. Easing off before coming to halt to get your green lights lit on the left of what would be a rev counter.
I got to the same point with plenty of return charge but still drove back on Eco. Because of the perceived speed it didn’t seem to matter in a cruise on the motorway to have turned the wick down on the car. The energy management and recovery made for fun game. Something Nissan have spotted by rewarding you with a christmas tree/lives indicator that gradually fills up as you do good work. It sounds mad but it works.
I managed to max it out on one journey- Yay !

On the second Hedge End trip I was slightly less freaked out by the battery indicator but as I got to Winchester services, and as the car had an Ecotricity card in the sunglasses holder I thought I would try a rapid top up charge.
There were 2 bays both without cars in them, so it fitted to experiment. I held the RFID card up and chose my rapid charge mode. The nozzle comes with the plug, it was a massive device compared to the home charger as it had lots of sliders and locks. Once engaged charging started.

I was on about 33% and went for a coffee and a comfort break. It was about 15 minutes and I was not waiting around tutting.
I was impressed that Costa reminded me I was driving a leaf and had my little Eco xmas tree game to play in the car by drawing on the top of my coffee with a similar motif.

I returned to the car, went to cancel the charge and it asked me to swipe the card again. This of course makes sense to stop people unplugging you out of spite. I disconnected and saw I now had 66% charge (64% when I took the photo and faffed around before hand). Not bad!

So for the 10 miles home I dropped the eco and the full energy recovery. Pulling onto the motorway it was like having a brand new car as it woke up from its space cruising stasis and went full alien monster.
When I got home I had used 20% of the battery already. So it really hits home how to moderate driving when needed, not accelerate quick so hard. Much more so than a petrol car that you don’t really think about it much until the needle gets low.
One of the other gadgets on the Leaf is is great set of cameras surrounding the car. The dash display that doubles as the GPS, radio and everything else switches to cameras automatically for reversing, but also can be switched to camera when at low speed/ stationery heading forwards.
A reversing camera makes a lot of sense, but also the ability for it to generate an apparent birds eye view is fantastic for parking in bays.
Here I am safely parked and stationary with the forward camera working. It is in black and white as it is in night sight mode. You can see in the dark

The birdseye view can be replaced with a camera on the front left quarter, i.e. the turning blind spot, by pressing a button.
Reversing also provides the angle of trajectory super imposed Augmented Reality style on the reversing camera. Here I a parked but in reverse on out drive way showing the obstacles (in colour this time)

We had a top of the range Leaf so it had everything on it. A spoiler with a solar panel to charge the second battery (a regular car battery used for lights etc). Voice control, bluetooth hook up, it understood my iPhone playlists when plugged into the USB, heated seats etc etc. It had GPS builtin and knew where a particular network of chargers were to navigate too. Full ownership gets you hooked up (along with your charger) to CARWINGS, which is Nissan’s internet of things network for automotive. This lets you control the car setting via an app, asking it to warm up in the interior in the morning. Or you can, as I did, just use the timer. When on charge it will draw house electricity to power the AC and warm the car for a set time and temperature. There is of course no point going out and starting the engine as it doesn’t heat up like and ICE.
I enjoyed looking at the energy information screen quite a lot. It felt like playing Elite Dangerous or Eve Online balancing the power usage.

I also was entertained by the graphic for the “don’t put a baby seat in the front” which was the most extreme one I had seen. The middle picture almost looking like a theme park ride icon.

So it seems that I am quite taken with the Leaf, it has a very particular set of skills 😉
We are going to test drive the BMW I3, though that offers a range extender, a motorbike engine and 9l tank to give another 50 or so miles. However I am not sure if that is worth us getting as it would almost never be used except in extreme circumstances when it might better to hire a car or take the train. Also BMW only seem to offer a 30 min test drive, and after that if they think you are worthy a few hours test drive. Our nearest BMW dealer is in Eastleigh too which is a pain. However BMW, and all car people you need to ramp up the test-drive time!
Lets see what happens next 🙂

Happy 2015 – Flush 16 – Are you Santa?

I hope everyone is getting ready for a great 2015 and had a good break (if you got one). For a first post of the year I am going to start early and mention Christmas :). This though is just to let you know that issue 16 of Flush The Fashion magazine is live and my slightly esoteric “Hello, Are you Santa Claus?” article this issue looks at probability and how that features in Quantum theory and a light hearted look at multiple universe theory.
The whole magazine is cool and interesting as usual from @tweetthefashion. I say this each time but it is still true, the amount of effort and skill that goes into making this magazine is fantastic and it’s an honour to have my content included.
If you look at the embed below you will find me on page 22 but just before that there are some great images of food skateboarding by Benoit Jammes called Skitchen
So where else do you get such an eclectic combination of quantum physics and skating fruit?
See what you think.

The direct link to my article to get your brain kicking in for the new year is here
Now would be a good time to kick in with my epredator theme tune to introduce it 🙂
Now to work out what 2015 is going to bring. It looks like there will be a lot of VR and AR with so many headsets and combinations of tech emerging. It is very exciting and it all needs to be powered by virtual world content. So another year of metaverse evangelizing before it becomes the norm then 🙂