Category Archives: Virtual reality & cyberculture

Informed posts about virtual reality and cyberculure

Does the Internet impair our ability to concentrate?

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ARGUMENT: The Internet impairs our ability to contemplate and concentrate for long, sustained periods of time

AN ex-colleague of mine (Ryan Calder) started an interesting debate about the Internet on Facebook. He was asking whether or not people thought that the Internet (and cyber culture in general) impairs our ability to concentrate. Some of the comments were quite interesting.

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Hackerspaces and the evolution of the public library

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HACKERSPACES: What might the public library evolve into?

GOOGLE has announced that it will be digitising a further 250 000 books from the British Library. This is in line with Google’s mission statement to “make all of the knowledge contained within the world’s books searchable online” as part of its Google Books service. Google has already scanned around 13 million books worldwide through partnerships with over 40 libraries. This recent endeavour is predicted to take the company three years to complete.

As part of this new agreement, the texts, pamphlets and periodicals that will be scanned were published between 1700 and 1870 and are out of copywrite. The digitised material will all be freely available online through Google Books as well as the British Library­’s 19th Century Books app compatible with tablet PCs such as the iPad. Readers will be able to view, copy, and share all the digitised texts for non-commercial use.

In an article published on the Guardian­ website, president of the Royal Historical Society, Professor Colin­ Jones, says: “There is no doubt that the digitisation of this unique material­ will greatly benefit the research process. Academics are increasingly using new technologies at their disposal to search for innovative ways of investigating historical material to enable us to probe new questions and find alternative patterns of investigation. Digitisation gives us the freedom to not only do this quickly and remotely, but also enhances the quality and depth of the original.”

There will always be arguments, perhaps moments of reminiscence, over the value of reading a hard-copy book made of paper versus reading an e-book using a digital device. But what will this move towards digitising published books mean for the public library­? Can anyone honestly say that they have made regular visits to their local library since their university, or even school days?

The existence of public libraries today has largely depended on community support and attendance. According to Wikipedia, the formula to get funding was simple: demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, annually provide 10% of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation, and provide free service to all. It can be argued that the need for public libraries is fast dwindling due to the ever-growing presence of the Internet. So what might replace the public library?

Hackerspaces, hackerspaces and more hackerspaces!

What has emerged, at least in the United States and Europe, are smaller scale centers for learning, funded and operated by groups of people with collective interests. Hackerspaces, Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) and TechShops have been sprouting up in just about every state in the U.S. according to a blog called makezine.com

“There are hundreds of hackerspaces that have appeared, almost overnight, around the world. From my re-collection over the past decade, the ones in Europe were really appealing. Many makers were travelling around the world, and eventually word spread. Now, just about every state in the U.S. has one, and most large cities have hackerspaces.” — http://blog.makezine.com

The concept of a hackerspace sounds really appealing and seems like a productive and worthwhile civic building for any city to fund. Hackerspaces are membership-based operations that generally consist of tools, workshops, computer networks and people with common interests. Members share rent for the building(s) utilised as well as resources and information that they have accumulated.

“A hackerspace or hackspace … is a location where people with common interests, usually in computers, technology, science or digital or electronic art can meet, socialise and/or collaborate. A hackerspace can be viewed as an open community incorporating … machine­ shops, workshops and/or studios­ where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge. Many hackerspaces participate in the use and development of free software and alternative media and can be found in infoshops or social centres.” — http://blog.makezine.com

Fab Labs and TechShops

TechShop (photo: IEEE.org)The Fab Labs that have emerged are similar to hackerspaces. They can be thought of as small-scale workshops that create products that are generally limited to mass production.

TechShops, on the other hand, are commercial ventures that provide all the tools and equipment needed to make almost anything. They are also funded by membership but go further by offering classes and workshops and provide members with access to a library of tools and equipment, instruction, as well as a community of creative people.

The author of makezine.com Phillip Torrone, explains that TechShops are designed for everyone, regardless of their skill level. TechShops are “perfect for inventors, makers, hackers, tinkerers, artists, roboteers­, families, entrepreneurs, youth groups, arts and crafts enthusiasts, and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up, but don’t have the tools, space or skills.”

So in considering the role that the public library can or should have in the future­, it may be useful for members on the city council to consider the value that hackerspaces, TechShops and Fab Labs have to offer in educating future and current generations. Perhaps public­ ­libraries could provide this space to fill the void as more and more books go digital.

The reality of the virtual – part II

You can read the first part of this series here.

Yesterweek I wrote a post about 3D glasses and all the joys they bring to the wealthiest 10% of the world. If that made you wet your pants with excitement, I thought it would be great to describe how they work in a little more detail.

Stereoscopic gaming
Stereoscopic gaming, for that matter, is basically gaming with the use of a 3D enhancing device such as 3D goggles. The stereoscopic experience is taken to greater heights with the combined use of surround sound and force feedback devices (or ‘haptics’ to be more technical).

With just the 3D specs and surround sound, entertainment junkies share a similar experience with avid IMAX (3D theatre) goers. Add gaming and a PC to the picture, and the result is superior immersion and an orgasmic experience.

Stereoscopic 3D hardware makes explosions fly out of the screen and adds depth that makes your computer screen look like a window rather than a flat projection, so say the manufactureres of 3D technology. Furthermore, nearly all gamers who have experienced this testify that their gaming performance is improved ten-fold. Here’s what one gamer had to say:

“The feeling of depth enhanced the visuals by a factor of ten. When I rolled in on my ground targets, I found that my aiming of rockets and bombs was actually a lot better in 3D than in 2D”
– Flightsim.com

Installation
Installing such devices appears to be a real cinch. A single video synchronisation adapter is used for most, and wireless devices require no serial ports or USB connection whatsoever. All that is required is to install the device’s software.

The wireless devices make use of an infrared transmitter to communicate with your PC and a dual-emitter transmitter to synchronise your monitor’s refresh rate with the glasses. Once set up, your specs activate automatically when viewing just about any PC game, photo or movie.

Battery life seems to be rather good too. Most 3D glasses use lithium cell batteries that provide 50-100 hours of usage. Retailers further promise that there’s no need to change your preferred video card drivers to utilise their stereoscopic software. Nice.

Where can I get a pair and for how much?
My spidey senses are telling me that the above question is probably on your mind right now. It’s a bit of a tough one to answer, as there is such a monumentous range of 3D glasses on the market with different levels of coolness.

However, the standard pair, which can do most of the things mentioned today (and is pictured in my last post) goes for around R1000, but you can shave R300 off of that if you don’t mind a pair with wires. Just don’t get carried away and leap across the room to avoid a virtual grenade exploding beneath you.

PS: There are several websites selling 3D goggles but note that there are some great deals on used pairs on sites such as e-bay.

PPS: I know I promised that I would write about haptics (or ‘force feedback devices’ to be less technical) this week, but I’ve decided to save that chapter for next time. (I also need to do some research and learn a bit more about them) 🙂

Related post:
The reality of the virtual – part I

The reality of the virtual – part I

As computer-processing power increases and even more realistic graphics are developed, the simulated environments produced by virtual reality systems will become even more believable than some already are.

I’ve always believed that, besides war, gaming (more generally – the entertainment industry) brings about the most innovative technological developments. In fact, the technology developed from military uses of virtual reality is finding application in several walks of life. For example:

  • Medical students are now operating on virtual patients rather than dissecting real, organic-smelling people
  • Architects are taking people on virtual tours of their dream home before finalising the design
  • I won’t even mention that heights that virtual reality gaming has reached
  • Business people are attending conferences and social events without having to board a plane
  • Chat rooms today mean much more than just email notice boards, which were all the rage a few years back
  • In this day and age consumers are even able to shop in 3D stores from the comfort of their armchair or beanbag

Twenty years ago few imagined that personal computers would soon be found in almost every home, classroom and office. In twenty years time, virtual reality may be just as central to our lives. Immersing ourselves in a virtual environment of our choice may become as commonplace as turning on the old television.

I’ve always had an interest in virtual reality. I wanted to know more about it. So I searched the interwebs to see what’s currently available on the market. Here are the cheapest and most expensive (i.e. most advanced) stuffs I came across:

The VisionDome
The VisionDome volume 5At the cutting edge of vitual reality – the VisionDome is a kind of half egg-shell that up to 45 people can sit/stand in and watch some pretty intense television, or lose themselves in some very life-like games.

At 5-meters in diameter, the V5 (the latest in the VisionDome family) provides a massive screen area and comfortable seating to give larger audiences a truly immersive and incredible experience.

It boasts a maximum resolution of 2048×1536 mega pixels, has 6 projector or lens options, and has a maximum output of 8000 ANSI Lumens. You would think that no one can live at that speed, which is why it sells for around
$345 500 (roughly R2 764 000).

3D GLASSES: What all the cool geeks are wearing
3D glasses possibly lie more within a South African’s budget. In the past decade, virtual reality glasses have improved in quality and become much lighter and cheaper thanks to the advancement of virtual reality technology and software.

Wireless options allow you to roam the room with your headset on, and almost all units plug into computers, DVDs and TVs. The option for a Stereo 3D input is also now available with Apple’s latest in the line of Intel Xenon driven processors.
Stylish
Change the way you see the world… and look pretty stylish too

Stereo 3D is just one step into the world of virtual reality. When connected to a video source with the correct software, amazing entertainment and good times in your living room are to be had by all.

As Fate would have it, it is estimated that this market will probably first be driven by adult entertainment (i.e. porn), then enhanced video games, then the major film industry.

E-DTM 3-D
Here’s a pair of 3D specs that I thought sounded rather appealing (exerpt taken from www.edimentional .com):

The E-DTM 3-D glasses instantly convert virtually all of your existing PC video game titles into true 3D. That means a real sense of depth and distance as you’re taking aim at the enemy battalion approaching, trying to find the apex of the next turn, or coming in for a carrier landing in your F-14. It’s why so many customers report improved game play performance when using our glasses in addition to stunning scenery and visuals

Note for interested buyers:
When researching a good pair of 3D goggles, make sure you know the difference between goggles that only enlarge a TV image and ones that actually provide a true 3D view. While more expensive models incorporate 3D technology, the basic models only enhance the viewing area to the size of a super-large television screen.

•Next time we will take a look at stereoscopic displays and haptics (force feedback devices). These are those appendages such as the cyber-glove, that take one’s virtual experience that much closer to reality.

See also: The reality of the virtual part II

Related posts:
The reality of the vitual
Experience the Internet in 3D
Too hot to handle: Future gaming and PC’s

Experience the Internet in 3D

AN Australian company has launched a free tool that offers web browsers a world-first opportunity to view the Internet in three dimensions.

Melbourne-based ExitReality said its application allows users to turn any regular website into a 3D virtual environment, where an avatar representing them can walk around and meet other browsers viewing the same website.

Founder Danny Stefanic said that, previously, only specialised websites such as Second Life and World of Warcraft allowed users to enter a 3D environment, however, interaction within those environments are limited.

“ExitReality goes far beyond that. It allows you to view not just one website but the entire World Wide Web in 3D,” said Stefanic.

Exit reality and enter the virtual world of the 3D web
cool

Browsers can use the tool to turn their social networking pages on sites such as Facebook and MySpace into a virtual apartment, where photographs are displayed on the wall and links to friends are displayed as “doors” leading to other apartments.

Users can customise their flats by “decorating” with 3D versions of couches from stores such as Ikea or downloading an e-jukebox to play music clips stored on their personal page.

Similarly, using ExitReality on video-sharing websites such as YouTube creates a virtual cinema, where the browser’s avatar sits next to other users logged on to watch the clip they have selected.

Stefanic said the tool will transform the web from a solo experience into one that could be shared with friends and other users interested in the same content.

“The user can see and share experiences with their friends while chatting with them and other people at either their own website or another billion web pages” – Danny Stefanic

Stefanic says there is a wealth of 3D content on the Internet that conventional web search engines ignored. Such 3D effects made the web more interesting for users, meaning they were more likely to spend more time browsing the page.

“Users would normally spend no longer than a couple of minutes on a 2D website,” he said. “In a 3D environment, this time can extend to half an hour, creating a huge potential for the website owner to maximise user engagement.”

Link: ExitReality home
Related post
: The reality of the virtual

Robo pets

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ROBOT PETS: Meet Aibo the robot dog, Nabaztag the robot bunny, Paro the fluffy robot seal, and Pleo the robot dinosaur

I’VE been thinking of getting a puppy; one that’s potty-trained. Or perhaps a streetwise cat that can take care of itself. The thought that I could never find the time to raise a pup made me consider robot pets. Several of these can learn skills and tricks, recognise faces, voices, and colour; but they won’t pee on your carpet. These are my top four:

AIBO
AIBOWhen electronic communication giant, Sony launched the Artificial Intelligence roBOt dog (AIBO) in 1999, the pooch was regarded as a breakthrough in the robot entertainment market. Since then, AIBO (meaning “love” or “attachment” in Japanese) has sold over 130 000 units worldwide. AIBO is the first generation of artificial intelligence pets designed to learn and adapt to its environment.

These automatons can communicate over wireless networks and even photograph things they ‘see’ and post these to their personal (owner’s) websites. He will wag his tail when patted on the head, and, if you’re lucky, he’ll produce an affectionate high-pitched squeal. The robo-pup can respond to voice commands, pick up his AIBOne, and play with his balls just like a real dog.

However, Sony has discontinued production of AIBO since 2006 following profit erosion from Apple iPods, and technical support for existing AIBO’s ends in 2013. They were pricey anyway – at a local retail price of about R15 000.

nabaztagNABAZTAG
Meet Nabaztag – a 23 cm tall WiFi-enabled electronic bunny. Nabaztag (meaning “rabbit” in Armenian) is considered as a ‘smart object’ and can connect to the Internet (to download weather forecasts, report traffic jams, read its owner’s email etc) and is also fully customizable and programmable.

Nabaztag can also send and receive MP3s and messages and read the latter out loud in up to 16 different languages. He can also use his digital voice box (or indicative lights) to deliver weather forecasts, stock market reports, news headlines, e-mail alerts, RSS-Feeds, MP3-Streams, and he can be your alarm clock.

Some Nabaztag owners have joined social networks to share photos and videos on websites like Flickr and YouTube. Users can also create and share podcasts (or rather ‘Nabcasts’) and add to the growing collection online.

The latest version Nabaztag has a microphone that allows for voice activation of some of its services. A final added feature is a built-in RFID reader to detect special-purpose RFID tags and the ability to identify objects. Nabaztag can even use these RFID tags to read special edition versions of French children’s books.

paroPARO
Paro has got to be the cutest and most lifelike of all the artificial pets. While the others resemble animals in suits of armor, Paro the baby harp seal is specifically designed to be cute and cuddly, and make people feel comforted.

He is what is known as a Mental Commitment Robot – developed to interact with human beings and make them feel emotional attachment. These robots are specifically aimed to trigger subjective evaluations and have shown to have positive psychological, physiological (such as improvement in vital signs), and social effects among inpatients and caregivers young and old.

Paro has five kinds of sensors, which are a little different from the familiar five senses belonging to the living. He uses tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment.

The light sensor allows Paro to recognize light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. Paro can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.

Like AIBO the wonder-dog, Paro can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. If he is beaten for bad behaviour for example, the action is recorded to memory and the robot seal will perform less of the deviant behaviour in the future.

PLEO
pleoPleo is a ‘designer species’ type of pet robot that begins life as a newly-hatched baby Camarasaurus. Like the others robo-pets, he is said to incorporate all the basic traits of autonomous life and is specifically engineered and enhanced to mimic life and relate to his owner on a personal level.

Pleo was engineered by a group of robotics specialists, animators, technologists, scientists, biologists, and programmers who noted the biological and neurological systems of the Camarasaurus, and “re-interpreted” those elements through hardware and software. The design combines sensory, articulation, and neuronetics to create a lifelike appearance with organic movement and adaptable behaviors.

The dinosaur is equipped with senses for sight, sound, and touch, and learns and reacts to sensory stimuli as it explores its environment. Interaction with the environment has subtle effects on its behavior, and every Pleo eventually exhibits a unique personality.

Two or more Pleos can recognise one another, and marketers claim that they can even transmit colds to each other. However, unlike real organic pets, Pleo wont ever die on you or run away. So long as technical support is available, he and his different species of robot friends – AIBO, Nabaztag and Paro, will live forever.

SOME PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHT
It is difficult to say how the general public will respond to the rising popularity of artificial pets such as these. A few years ago, Tamagotchi had children and adults obsessed with caring for pixelated, black and white digital dogs or dinosaurs. Some owners really believed that these had real, humanlike personalities and were inconsolable when their virtual pets’ lives ended tragically.

Dr Hannah Slay, owner of a pet AIBO, doesn’t see anything particularly wrong with owners becoming emotionally attached to robotic pets. She feels that they could have real benefits for the sick and the lonely. A study by Cambridge University suggests that real pets can reduce stress, encourage exercise, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and stave off loneliness.

“If AIBO can do that then I don’t see anything unethical about it”
 – Dr Hannah Slay

Rhodes University philosophy lecturer, Francis Williamson remains skeptical about humans building relationships with artificially intelligent pets. He suggests that products like AIBO merely provide the appearance of a relationship rather than an actual one.

“Any good consequences of such an invention are based on an illusion” – philosopher Francis Williamson

In other words, people are being duped.

I personally don’t see anything wrong with people becoming emotionally attached to robot pets, although I would never want to own one. Even if a cuddly Paro looked happy to see me, the fact that it wouldn’t be sincere about it would put me off. But if they can dupe others and make them happy as a result then that’s dandy.

Human beings have been conditioned by the media to perceive personality and consciousness in things that don’t actually have them. Think about all the people that believe their teddy bears, cars and household plants have personalities. Although robot pets are very far from being self-aware and conscious, at least they are more fun and lively than a mute, plastic pooch.

I leave you with one of my favourite quotes by sir Stephen Fry:

“If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t there
more happy people in the world?”

Interesting Links:
Top-selling robot pets
What’s the point of robot pets?
Bye Bye Rover – AIBO article and video

Nintendo Wii – Enter the Electronic Fist

I reckon I’ll still be playing computer games when I’m old – until my fingertips begin to crank up from arthritis. There’s nothing childish about that – I mean besides war, gaming technology brings about the latest and most innovative developments in electronics and digital technologies.

However, I always thought my latest gaming investment would be in a PSP3. Then I learnt more about the Nintendo Wii. Now I want one; especially after seeing the latest sales figures from Japan which reveal that Wii outsold PS3 by three units to one through August last year.

The Wii’s increasingly popularity seems to have no end. An interview with the senior vice president of marketing and communications for Nintendo, revealed that the company feels no threat from the Microsoft Xbox 360 or the Sony PS3.

“Two companies are going in one direction, and we’re headed in another” – George Harrison.

The Wii is revolutionizing gaming in the home with its close affinity to virtual reality. New motion-sensitive appendages are being developed at a rapid rate – letting gamers young and old experience the digital world in whole new ways.

The kung-fu wii power glove
I’ve also always wanted to be a kung-fu fighter when I grew up. Yet after taking a few classes last year I failed dismally as I found it way too physically intense. My dreams were shattered until I heard about the new wii kung-fu power glove.

Wii

Also referred to as the Wii Nunchuk, this device contains motion-sensing technology as well as an analogue stick which assists in character movement. The glove is contoured to perfectly fit the player’s hand. And, once armed, the glove-bearer can throw real punches and kicks that can be interpreted in a bad-assed kung-fu game (see video – link below).

Nintendo has come a long way. From manufacturing playing cards when it was founded in 1889, future Wii products include the Wii Body Controller, Mii Contest Channel, Nintendo Magic, Wii Handle, and something called Soma Bringer. (You can see a full list of the latest Wii products at www.crn.com. Who knows what these might cost but the standard and very current Nintendo Wii Console will cost you $180 (roughly R1260).

Breaking down the family
I do have one ethical problem with gadgets such as these however. An article I came across mentions that the Nintendo Wii games system has been implemented in several retirement homes in the US after a certain grandchild brought his/her Wii over to show granny! I might just as well be one of the pensioners striking for such a system in my future retirement home, but what of family ties?

When I was growing up a ‘games night’ involved playing scrabble or rummikub with the family. The television was switched off and we were forced to actually speak to one another. I just feel that bringing a screen into the picture turns everyone’s attention to what’s behind it, rather than focusing attention on one another. So my only concern is: what about the children?

Related post:
Fitness that’s fun – Wii!
Wii Music launched in South Africa

Links:
Wii Kung-fu video
www.wiisworld.com
Full interview with Nintendo