part 2 of don’s interview should be up inthe new year.
I know who you are can you introduce yourself?
I’m Donald Clark.
A lot of my work at the moment is to do with VR research and development. I come from a software entertainment background having been a software developer at lotus karaoke a company that develops media software applications for music and the karaoke industry.
Cool, so you are working with a piece of technology called Oculus rift, can explain briefly what it is?
Basically it is a VR headset. Essentially VR is a means of placing or replicating reality in a digital substrate. At the moment Oculus rift is a machine that allows for that. From a technical perspective it is a phone screen with gyroscope and two lenses that give the user a wide field of view.
How is Oculus rift different from the old VR headsets we saw in the 1980s and 1990s? What is the quantum leap?
The quantum leap Isn’t necessarily the Vr hardware alone but the computing that powers that hardware. Back in the ’90s a lot of the computing power was too slow and latency involved. Also phone screens have improved a lot. So it is much cheaper to manufacture the screen technology.
Because of the ubiquity of phone screens the cost of dabbling in Vr has dropped considerably. Back in the ’90s it would have cost a hell of a lot of money to produce that for the masses let alone for the individual. These days you can make a cardboard helmet and slip your phone screen in there and get Vr as an emergent property of the computing on the phone and the mass availability of the screen.
I’m going to ask a few questions to do with criticism of the Oculus rift. Reading around the subject there is this big concept of presence. What is presence?
Simply put its the ability to trick your brain or mind into thinking its really in another environment and if the brain can feel it is in another environment then the body has an easier time accepting that environment, one has less of a rejection. So presence is how much you are going to reject the VR environment you are placed in or not.
Do you have to be open to the experience?
No. If you have no experience or aren’t prepared for it you probably may think it is more real. Just look at few of the clips on YouTube, the Ugandan security guard comes to mind. He wasn’t prepared for it and fell off his chair. I think that presence works. Technically it is a trick but the mind perceives it as being real to some degree, It’s Real enough to go on a rollercoaster and feel it in your gut as you go down. But there still are small issues with presence in the oculus rift. There are still latency issues. Latency being the delay between your your head movement and the software updating itself with each new head position. It’s down to milliseconds now but this is still enough for the brain to detect that something is not altogether correct. This is why some people feel nausea
That brings me up to my next set of questions. Which is about motion sickness and how the oculus will deal with it. You mentioned latency and getting that down what other solutions are being looked at?
The refresh rate of those images needs to be increased. At the moment it is around 75 Hz but it needs to be 90 Hz or more.
The other problem is the stuff I’m working on at the moment which is the integration of the body. Right now if you did the roller-coaster demo the inability to perceive or control your body interferes with a totally real experience because it was just your mind on a journey. So the body needs to be integrated into the new environment its placed in.
What is the accessibility; apart from the headset itself what other accessories is someone going to need to put on in terms of getting a better degree of presence. E.g. I saw a demo of one person lying down with a fan in front of them.
Yeah the bird sim. Well peripherals like the bird sim are very niche. Not everybody is going to able to have that. Right now it’s really about getting the full body tracked. Also getting rid of some of the cabling involved so that you can move around your environment to some degree. But what is interesting, is that we are in a moment in history where an evolutionary Cambrian explosion of peripheral experimentation is occurring. Everyone is rushing to push out a device that is going to be the next mouse and keyboard albeit for Vr.
Nobody has really figured out what the next mouse and keyboard will be for VR though. So one of the things you tried was the leap motion which tracks your arm and hands using an infra-red emitter. That’s one method, there are other methods that allow you to hold a device and that device can be tracked because you are holding it, as a consequence your arm can also be tracked and modelled with techniques known as inverse kinematics. That seems to work quite well but obvious limitations include having to hold an object in your hand and this limits finger control.
There is also haptic tracking for the hands which is really placing a glove over the hand and tracking sensors on the hand with optical cameras. Microsoft kinect style sensors are great as well tendon muscle tracking is on the horizon with wrist and joint bands
Things like suits are too elaborate at this time but perhaps their is a market for fashion Vr where clothes will come with embedded sensors stitched into them. I would be looking for something more like a kinect or leap motion style sensor that allows you to sense your body and your presence and feed that information back to the computer using infra-red emitters It seems very cumbersome to put on special suits every time I want to use Vr.
What about peripheral like the call of duty cage thing?
Yeah the VR Omni. I had the opportunity to try it in a vr jam. It’s quite good but it’s for a bulky contraption and only the most hardcore gamers would get involved and there may not be enough of them to get involved with to make it commercially viable.
Secondly it’s not real walking you have to go on this frictionless surface and slide your feet.
I can see how that would break presence. When you’re supposed to be running up a hill and you are just floating in midair.
Yeah you are floating on this thing. The way I envision it at the moment is that there are two things that are either going to happen. 1) Is the introduction of the video arcade again in a very different guise. So just imagine putting on a wireless headset, you’re in a big warehouse based environment, that warehouse has got optical cameras mapping your movement, when you put the mask on; you’re in a virtual environment that has the same dimensions as the warehouse you are in. You are walking around shooting monsters coming at you. When you move to a wall, that it is a real wall that has been virtualised.
So I see stuff like that happening. Individuals will go to these types of arcade style places trying out different experiences and interact with other people in this environment.
So what you are talking about is Star Treks holodeck in essence?
Yeah very much so. And it would be the resurgence of the arcade that we all grew up with again. But just in this virtual world. There is another possibility though, I don’t know if you heard of a company Google bought called Magic leap?
No I hadn’t heard.
What they are really going for is what we call augmented reality. Placing digital objects in the real world.
Yes I Know what you are talking about. Like the features on the 3ds.
Yes, so just imagine that with a pair of glasses. Your whole environment filled with digital objects! We could look at YouTube together, check our emails; we could go in a field and recreate Lord of the Rings and do battle. I see it going in that direction as well.
How far in the future is all this stuff?
You mentioned something previously, that I thought was interesting about commercial viability.
You wouldn’t be working on this if you didn’t think it was commercially viable but what do think about the idea of not just developing technology for the sake of commercial viability but just to expand the sphere of human knowledge? E.g. concord, which is no longer commercially viable but at least we have developed the tech. to move people at super sonic speeds. So even if VR wasn’t commercially viable would it still be a worthwhile endeavour?
It’s a catch 22, one of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a project that
I hope will give humans another perspective that was not possible before VR. At the moment I’m using the Microsoft kinect sensors, about three or four of them sticking them in a room tracking and imaging the room with a person and then allowing that person to have an out of body experience, so you will be able to see yourself doing things from another perspective.
Now, I think that is very interesting with or without the commercial viability, If you imagine relating to yourself and others from that perspective it could change the way we relate in general. It’s quite abstract to get into but just imagine being able to feel yourself in two places at the same time, being able to relate to yourself and another person from another perspective at the same time or relate to yourself from another persons perspective. It’s going to change language, it’s going to disrupt consioucness its going to create new forms of art, its migh allow us to see the universe in a very different way. We might even develop an intuition for the quantum weirdness experienced in the laboratory!
Right now we have constructed our world on the Newtonian perspective of reality which is mechanistic and dropped in linear time but Vr might give us an intuition or experience of what life is like at the quantum level, just imagine constructing society based on those insights and intuitions.
These are all worthwhile pursuits but if the technology is not commercially viable then it can’t be a possibility for the majority of humans.
Its only when Vr is culturally normalized that it has the possibility of extending human thought and action. So the commercial viability on one level is very important for the non-commercial projects to happen.
What do you see the future interaction between VR and art is going to be?
I’m betting on my project. Which is the ability for humans to engage in an entirely new perspective. The reason I give so much importance to it is that no one is really looking at this sphere of interaction, they are more interested in how we can create really incredible environments that look like our dreams, but the disruption of consciousness itself is not something that people are generally looking at. So I see VR as a means of actually changing our language first and foremost!
We have lived with the same linear language the Greeks created and gave to us 4000 years ago and we have been living within that paradigm or the memory of the Greek intellectual collapse for thousands of years.
I think we need to start disrupting our consciousness enough to create new languages, which will create new art simply because it will give us a new way of looking at the world!
This contradicts the way VR is currently being marketed which is more of the same just in the 3rd dimension
Is VR just for games?
Certainly not! It would be sad if it was just for games.
Well they way its being pitched at the moment is that I can play COD or the FPS in a more imersive environment. That is the way it’s going to be sold but it’s capable of being more than that!
I think it is going to extend human consciousness. There will be many ways of doing that but one way is the way I described which is having a conscious culturally mediated outer body experience! that is an experience you can only have on psychedelics at the moment and that is not culturally mediated its stuck in you own subjectivity.
Look at what LSD did 60s and 70s to society it culturally kick started huge amounts of change and ushered in new perspectives and more liberal ways of relating to other humans but it wasnt something everyone could do and share, so I would hope VR has the potential to actually change the way we relate to one another and our extend or complexify our world-view!
VR has been around for a long time; in terms of things like flights sims to train pilots what do think the industrial applications for VR in the future are?
There is a huge craze for piloting drones. Vr just makes it a lot easier. There is a competition that happens right now with the AR and VR and drones.
The emergent aspect of that is military drone pilots watching a flat screen suffer from ptsd.. I think you are going to have a lot of injured people not just the people getting killed but the pilots themselves. They are definitely going to use it to drive tanks drones and robots. But they are going to have to deal with ptsd on a wide scale as they are not really separating the human from the violent behaviour.
I was thinking more towards things like driving tests, sailing VR
The distinction between industrialisation and commercialisation is that I could build you a driving test VR program right now, and we have all the off shelf capabilities like gaming steering wheels and shift sticks etc, gaming has already made that into mass product, so that’s not really an industrial application, what you’ll find is that new industries will emerge. Even Elon musk is using VR in industrial applications to visualise engine parts. But I could do that myself, one thing to remember is that Vr throughout its history was primarily an industrial product used only within academic military or large company complexes, what is interesting are the things normal people can’t do that industry can? Right now anything industry can do with VR I can do as well. So I think someone like google who are getting into robots will find applications for Vr that will make what I and other commercial developers do look pretty boring.
Will VR be used to explore space? E.g. robots on Mars?
Most definitely. In fact you might even find that people will be able to use their VR set-up from their home and get a view of Martian terrain with a drone on the surface. So it becomes again something everyone can participate in. Piloting it will obviously be done by the Nasa or a private space agency as they won’t risk just anybody messing around with their machine. But to view it from a camera will be possible for everyone.
You are obviously banking on this being ubiquitous. What makes you think this won’t be the next 3D TV?
There’s a man called Terrance McKenna, who said that drugs and computing are converging, the only difference between hallucinogenic psychotropic drugs like lsd and computers are that you can’t swallow a computer yet!! Computers disrupt your consciousness and that’s the thing that makes it on par with psychotropic drugs. The moment we can disrupt consciousness is the moment we disrupt culture in general. Now the problem with TV, or 3d TV and even books is that they come from a period in history that dates back 4000 years. They are extensions of theatre. Its passive, with an object/subject view of the world, I sit here as a passive observer while somebody performs for me. There is a separation between me and the performance and ironically I loose my self while watching the performance, that’s how it has been for the past 4000 years. All of a sudden now with VR we end up with a situation where this theatre of the mind that engenders a duality between us and the performance becomes embodied by our first person perspective again. And that is different simply because now its coming from yourself, the computing is embedded in your physical environment and its more integrated to you! One can use their whole body to participate in it. God knows what that will do!
Already their are people myself included that experience an increased amount of lucid dreaming after using Vr for extended periods of time. No one predicted that! So yes it could be 3d TV if all it does is just meet the expectations of gaming world or extend typical cinema, but there are so many other things that you can’t predict.
It doesn’t just add a z coordinate to a typical screen experience, in adding that 3rd dimension which means you can now include your own 1st person experience into the media you would typically consume.
It might just end up being another way to consume media but its emergent enough for new things to happen, so I guess we should wait and see.