Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality are slowly becoming an actual reality

Saying that there’s been a lot of movement in the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) space in the last few weeks might be somewhat of an understatement. Sci-Fi writers have been dreaming up this type of stuff for decades but only now does it finally look like it might be on the cusp of becoming a mainstream consumer technology.

On Thursday, the Facebook-owned Virtual Reality headset manufacturer Oculus finally announced the details of the mass-consumer launch of it’s flagship VR device. The Oculus Rift has been in the mainstream tech aficionado’s conscience for the last couple of years but has not been readily available on the consumer market as of yet. The headset will be available to the general public from early next year and will run content from only Windows machines and the Xbox from the outset (not good news for Apple and PlayStation owners). The fact that the device will be packaged with an Xbox One controller even further suggests that this will be a Microsoft-exclusive for the near future at least.

The Oculus Rift is rumoured to cost around $500 but will need a relatively high-end PC to run it’s games so the cost of ownership could mount up. Don’t worry though as Google also addressed VR in their I/O developer conference at the end of last month. The company detailed how they are bringing virtual reality to the masses via  their Google Cardboard foldable case that turns any smartphone into a makeshift Oculus Rift when paired with one of their VR apps. These cases retail from $10 so you won’t need to shell out a fortune to experience Virtual Reality for yourself. In my experience, there isn’t even much of a difference between the quality of a decent phone screen in one of these cases, and the higher-end Oculus Rift, although this may change when the updated version of the Oculus hits shelves next year. Google also revealed details of their 3D camera rig collaboration with GoPro which helps produce the actual content used on these Virtual Reality devices.


Also earlier this month, Magic Leap, the Google-funded Augmented Reality system manufacturer announced that it’s almost ready to let developers start building for its platform. The Magic Leap headset manipulates light to create the illusion of real objects in front of the wearer and has been wow-ing people since it’s announcement earlier this year. While no details of the headset’s hardware have been made available as of yet, the software development kit will be released to developers shortly so they can get to work creating all sorts of games and applications for it.

In addition to their partnership with Oculus, Microsoft are also readying their own Augmented Reality offering, Hololens, which has some amazing potential as well. The Hololens Minecraft demo at this week’s E3 show in Los Angeles shows just what’s in store when this finally hits stores. Prepare to be blown away.

With Microsoft, Facebook and Google all jostling to hit the mainstream consumer market with something revolutionary, one thing is for sure – this is a very exciting space at the moment. While all this might seem very Sci-Fi, this technology will change much more than just the way people play video games. The implications for everything from medicine, engineering, education, and even online retail, are far reaching.

Posted by Rob in Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Wearables

Wearables & the ‘Age of Context’

So the fabled Apple Watch is mere days from hitting the shelves after what seems like years of rumours and speculation. While you seemingly can’t go online without being bombarded with some commentary about the new gadget, it appears that the jury is still very much out on wether it will be a genuine game-changer or not. Some commentators are hailing it as the next big thing, while others deride the concept as a gimmicky flash in the pan, only making headlines because it’s Apple’s latest poster child. Whether this iteration is the blockbuster product that some predict or not, it’s likely that it will kick the wearables product category onto the next level to some degree, in terms of mainstream awareness at least.

The nay-sayers deride it’s reliance on a parent smartphone, perceived limited functionality, or question marks over how users are meant to interact with it given it’s limited input methods. Also, it basically doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t already do, so what’s the point, right? While up until recently I’ve been of the attitude that smartwatches will remain a pretty niche category until they can work independently of smartphones, a few articles that I’ve come across recently have forced me to re-evaluate the fundamental purpose of these devices. It seems that, while they’re not meant to replace your smartphone, they are designed to marginalise it. Wearables aren’t about adding a new layer of interaction with technology to your life, they’re about stripping it away. Removing the need for interaction to only when it is a necessity.

Apple Watch: The ‘iPhone Killer’

In a fantastic Wired piece this month on the development of the Apple Watch (notably called “iPhone Killer: The Secret History of the Apple Watch”), members of the Apple design team suggested that the main benefit of the device was the fact that it removes the need to constantly check your phone for notifications, prompting the user to only reach for their phone when deemed necessary by their watch. The whole point, in effect, is to make the iPhone redundant unless you’re carrying out a specific task or reacting to an important notification.

Along the way, the Apple team landed upon the Watch’s raison d’être. It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life.

Our phones have become invasive. But what if you could engineer a reverse state of being? What if you could make a device that you wouldn’t — couldn’t — use for hours at a time? What if you could create a device that could filter out all the bullshit and instead only serve you truly important information?

The goal was to free people from their phones.

The smart-watch is meant to reduce our overall interaction with technology. Even the interactions you do have to make are to be reduced to their bare bones. Instead of engaging as you normally might with a notification or message, you can simply be presented with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ style decision that’s super quick to make. Apple came up with a system called Quickboard that analyzes notifications and messages and suggests a handful of possible responses. If you are the one instigating the message, then sure, use your phone. But if you are the one reacting, this makes life that little bit simpler.

When your date asks if you want to do Mexican or Chinese for dinner, “Mexican” and “Chinese” automatically show up in the list — tap one and you’ve replied. You’re in the moment; just send it.

The Age of Context

But in most cases, you’re not meant to have to do anything at all, wearables are meant to react to their environments and your habits. Christian Hernandez elaborates on this ‘Age of Context’ in this article based on Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book of the same name.

In the Age of Context personal data (ex: calendar and email, location and time) is integrated with publicly available data (ex: traffic data, pollution level) and app-level data (ex: Uber surge pricing, number of steps tracked by my FitBit) to intelligently drive me towards an action (ex: getting me to walk to my next meeting instead of ordering a car).

It is an age in which we, and the devices and sensors around us, generate massive reams of data and in which self-teaching algorithms drill into that data to derive insight and recommend or auto-generate an action … data needs to be compiled into succinct notifications and action enablers.

In this ‘Age of Context’, the Starbucks app, for example, will know that you usually get off the train at 8:50am and walk to their local store to order a Grande Latte. At 8:52 your smartwatch will know your routine, know that you’re around the corner from Starbucks, and simply generate an action-driver that says “Grande Latte – Order?” A few minutes later you can pick up your coffee, which has already been paid for as the system is integrated with your payment details. These services are already possible today, but will be made much easier to automate with the proliferation of wearable devices.

Disney’s $1 Billion Wristband

Another great Wired feature last month profiled the success of the Disney ‘MagicBand’, a wearable wristband that lets visitors to Disney World in Orlando ambiently carry out an absurd array of functions all by virtue of having this sensor on thier wrist.

The MagicBand replaces all of the details and hassles of paper once you touch-down in Orlando. Express users can board a park-bound shuttle, and check into the hotel. They don’t have to mind their luggage, because each piece gets tagged at your home airport, so that it can follow you to your hotel, then your room. Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved. If you’ve opted in on the web, the MagicBand is the only thing you need.

It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please.

And that hit’s the nail on the head; devices like this are there to ‘engineer away friction’. A place like Disney World is the perfect control setting for technology like this that needs buy-in from both users and the multitude of places they come into contact with on a given day, so it can be difficult to imagine how this might work in the real world. But the MagicBand certainly gives us an idea of what it will be like in however many years, once the rest of our environment has caught up with the gadgets that we have in our pockets and on our wrists. Read the piece here.

So back to the Apple Watch, I certainly won’t be rushing out to buy one on launch day, I just don’t think there’ll be that many real world use cases out there for it for another year or two at least. But maybe it’s getting that bit easier to picture our cities a little more like Disney World in the not to distant future.

Recommended reading on wearables and the ‘Age of Context’

  1. Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband (WIRED)
  2. Into the Age of Context (Christian Hernandez: Medium)
  3. iPhone Killer: The Secret History of the Apple Watch (WIRED)
  4. A Day In The Life: The Verge Apple Watch Review (Nilay Patel)
  5. Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy (Scoble & Israel)
Posted by Rob in Apple Watch, Wearables

Introducing ‘Nearables’; the love child of iBeacons & the Internet of Things

There’s been a lot of talk about iBeacons since they came onto the scene late last year with tech-savvy retailers hoping that they can live up to the hype and finally provide them with a way of utilizing those handy little devices we all carry around in our pockets and transform them into virtual personal shoppers.

While we haven’t seen many great examples of this in the real world just yet, one of the companies that has become synonymous with the iBeacon concept, Estimote (a quick Google Image search for “iBeacons” reveals pretty much exclusively their product), is already onto their second product iteration. Although the bluetooth location beacon that they released last year was not exactly clunky, most of the use cases that were highlighted seemed to involve it being placed in a static location such as the wall of a retail outlet.

With the company this week announcing that they have made the device smaller and thinner and affixed it to a sticker, something that can effectively be worn, it opens up a whole host of further use cases that fall firmly into the Internet of Things realm. Each ‘sticker’ includes an accelerometer to track motion, a temperature sensor, security authentication and a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter that works up to 70 meters with the battery lasting up to a year. Estimote describe these sticker beacons as ‘Nearables’.

As well as being used in a retail capacity to give customers information on products that they come into contact with, the stickers can monitor an object’s movements so you can keep track of your pets or personal items, or map your bicycle route or trip to work etc. Smartphones and other devices can detect where they are in relation to the beacon stickers, giving them added context. For example, if your smartphone realizes that it’s in your bedroom (i.e. it is near your bedroom beacon) and you have an early meeting and the traffic is particularly bad, it will wake you up earlier.

I don’t think we’ll really start seeing these things making their way into the mainstream for another couple of years yet, but with other companies like Nest and Smart Things also blazing a trail in this space, the prospects are exciting.

Posted by Rob in Mobile, Retail, Wearables

Biometric wearables could eliminate passwords & keys

The potential of wearable technology and the internet of things seem to be hot topics at the moment and many are waiting on the arrival of Apple’s iWatch in the Autumn to kick this space into gear. In the meantime though, devices like this slick wrist band Nymi give us a glimpse of the possibilities of living in a world where we are constantly connected to the things around us.

Nymi  utilizes motion sensors and location tracking to pick up user movement and lets the wearer open car doors, login to their computers and make wireless payments, among other things, all with a flick of their wrist. The device uses the wearer’s heartbeat (yep that’s right, heartbeat!) for authentication purposes, thus removing the need for constant passwords and pretty much being as secure as you can really hope for.

Travel technology site Skift also highlights how devices  like this could streamline the travel experience, allowing wearers to check-in for a flight, drop off baggage and enter an aircraft all via unmanned gates, as well as skipping hotel check-ins and accessing your room all via the wristband.

If devices like this can remove the need for carrying keys and remembering passwords, they could really positively impact our lives. Either way, I have a feeling we are about to see a lot more of this type of thing over the coming months.

Posted by Rob in Apple Watch, Wearables

Can Apple’s ‘iWatch’ catalyze wearable tech growth?

If industry murmurings over recent weeks are anything to go by, it looks as though Apple’s much touted ‘iWatch’ could see the light of day sooner than we might have thought. While such wearable devices are hardly a brand new concept, Apple’s entry into the space could act as a catalyst to help finally push this product category into the mainstream.

Although Samsung’s Galaxy Gear may have been met with a resounding ‘meh’ on its launch last September, and Nike seem to be cutting their losses with their Fuel Band (although this was always a fairly niche fitness product anyway), it is important not to underestimate the ability of the Cupertino powerhouse to impact the success of an early stage product category. I have always believed that if the iPhone 5 had shipped with NFC as was predicted by many at the time, NFC cardless smartphone payments would be the norm today. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and NFC has still not reached its full potential.

While I remain sceptical of the consumer utility of Google Glass (would you really wear a Glass headset all day for the handful of instances that it might come in handy?), I feel that smart watches offer much greater value to the common user. If someone out there can distil the essence of your smartphone into a standalone device that means you don’t have to carry around your phone everywhere you go, it could be huge.

It is also encouraging to see some companies out there already doing some really cool things with wearable tech in the real world. Take the Ushuaïa Beach Hotel and the Hard Rock Hotel in Ibiza for example. Both have recently introduced a system of smart wristbands that allow guests to abandon their room key cards and credit cards, and avail of a whole host of other hotel services with the swipe of their wrist.

One thing is for sure, this is a space with some serious opportunity for growth and innovation. Your move Apple.

iWatch patent 2

Some of Apple’s smart watch patent designs: image courtesy of Fast Company

Posted by Rob in Apple, Apple Watch, Wearables