Daily Archives: October 24, 2014

The future of virtual reality

I first covered this topic in 1991 or 1992, can’t recall, when we were playing with the Virtuality machines. I got a bit carried away, did the calculations on processing power requirements for decent images, and announced that VR would replace TV as our main entertainment by about 2000. I still use that as my best example of things I didn’t get right.

I have often considered why it didn’t take off as we expected. There are two very plausible explanations and both might apply somewhat to the new launches we’re seeing now.

1: It did happen, just differently. People are using excellent pseudo-3D environments in computer games, and that is perfectly acceptable, they simply don’t need full-blown VR. Just as 3DTV hasn’t turned out to be very popular compared to regular TV, so wandering around a virtual world doesn’t necessarily require VR. TV or  PC monitors are perfectly adequate in conjunction with the cooperative human brain to convey the important bits of the virtual world illusion.

2. Early 1990s VR headsets reportedly gave some people eye strain or psychological distortions that persisted long enough after sessions to present potential dangers. This meant corporate lawyers would have been warning about potentially vast class action suits with every kid that develops a squint blaming the headset manufacturers, or when someone walked under a bus because they were still mentally in a virtual world. If anything, people are far more likely to sue for alleged negative psychological effects now than back then.

My enthusiasm for VR hasn’t gone away. I still think it has great potential. I just hope the manufacturers are fully aware of these issues and have dealt with or are dealing with them. It would be a great shame indeed if a successful launch is followed by rapid market collapse or class action suits. I hope they can avoid both problems.

The porn industry is already gearing up to capitalise on VR, and the more innocent computer games markets too. I spend a fair bit of my spare time in the virtual worlds of computer games. I find games far more fun than TV, and adding more convincing immersion and better graphics would be a big plus. In the further future, active skin will allow our nervous systems to be connected into the IT too, recording and replaying sensations so VR could become full sensory. When you fight an enemy in a game today, the controller might vibrate if you get hit or shot. If you could feel the pain, you might try a little harder to hide. You may be less willing to walk casually through flames if they hurt rather than just making a small drop in a health indicator or you might put a little more effort into kindling romances if you could actually enjoy the cuddles. But that’s for the next generation, not mine.

VR offers a whole new depth of experience, but it did in 1991. It failed first time, let’s hope this time the technology brings the benefits without the drawbacks and can succeed.

The future of ukuleles

Well, actually stringed instruments generally, but I needed a U and I didn’t want to do universities or the UN again and certainly not unicorns, so I cheated slightly. I realize that other topics starting with U may exist, but I didn’t do much research and I needed an excuse to write up this new idea.

If I was any good at making electronics, I’d have built a demo of this, but I have only soldered 6 contacts in my life, and 4 of those were dry joints, and I know when to quit.

My idea is very simple indeed: put accelerometers on the strings. Some quick googling suggests the idea is novel.

There are numerous electric guitar, violins, probably ukuleles. They use a variety of pickups. Many are directly underneath the strings, some use accelerometers on the other side of the bridge or elsewhere on the body. In most instruments, the body is heavily involved in the overall sound production, so I wouldn’t want to replace the pickups on the body. However, adding accelerometers to the strings would give another data source with quite different characteristics. There could be just one, or several, placed at specific locations along each string. If they are too heavy, they would change the sound too much, but some now are far smaller than the eye of a needle. If they are fixed onto the string, it would need a little re-tuning, but shouldn’t destroy the sound quality. The benefit is that accelerometers on the strings would provide data not available via other pickups. They would more directly represent the string activity than a pickup on the body. This could be used as valuable input to the overall signal mix used in the electronic sound output. Having more data available is generally a good thing.

What would the new sound be like? I don’t know. If it is very different from the sound using conventional pickups, it might even open up potential for new kinds of electric instrument.

If you do experiment with this, please do report back on the results.