Why I Don’t Care About Your New Mixed Reality Headset

I’m often approached by entrepreneurs in the AR/MR space offering me demos of new hardware.  Competition in this space is fierce. You need three major elements for me to take a new platform seriously.

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You Need These Three Things To Have A Successful Mixed Reality Device

The three requirements for any successful AR (or more specifically MR) device are: Display, Computer Vision, Operating System

Display

This is the first element of an AR/MR wearable, and usually this what all hardware companies have. There are a number of different displays out there, but they all seem to share the same limitations: additive translucent graphics, small FOV, and relatively low resolution. Often times devices with claims of wider FOVs end up with even lower resolution visuals as a compromise. Both low and high resolution displays I’ve seen are all additive, thus images appear as translucent. Some companies claim to have solved these problems. As far as I’ve seen, we’re a long ways off from a commercial reality.

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Operating System

When I got my HoloLens devkits, the first thing that impressed me is that Microsoft ported the entirety of Windows 10 to Mixed Reality. Up until now, most AR headsets had simple gaze-optimized skins for Android. Windows Holographic makes even traditional 2D applications able to be run in mixed reality as application windows floating in space or attached to your walls. It’s all tied to a bulletproof content delivery ecosystem (Windows App Store) so distribution is solved as well.

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Your device needs to be more than just something worn only to run a specific app. Mixed reality wearables will one day replace your computer, phone, and just about anything with a screen. You need a complete Mixed Reality operating system that can run everything from the latest games to a browser and your email client in this inevitable use case.

Computer Vision

I can’t tell you how many device manufacturers have shown me their new display but “just don’t have the computer vision stuff in.” Sorry, but this is the most important element of mixed reality. Amazing localization, spatialization, tracking, and surface reconstruction features are what puts HoloLens light years ahead of its nearest competition.

This stuff is hard to do. Computer Vision was formerly an obscure avenue of computer science not many people studied. Now augmented reality has created a war for talent in this sector, with a small (but growing) number of Computer Vision PhDs commanding huge salaries from well funded startups. There are very few companies that have the Computer Vision expertise to make mixed reality work, and this talent is jealously guarded.

[BONUS] Cloud Super-intelligence

The AR headset of the future is a light, comfortable, and truly mobile device you wear everywhere. This requires a constant, fast connection to the Internet. HoloLens is Wifi only for now, but LTE support must be on the horizon. Not only is this critical for everyday-everywhere use, but many advanced computer vision functions such as object recognition need cloud-based AI systems to analyze images and video. With the explosion of deep learning and machine learning technology, a fast 5G connection to these services will make Mixed Reality glasses something you never want to leave the house without.

Don’t Waste My Time

A lot of people seem impressed with highly staged demos of half baked hardware. It’s only when you begin to develop mixed reality apps that you understand what’s really needed to make these platforms successful. Demos without the critical elements listed in this post will be harder to impress with once more people are familiar with the technology.

So, You Wanna Make A Pokemon Go Clone?

I told you not to do it.

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But suddenly my 2013 blog post about displaying maps in Unity3D is now my top page of the month. There are lots of Pokemon Go clones being built right now.

Well, if you absolutely insist, here’s how I’d go about it.

Step 1: Raise tons of money

You’re going to need it. And it’s not just for user acquisition. You’ll need a lot of dry powder for scaling costs in the unlikely event this game is as successful as you’ve claimed to your investors. For small apps, accessing something like the Foursquare API may be free–but it will require an expensive licensing deal to use it at the scale you’re thinking of and without restrictions.

Step 2: Buy every single location based game you can

Just having access to a places API such as Foursquare or Factual isn’t enough. You need location data relevant to a game–such as granular details about places inside of larger locations that are of interest to players. Pokemon Go has this from years of Ingress players submitting and verifying locations around the world.

Nearly 10 years ago, there was a frenzy of investment in location based games. The App Store is now littered with dead husks of old LBS games and ones that are on life support. With that pile of money you raised, it should be easy to go on a shopping spree and buy up these games. Not for their users, or even the technology, but for the data. Most of these games may have been fallow for years, making their location data stale. Yet, it may be possible with machine learning or old fashioned elbow grease to work that data into a layer of interesting sub-locations for your game to be designed around.

Step 3: Plan for Database Hell

Designing for scale at the start is a classic mistake for any startup. You’re effectively building a football stadium for a carload of people. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t entertain the idea of scaling up a service once it’s successful.

Full disclosure, I’ve never built an app at the scale of Pokemon Go. Few people have. I suspect many of the server issues are related to scaling a geospatial database with that many users. It’s much harder to optimize your data around location than other usage patterns. Don’t take my word for it, check out this analysis.

It’s been years since I’ve looked at geospatial databases. Despite some announcements, it doesn’t look like a lot has changed. A cursory search suggests PostGIS is still a solid choice. Plus, there are a lot of Postgres experts out there that can help with scaling issues. MongoDB’s relatively new spatial features may also be an option.

As for fancier alternatives–Google App Engine is an easy way to “magically” scale an app. They have also started releasing really interesting new geospatial services. Not to mention some great support for mobile apps that may make integrating with Unity3D a bit easier. However, GAE  is very expensive at scale, and the location features are still in alpha. Choosing Google App Engine is a risky decision, but also may be an easy way to get started.

To avoid vendor lock-in, have a migration strategy in mind. One of which may be using your pile of money to recruit backend people from startups with large amounts of users.

Step 4: Get Ready for the Disappointing State of Mobile AR

Pokemon Go has sparked a lot of renewed interest in AR. Much like geospatial databases, not much has changed in the past 5 years as far as what your average smartphone can do. Sure, beefier processors and higher res cameras can get away with some limited SLAM functionality. But, these features are very finicky. Your best bet is to keep AR to a minimum, as Pokemon Go smartly did. Placing virtual objects on real world surfaces in precise locations, especially outdoors, is the realm of next generation hardware.

Step 5: ??????

Ok, this isn’t a precise recipe for a Pokemon Go clone. But hey, if you’ve completed step one, maybe you should contact me for more details?

There’s Nothing To Be Learned From Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go is a watershed moment in gaming. I’ve never seen a game have this much traction this fast. My neighborhood is filled with wandering players of all demographics, strolling around with phone in hand looking for Pokemon. Since the game’s launch, everyday has looked like Halloween without the costumes.

In general, the job of a venture capitalist is really easy. For most, you simply wait around for another firm to invest in something and then add to that round. Or, you can wait for something to be really successful and cultivate clones of it. I can guarantee there are now a few VCs with deals in motion to build a “fast follow” mimic of Pokemon Go.

Please don’t.

There is absolutely no way another developer can duplicate the success of this game. In fact, it remains to be seen if this game will be a success beyond its initial pop. No game has ever had an opening weekend of this scale–but still, remember Draw Something or maybe even Fallout Shelter? I’m enjoying Pokemon Go myself, but many of my colleagues are questioning whether it has legs. Regardless of that, any location-based game you may be thinking of making is probably missing a few key ingredients to Pokemon Go’s success.

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My pathetically low level character

Niantic has the Best Location Data in the Business

I’ve spent time building location-based service apps in the past. The biggest problem with making games that play over the real world is populating the map with interesting stuff to do. Firstly, there’s access to map data–on Pokemon Go’s scale, this is not cheap (although there are open source solutions). Simply having a map is one piece of the puzzle–you need to have information about how the locations are used. Which places are busiest? Where do players like to group up at?

Niantic has this data from years of running Ingress–pretty much the largest location-based game ever made. Over the years Ingress was running as a project fully funded and supported by Google, Niantic built an incredibly valuable data layer on top of the real world that has been repurposed for Pokemon Go.

You could possibly license similar information from other companies (Foursquare comes to mind), but Niantic’s data is probably more geared towards the activity patterns of mobile gamers than those who want to Instagram their lunch. (Granted, there’s a lot of overlap there)

Pokemon Is One of the Biggest IPs in the World

Previous to Pokemon Go, even prior to Ingress, there have been plenty of location-based games. Anyone remember Shadow Cities? Or Booyah? They may have just been too early–back then there weren’t enough smartphones to solve the density problem you have with location-based games. Now that smartphones are ubiquitous, how do you get enough players to fill up the world map? One way is to use one of the biggest video game IPs on the planet.

The demand for Nintendo IPs on other platforms is unprecedented.  The fervor for Pokemon in particular is huge–with lots of false Pokemon apps taken off Google Play and the App Store over the years. Investors have responded to this craze, with Nintendo’s stock jumping 25% since the release of Pokemon Go.

There really isn’t another IP as big as Pokemon that can be applied to a game of this scale. Sprinkle a little Pokemon on to a little Ingress and the results are explosive.

There’s nobody else on the planet that can do this. 

HoloHacks Is A Step Towards Mixed Reality Domination for Microsoft

Microsoft has been holding a series of hackathons for their new HoloLens platform in a number of cities across the US. I couldn’t make it to the original event in Seattle, but managed to compete in HoloHacks Los Angeles at the Creative Technology Center downtown.

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The event went from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, concluding with final presentations and the judges awarding prizes to the winning apps. My team’s app, “A Day at the Museum,” won the visual design prize with a mixed reality replacement for museum audio tour earpieces.

The event worked like most hackathons I’ve attended–Come up with ideas, form teams, and get to hacking. Microsoft had us covered on the hardware front–not only did each team get to borrow two HoloLens devices, but you could even get a loaner Surface Book for the event if you don’t have a Windows PC to hack on. (As a MacBook Pro user, that option was a lifesaver)

I was lucky to sit at a table with Leone Ermer, Edward Dawson-Taylor, Chris Horton, Ed Hougardy, and Steven Winston. After brainstorming a few ideas we came up with the museum tour concept and got to work. We worked brilliantly as a team and everyone was critical in taking this project across the finish line.

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HoloHacks isn’t just a promotional event. It’s an important step in building a community around the platform. By iterating with refreshing openness and allowing even complete novice developers to build apps to learn about HoloLens’ capabilities, Microsoft is placing themselves way ahead of the competition not just in technology but in the ecosystem that supports it.

No other augmented reality platform can operate at this scale. By the time other platforms can catch up to Hololens’ features, Microsoft will have a thriving ecosystem of Windows Holographic developers that other hardware vendors just can’t compete with. Why use some other platform when you can easily find developers and tools for HoloLens to get the job done? If the competition were smart, they’d focus on the developer community aspect just as much as the technology.

My Week With HoloLens

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Microsoft ships the HoloLens and Clicker accessory in the box

My HoloLens development kits finally arrived a week ago. I’ve spent a great deal of time using the device over the past week. I figured I’d post my impressions here.

This Really Works

When I first put my HoloLens on, I placed an application window floating above my kitchen table. Suddenly, I realized I hadn’t taken out the garbage. Still wearing the device, I ran downstairs to put something in the trash. I narrowly missed my neighbor–successfully avoiding an awkward conversation about what this giant contraption on my face does.

When I returned to my kitchen, the application was still there–hovering in space.

As I’ve stated before, Microsoft blew me away. HoloLens is an absolutely incredible leap from previous generation AR glasses (and MUCH cheaper, believe it or not). It also does everything Tango does but at a much higher level of performance and precision. Which means most applications built on Tango can be directly moved over to HoloLens.

HoloLens is fast and intuitive enough to attempt getting actual work done with it. Yet, a lot of my time spent is just trying to make silly videos like this.

It’s A Full Blown Windows Machine

HoloLens isn’t just a prototype headset–it’s a full featured desktop Windows PC on your face. Not only can you run “Windows Holographic” apps, but any Universal Windows App from the Windows Store. Instead of these applications running in a window on a monitor, they float around in space–positioned wherever you choose.

Although HoloLens really does need a taskbar of some kind. It’s way too easy to forget where Skype physically is because you launched it in the bathroom.

It also helps to connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse when running standard applications. Gestures can’t give you the input fidelity of a traditional mouse, and typing in the air is a chore.

HoloLens’ narrow FOV makes using a regular Windows app problematic–as the screen will get cut off and require you to move your head around to see most of it. Also, if you push a window far enough into the background so you can see the whole thing, you’ll notice HoloLens’ resolution is a little low to read small text. We’re going to need a next generation display for HoloLens to really be useful for everyday computing.

Microsoft Has Created A New Input Paradigm

HoloLens can seemingly only recognize two gestures: bloom and “air tap”. Blooming is cool–I feel like a person in a sci-fi movie making the Windows start menu appear in the air by tossing it up with a simple gesture.

The air tap can be unintuitive. Most people I let try the HoloLens poke at the icons by stabbing them with a finger. That’s not what the air tap is for. You still have to gaze at a target by moving your head and then perform the lever-like air tap gesture within the HoloLens camera’s view to select what the reticule is on.

HoloLens can track the motion of your finger and use it as input to move stuff around (such as application windows), but not detect collisions between it and virtual objects. It’s as if it can detect the amount your finger moves but not its precise location in 3D space.

Using apps while holding your hand out in front of the headset is tiring. This is why Microsoft includes the clicker. This is a simple Bluetooth button that when pressed triggers the air tap gesture. Disappointingly, the clicker isn’t trackable–so you can’t use it as a true finger replacement.

Microsoft has adapted Windows to the holographic model successfully. This is the first full blown window manager and gesture interface for augmented reality I’ve ever seen and it’s brilliant. After a few sessions with the device, most people I’ve let use it are launching apps and moving windows around the room like a pro.

This Thing Is Heavy

Although the industrial design is cool in a retro ‘90s way, this thing is really uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time. Maybe I don’t have it strapped on correctly, but after a 20 minute Skype session I had to take the device off. I felt pain above the bridge of my nose. When I looked in the mirror, I saw what can only be described as ‘HoloHead’

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The unfortunate symptom of “HoloHead”

The First Generation Apps Are Amazing

There already are great free apps in the Windows Store that show off the power of the HoloLens platform. Many made by Asobo Studio–a leader in Augmented Reality game development.

Young Conker

Young Conker is a great example of HoloLens as a games platform. The game is simple: after scanning your surroundings, play a familiar platform game over the floors, walls, tables and chairs as Conker runs, jumps and collects coins scattered about your room.

Conker will jump on top of your coffee table, run into walls, or be occluded by a chair as if he were walking behind it–well, depending on how accurate your scan is. The fact that this works as well as it does is amazing to me.

Fragments

One of the first true game experiences I’ve ever played in augmented reality. You play the part of a futuristic detective, revisiting memories of crimes as their events are re-created holographically in your location. Characters sit on your furniture. You’ll hunt for pieces of evidence scattered about your room–even under tables. It really is an incredible experience, As with Conker, it requires some pre-scanning of your environment. However, applications apparently can share scans between each other as Fragments was able to re-use a scan of my office I previously made with another app.

Skype

When Skyping with a person not using HoloLens, you simply place their video on a wall in your surroundings. It’s almost like talking to someone on the bridge of the Enterprise, depending on how big you make the video window.

When Skyping with another HoloLens user, you can swap video feeds so either participant can see through the other’s first person view. While looking at someone else’s video feed as a floating window, you can sketch over it with drawing tools or even place pictures from your photos folder in the other person’s environment. 2D lines drawn over the video feed will form around the other user’s real-world in 3D–bending around corners, or sticking to the ceiling. 

Conclusion

As a consumer electronics device, HoloLens is clearly beta–maybe even alpha, but surprisingly slick. It needs more apps. With Wave 2 underway, developers are working on just that. In my case, I’m moving all of my Tango projects to HoloLens–so you’ll definitely be seeing cool stuff soon!

The Challenge of Building Augmented Reality Games In The Real World

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Last week I submitted the prototype build of my latest augmented reality project, InnAR Wars, to Google’s Build a Tango App Contest. It’s an augmented reality multiplayer space RTS built for Google’s Tango tablet that utilizes the environment around you as a game map. The game uses the Tango’s camera and Area Learning capabilities to superimpose an asteroid-strewn space battlefield over your real-world environment. Two players holding Tangos walk around the room hunting for each other’s bases while sending attack fleets at the other player’s structures.

Making InnAR Wars fun is tricky because I essentially have no control over the map. The battlefield has to fit inside the confines of the real-world environment the tablets are in. Using the Tango’s Area Learning capabilities with the positions of players, I know the rough size of the play area. With this information I adjust the density of planetoids and asteroids based on the size of the room. It’s one small way I can make sure the game at least has an interesting number of objects in the playfield regardless of the size of the area. As you can see from the videos in this post, it’s already being played in a variety of environments.

This brings up the biggest challenge of augmented reality games–How do you make a game fun when you have absolutely no control over the environment in which it’s played? One way is to require the user to set up the play space as if she were playing a board game. By using Tango’s depth camera, you could detect the shapes and sizes of objects on a table and use those as the playfield. It’s up to the user to set it up in a way that’s fun–much like playing a tabletop war game.

For the final release, I’m planning on using Tango’s depth camera to figure out where the room’s walls, ceilings, and floors are. Then I can have ships launch from portals that appear to open on the surfaces of the room. Dealing with the limited precision and performance of the Tango depth camera along with the linear algebra involved in plane estimation is a significant challenge. Luckily, there are a few third-party solutions for this I’m evaluating.

Especially when looking at augmented reality startups’ obligatory fake demo videos, the future of AR gaming seems exciting. But the practical reality of designing a game to be played in reality–which is itself rather poorly designed–can prevent even the most amazing technology from enabling great games. It’s probably going to take a few more hardware generations to not only make the technology usable, but also develop the design language to make great games that work in AR.

If you want to try out the game, I’ll have a few Tangos on hand at FLARB’s VRLA Summer Expo table. Stop by and check it out!

The Next Problems to Solve in Augmented Reality

I’m totally amped up about Project Tango. After having worked with augmented reality for a few years, most of the problems I’ve seen with current platforms could be solved with a miniaturized depth-sensing Kinect-style sensor. The Myriad 1 is a revolutionary chip that will dramatically change the quality of experience you get from augmented reality applications–both on mobile devices and wearables.

There’s a few other issues in AR I’d like to see addressed. Perhaps they are in research papers, but I haven’t seen anything real yet. Maybe they require some custom hardware as well.

Real-world lighting simulation.

One of the reasons virtual objects in augmented reality look fake is because AR APIs can’t simulate the real-world lighting environment in a 3D engine. For most applications, you place a directional light pointing down to and turn up the ambient for a vague approximation of overhead lighting. This is assuming the orientation of the object you’re tracking is upright, of course.

Camera Birds AR mode using an overhead directional light.

Camera Birds AR mode using an overhead directional light.

What I’d really like to use is Image Based Lighting. Image based Lighting is a computationally efficient way to simulate environmental lighting without filling a scene up with dynamic lights. It uses a combination of cube maps built from HDR photos with custom shaders to produce great results. A good example of this is the Marmoset Skyshop plug-in for Unity3D.

Perhaps with a combination of sensors and 360 cameras you can build HDR cubemaps out of the viewer’s local environment in real-time to match environmental lighting. Using these with Image Based Lighting will be a far more accurate lighting model than what’s currently available. Maybe building rudimentary cubemaps out of the video feed is a decent half-measure.

Which object is moving?

In a 3D engine, virtual objects drawn on top of image targets are rendered with two types of cameras. Ether the camera is moving around the object, or the object is moving around the camera. In real life, the ‘camera’ is your eye–so the it should move if you move your head. If you move an image target, that is effectively moving the virtual object.

Current AR APIs have no way of knowing whether the camera or the object is moving. With Qualcomm’s Vuforia, you can either tell it to always move the camera around the object, or to move the objects around the camera. This can cause problems with lighting and physics.

For instance, on one project I was asked to make liquid pour out of a virtual glass when you tilt the image target it rest upon. To do this I had to force Vuforia to assume the image target was moving–so then the image target tilted, so would the 3D object in the game engine and liquid would pour. Only problem is, this would also happen if I had moved the phone as well. Vuforia can’t tell what’s actually moving.

There needs to be a way to accurately track the ‘camera’ movement of either the wearable or mobile device so that in the 3D scene the camera and objects can be positioned accurately. This will allow for lighting to be realistically applied and for moving trackable objects to behave properly in a 3D engine. Especially with motion tracking advances such as the M7 chip, I suspect there are some good algorithmic solutions to factoring out the movement of the object and the observer to solve this problem.

Anyway, these are the kind of problems you begin to think about when staring at augmented reality simulations for years. Once you get over the initial appeal of AR’s gimmick, the practical implications of the technology poses many questions. I’ve applied for my Project Tango devkit and really hope I get my hands on one soon!