A couple of days ago the RoadtoVR website posted about Microsoft’s parent for a wand like controller which appeared in the concept video above. I thought it was worth re-posting the video here as it provides a good indication of what a mixed reality future might look like. In particular it considers a future where augmented and virtual reality systems are used side by side. Where some companies firmly backed one platform or the other, VR in the case of Oculus and the HTC Vive, AR in the case of Meta, more established companies like Microsoft and Google have the resources and brand penetration to back both. Whether Apple follows suite or commits everything to AR following the recent release of ARKit remains to be seen. As such it is interesting to compare the kind of mixed reality ecosystems they want to create. Its then up to developers and consumers to determine which hardware, and by extension which vision, they are most inclined to back.
There are many challenges to overcome before this kind of mixed reality interaction becomes possible. The situated use of AR by the character Penny, and use of VR for telepresence by Samir are particularly well motivated. But what are the characters Samir and Chi actually going to see in this interaction? Will it make a difference if they don’t experience each other’s presence to the same degree? And, how is Samir’s position going to be referenced relative to Penny’s? There are many technical challenges still to be overcome, and compromises will need to be made. For companies like Microsoft and Google the challenge for them is in convincing developers and consumers that the hardware ecosystem they are providing is sufficiently close to their vision of that mixed reality future today…and crucially all at the right price.
In the past weeks I’ve been collaborating with researchers at the Intel Collaborative Research Institute (ICRI) for Urban IoT to integrate data from bat monitors on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park into CASA’s digital visualisation platform, ViLo. At present we are visualising the geographic location of each bat monitor with a pin that includes an image showing the locational context of each sensor and a flag indicating the total number of bat calls recorded by that sensor on the previous evening. A summary box in the user interface indicates the total number of bat monitors in the vicinity and the total number of bat calls recorded the previous evening. Animated bats are also displayed above pins to help users quickly identify which bat monitors have results from the previous evening to look at.
The data being visualised here comes from custom made ‘Echo Box’ bat monitors that have been specifically designed by ICRI researchers to detect bat calls from ambient sound. They have been created as part of a project called Nature Smart Cities which intends to develop the worlds first open source system for monitoring bats using Internet of Things (IoT) technology. IoT refers to the idea that all sorts of objects can made to communicate and share useful information via the internet. Typically IoT devices incorporate some sort of sensor that can process and transmit information about the environment and/or actuators that respond to data by effecting changes within the environment. Examples of IoT devices in a domestic setting would be Philips Hue Lighting which can be controlled remotely using a smartphone app, or Amazon’s Echo which can respond to voice commands in order to do things like cue up music from Spotify, control your Hue lighting or other IoT devices, and of course order items from Amazon. Billed as a ‘”shazam” for bats’ the ICRI are hoping to use IoT technology to show the value of similar technologies for sensing and conserving urban wildlife populations, in this case bats.
Each Echo Box sensor uses an ultrasonic microphone to record a 3 second sample of audio every 6 seconds. The audio is then processed and transformed into an image called a spectrogram. This is a bit like a fingerprint for sound, which shows the amplitude of sounds across different frequencies. Bat calls can be clearly identified due to their high frequencies. Computer algorithms then analyse the spectrogram to compare it to those of known bat calls in order to identify which type of bat was most likely to have made the call.
The really clever part from a technical perspective is that all of this processing can be done on the device using one of Intel’s Edison chips. Rather than having large amounts of audio transmitted back to a centralised system for storage and analysis, Intel are employing ‘edge processing’, processing on the device at the edge of the network, to massively reduce the amount of data that needs to be sent over the network back to their central data repository. Once the spectrogram has been produced the original sound files are immediately deleted as no longer required. Combined with the fact that sounds within the range of human speech and below 20kHz are ignored by the algorithms that process the data, this ensures that the privacy of passersby is protected.
This is a fascinating project and it has been great having access to such an unusual data set. Further work here can focus on visualising previous evenings data in time-series to better understand patterns of bat activity over the course of the study. We also hope to investigate the use of sonification by incorporating recordings of typical bat calls for each species in order to create a soundscape that complements the visualisation and engages with the core sonic aspect of study.
Kind thanks to Sarah Gallacher and the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for providing access to the data. Thanks also to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for enabling this research. For more information about bats on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park check out the project website: Nature Smart Cities.
NXT BLD is a new conference in London specifically aimed at the discussion on emerging technologies and their applications in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction. Organised by AEC Magazine, the first event was held in the British Museum on the 28th of June 2017. Videos of the event presentations have been released and provide some useful insight into the ways in which technologies like VR are being used within industry. I found the following talk by Dan Harper, managing director of CityScape Digital, particularly useful:
In the video Dan discusses the motivation for their use of VR. Focused on architectural visualisation the company often found that the high quality renderings they were producing quickly became outdated due to the fact that render times were not keeping pace with the iterative nature of the design process. They found that the real time rendering capabilities of game engines, in their case Unreal, helped them iterate images more quickly. Encountering similar challenges with the production of 3D models they realised that having clients inspect the 3D model could be used not only for communication but also as a spatial decision making tool. Supported by 3D data, real-time rendering and VR, which provides a one to one scale experience of the space, value can be added and costs saved by placing a group of decision makers within the space they are discussing rather than relying on the personal impressions each would draw from their own subjective imagining based on 2D plans and architectural renderings.
Innovation of the design process with VR not only makes it less expensive but also makes the product more valuable. With reference to similar uses of VR in the car industry Dan identifies opportunities for ‘personalisation’, ‘build to order’, ‘collaboration’, ‘focus grouping’ experientially, ‘efficient construction’ and ‘driving margins at point of sale’. Case studies include the Sky Broadcasting Campus at Osterley, the Battersea Power Station redevelopment and the Earls Court masterplan. These use cases demonstrate that return on investment is increased through reuse of the 3D models and assets in successive stages of the project from concept design, investor briefings, stakeholders consultation right through to marketing.
Videos of the other presentations from the day can be found on the NXT BLD website here.