Virtual Embodiment

The most praised ability of Virtual Reality is its capability to immerse the user in a Virtual Environment — to the degree that the subject feels present in it. The magic is to be fooled by the system so that one feels present where one actually does not physically reside. This effect can, however, turn even more magical. A deeper step into the effects of technological immersion is found in the concept of Virtual Embodiment. If a subject is embodied virtually,  not only is the virtual environment accepted as such; the subject also identifies with a virtual body or avatar inside the virtual environment. This differs from realizing which character you control in a game — within Virtual Embodiment it is the same processes that make you identify with your real body that makes you identify with a virtual one. This is a key point, as it is why research into virtual embodiment is important.

Peeling layers of the onion: VR can be a tool to discover who we are, through investigation of what and how we identify with our bodies. Illustration: “Mask of Day by Day” by Paulo Zerbato.

Hacking and Experimenting with Consciousness

What is fascinating about both of these possibilities of illusion, then — is how, and that, they are possible at all. Knowledge on how to achieve such immersion is obviously relevant for all VR developers, but the knowledge that can be obtained by researching these phenomena goes far beyond knowing how to apply it in VR technology. By creating experiments in VR, we can generate, and investigate, phenomenas of the mind under various experimental conditions. Exploring Virtual Embodiment, for instance, can enable us with a better understanding of our self-consciousness and the relationship between body and mind. Because of this wider span, research on Virtual Embodiment attracts neuroscience researchers, psychologists, information scientists and philosopher’s alike.

The Rubber Hand Illusion

The Rubber Hand Illusion (RHI) is an excellent example of the kind of ‘brain hacks’ that can be achieved by sensory manipulation. The illusion, as illustrated below, is a perfectly simple experiment that does not even require the use of VR technology to perform.  The RHI was introduced by Ehrson, Spence & Passingham (2004) and has been an ingenious way to illustrate how we identify with our bodies. More importantly for this entry, the results of the experiment has inspired further research on Virtual Embodiment.

Illustration from Thomas Metzinger’s book “The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of the Self”

In the RHI, the hand of the subject is replaced by a rubber hand, while the normal hand is blocked from sight by a separating wall. When the subject is sitting as such, a researcher will stroke each hand, both the rubber and the physical hand, simultaneously. Now, the question is what happens when experiencing the sensory impression of stroking, all the while seeing a corresponding stroke on the rubber hand?

Put very simply, the brain does a ‘reasonable guess’ that this hand is indeed the correct physical hand attached to your body.  You feel that the rubber hand is yours, with nerve-endings and all — and you couple your physical feelings to the vision of the hand. This means that in your subjective experience, the rubber hand is the hand that has the sensation. Ehrson et. al write that their results suggested that “multisensory integration in the premotor cortex provides a mechanism for bodily self-attribution”. When our brains receive sensory information from two differing sensory inputs (sight+feel), these are coupled: the brain is coupling the stroking-sensation with imagery of a nearby-hand being stroked, and this is enough for the brain to attribute its self with the hand, to acknowledge it as its own.

This simple experiment share a lot of principles with the concept of Virtual Embodiment, and has inspired research in the field that we will present in this entry.

Some experience out of body experiences (OBEs) on the onset of sleep or waking up. Often they may feel that they are floating over their bodies. VR may help to study such states of consciousness by systematically inducing them.

Virtual Body Illusion

In a later experiment by Lenggenhager et.al (2007), not only the hands of the subjects — but their whole bodies were replaced with virtual representations. Moreover, in the experiment they present, the bodies are seen from behind. In effect, they were simulating out-of-body experiences, with very interesting results.

The experiment was conducted as such: the subjects wore a Head-Mounted Display which projected imagery from a camera located behind the subjects. As such, the subjects could see a representation of their bodies “live”, but from behind. Of course, this is deviating slightly from how we normally experience life. Although the subjects saw their body responding and performing actions in real time as under normal conditions — there is a logical dissonance due to the mismatch between the location of the subjects’ eyes in the virtual environment, and what these eyes see. Effectively, the user is seeing inside a pair of “portal” binoculars (HMD), which display the light from, if not another dimension, then at least a few feet away. And this will be a part of the point.

What is interesting about this experiment is not necessarily simply that the users feel present where they do not reside physically, but how the distance is only a few feet off. The users feel present right outside of their bodies. The situation is similar, the body and the environment is there, but everything is a bit off. What is interesting to investigate then, is how the body adapts to this. Will it accept that it now controls its body from a third person perspective, similarly to how Stratton’s subjects got used to seeing the world upside down?

What they studied was basically whether this change of perspective had an impact on where the users felt embodied. To investigate this, the researchers stroked the subjects as they did in the Rubber Hand Illusion, except at their backs — so that it was perceivable by them. The question is then where this physical feeling will be attributed to — how will the phenomena of the subjective experience present themselves to the subjects?

Out of Body experiences can be achieved virtually by using sensory impressions from other locations, for instance five meters behind you as in the experiment by Ehrson (2007). You can then effectively look at yourself from the outside.

First of all, to be clear on this — the sensory data of being stroked will initially be provided by the nerves in the physical shoulder of the user. The problem of the brain, however, is that the shoulder is out of sight — blocked by the Head-Mounted Display. There is, however, the visual impression of a shoulder on a person standing in front — being scratched in exactly the same way. Although the nerve-endings definitely feel the stroking, the problem is that where this feeling will be placed in our subjective experience is not the responsibility of the shoulder, but rather the brain. And, as the placement of the physical feeling in the bodily self-consciousness is largely dependent on vision for coordinates, what will happen? How will the brain fix this sensory discord?

In this beautifully written article by The New Yorker, its author Rothman describes one of the co-authors of the research paper, Thomas Metzinger’s, own experience undergoing the experimental conditions:

Metzinger could feel the stroking, but the body to which it was happening seemed to be situated in front of him. He felt a strange sensation, as though he were drifting in space, or being stretched between the two bodies. He wanted to jump entirely into the body before him, but couldn’t. He seemed marooned outside of himself. It wasn’t quite an out-of-body experience, but it was proof that, using computer technology, the self-model could easily be manipulated. A new area of research had been created: virtual embodiment.”

Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?” — The New Yorker has a brilliant, long, read on Virtual Embodiment that features interviews with VR and Consciousness researchers Prof. Mel Slater and Prof. Thomas Metzinger.

Phantom Pain

Another curious potential effect of Virtual Embodiment, is the possibility of phantom sensory impressions as well. Handling virtual objects while being embodied, for instance, may convince your body to expect pain or touch — and so this is, somehow, actively generated. Because of this, VR may be a way to study how phantom pain is created, and further how it can be alleviated. For instance, several studies show how VR can embody a subject missing a leg in a body with two legs, similarly to traditional mirror therapy treatment, which is effective in reducing phantom pain. Again — what may be most interesting here is the possibility of systematically creating the phenomena and studying it afterwards. For instance, as Metzinger is quoted on in The New Yorker’s article, it may be supposed that phantom pain is created by a body model not corresponding to the physical reality. This will be the case for phantom pain in VR: it is not based on the physical reality, you are only relating to a virtual reality instead. Similarly, those those with real phantom pain may also be relating to a certain kind of “virtual reality”, but rather one in the format of their skewed narratives — maintained by their minds instead of a computer.

That the narrative, worldview and consciousness that our brain’s experience and generate is often not the best match with reality is not something new. As for Matrise, these concepts reminds us of the conclusion from our three-series entry towards a metaphysical standpoint on VR, in which we discussed VR as rather examplifying of our abstracting tendencies of mind. These entries can be read at Matrise, and were called: 1) On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency, 2) Heidegger’s Virtual Reality, and 3) The Mind as Medium.

Virtual Embodiment for Social Good

Now that we have discussed the concept of Virtual Embodiment, it may be natural to discuss what this knowledge can be used for. As discussed already, generating experiments in VR that hacks our self models, may provide useful knowledge on the structure of our self-consciousness. Apart from this general knowledge, some may also have practical utilisation in applied VR for specific scenarios.

Racial Bias

A very exciting paper that describes work utilizing virtual embodiment, is one by Banakou, Hanumanthu and Slater. In the project, they embodied White people in Black bodies, and found that this significantly reduced their implicit racial bias! The article can be found and read in its entirety here (abstract available for all).

Domestic Violence

Another interesting project by Seinfeld et. al, is one in which male offenders of domestic violence became embodied in the role of a female victim in a virtual scenario. At first in the experiment, the male subject is familiarized with his new, female, virtual body and the new virtual environment. When the body ownership illusion, or virtual embodiment, has been achieved, a virtual male enters the room and becomes verbally abusive. All this time, the subject can see his own female body reflected in a mirror, with all his actions corresponding to his. After a while, the virtual male starts to physically throw around things and start to appear violent. Eventually it escalates and he gets closer into what feels like the subjects personal space, and appear threatening.

They write:

Our results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognize fear in female faces compared to controls, with a bias towards classifying fearful faces as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, offenders improved their ability to recognize fearful female faces and reduced their bias towards recognizing fearful faces as happy”

The article can be read in its entirety at ResearchGate.

Staying Updated in the field of Virtual Embodiment

Research on Virtual Embodiment is happening continuously. To stay updated on this area of VR research, I enjoy following Mel Slater, Mavi Sanches-Vives and Thomas Metzinger on Twitter. Last but not least, I would stay updated on Virtual Bodyworks at Twitter, of which both Sanchez-Vives and Slater are co-founders of.


N.B: This entry lies at the centre of Matrise’s interests, and we are planning on writing several entries on this topic further in philosophical directions. Have any ideas or want to contribute? Please contact us.

Literature list

 

 

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Apple, Mac and Virtual Reality

N.B: This blog entry is in Matrise’s category “Lights”, which holds more technical, often smaller posts, that concern actual and recent events. These entries stand out from other entries at Matrise, which is often more conceptual, ideal and philosophical. Lights entries need not be very related to VR, though they will always be related to computer science. You can read about Matrise here.


Apple has never created computers capable of much graphical power. Although Mac’s are often preferred by those working with media applications for video and photo editing, etc., these kind of operations rather need a good CPU rather than GPU. This means that the Mac has never been a good candidate for gamers, who require heavy graphical power to run their games. Unfortunately, this bitter ripple effect of Mac’s crappy GPUs, also extends to VR support. As the Mac has not really been a candidate for good gaming, Apple has been left out of the loop by HTC Vive, Oculus, etc., simply because none of their machines would fit the minimum requirements of running VR.

So although the choice to not try to stuff a GTX 1080 ti into a Macbook has secured its ability to look pretty and slim it has been dissapointing for developers and VR enthusiasts with a fondness for the Mac OS X.

External GPUs for Mac

Last year, Apple revealed that their new operating system MacOS High Sierra would take steps to support VR on mac. As part of this, Steam VR for Mac was released — and support for external Graphical Processing Units (eGPUs) was added as well. Mac’s had unfortunately always have had terrible GPUs relative to their PC equivalents, which has limited their use for gaming- and VR purposes. Though this has secured the Macbook’s ability to look pretty and slim, it has been dissapointing for developers with a fondness for the Mac operating system.

Thunderbolt

The latest Macbook Pro series, for instance, has four slots for Thunderbolt 3. Now, the new Thunderbolt 3 support transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, which is significantly higher than the cables connecting your Mac to your internal GPU. This has opened the possibility of using the slim, pretty laptop for lectures, meetings or writing at home — all the while being possible to augment the same laptop to a graphical beast while coupling in the eGPU. You bring the light parts, and leave the heavy ones.

The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box for coupling graphics card externally via a Thunderbolt 3 port. In Matrise’s eGPU, we currently host an AMD Radeon RX 580 “Sapphire”. This does a good job at supporting the HTC Vive in a Macbook Pro 15.

In the fall of 2018, on the introduction of their new eGPU support, Apple partnered up with Sonnet to sell eGPU cards with a Sonnet cooling chassis from their Apple Store. As the support for eGPUs were still in beta, Apple only sold the eGPUs to registered apple developers. Matrise bought one, obviously, as this opened up for VR development, and testing, at the Mac.

In the beginning (the beta stages), the support for this was decent, but slightly annoying. Everytime you plugged in the eGPU you had to log in and out of your account — and sometimes there were trouble to get the screens connected. For the last months, however, the support feels more solid, with an icon in the menubar that can be used to eject the eGPU. You no longer have to log out everytime to connect it, which simplifies the workflow of those who use this to power , say, one 4K screen and another WQHD display at their work station.

The Office. Apart from VR development, the eGPU is useful in giving graphical power to external monitors, at the same time as providing electricity. For this setup of two >HD screens, only one Thunderbolt cable is used.

Apple and VR

Although Mac users now have the possibilities that come with increased graphical power — this does not mean that VR and Apple is a very great match yet. They have, however, lately opened their eyes to the fact that they need to support developers of this new medium. Last month they introduced their new MacOS “Mojave”, of which “Dark Mode” we discussed in our previous “Lights” entry. What is perhaps more important, however, is that the new Mac OS Mojave would have plug-and-play support for the new HTC Vive Pro (which Mac users now luckily can actually use thanks to the eGPU support). Matrise has ordered a HTC Vive Pro Kit, and will post a performance test using an eGPU in Mojave when it arrives.

The HTC Vive Pro is to receive plug and play-support in the new Mac OS “Mojave”

Although now Apple with their Mac’s have the technical solutions that make it possible to create and view VR in the same way that normal Windows PC’s have, this does not mean that Apple’s Mac stand equal before the task. The outcome of long years where Mac’s would not really be able to play any VR games still stand, and there are therefore very few games that bring support for Mac users. Hopefully this will change in the future, now that Apple at least actually plans the road ahead to be friendlier rather than hostile towards the technologies.

Modular Computing
What is an interesting in the way we see these eGPUs work, is how this kind of modular computing may be the future for laptops. Stationary computer parts have the benefit that they can be as big as they need to be, which reduces the cost of the labour of fitting these components into thin laptops. Scenarios could be imagined where it is normal to have a strong GPU and/or even CPU at home and at work, along with some monitors, to augment your computing once you are there — while always keeping the base parts (your laptop) in your bag to go. This workflow may remind us of the new Nintendo Switch — which can change from console to portable by simply removing the necessary parts and thus “switching” to portable.

What may be even more convenient than modular computing, we can admit, may be cloud computing. When web transfer speeds finally turns good enough in the future, we could upload all our computing into a queue in the sky, to be performed by some quantum computer centres in a desert somewhere… Probably.


What do you think of Apple and VR? Could you imagine the modular computing scenario working in your everyday life? Please comment below.

Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality.

Introduction to Mysticism

Within Mysticism, the merging of Self and World — Inner and Outer — is seen as the utmost aim. Mysticism can be found within most of the world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam — and its aim is often formulated as union with God. Depending on the religion, however, the degree to which Mysticism is the common way of practicing the religion varies. Although many religions have such contemplative practices, they are not always adopted by the religion’s followers at large.

When discussing «Union with God», it should be noted that the term «God» varies in its meaning between these religions. The contemplative practices often have significantly varying metaphysics, for instance Monotheistic (Christianity), Polytheistic (Hinduism), and relatively Atheistic or Agnostic (Buddhism). Be this as it may, their descriptions of the experience of this merging of Self and God is often strikingly similar. These states of enlightenment are often described as ecstatic, in which the conscious experience can not be placed within our normal frames of language or understanding.

What also unites the different traditions, is that such states of consciousness is usually  worked towards through contemplative practice such as yoga, meditation or other disciplines of focus or conscious attention. Other techniques for achieving these ecstasies have have been ascetic ones, such as fasting, waking, isolation — or other ways of stirring the Self to war.

The experience of seeing the Inner as Outer, and the Outer as Inner, is often described as the feeling that living itself is an experience of seeing and perceiving Oneself and/or God. Within this worldview, there is no Self relating to anything external.

Non-duality: synchronization of Inner & Outer

The concept of merging Inner and Outer, or Self and God, can each be viewed either in very material or spiritual terms. Although materiality and spirituality do not have to differ metaphysically, separating these gives us some communicative benefits — and Mysticism may be explained and spoken of from both these perspectives. Discussing the Inner as Outer purely «scientifically», if you will, makes sense in that all our perceptions of the Outer world is indeed created Inner, and as such — Reality will always be a synergy of Inner and Outer. We know that we do not see, or have ever seen, anything which we ourselves do not actively generate. As neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Anil Seth put it, “our brains are actively hallunicating our conscious reality”.

States where a subject experiences the Inner and Outer as ‘one’, is often referred to as «non-dual».  Often while speaking of Inner and Outer, we tend to implicitly reinforce the Self and the World as a duality (when pitching a solution we often have to pitch the problem first). By using the word «non-dual» instead of ‘one’, we may pinpoint the nuance that it is not a duality in separation, but neither completely “same-same”. Although it is non-dual, neither is it all same or flat — least of all static!

Although we classify and divide our reality, fundamentally what we perceive is a stream of experience, which in every sense is simply “reality” before divided, and, again, actively created by us. This is not to say that there are no external reality or world — but it definitely is to say that all which is external is perceived first and foremost, solely, internally. Experientially — externality has never been perceived, except as a subcomponent of internality.

A vase, or two faces? Each defines the other, and neither exist without the other.

Experiencing and Sensing the Non-Dual

This causal explanation, however, leaves out the experiential aspects of the non-duality. Although it may make sense on paper, it matters little to us as we absolutely perceive the world as dual — as subjects relating to a World. Within Philosophy, this traditional way of adhering to and speaking of the world,  is referred to as the subject-object dichotomy. Although, between different cultures and continents, the degree to which we adhere to this way of thinking vary in its intensity, it is nevertheless definitely an essential part of the human experience which we share.

How the material explanation can be said to be different from the spiritual in this sense, is that the spiritual concern is to experience the Inner as Outer, not to understand it cognitively. As such, and towards that, meditation practices such as Mindfulness and Yoga have existed, to increase wellbeing by increasing the degree to which one feels in union with God, or for those who do not fancy the term; to the degree which one has peace with oneself and the world.

Contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, has the last fifty years become more popular in western societies. Although they have been subject to a certain degree of metaphysical raffination the last years, these methods are nevertheless largely old and traditional. The most common of these contemplative practices we see today is adopted from the Vippassana practice, commonly known as Mindfulness. These methods are now commonly used in psychological treatment of anxiety and depression, and research has the latest years started to uncover the benefits of learning to be able to sit quietly with your mind and, well, deal with shit, or seeing it for what it is.

In the next section, we will discuss an approach utilizing Virtual Reality to aid in Mindfulness meditation — which can help to perceive the Inner as Outer.

A common belief is that the aim of contemplative practices is to empty the mind. In a sense, it can be said to be correct, in that meditation practices often seek to eradicate, dilute or cancel the self-referential narratives.

The effects of Mindfulness meditation

The essence of Mindfulness or similar contemplative practices, lie in their manipulation of identity. We stated “the problem” of Mysticism as the gap between Self and Other — and for this separation to be there, we must necessarily have a relatively thoroughly defined sense of self. For most of us, this tend to be limited to the cognitive processes that constitute our mental narrative (the personalized voice in our heads, our formulated will, and how it appears to direct our actions and plans our lives). It is actually to a far lesser extent our bodies, although this also attributes to our self-consciousness.

Mindfulness is about being present attentively in each moment to one’s state of mind. When doing such focus excercises directed at the mind, and observing these mental processes closely, the idea or view of them as solid things starts to unravel. When rather seeing them as thoughts from a distance, they appear untangled to us, and we perceive our own existence as distinct from those thoughts.

Virtual Reality Biofeedback as Meditation aid

One of the great benefits of VR is its ability to project and represent data in the format of the reality encompassing us. Within the context of this entry, we could say therefore that VR can simulate what we perceive as the Outer. The question may then be asked: how can we project our Inner in to this medium of Outer?

Although I believe we will see more work on VR biofeedback within this domain in the future, in this entry we will focus only on one research paper in particular to examplify our case. At last years CHI conference, the world leading conference on Human Computer Interaction, Joan Sol Roo and his colleagues presented their work on Inner Garden: a mixed reality sandbox for mindfulness. The artifact is a physical sandbox, which the user can shape to a given terrain. The sandbox is given generally visually augmented by a projector with colors and shapes — and physical changes to the sandbox will also alter the output of the projector, which deliver terrain information such as sea levels and green growth.

The sandbox is just not physical, however; by placing a physical avatar in the physical sandbox, you can enter into the land you created in Immersive VR. A 3D-model of the land you created physically can be seen virtually, from the viewpoint of your placed avatar.

The Sandbox, which heights of the sand have been turned into an island by the projector.

Attached, to measure your inner states, is both breathing- and heart rate sensors — which are coupled to provide visual and auditive feedback. In this way, you can synchronize your breath to control the environment and rythm and breaking of the waves. The Inner Garden represents your inner state, and. by practicising breathing techniques, the flora of your world will get greener and more animals will appear.

In this way, Inner Garden works as a great example of representing Inner phenomena as External Reality. Very conceptually interesting, and hopefully one day we will also see empirical studies on similar artifacts.

You can read more about Inner Garden, which received an honorable mention at CHI’17, here.


What do you think? Do you have any ideas for VR applications using biofeedback?  Please comment below.

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Camera Lucida

We have previously discussed several interesting optical technologies of relevance to VR. For instance we discussed the fascinating 17th century Camera Obscura and in our entry on a History of VR, we discussed the 19th century Stereoscope, which technology still is used in modern day VR Head-Mounted Displays.

In this entry we will discuss yet another,  similarly old, optical technology, which in category leans more towards that of Augmented Reality than Virtual Reality; the Camera Lucida.

Invented by phycisist William Hyde Wollaston in 1807, the Lucida was a device praised by artists and illustrators for its aid in their art. Similarly to the earlier dated Obscura, the optical artifact could project and redirect images from the external world, making it easier to recreate them in ink. While the Obscura required a dark room to project its images on a surface, the Lucida had the benefit of redirecting the light directly to its users eyes, and was thus more appropriate to use in a lit office, or even while travelling.

Apart from the underlying technical difference, the practice of use was relatively similar; the user would perceive the redirected light representing the object of projection on the surface that should be drawn, and by following the lines with a pen, the image could be reproduced in ink. To draw objects far off, the light could also be captured by a telescope, or for very small details, even a microscope, as seen in the illustration below.

Camera Lucida and Modern day AR technology
The camera lucida share many conceptual and experiential similarities with Augmented Reality (the concept of augmenting our real world with virtual phenomena). When a user is looking through the Camera Lucida,  a ‘virtual’ representation of what the Lucida is directed at, is added to and combined with the user’s normal vision. In AR goggles such as the Microsoft Hololens, this concepts remain the same, only the HoloLens’ holographic images originate from software and not redirected light from the external world.

 

The Microsoft HoloLens, an AR Head-Mounted Display by Microsoft.

Obviously, this is not the only difference between the two — compared to modern AR tech, the functionality and applicability of the Lucida is bleak. The HoloLens is  capable of stereo pictures, and features placement and projection of almost any virtually conceivable object in to the environment. Yet, the beautiful Camera Lucida artifact does share the essential underpinnings of augmenting the environment with re-presentations.

A curious example of the similarity between the two, is how the Lucida these days are being recreated with (mobile) AR. Using for instance an iPad with its camera, the canvas and your hand drawing is displayed to you on the screen, with a see-through image of that which you want to draw. Even better, a similar application has also been developed for the Microsoft HoloLens, called SketchAR HoloLensEDU — and is currently being employed teaching young artists.


Do you know of any good, useful applications within the AR domain? Please comment below!

 

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Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions

A few years ago I visited the beautiful scottish city of Edinburgh. Apart from the old pubs, the whisky and its mighty castles, the city also have attractions for those interested in the art of illusion.  In a castle on one of the heights of the city, we can find an example of an ingenious yet simple optical technology, called the Camera Obscura. We have previously published an entry on the History of VR, where we discussed the invention of the Stereoscope as the first technology underpinning the VR of today. With a broader definition of VR, we could say that the Camera Obscura is an even earlier VR technology than the Stereoscope; in the mid 1600s,  by using the Camera Obscura, one could live stream a photographic segment of reality at much higher refresh rates than what we can do with information technology today.

 

Four people using a Camera Obscura, all the while remaining unseen behind closed doors.

The drawing above illustrates the workings of the Camera Obscura: In a dark room, the light from the world outside is directed by a mirror through a lens, which focuses the light on to a leveled surface. Often made of white stone, the surface functions as a canvas for the photographic reflection. As this is light straight from its source, the responsiveness is immediate and as the lens is continuously open, the pictures are moving. It is a very interesting experience to stay in the Camera Obscura of Edinburgh, and wholly undetected watch and perceive the actions of the masses of people walking the streets outside.

We should note, however, that even the mirrors and lenses are not necessary to create this effect. The camera obscura is in essence an extremely simple concept, and the simplest version of it is called a pinhole camera, which is as simple as a dark room with a hole for which the light to enter through. The light that enters through it represents what reflects it —which of course is the environment outside. As such, all light contains information, and pinhole cameras utilize this by letting the light enter through a small hole in a wall into a dark room, so the visual information can stand alone and be perceived relative to the dark background. In more complicated camera obscuras, lenses are used to strengthen and focus the light, and mirrors to redirect it.

Illustration of a Pinhole Camera, displaying an image upside down on a wall in a dark room.

As some may know, when light hits our eyes, the retina actually perceives the world upside down. Our brains, however, flips this back again — resulting in the world as you see it today. Traditional pinhole cameras or simple camera obscuras also suffer this effect, and so often the image is seen as upside down, as in the illustration above. In the Edinburgh Camera Obscura, they use lenses to maintain the normal orientation. Effectively, the image is inverted twice — once by the aperture, and further back using the lenses. For those who want to try to achieve this at home, we recommend this experiment, which highlights the workings of the lenses.

The Camera Obscura used for the art of drawing.

Another interesting use of the camera obscuras, and a source of their popularity, was for the art of drawing. By projecting directly to the canvas one is drawing on, the lines of the environment can be outlined more easily. What is becoming increasingly clear here, is the role of the camera obscura in the creation of the modern photographic camera. The technology is quite simply the same, only instead of a continuous stream of light to a canvas — we have a limited, controlled exposure to a surface that adapts to the light. It is related to this exposure where photography features make sense, such as aperture (how much light we let in); ISO (the sensitivity of the image sensor), and shutter speed (the amount of time that light should be let in). We are still playing with light and lenses.

The World of Illusions

If you visit Edinburgh to look at their old Camera Obscura from the 1850s, you will find in the same castle what they call «The World of Illusions»; five floors containing over 150 different optical illusions. Caleidoscope rooms; 3D stereoscopic mirrors; mazes of mirrors and much more. We will discuss and explain a few of these in more detail, the first being “The Ames Room”.

The Ames Room

The Ames Room, showing three men of similar size.
An overview of the Ames Room, dissolving the illusion. The illusion illustrates our lacking capability to perceive actual depth (3D).

For the illsion of the Ames Room to work, you have to see it from a certain perspective, which in the above illustration is referred to as the viewing peephole. The Ames Room in Edinburgh, unlike in our illustration, also use floor tiles as in a chessboard to further improve the illusion, which from the viewing hole appears to be of similar size. The illusion is a funny one, and an obvious photo-opportunity.

The Vortex Tunnel

Phtograph from the World of Illusion in Edinburgh.

Another illusion, which is more bodily, is their Vortex Tunnel. You are in a room, where a bridge connects the two ends. The task is to walk over the bridge (a fully stable, stationary bridge). Now, this shouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the cylindric vortex walls are spinning around you. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you simply can not walk a straight line: it is as if the gravity draws you toward the rails of the bridge. If you close your eyes, however, everything is fine.


Do you know of any other fun illusions or old optical technologies? Please comment below!

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The History of Virtual Reality

In recent years, Virtual Reality (VR) technology has finally reached the masses. 2016 was called “The Year of VR” as several actors released their Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) on the consumer market. While HTC, Oculus and Playstation delivered high quality HMDs that require external computers to run, the year also opened up for high quality mobile VR. Both Google with their Daydream View and Samsung/Oculus with their GEAR VR have provided an easier step for consumers to enter the world of VR. These mobile VR solutions  offer better internal measurement units than the simpler Cardboard devices, and also feature simple controllers for interaction. We now see the market spreading out both  in quality and accessibility: in 2018 we have both seen the coming of the HTC Vive Pro, a more expensive high-end HMD with increased resolution, and the Oculus Go, which is a reasonably-priced ($200) stand-alone 3DOF (3 Degrees of Freedom) HMD for the starters.

It is natural to wonder how all of this started. Why did we for instance not see much VR before 2016? When it now seems to be relatively easy for commercial actors to push out HMDs down to $200, why did it not happen sooner? Of course, we have had Oculus’ development kits since 2013 — but even this is very recent.  When Google released their Cardboard (a simple HMD made out of cardboard  and some lenses), it seemed incredilous that VR could be attainable for the smartphone for only 50 cents. This, however, only points us toward how fascinatingly simple the underlying pinciples of VR technology actually are.

In this entry, we will trace the VR tech we see today back to its roots. We will go back about two hundred years, and work ourselves jumpingly forward to the very recent innovative technologies.

Stereoscope

A drawing of the Lothian Stereoscope, released in 1895; one of many different models.

In 1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone developed what would be the first Stereoscope. Even before the camera was invented, people were seeing (drawn) images with 3D effect through stereoscopes.  Stereoscopy, that is, perceptory illusion of depth, is achieved by displaying a slightly different segment of an image to each eye. Wheatstone achieved this by separating the two images by a piece of wood, and providing a lens directing the light, between each eye and the corresponding image. While looking through the stereoscope, our brains perceive the two images as one image, with the added 3D effect due to the varying segments of the images. This effect is simply caused by an utilization of how our eyes and brain work, by combining the sensory data from each eye into one. We may, for instance, most likely be able to recall  sometimes «seeing double», when our brains have yet not our varying visual impressions.

Since Wheatstone, different stereoscopes have been produced all the way up to the Google Cardboard or other HMDs; which instead of drawn images, or later photographs,  utilizes a screen to deliver the imagery to the eyes. Actually, in the early 1900s, Stereoscopes functioned as home entertainment devices, and «stereo cards» such as the image seen below could be purchased from photography companies.

Stereo card of St. Peters Church in the Vatican. Such cards, picturing tourist attractions all over the world, could be purchased and viewed at home in a Stereoscope.

Stereoscopes and modern day Virtual Reality HMDs share the essential feature of stereoscopic depth illusion (3D). Apart from that, however,  a lot has obviously happened since 1838, which we now regard as essential for the feeling of presence and realism, and which makes the technology capable of simulating realities. The most important of these have been moving images, 3D environments, interaction, and 360 degrees of orientation. With the stereoscope, images very static in every sense.

Sensorama

In the mid 1950s, however, some people saw the opportunity to spice up their stereoscopes a bit. A bold attempt at enrichening this, was the Sensorama. In addition to providing a stereoscope with motion pictures in 3D and color,  all quite revelutionary, the device had fans for simulating wind, odor transmitters for smell of the environment, stereo sound, and even a moving chair!

The Sensorama, or «Experience Theather». Illustration from Morton Heilig’s 1962 US Patent.

Pygmalion’s Spectacles

The idea of the Sensorama, or VR in general, can as many other innovative future-defining ideas, be found in science fiction literature. Before its conception, in the 1930s, the science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum introduced the idea of «Pygmalion’s Spectacles». By wearing these, the user could experience a fictional, or virtual world, with holographs, smell, taste and touch, and make the virtual come alive. Pygmalion, which «Pygmalions Spectacles» were named after, were a Greek sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture, and so begged Venus that it would come alive. The Myth sheds an interesting light on VR as an ultimate dream of humanity, to create realities for ourselves to inhibit, or to create images in the format of reality.

Pygmalion, which «Pygmalions Spectacles» were named after, were a Greek sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture. He begged Venus that it would come alive. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault.

Information Technology

To take a leap towards another paradigm shift in VR tech, we must enter the land of 1s and 0s.  The Stereoscope slowly moved from drawn images, to photographs, and further to moving images with the Sensorama. None of these, however, supported spherical environments that could be perceived in all their 360˚. To achieve this,  certain sensors and further computation based on their sensory input has been necessary.  The most important and interesting of these sensors, has been the Gyroscope.

The Focault Gyroscope, created by physicist Jean Bernard León Focault.

The Gyroscope was given its name by Phycisist Jean Bernard León Focault in 1852 who used the device as a means to prove the rotation of the Earth.  The gyroscope is a device consisting of a spinning top with a pair of gimbals. Its origin can not be traced to a single invention or inventor, as tops have originated in many ancient civilizations — however, unlike the «complete» Gyroscope, these were not necessarily used as instruments.  Although Focault’s gyro were not the first that were used as a measuring instrument, its affordances work well to examplify the usefulness of gyroscopes in VR HMDs; the important feature it affords is the measure of rotation, which key lies in the Gyroscope’s tops’ possibility for free rotation.

Gyroscopes are fun artifacts to play with as they seem to defy gravity. While spinning, they can remain stable in most positions. If placed on a platform, that unlike the gyro remain stable, the position in terms of rotation can be measured relatively to the platform, and as such we can also measure the rotation of a HMD. It should be noted, however, that the gyroscopes of today are not pretty mechanical objects of brass anymore, which, although they do no longer satisfy our aesthetic appetite, at least have the benefit of fitting into our smartphones and HMDs. Today, gyroscopes have heights, widths and lengths of only millimeters, which opens the possibility for placing them inside smartphones and HMDs.

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles, an old greek cultural symbol of Mortality — ever close to those in power. We see the sword hanging from a single horse hair over the head of Damocles.

Fifty years ago, in 1968, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull created the first computer-driven stereoscopic (3D) Head-Mounted Graphical Display with 360˚ head-tracking. The HMD was not exactly lightweight, and was named after the «Sword of Damocles» because of the heavy stand hovering over its users head. As can be seen in the illustration below, the head-tracking was mechanical, and did not in fact use a Gyroscope. Later, however, this became a more fruitful approach, so as to avoid the massive device rotating over the users head.

The field of view and graphical fidelity of the Sword of Damocles were obviously quite low, yet the Sword of Damocles is the first widely known HMD, and has since its dawn inspired and launched further decades of VR research.

The first Virtual Reality Head-Mounted Display, named after the Sword of Damocles, because of its great weight hanging over the user’s head.

Towards the modern HMD

Since the invention by Sutherland and Sproull,  creation and use of HMDs was seen more and more within research. As computational power became faster and cheaper, the HMDs decreased in size, and increased in field of view, graphical fidelity and refresh rates. Yet — even back in the 1990s for instance, the technology was still expensive, and poor in terms of graphical realism. It often caused cybersickness due to low refresh rates, and high motion to photon latency. Of this reason, as with any really powerful computer from that time, VR was reserved for research universities that could invest into the technologies, or businesses with resources to experiment with the technology. There were some attempts at commercializing VR for gaming purposes, such as the SEGA Genesis and Nintendo Virtual Boy — however, both of these remained largely as prototypes and were later discontinued. To this day, none of these companies has since experimented with the technology, although Nintendo in 2010  released the Nintendo 3DS which utilizes a stereoscopic display that does not require any glasses.

 

Image of a 3D model of the HTC Vive Pro.

Conclusion

Since the Sword of Damocles, VR technology has undergone small incremental changes leading to where we are today, mainly as a result of general computer and graphics research, and the natural progression of Moore’s Law; today our processors are smaller and more powerful, and our screens of higher resolution.

In addition to this, however, there are certain very recent technologies that have impacted the VR as we know it today as well. In Matrise’s glossary, we briefly present and define some of these technologies. Some that can be read about is Foveated Rendering and  Low Pixel Persistence Modes.


Did we miss anything? Any thoughts are welcome in the comments section.

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