Augmented Reality Is On The Way

November 26th 2014 in Blog, Technology

Last week we started to dip into the world of wearable technology which naturally leads us to augmented reality. Virtual and augmented reality have started to become a big deal in the startup world. The first device to start getting recent serious traction in virtual reality was Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift has become pretty well known as a 3D gaming device although it looks akin to something that Popular Mechanics would keep promising us is coming out for about ten years. It garnered a bit of controversy when the creators raised about $2.5 million for development only to turn around and sell to Facebook for $2 billion because, you know, screw those guys for being smart. The exact future of Oculus Rift is currently uncertain, but we can probably rule out a virtual Facebook wall.

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Political debates would be more fun, though.

Another big player that just put quite a bit of trust into this tech is Google, and the trust is about half a billion dollars in a company called Magic Leap. Having just started, their website is barely informative but avoids being too vague to not be intriguing. We do know they are tinkering with what is being called “cinematic reality”. Cinematic reality focuses on human creativity and integrating it into how we interact with the world. So it’s not too surprising to note that Magic Leap is working closely with film effects studio Weta Workshop whose founder, Sir Richard Taylor, sits on Magic Leap’s board. The product is said to be built into glasses although it will be vastly different from something like Google Glass because of the way it displays data. Instead of a screen that shows the display, the visuals are directly projected onto the wearer’s retina – a method that has the ability to show a stunningly photorealistic image in a whole new way.

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“Hey man, you wanna try out my new computer? It’s like drugs.”

This kind of technology is a big deal, not just because of the vast potential for its use, but because of the social implications as well. There are of course the usual gamut of questions to go through from the ever-watchful critics in the peanut gallery. What are the sociological effects of something like this? Is it actually wise to merge reality with this type of intense virtual stimulation? We humans are very capable of telling the difference between what is real and what isn’t. And because of the way our minds are programmed, there is a threshold where our brains get confused. But we’ve been doing that for a while. For example, we tell stories because they make us feel a certain way. We know deep down that so-and-so is a fictional person, but markings on a page concerning his fate still make our hearts race faster. It’s taken to an extreme with things like theme parks where first-world people who have never had to be in a life-or-death situation board a machine that tricks the body into thinking its about to die, even when the person knows that’s not actually the case.

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Happy birthday, kid. Let’s pretend to die all day!

But with proper use, augmented reality can be just as real as anything we make or build. A school isn’t “the real world.” It’s a constructed microcosm that serves as an environment that is quite different from the actual world. Neither is say, a grocery store. We know that food doesn’t come from a store shelf, but we do know that it’s our method of access. But we probably wouldn’t say that it isn’t useful just because we didn’t slaughter or harvest it ourselves. Ideas, especially half-formed or innovative ones, can become much more accessible through a physical manifestation. That’s why we have whiteboards. Companies like Magic Leap that emphasize creativity and learning have a better chance of making it over something like Oculus Rift which is essentially just an Xbox for your head. I’m not saying that Oculus is bad, but as a non-gamer it’s just not as exciting for me. Augmented reality shouldn’t be boxed in by the users or creators as another fancy game console. It’s imagination and ideas becoming real and that’s why it’s so exciting.

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Wearable Tech: An Introduction

November 19th 2014 in Blog, Technology

“Smart tech” is pretty ubiquitous by now. For the most part, we all have some kind of smartphone that we carry with us all day. There’s been a lot written about the downsides to a society that embraces this kind of pervasive integration of things like the internet. But I think we’ve been doing just fine. The next big jump to make in the world of everyday tech involves the usually horrendous merging of fashion and function known as “wearable tech.” Just as the personal desktop world had to balance form and function, so now does the wearable tech industry.

Here’s my take on wearable tech: the technology is cool, it’s going to be everywhere sooner rather than later, and you and I will end up using it at some point. But right now, in the form it exists, I’m not a huge fan. And yes, that includes the Apple Watch. It’s a neat gadget, and it’s going to be good at what it does, but I have no desire to slap one on my wrist. At least not in its current form. The cliché caricature of wearable tech usually seems to be that timeless retro classic of the calculator watch. Clunky, a bit obnoxious, and overly practical to a visual fault.

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“Haha, NERD!”

Google Glass is one of the the most conspicuous examples. It hangs out on your face and reminds everyone that you’re probably spying on them. The cementing of tech into more specific areas of our lives has become something of a hot-button issue in an environment of surveillance and rumors of big companies hanging out at the NSA treehouse. This is a valid concern, but it has also led many companies into adopting security measures that have left government officials banging their heads against the wall. So that’s a good sign. As an example, the new Apple Pay is much more secure than traditional online credit payment systems because it requires your fingerprint, a unique physical object that cannot be duplicated.

The last couple of decades have been about rapid innovation in the tech world, especially as it pertains to the communication industry. The most vocal critics usually lambast how impersonal all the new gadgets are or how they’ll drive us apart. So, for better or worse, the direction of the tech industry at large for the next couple of decades will be about recouping all that technology and bringing it closer to us as individuals – literally.

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Or it’ll turn as all into Ziggy Stardust.

Smartphones and smartwatches are just the tip of the iceberg. And that iceberg is called “augmented reality.” Augmented reality is different from a virtual one because it doesn’t change your perception of the world. Instead, your world is enhanced with virtual and interactive deliveries of information. An example of augmented reality functioning in the everyday wild would be our various screens of information. Wearable tech at its best takes these things and lets us use them in the most unobtrusive and easily accessible way possible. If “wearables” – as they are referred to – are having a hard time catching on, it could be chalked up to this lack of integration.

Wristwatches, a simple and traditional way of delivering information, are a precursor to augmented reality. But in the long run, its form may not be the best way to showcase new methods of communication and content delivery. The key to making wearable tech an everyday thing won’t necessarily be accomplished by shoehorning new ideas into an old framework. And if it is, it will have to be just as seamless a transition as smartphones have been.

Tech, Criticism, and Innovation

November 12th 2014 in Blog, Technology

I really like innovation. I really like tech. I also really like Apple stuff. I’m not really an Apple fanboy though – I think the new watch looks cool, but I don’t need or even want one. I like having the newer iPhones because that’s something I use every day. But my barely used iPad 3 that I scored for $150 cuts it as far as a good tablet goes. I don’t ever feel that I need to buy the newest thing every six months.

What’s interesting to me is how viciously fickle critics have become of tech companies. And it’s not just that industry that gets heat. The internet seems to have given a whole new breed of armchair critics a place to hole up and throw rotten tomatoes at anyone who fails to create something that lives up to the high standards they’ve created in their heads. For a large part of the tech consumer market, it’s all or nothing. They demand radically new, all the time, no exceptions.

A few weeks ago, Apple released the iPad Mini 3. It’s exactly the same as the previous model, the iPad Mini with Retina Display, but with the added feature of the Touch ID fingerprint reader. Bloggers felt “betrayed” and completely unsurprised that Apple would pull this kind of crap again. Funny thing is, the fact that the previous model is now a hundred bucks less was mostly ignored. So if you really don’t want that Touch ID for the same price as the iPad already was, hey, you can save $100. But this attitude repeats itself over and over with every new product launch.

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Leaked photo of the iPad Mini 4.

There’s a couple of reasons for this attitude. One of them is just greed. Tech is a tool, and should be treated as such. A tool should be practical at the end of the day, and a practically made tool is something that doesn’t need to be replaced every 12 months. When you have a company like Apple that straddles the line between tech giant and iconic lifestyle brand, you have a lot of people who want to be seen with the newest cool thing. But the products, when well made, don’t necessitate that kind of fast turn around. I bought my first Apple laptop in 2006 when I was in high school and used it with no problems every day since then until a few months ago.

As we’ve discussed before, not every new iteration of a product can be or even should be a completely new and ground-breaking thing. So why do they keep coming out with barely updated versions for years after the initial product release? Any smart company is going to be tweaking their products as they move towards bigger and more important product releases. And you don’t need to buy them or even feel jealous every time a new version of your computer comes out. My MacBook (it was one of those sweet black ones) was great and never once did I wish that I had waited just a few more months or a year for the newest one. When you buy good tech and treat it well, it’ll last you a while. Seven and a half years of heavy use is above average for a laptop, and I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth.

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The disposable camera of the 21st century.

As we continue to explore tech criticism, we’re gonna change gears a little bit. The other reason for the highly critical attitude is an oddly high standard of perfection that people have when it comes to successful people. I won’t deny that Steve Jobs was often a jerk. Could he have used more tact and sensitivity when he dealt with people? Did he backstab and lie to manipulate others and get his way? Yeah, but everyone’s got problems. People aren’t perfect. I can be a jerk, and you probably have your moments too. That doesn’t make it acceptable behavior – it’s just what we have to deal with as people.

I’ve had conversations with people who try to convince me that a company like Apple is a fluke and isn’t actually that great because the guy who started it was mean sometimes. Quite the opposite, in fact. The very nature of a wildly successful person means that they are probably goofily eccentric and slightly narcissistic at the very least or a high functioning sociopath at the worst. So much so that in trying to understand where innovation comes from, researchers have retroactively labeled innovators of the past from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein as autistic or something similarly clinical. The idea that a “normal person” could come up with something so “out there” or revolutionary both frustrates and scares people. But the guy who built a company that he started in his parents’ garage to be the most valuable brand in the world wasn’t a goober who accidentally tripped into success. He knew what he was doing; and he used other people to help him, whether they knew it or not.

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“Hmmm…I’ve got two murders penciled in after lunch, but I could probably invent something groundbreaking by dinner.”

This shouldn’t be taken as a defense of bad behavior. But if you want to know where innovation comes from, this is usually it. Think of it as a “meet your meat” moment. Still, to say that a smartphone is a bad product because the guy who made it happens to have a bad temper is a logical fallacy called ad hominem, which is a fancy way of saying “name-calling.” Many ubiquitous facets of modern life, from lightbulbs to Facebook, were mired in controversy because of the people who made them. But you use these products every day. And by putting down the small things that these innovators work hard to offer you, you become the jerk you claim to hate. By its very definition, innovation is something that goes against an established status quo. And for the most part, the only people willing to rock that boat will be, as Apple’s famous ad campaign declared, “the crazy ones.”