Hamster Goes On Virtual Journey

Hamsters are great pets, especially for those with limited space or other resources. They are fun playful animals that are fairly easy to keep, and are entertaining to boot. [Kim]’s hamster, [Mr. Fluffbutt], certainly fits this mold as well but [Kim] wanted something a little beyond the confines of the habitat and exercise wheel and decided to send him on a virtual journey every time he goes for a run.

The virtual hamster journey is built on an ESP32 microcontroller which monitors the revolutions of the hamster wheel via a hall effect sensor and magnet. It then extrapolates the distance the hamster has run and sends the data to a Raspberry Pi which hosts a MQTT and Node.js server. From there, it maps out an equivalent route according to a predefined GPX route and updates that information live. The hamster follows the route, in effect, every time it runs on the wheel. [Mr Fluffbutt] has made it from the Netherlands to southeastern Germany so far, well on his way to his ancestral home of Syria.

This project is a great way to add a sort of augmented reality to a pet hamster, in a similar way that we’ve seen self-driving fish tanks. Adding a Google Streetview monitor to the hamster habitat would be an interesting addition as well, but for now we’re satisfied seeing the incredible journey that [Mr Fluffbutt] has been on so far.

Google Calls It Quits With VR, But Cardboard Lives On

Google giving up on one of their projects and leaving its established userbase twisting in the wind hardly counts as news anymore. In fact, it’s become something of a meme. The search giant is notorious for tossing out ideas just to see what sticks, and while that’s occasionally earned them some huge successes, it’s also lead to plenty of heartache for anyone unlucky enough to still be using one of the stragglers when the axe falls.

So when the search giant acknowledged in early March that they would no longer be selling their Cardboard virtual reality viewer, it wasn’t exactly a shock. The exceptionally low-cost VR googles, literally made from folded cardboard, were a massive hit when they were unveiled back in 2014. But despite Google’s best efforts to introduce premium Cardboard-compatible hardware with their Daydream View headset two years later, it failed to evolve into a profitable business.

Google Cardboard

Of course if you knew where to look, the writing had been on the wall for some time. While the Daydream hardware got a second revision in 2017, and Google even introduced a certification program to ensure phones would work properly with the $100 USD headset, the device was discontinued in 2019. On the software side, Android 7 “Nougat” got baked-in VR support in 2016, but it was quietly removed by the time Android 11 was released in the fall of 2020.

With Cardboard no longer available for purchase, Google has simply made official what was already abundantly clear: they are no longer interested in phone-based virtual reality. Under normal circumstances, anyone still using the service would be forced to give it up. Just ask those who were still active on Google+ or Allo before the plug was pulled.

But this time, things are a little different. Between Google’s decision to spin it off into an open source project and the legions of third party viewers on the market, Cardboard isn’t going down without a fight. The path ahead might be different from what Google originally envisioned, but the story certainly isn’t over.

Continue reading “Google Calls It Quits With VR, But Cardboard Lives On”

Triton AR Headset Blends Stock And Printed Parts

Augmented reality (AR) and natural gesture input provide a tantalizing glimpse at what human-computer interfaces may look like in the future, but at this point, the technology hasn’t seen much adoption within the open source community. Though to be fair, it seems like the big commercial players aren’t faring much better so far. You could make the case that the biggest roadblock, beyond the general lack of software this early in the game, is access to an open and affordable augmented reality headset.

Which is precisely why [Graham Atlee] has developed the Triton. This Creative Commons licensed headset combines commercial off-the-shelf components with 3D printed parts to provide a capable AR experience at a hacker-friendly price. By printing your own parts and ordering the components from AliExpress, basic AR functionality should cost you $150 to $200 USD. If you want to add gesture support you’ll need to add a Leap Motion to your bill of materials, but even still, it’s a solid deal.

Exploded view of the Triton

The trick here is that [Graham] is using the reflectors from a surprisingly cheap AR headset designed to work with a smartphone. By combining these mass produced optics with a six inch 1440 x 2560 LCD panel inside of the Triton’s 3D printed structure, projecting high quality images over the user’s field of view is far simpler than you might think.

If you want to use it as a development platform for gesture interfaces you’ll want to install a Leap Motion in the specifically designed socket in the front, but otherwise, all you need to do is plug in an HDMI video source. That could be anything from a low-power wearable to a high-end gaming computer, depending on what your goals are.

[Graham] has not only provided the STLs for all the 3D printed parts and a bill of materials, but he’s also done a fantastic job of documenting the build process with a step-by-step guide. This isn’t some theoretical creation; you could order the parts right now and start building your very own Triton. If you’re looking for software, he’s also selling a Windows-based “Triton AR Launcher” for the princely sum of $4.99 that looks pretty slick, but it’s absolutely not required to use the hardware.

Of course, plenty of people are more than happy to stick with the traditional keyboard and monitor setup. It’s hard to say if wearable displays and gesture interfaces will really become the norm, of they’re better left to science fiction. But either way, we’re happy to see affordable open source platforms for experimenting with this cutting edge technology. On the off chance any of them become the standard in the coming decades, we’d hate to be stuck in some inescapable walled garden because nobody developed any open alternatives.

Virtual Reality With A Dash Of Live Shakespeare

Virtual reality headsets enforce an isolated experience, cutting us off from people nearby when we put one on our head. But in recent times, when we’re not suppose to have many people nearby anyway, a curious reversal happens: VR can give us a pandemic-safe social experience. Like going to our local community theater, which is an idea [Tender Claws] has been exploring with The Under Presents.

VR hype has drastically cooled, to put it mildly. While some believe the technology is dead and buried, others believe it is merely in a long tough climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment. It is a time for innovators to work without the limelight of unrealistic expectations. What they need is a platform for experiments, evaluate feedback, and iterate. A cycle hackers know well! The Under Presents is such a platform for its corner of VR evolution.

Most VR titles are videogames of one genre or another, so newcomers to the single-player experience may decide its otherworldly exploration feels like Myst. A multi-player option is hardly novel in this day and age, but the relatively scarcity of VR headsets means this world is never going to be as crowded as World of WarCraft. This is not a bug, it is a differentiating feature. Performers occasionally step into this world, changing the experience in ways no NPC ever could. A less crowded world makes these encounters more frequent, and more personal.

Pushing this idea further, there have been scheduled shows where a small audience is led by an actor through a story. As of this writing, a run of a show inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest is nearing its end. The experience of watching an actor adjusting and reacting to an audience used to be exclusive to an intimate theater production. But with such venues closed, it is now brought to you by VR.

How will these explorations feature in the future of the technology? It’s far too early to say, but every show moves VR storytelling a little bit forward. We hope this group or another will find their way to success and prove the naysayers wrong. But it is also possible this will all go the way of phone VR. We are usually more focused on the technical evolution of VR here, but it’s nice to know people are exploring novel applications of the technology. For one can’t exist for long without the other.

Bone Vibration Brings Typing Into VR

Virtual reality is becoming more of a thing, now that we have high quality headsets and the computing power to generate attractive environments. Many VR systems use controllers held in mid air, or camera-based systems that track limbs and hands for interaction. However, productivity scenarios often require prolonged interactions over a long period of time, which typically necessitates working at surfaces that allow the body to rest intermittently. To help facilitate this, a group of researchers at ETH Zurich developed TapID, including a preprint paper (PDF) that will be presented at IEEE VR 2021 later this month.

TapID consists of a wristband that carries two motion sensors, with one worn on each wrist. This allows TapID to detect taps from each of the user’s fingers individually, thanks to a machine learning algorithm that analyses the unique vibrations through your skeletal system. This is demonstrated as being useful for VR environments, where the user can type into a virtual keyboard, or interact with virtual objects on a surface, using their fingers as they would in the real world. This is a sensor fusion with the features of modern VR headsets that include hand tracking. The TapID wristbands deliver granularity and detection of small motions that is not nearly as accurate through headset-mounted senors and camera-based detection.

Test hardware includes 4 accelerometers. Two on flexible PCBs are the sensing hardware used by the system, the other two on the rigid PCB are used as a baseline during testing but do not contribute to the tap detection.

We’re not entirely convinced of the utility of sitting down in a virtual environment to type at a fake keyboard when monitors and real keyboards are more tactile and cheaper. However, having a device that can accurately determine individual finger interactions is sure to have applications in VR. And whether or not the demonstrated use cases are viable, the technology does indeed work.

It’s exciting to see the wrist-band form factor. It brings to mind the possibility of improving tap interactions in smart watches for non-VR uses. We envision chorded keyboard type gestures that detect which fingers are tapping but don’t need positional accuracy.

Those experimenting in VR interfaces may find it useful to reverse engineer what’s already out on the market, as we’ve featured before. Or, you can simply build your own! Video after the break.

Continue reading “Bone Vibration Brings Typing Into VR”

All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s

Virtual reality has seen enormous progress in the past few years. Given its recent surges in development, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the ideas underpinning what we now call VR were laid way back in the 60s. Not all of the imagined possibilities have come to pass, but we’ve learned plenty about what is (and isn’t) important for a compelling VR experience, and gained insights as to what might happen next.

If virtual reality’s best ideas came from the 60s, what were they, and how did they turn out?

Interaction and Simulation

First, I want to briefly cover two important precursors to what we think of as VR: interaction and simulation. Prior to the 1960s, state of the art examples for both were the Link Trainer and Sensorama.

The Link Trainer was an early kind of flight simulator, and its goal was to deliver realistic instrumentation and force feedback on aircraft flight controls. This allowed a student to safely gain an understanding of different flying conditions, despite not actually experiencing them. The Link Trainer did not simulate any other part of the flying experience, but its success showed how feedback and interactivity — even if artificial and limited in nature — could allow a person to gain a “feel” for forces that were not actually present.

Sensorama was a specialized pod that played short films in stereoscopic 3D while synchronized to fans, odor emitters, a motorized chair, and stereo sound. It was a serious effort at engaging a user’s senses in a way intended to simulate an environment. But being a pre-recorded experience, it was passive in nature, with no interactive elements.

Combining interaction with simulation effectively had to wait until the 60s, when the digital revolution and computers provided the right tools.

The Ultimate Display

In 1965 Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, authored an essay entitled The Ultimate Display (PDF) in which he laid out ideas far beyond what was possible with the technology of the time. One might expect The Ultimate Display to be a long document. It is not. It is barely two pages, and most of the first page is musings on burgeoning interactive computer input methods of the 60s.

The second part is where it gets interesting, as Sutherland shares the future he sees for computer-controlled output devices and describes an ideal “kinesthetic display” that served as many senses as possible. Sutherland saw the potential for computers to simulate ideas and output not just visual information, but to produce meaningful sound and touch output as well, all while accepting and incorporating a user’s input in a self-modifying feedback loop. This was forward-thinking stuff; recall that when this document was written, computers weren’t even generating meaningful sounds of any real complexity, let alone visual displays capable of arbitrary content. Continue reading “All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s”