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”

How Researchers Used Salt To Give Masks An Edge Against Pathogens

Masks are proven tools against airborne diseases, but pathogens — like the COVID-19 virus — can collect in a mask and survive which complicates handling and disposal. [Ilaria Rubino], a researcher at the University of Alberta, recently received an award for her work showing how treating a mask’s main filtration layer with a solution of mostly salt and water (plus a surfactant to help the wetting process) can help a mask inactivate pathogens on contact, thereby making masks potentially re-usable. Such masks are usually intended as single-use, and in clinical settings used masks are handled and disposed of as biohazard waste, because they can contain active pathogens. This salt treatment gives a mask a kind of self-cleaning ability.

Analysis showing homogenous salt coating (red and green) on the surface of fibers. NaCl is shown here, but other salts work as well.

How exactly does salt help? The very fine salt coating deposited on the fibers of a mask’s filtration layer first dissolves on contact with airborne pathogens, then undergoes evaporation-induced recrystallization. Pathogens caught in the filter are therefore exposed to an increasingly-high concentration saline solution and are then physically damaged. There is a bit of a trick to getting the salt deposited evenly on the polypropylene filter fibers, since the synthetic fibers are naturally hydrophobic, but a wetting process takes care of that.

The salt coating on the fibers is very fine, doesn’t affect breathability of the mask, and has been shown to be effective even in harsh environments. The research paper states that “salt coatings retained the pathogen inactivation capability at harsh environmental conditions (37 °C and a relative humidity of 70%, 80% and 90%).”

Again, the salt treatment doesn’t affect the mask’s ability to filter pathogens, but it does inactivate trapped pathogens, giving masks a kind of self-cleaning ability. Interested in the nuts and bolts of how researchers created the salt-treated filters? The Methods section of the paper linked at the head of this post (as well as the Methods section in this earlier paper on the same topic) has all the ingredients, part numbers, and measurements. While you’re at it, maybe brush up on commercially-available masks and what’s inside them.

MOSAiC Project Freezes A Boat In The Arctic Ice Pack For Science

Just over a fortnight ago, RV Polarstern, a German research vessel, sailed back into port, heralding the end of the largest Arctic research project ever undertaken. The MOSAiC expedition, short for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, spent a full year running experiments to measure conditions at the North Pole, and research how the unique Arctic climate is being affected by human activity.

Unprecedented In Size And Scope

The operation was regularly resupplied by visits from other icebreakers, bringing equipment, food, and fresh personnel. Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Jan Rohde (CC-BY 4.0)

With a budget exceeding €140 million, and with over 300 scientists attached to the project, the expedition aimed to study a full year-long ice cycle in the Arctic region. To achieve this, the research vessel of the project, RV Polarstern, was navigated into an ice floe, and allowed to freeze in and drift with the ice pack. As the seasons progressed, the vessel drifted with the sea ice across the polar region. Along the way, a series of rotating research teams set up equipment on the ice and took regular measurements, investigating several scientific focus areas. Different groups observed atmospheric conditions and the sea ice itself, with researchers also focusing on biogeochemistry, the ocean, and the ecosystems in the area.

Icebreakers were used to transport goods and personnel to the RV Polarstern over the duration of the mission. The project faced issues in spring, as a pre-planned changeover executed by aircraft had to be abandoned due to restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, this was also executed by ship, with the Polarstern temporarily leaving the ice to rendezvous with RV Sonne and RV Maria S. Merian for the changeover of approximately 100 crew and to pick up provisions. The detour took three weeks, but didn’t have any major negative impacts on the mission. Continue reading “MOSAiC Project Freezes A Boat In The Arctic Ice Pack For Science”

Complex Wood Joints, Thanks To New Software’s Interactive Features

Artfully-crafted wooden joints that fit together like puzzle pieces and need neither glue nor nails is fascinating stuff, but to call the process of designing and manufacturing them by hand “time-consuming” would be an understatement. To change that, a research team from the University of Tokyo presented Tsugite, a software system for interactively designing and fabricating complex wooden joints. It’s named after the Japanese word for joinery, and aims to make the design and manufacture of glue and fastener-free joints much easier than it otherwise would be.

Three-way joint that requires no glue or fasteners.

It looks like the software is so far only a research project and not something that can be downloaded The software is available on GitHub and the approach it takes is interesting. This downloadable PDF explains how the software deals with the problem of how to make such a task interactive and practical.

The clever bit is that the software not only provides design assistance for the joints themselves in a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface, but also generates real-time feedback based on using a three-axis CNC tool as the manufacturing method. This means that the system understands the constraints that come from the fabrication method, and incorporates that into design feedback.

The two main limitations of using a three-axis CNC are that the cutting tool can only approach the material from above, and that standard milling bits cannot create sharp inner corners; they will have a rounded fillet the same radius as the cutting bit. Design can be done manually, or by selecting joints from a pre-defined gallery. Once the design is complete, the system generates the toolpaths for manufacture.

Currently, Tsugite is limited to single joints meant for frame structures, but there’s no reason it couldn’t expand beyond that scope. A video to accompany the paper is embedded below, it’s short and concise and shows the software in action, so be sure to give it a look.

Continue reading “Complex Wood Joints, Thanks To New Software’s Interactive Features”

Breaking Smartphone NFC Firmware: The Gory Details

Near-field Communication (NFC) has been around a while and is used for example in access control, small data exchange, and of course in mobile payment systems. With such sensitive application areas, security is naturally a crucial element of the protocol, and therefore any lower-level access is usually heavily restricted and guarded.

This hardware is especially well-guarded in phones, and rooting your Android device won’t be of much help here. Well, that was of course only until [Christopher Wade] took a deep look into that subject, which he presented in his NFC firmware hacking talk at for this year’s DEF CON.

But before you cry out “duplicate!” in the comments now, [Jonathan Bennett] has indeed mentioned the talk in a recent This Week In Security article, but [Christopher] has since written up the content of his talk in a blog post that we thought deserves some additional attention.

To recap: [Christopher] took a rooted Samsung S6 and searched for vulnerabilities in the NFC chip’s safe firmware update process, in hopes to run a custom firmware image on it. Obviously, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning twice if he hadn’t succeeded, and he goes at serious length into describing how he got there. Picking a brain like his by reading up on the process he went through — from reverse engineering the firmware to actually exploiting a weakness that let him run his own code — is always fascinating and downright fun. And if you’re someone who prefers the code to do the talking, the exploits are on GitHub.

Naturally, [Christopher] disclosed his findings to Samsung, but the exploited vulnerability — and therefore the ability to reproduce this — has of course been out there for a long time already. Sure, you can use a Proxmark device to attack NFC, or the hardware we saw a few DEF CONs back, but a regular-looking phone will certainly raise a lot less suspicion at the checkout counter, and might open whole new possibilities for penetration testers. But then again, sometimes a regular app will be enough, as we’ve seen in this NFC vending machine hack.

Continue reading “Breaking Smartphone NFC Firmware: The Gory Details”

Behind The Scenes Of Folding@Home: How Do You Fight A Virus With Distributed Computing?

A great big Thank You to everyone who answered the call to participate in Folding@Home, helping to understand proteins interactions of SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Some members of the FAH research team hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit to provide us with behind-the-scenes details. Unsurprisingly, the top two topics are “Why isn’t my computer doing anything?” and “What does this actually accomplish?”

The first is easier to answer. Thanks to people spreading the word — like the amazing growth of Team Hackaday — there has been a huge infusion of new participants. We could see this happening on the leader boards, but in this AMA we have numbers direct from the source. Before this month there were roughly thirty thousand regular contributors. Since then, several hundred thousands more started pitching in. This has overwhelmed their server infrastructure and resulted in what’s been termed a friendly-fire DDoS attack.

The most succinct information was posted by a folding support forum moderator.

Here’s a summary of current Folding@Home situation :
* We know about the work unit shortage
* It’s happening because of an approximately 20x increase in demand
* We are working on it and hope to have a solution very soon.
* Keep your machines running, they will eventually fold on their own.
* Every time we double our server resources, the number of Donors trying to help goes up by a factor of 4, outstripping whatever we do.

Why don’t they just buy more servers?

The answer can be found on Folding@Home donation FAQ. Most of their research grants have restrictions on how that funding is spent. These restrictions typically exclude capital equipment and infrastructure spending, meaning researchers can’t “just” buy more servers. Fortunately they are optimistic this recent fame has also attracted attention from enough donors with the right resources to help. As of this writing, their backend infrastructure has grown though not yet caught up to the flood. They’re still working on it, hang tight!

Computing hardware aside, there are human limitations on both input and output sides of this distributed supercomputer. Folding@Home need field experts to put together work units to be sent out to our computers, and such expertise is also required to review and interpret our submitted results. The good news is that our contribution has sped up their iteration cycle tremendously. Results that used to take weeks or months now return in days, informing where the next set of work units should investigate.

Continue reading “Behind The Scenes Of Folding@Home: How Do You Fight A Virus With Distributed Computing?”

Coronavirus And Folding@Home; More On How Your Computer Helps Medical Research

On Wednesday morning we asked the Hackaday community to donate their extra computer cycles for Coronavirus research. On Thursday morning the number of people contributing to Team Hackaday had doubled, and on Friday it had doubled again. Thank you for putting those computers to work in pursuit of drug therapies for COVID-19.

I’m writing today for two reasons, we want to keep up this trend, and also answer some of the most common questions out there. Folding@Home (FAH) is an initiative that simulates proteins associated with several diseases, searching for indicators that will help medical researchers identify treatments. These are complex problems and your efforts right now are incredibly important to finding treatments faster. FAH loads the research pipeline, generating a data set that researchers can then follow in every step of the process, from identifying which chemical compounds may be effective and how to deliver them, to testing they hypothesis and moving toward human trials.

Continue reading “Coronavirus And Folding@Home; More On How Your Computer Helps Medical Research”