Thursday, May 29, 2014

Printing Humans

Our Best Bet for Colonizing Space May Be Printing Humans on Other Planets

NASA's 1970s concept for space colonization. Image: NASA

Assuming human deep space travel turns out to be not just incredibly dangerous, but perhaps “crazy idiotic" and "laughable," as Harvard biologist Gary Ruvkun put it, the tenacious dream of an interstellar civilization forces some out-of-the box thinking. What if, instead of rocketing humans to other planets, we made an exact copy on site?
Adam Steltzner, the lead engineer on the NASA JPL's Curiosity rover mission, believes that to send humans to distant planets, we may need to do one of two things: look for ways to game space-time—traveling through wormholes and whatnot—or rethink the fundamental idea of "ourselves."
"Our best bet for space exploration could be printing humans, organically, on another planet," said Steltzner on stage at Smithsonian Magazine’s Future Is Now conference in Washington, DC this month.
Many of science’s brightest minds think that the only way to guarantee the long-term survival of the human race is to colonize other planets—problem is, we have no clue how to safely travel to Mars, let alone further into our cosmic neighborhood.​ By sending instructions on how to print ourselves to far-flung locales, we could skip the trip.
The "printing" idea starts out by encoding human genetic information in bacteria so that our DNA can hitch a ride to another planet. Scientists recently discovered that microbes can survive the trip from Earth to Mars, so the theory is, why not bring some genetic code along next time? Then once the DNA-toting microbes arrive on the new planet, the building blocks of life are reassembled as a human being.

"Once you propose terraforming, you might as well propose sending bacteria with human sequences. That's not that crazy."​

"Maybe we will colonize other worlds not with astronauts in space suits, but with bacteria," said Steltzner at the event. "Those considerations seem beautiful, fantastic."
Beautiful, fantastic, and totally bonkers. Interest piqued, I called up Ruvkun—who along with George Church, his colleague at Harvard Medical School’s genetics departmentpioneered the DNA space travel concept—to find out if the idea is just futurist hubris or actually feasible. The short answer is, it’s a little of both.
The printing humans concept is not mine, but belongs to Ruvkun, Church and others Havard Med Dept of Genetics. They think deep and forward.
— Adam Steltzner (@steltzner) May 17, 2014
Ruvkun told me that it is possible to encode segments of human DNA in bacteria and have it survive the trip to other planets. “Like using bacteria like computer memory,” he said. 'It's sort of like an iPod that you send to another planet. And the bacteria can store information very densely."
It’s an extension of the idea to engineer bacteria to send into space to terraform Mars. These microbial pioneers would stimulate the evolution of a new biosphere, the theory goes, providing oxygen and food and the environment that Earthling settlers would need to live on the red planet.
"Once you propose terraforming, you might as well propose sending bacteria with human sequences," said Ruvkun. "That's not that crazy."

What is potentially crazy, however, is the plan to reassemble the sequence on the other side. At this point, that’s beyond what’s we’re capable of. "We don't have any ability to sort of reassemble a human from DNA,” said Ruvkun.

But it’s also not entirely outside the realm of possibility. As genetic engineering, cloning, and bioprinting technology advances, it’s providing a lot of food for the imagination. If you put a 100th of a human genome into bacteria, Ruvkun said, you'd have to assemble 100 human segments, Ruvkun said. That seems doable.

"We're only 50 years into the DNA era," he said. "Five thousands years in, we'll probably think of that as a piece of cake."

But engineering bacteria in a university lab is one thing. If you’re trying to reconstruct an entire human on distant planet with no intelligent life, who’s even doing the reassembling? And this is where the idea gets really wacky.

If you want to roll with the terraforming scenario a bit further, you can imagine the human-encoded bacteria reassembles naturally, through organic processes, to eventually evolve into descendant organisms—sort of restarting the human population.
“Maybe that process has happened before,” Steltzner told me over the phone this weekend. “Maybe that's how we got here.”
Image: Rick Guidice/NASA
That line of thinking opens up a host of questions about how life came to be in the first place. Did someone else terraform Earth to create us? Do we share a microbial ancestor with Mars? If we custom-make life to survive on other planets, are we ‘playing god?’ Is ‘life’ more than a reconstructed genome? But let’s snap that Pandora’s Box shut for now and move onto scenario B: artificially constructing our biological building blocks after they hitchhike through deep space.
One idea floated by Steltzner is that we beam the human genome into the universe through radio waves—like we're already doing to try to communicate with intelligent life—and see if anyone receives the transmission and can figure out how to interpret it.

Maybe we send along detailed instructions with the signal, or encode a user’s manual of sorts in the DNA-carrying bacteria. Maybe we even send a robot to another planet, wait a thousand years to make sure we trust the machine, and then "beam the information about a human being and tell it to genetically construct the human," Steltzner mused.

"The idea of 3D printing is, something's created out of matter at the location, just with the information. And that's kind of what we're talking about here,” Steltzner said. "That kind of feels like a very fancy 3D printing to me.”

If we believe it's possible to print a Martian organism on Earth, could it work the other way around? 

It sounds far-fetched, but it’s an area of biotech geneticists are currently exploring. Being able to store and transmit genetic code the same as any other kind of data is the principle behind the “life printing” gadget being developed by biologist Craig Venter, the US biologist that’s famous for helping map the human genome and creating the first synthetic life.

Venter is developing a “digital biological converter” device that can transport a digital DNA file, at the speed of light, and recreate the original lifeform in the new location from that data. He calls it biological teleportation, but it’s more like a cosmic fax.

Venter believes the process could be used to “print” alien life, if there is any, here on Earth. If, say, the Mars rover discovers microbes on the planet, it could beam back digital copies of the genomes to sequence here on Earth. There's a prototype already, which unsurprisingly has attracted the support of NASA and DARPA.

So if we believe it's possible to print a Martian organism on Earth, could it work the other way around? At this point, Venter’s experiment is only tackling life-printing at the individual gene level, but single-celled organisms like bacteria are next in line. “More complex creatures,” the New York Times reported, “earthly or Martian, will probably never be possible.”
Probably not. But in Ruvkun’s view, this method of “human” space exploration is worth thinking about, if for no other reason than it’s the least unlikely of all the unlikely schemes to colonize the cosmos.

If we're going to talk about interplanetary settlements anyway, we might as well discuss the strategies that aren't definitely scientifically impossible, he reasoned. We know which laws of physics are standing in the way of transporting people lightyears through the universe, but there aren't obvious laws of nature preventing us from sending DNA-encoded organisms to propagate the species on other planets.

"This is completely speculative," Steltzner said at the end of our interview. "But it doesn't require you moving faster than the speed of light, and it doesn’t require infinite amounts of energy.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality

The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality

As he flew from Orange County to Seattle in September 2013, Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, couldn’t envision what the next six months would bring. The rhapsodic crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show. The around-the-block lines at South by Southwest. Most of all, the $2 billion purchase by Facebook. That fall Oculus was still just an ambitious startup chasing virtual reality, a dream that had foiled countless entrepreneurs and technologists for two decades. Oculus’ flagship product, the Rift, was widely seen as the most promising VR device in years, enveloping users in an all-encompassing simulacrum that felt like something out of Snow Crash or Star Trek. But it faced the same problem that had bedeviled would-be pioneers like eMagin, Vuzix, even Nintendo: It made people want to throw up. 
This was the problem with virtual reality. It couldn’t just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick.
There were a million little problems like that, tiny technical details that would need to be solved if virtual reality were ever to become more than a futurist’s fantasy. The Rift had made enough headway to excite long-suffering VR enthusiasts, but it was still a long way from where it needed to be.
  • “This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly.” 

    But then Iribe got a call from Michael Abrash, an engineer at Valve; the gaming software company had conducted VR research for a while and had begun collaborating with Oculus. Valve had a new proto­type, and it didn’t make people sick. In fact, no one who had tried the demonstration had felt any discomfort. Iribe, who was famously sensitive to VR-induced discomfort—“cold sweat syndrome,” he calls it, or sometimes “the uncomfortable valley”—flew up to Valve’s offices outside Seattle to be the ultimate guinea pig.
    Abrash escorted Iribe into a small room tucked off a hallway. The walls and ceilings were plastered with printouts of QR-code-like symbols called fiducial markers; in the corner, a young engineer named Atman Binstock manned a computer. Connected to the computer was Valve’s proto­type headset—or at least the very beginnings of a headset, all exposed circuit boards and cables. Iribe slipped it over his head and found himself in a room, the air filled with hundreds of small cubes.
    He turned his head to look behind him—more floating cubes. Cubes to the left, cubes to the right, cubes overhead, floating away into infinity. Iribe leaned forward and peered around to see the side of the cube closest to him; he crouched and could see its underside. A small camera on the headset was reading the fiducial markers on the (real) wall and using that spatial information to track his position among the (virtual) cubes. So far, so good; no motion sickness yet.
    Binstock tapped some keys and moved the demo to its next stage. Inside the headset, Iribe stood in a giant chamber, a web browser page on each wall. Iribe picked out a word on the wall across from him and started shaking his head back and forth, rotating as fast as he could, waiting for the word to smear across his vision and make him dizzy. Nothing. In any of Oculus’ own proto­type headsets, Iribe would have gotten nauseated long ago, but he was still feeling good.
    As Binstock continued clicking through the demo, Iribe faded in and out of a series of rooms—bare-bones virtual worlds filled with cubes and spheres. In all of them he took his time, moving, crouching, panning this way and that, taking in his 360-degree surroundings. Eventually he came to the grand finale, in which he floated slowly though a vast structure, its interior walls like some glowing mashup of Tron and a Death Star trench. The demo was at an end.
    But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the proto­type. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock.

    Videogame legend John Carmack, seen here in 2009, would leave id Software to join Oculus as CTO. Drew “Prognar” Campbell
    It had been close to 45 minutes.
    That’s it, Iribe thought. This is going to be bigger than I ever expected.
    And that’s saying something, because the expectations surrounding the Oculus Rift have always been huge, ever since an 18-year-old named Palmer Luckey hacked together a rough proto­type in his parents’ garage in Long Beach, California, in 2011. In June 2012, John Carmack—the legendary founder of id Software, the company that created Doom, Quake, and the entire concept of 3-D gaming—brought that early proto­type to the E3 videogame show, reintro­ducing VR to the popular conversation for the first time since The Lawnmower Man. A year later, Oculus brought an HD proto­type to E3 and blew minds all over again. Then it brought another, even more advanced one to CES this past January. Then another unit to the Game Developers Conference in March. And finally, the $2 billion purchase by Facebook. All for a company that doesn’t even have a commercial product yet and is chasing a dream that most of the tech community had seemingly given up on decades ago.

    Oculus has almost single-handedly revived that dream. Luckey’s advances have inspired Sony to announce its own forthcoming VR hardware, for now known only as Project Morpheus. Software developers from Gears of War maker Epic Games to EVE Online studio CCP have been designing new experiences for the Rift. And it goes beyond gaming: Developers are producing Rift-enabled tools to let users explore everything from molecules to galaxies. Framestore, a visual effects firm, created a virtual Game of Thrones experience for HBO; Gravity director Alfonso CuarĂ³n has visited Oculus headquarters. Enough Holly­wood types have come calling, in fact, that Oculus recently hired a director of film and media.

    Beyond that, though, the company and its technology herald nothing less than the dawn of an entirely new era of communication. Mark Zuckerberg gestured at the possibilities himself in a Facebook post in March when he announced the acquisition: “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home.” That’s the true promise of VR: going beyond the idea of immersion and achieving true presence—the feeling of actually existing in a virtual space.

    “I’ve seen five or six demos that made me think the world was about to change: Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus.” 

    That’s because Oculus has found a way to make a headset that does more than just hang a big screen in front of your face. By combining stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a wide field of view—along with a supersize dose of engineering and software magic—it hacks your visual cortex. As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world. “This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly,” says Abrash, the Valve engineer. “I don’t get vertigo when I watch a video of the Grand Canyon on TV, but I do when I stand on a ledge in VR.”

    Now Oculus is hard at work on its long-awaited headset for consumers, which the company predicts will be released later this year, or more likely early next year, or perhaps even not so early next year. Whenever it comes, we’ll finally have something that has eluded us for more than 30 years: immersive, affordable virtual reality. And we’ll all know what Brendan Iribe knew standing in that room outside of Seattle.

    This is going to be bigger than we ever expected.

    If there’s a checklist for tech wunderkind, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey leaves no box unticked. There’s the shoelessness, for one; he commutes in sandals and regularly pads barefoot around the Oculus offices in Irvine, California. There’s the tousled hair, the anachronistic attachment to his 75-mpg 2001 Honda Insight, the can of vitamin-enriched sparkling blackberry juice seemingly glued to his hand, and the confidence that comes from knowing a lot of things about a lot of things (or possibly from all that juice).
    But most of all, there’s the omnivorous curiosity. As a home-schooled teenager in Southern California, Luckey spent much of his free time tinkering with electronics—modding videogame consoles and repairing iPhones for extra cash, then spending the money on high-powered laser systems and upgrades for his gaming PC. The PC, in particular, became an obsession: Luckey found himself pouring tens of thousands of dollars into it. And soon, a hunt for 3-D monitors became a search for true immersion. As a kid, he’d been entranced by the idea of getting inside the videogames he played on his Gameboy Color. Virtual-world sci-fi like The Matrix and the anime show Yu-Gi-Oh! intensified the desire. Why, he asked himself, can’t we do that yet?

    His modding and iPhone repair work had left him with a lot of money, so he bought a $400 Vuzix iWear VR920, then the most cutting-edge consumer VR headset—enthusiasts call them HMDs, for head-mounted displays—on the market. Then he moved on to the more expensive eMagin Z800 3DVisor. And he kept looking. Over time, through a combination of government auctions and private resellers, he would spend the money once earmarked for PC upgrades on more than 50 different units, building what he touts as the largest private collection in the world.
    Until now, VR was blurry, buggy, and nauseating. Here’s how Oculus built the first headset good enough to trick your brain. —P.R.

    Francesco Muzzi

    The Brain The biggest challenge in creating realistic VR is getting the image to change with your head movements, precisely and without any perceptible lag. The Rift fuses readings from a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to evaluate head motion. Even better, it takes 1,000 readings a second, allowing it to predict motion and pre-­render images, shaving away precious milliseconds of latency.

    The Display Even the best LCD can take 15 milliseconds for all its pixels to change color. The Rift uses AMOLED screens, which can switch color in less than a millisecond. Oculus also figured out how to deactivate those pixels rapidly so the image doesn’t smear or shake when you whip your head around.

    The Optics You want an image that fills your entire field of vision without distortion. Typically that requires heavy, expensive lenses. The Rift uses a pair of cheap magnifying lenses, and Oculus developers distort their games so they look right when viewed through the optics.
    Positional Tracking Previous VR headsets let you look around but not move around. The Rift’s small exter­nal camera monitors 40 infrared LEDs on the headset, tracking motion and letting you crouch, lean, or approach an in-game object.

    But even these couldn’t give Luckey the immersion he craved. When he put them on, he felt like he was looking at a play space, not living inside of it. “It wasn’t garbage,” Luckey says, “but it wasn’t virtual reality.” The image quality was poor, because the transmissive LCDs weren’t high-contrast. The head-tracking latency was off the charts, causing a nauseating lag every time he turned his head. But most of all, the field of vision was too narrow. He could always see the edge of the screen, which meant his brain could never be truly tricked into thinking it was inside the game.

    Luckey figured that he had as good a chance as anyone to solve those problems. So he tinkered, and tinkered some more, and one night in November 2010 he announced to the world—or at least to the message-board denizens of a 3-D-gaming news site called Meant to Be Seen—the existence of PR1 (for Proto­type 1), his first stab at a virtual-reality device. It was a cumbersome beast, built on the shell of a headset from his collection. It displayed only in 2-D and was so heavy that it needed a 2-pound counterweight in the back. But thanks to a massive chassis that could fit a nearly 6-inch display, it boasted a 90-degree field of vision, an angle nearly twice as large as anything else on the market.

    Over the course of the next 10 months, Luckey kept tinkering, cracking problem after problem. He knew his headset would need a 3-D display, but that meant two screens—projecting slightly different images for each eye—and even with the explosion of smartphone-ready display panels, there simply wasn’t a hi-res panel small enough to fit two side by side in a headset. A few months after announcing the PR1, Luckey was browsing the documentation of a Fujitsu ultramobile PC he owned and noticed that the usable display area was 121 millimeters wide—just about double the distance between a pair of human eyes. What if I just used half of it for each image? he thought. He put a separate lens over each half of the display, and just like that he had a 3-D proto­type. In September 2011, he announced the wireless PR3. The PR5, which he worked on throughout early 2012, had a gargantuan 270-degree field of vision (though it was neither wearable nor remotely practical). By that point, Luckey had become something of a celebrity on the Meant to Be Seen forums, whose members eagerly awaited his updates.

    A screenshot from EVE Valkyrie, by CCP Games. It’s the first “triple-A” title announced for the Oculus Rift.  |  Courtesy of CCP Games

    One of those members, it turned out, was John Carmack. The Texas engineer is known as the father of the first-person shooter, but games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D weren’t important just for their violence or perspective; they were technological benchmarks, boasting sophisticated bespoke software engines that could make games faster and more immersive than ever before. Like Luckey, Carmack had always been obsessed with making games as lifelike as possible, an interest that had also led him to virtual reality. And like Luckey, he was routinely disappointed in what he found. “There were two broad camps,” he says. “The hardcore academic research people looked down their noses at games. It was all about remote surgery and high-minded things. Then you had the popularizers—pitching the vision, talking about how wonderful it was going to be, how it was going to change everything, but there wasn’t enough technical acumen to get anything accomplished.”

    Carmack kept tinkering and eventually wound up on the Meant to Be Seen forums. It was there he learned about Palmer Luckey’s ongoing project. Carmack was intrigued by the kid, especially when Luckey announced in April 2012 that he was building his sixth-­generation unit, which he called the Rift. “I based it on the idea that the HMD creates a rift between the real world and the virtual world,” Luckey wrote on the forums, “though I have to admit that it is pretty silly. :)” He wrote that he’d be Kickstarting a DIY kit: He’d mail his backers the parts, which they could assemble themselves. After shelling out for the materials, manufacturing, shipping, and fees, Luckey wrote, he expected that he’d make a grand total of $10 “for a celebratory pizza and beer.” Intrigued, Carmack private-­messaged him. Would Palmer consider sending him a loaner unit? Palmer, who idolized Carmack, shipped it off to Texas immediately—“no NDAs, no signing anything,” Carmack says. “It was one of two proto­types that he had.”

    Carmack got to work on the machine, hot-gluing a motion sensor to it and duct-taping on a ski-goggle strap. But his greatest contribution came in the code he wrote for it. The Rift’s biggest selling point was its 90-degree field of view, which Luckey accomplished by slapping a cheap magnifying lens on the display. The problem was, that lens distorted the image underneath, making it warped and uneven. So Carmack coded a version of Doom 3 that pre-­distorted the image, counteracting the effects of the magnifying lens and making the picture appear correct to the viewer. The result was a completely immersive gaming experience, the kind that would other­wise require $10,000 in high-end optics.

    Luckey was ecstatic to learn of Carmack’s work—but then Carmack upped the ante. He asked Luckey if he could “show it to some people at E3 in Los Angeles.”
    “Show it to whoever you want,” Luckey told him.

    A few weeks later, Luckey was in Boston, attending a trade show about display technology; a friend texted him, asking if he’d seen the article about him. It turned out that what Carmack had meant by “show it to some people” was “take a bunch of meetings with the press to promote virtual reality, the Rift, and Luckey himself.”

    From left, Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell, founder Palmer Luckey, and CEO Brendan Iribe in the company’s Irvine, California, headquarters. Dan Winters
    The reception that the Rift got was rapturous. “The level of immersion was unlike any other gaming experience I’ve ever had,” one site wrote. “It transforms the experience of playing a first-person videogame,” another wrote. “When we look at that now,” Carmack says, “it was clearly the inflection point.” Overnight, the Oculus Rift became the most hotly anticipated gaming device since the Microsoft Kinect.
    It was time to get serious. Luckey joined forces with an executive team, Iribe among them, and formally established the company—he was now the founder of Oculus VR Inc. They also upped the ambition of their Kickstarter campaign: They would still send DIY kits to their early backers, but they couldn’t expect developers to start building games for a device they had to construct themselves. So they decided to fund a fully assembled product, promising a complete kit to anyone who pledged $300 or more. The campaign video featured some of the most respected people in the gaming industry, like Cliff Bleszinski, then design director of Epic Games, and Valve head Gabe Newell, singing Oculus’ praises. Hours before the campaign went live, Luckey got nervous and lowered the funding threshold from $500,000 to $250,000. Within hours the company blew past both on its way to more than $2.4 million.

    Since then, the team has made even further headway on some of VR’s most intractable problems. They hired Nirav Patel, an Apple engineer who had been working on a motion tracker that used a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to sense players’ head motion. At Oculus, Patel helped design the brain of the Rift, a tracker that sampled motion data so fast that Oculus could use algorithms to predict a player’s head movements and pre-render images, shaving latency by precious milliseconds. Oculus also switched from LCDs to AMOLED displays, allowing the Rift to reduce latency and motion blur simultaneously. The team used a small external camera to track the headset itself, doing away with fiducial markers. But perhaps the biggest breakthrough wasn’t technical at all. In 2013 Carmack decided to leave id Software, where he had worked since cofounding it in 1991, and join the Oculus team as CTO. It was an eyeball-popping PR coup, but it also meant Carmack could dedicate his engineering skills—the same ones that made Doom and Quake such historic landmarks—to improving the Rift.

    Palmer Luckey Dan Winters
    By mid-October, the momentum was unstoppable. That month Iribe stood up at a gaming conference and announced that the Oculus Rift would be a “no-motion-sickness experience.” It was an audacious promise, and one that caught the attention of Brian Cho, a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz, who was sitting in the audience. The VC firm had turned down an earlier opportunity to invest in Oculus’ Series A round. After hearing Iribe’s announcement, the firm reached out and asked for another demo. Chris Dixon was among the six Andreessen Horowitz partners who got a look at the new model. “I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change,” he says. “Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.” By December, Oculus had closed Series B funding—with Andreessen Horowitz leading—for $75 million.

    It’s April 3, nine days after Facebook announced its purchase of Oculus. But not much has changed here at the company’s HQ in Irvine. Luckey, now 21, still rolls into the office around 11 (after which he’ll work a 12-hour day). The common areas are festooned with all things gaming, from framed posters to signed art to oversize Gears of War figurines. The conference rooms are named after pop culture’s greatest virtual reality dreams—Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck, Snow Crash’s Metaverse, Ready Player One’s Oasis. The open kitchen, while bountiful, skews Engineer: cinder-block-sized containers of Red Vines and packets of Kirkland-brand Variety Snacking Nuts make it clear there’s a Costco nearby. Outside, the April morning is as blue and clear as Orange County usually delivers. On the face of things, last week’s acquisition has left the workplace largely untouched.

    The Facebook deal moved incredibly fast; Zuckerberg first tried on the latest proto­type in February. When Luckey heard about his interest, he was skeptical. “It’s not the first thing you think,” he says. “‘Wow! Facebook! That’s exactly who I would have imagined to be a good partner!’ So they did run the ring of fire a little bit convincing us.”

    Nate Mitchell Dan Winters
    Over the course of many conversations during the next several weeks, though, Zuckerberg won Oculus over. “I had heard many times that Mark is a laser beam, that Facebook is all he thinks about day in and day out,” VP of product Nate Mitchell says. “So when I first met with him, I thought he was going to be like, how do we get News Feed into VR?” Instead, the person who showed up was someone Mitchell calls “Visionary Mark Zuckerberg,” who saw virtual reality as not just a gaming tool but as a full-fledged communications platform. The Oculus team agreed; they may have started out trying to build a great gaming device, but they realized now that they were sitting on something much more powerful. Zuckerberg seemed to understand that, and he also seemed to understand that it had potential far beyond being an extension of Facebook’s existing social-media service. “This isn’t about sharing pictures,” Luckey says. “This is about being able to share experiences.” The deal was consummated over an eight-day stretch in mid-March. Iribe was so excited about the acquisition that he revested 100 percent of his own equity for a five-year period, guaranteeing that he’d be with the company for the foreseeable future; Luckey, Carmack, and others took similar steps.

    But not everyone was so optimistic about the partnership. Within minutes of the announcement, Oculus’ site was filled with angry comments. (The top one read simply: “DO NOT WANT.”) Backers threatened to cancel their pre-orders, to never buy the Rift, to throw their purchasing power behind Sony’s Project Morpheus. Some of this was gamer snobbery, rooted in the assumption that Facebook would dumb down the Oculus experience, loading it with targeted ads and 360-degree 3-D versions of FarmVille. Some of it was fear that their gaming device would wither away in the Facebook catacombs, forgotten by a young billionaire mogul with buyer’s remorse. And some of it was the fury of backers spurned, people who had ponied up to support the original Kickstarter campaign, only to see their investments made irrelevant by a deep-pocketed corporation.

    But the Oculus team argues that, far from threatening the device’s future, Facebook is helping to secure it. “Every VR product has been a failure,” Luckey says. “Nobody lending money for manufacturing looks at Oculus and says ‘I can loan you $250 million!’ Because they know the safe bet is we’re going to fail, go bankrupt, and take hundreds of millions of dollars with us.” Now Oculus doesn’t have to worry about getting loans at all. And Facebook’s backing has helped the company attract people from top game studios. Within a week of the acquisition announcement, Michael Abrash, the Valve engineer who spearheaded that company’s VR research, became Oculus’ chief scientist—joining colleague Atman Binstock, who’d gone to Oculus earlier in March. Along with a third former Valve engineer, Aaron Nicholls, they are working at an Oculus R&D lab in the Seattle area.

    Brendan Iribe Dan Winters
    Facebook’s money also means that Oculus doesn’t need to worry about turning an immediate profit—and that will come in handy as it builds its first consumer product. “Let’s say we’re trying to pack in everything we can for $300,” Mitchell says. If the device needs to be profitable, then the company couldn’t spend much more than $100 on the hardware itself. But now that it doesn’t need to preserve its profit margin, Mitchell says, “you can take all of that margin money, apply it to components, and still keep the price exactly the same.” In fact, according to Luckey, the consumer version will be “higher-quality in every aspect” than the proto­type that Valve showed Iribe last year. While Oculus’ internal units have used twin AMOLED 1080p displays from Samsung Galaxy S4s, the company no longer has to depend on the mobile phone ecosystem; it now has the money and the backing to ask a manufacturer to create custom displays specifically for VR applications.

    Oculus is also working on a second, outward-­facing camera that will be part of the headset itself. The Valve proto­type used such a camera to read fiducial markers on the walls for tracking, but Oculus seems to intend it for very different applications. For one, Carmack says, it can function as a pass-through camera, allowing Rift-wearing users to see what’s happening in the real world—a kind of external heads-up display that would allow you to grab a soda, for instance. But it has other, much more interesting potential uses. Right now the Rift allows players to look around a virtual world; to move through it, they use an Xbox controller. But a front-­facing camera might allow the Rift to someday track users’ gestures instead—like a Kinect, but more powerful. “In the early days of VR, it was all goggles and gloves,” Carmack says. “Nobody’s talking about gloves now—it’s going to be done with optical tracking. You want it to feel like a virtuoso with an instrument.” Add haptic feedback, which the company is also developing, and you’ve taken a giant step toward achieving true presence. Players will be able to engage with virtual worlds—and have those worlds engage back—unencumbered.
    But what those worlds look like isn’t up to Oculus—it’s up to partners and developers creating the experiences that we’ll have within the Rift. And already they’re finding that the future of virtual reality might not look like anything we’ve been led to expect.

    The gamer fantasy of VR tends to involve a full-body first-person shooter—dropping players into the middle of a Call of Duty or Titanfall death match. But that’s not going to happen for a while: Photorealistic games of today simply can’t be rendered at the frame rate that current VR technology demands. Instead, Carmack says, much as Angry Birds defined iPhone gaming, Oculus’ first breakouts will take advantage of the unique properties of the medium. And that presents an opportunity for independent developers. “The magic is not in the 6,000-line GPU shader that’s going to make a highlight just right,” Carmack says, but in designing games that could have run on a less powerful computer: “It’s not like good games are only made when you can throw teraflops of performance at them.” For now programmers need to concentrate on the simpler aspects of a game—how motion works, for example—rather than the crazy visual pyrotechnics. Otherwise you’re just slapping pretty icing on a cake that no one can eat.

    That’s just one way in which the logic of mainstream gaming may not pertain to the Oculus. For instance, fast-twitch human locomotion—the kind of running and jumping that Carmack pioneered with Doom—becomes overwhelming in VR. (Oculus found that new users are most comfortable moving through virtual environments at real-world speeds and has lit on 1.4 meters per second as the optimal walking rate.) Similarly, some of the most popular games being shared among developers and early adopters are simulators, in which players drive or parachute or roller-coaster through an otherwise static world but don’t move themselves. That’s a limited approach, but Binstock says that more profound interactions are much harder to design, and they risk breaking the illusion of immersive reality that has been so crucial to Oculus’ success so far. “Presence is fragile,” Binstock says. “It’s very easy to do things that break the feeling of being somewhere.” That could be something technical like a dropped frame that interrupts a fluid game experience or a simple aesthetic flaw, like an environmental object that looks too flat.

    Earlier this year Oculus prepared a 42-page best-practices document, enumerating dozens of design guidelines to help developers avoid such pitfalls. “Consider having your interface elements as intuitive and immersive parts of the 3-D world,” reads one. “Ammo count might be visible on the user’s weapon rather than in a floating HUD.” In the past, environmentally integrated game design like this was seen as a perk; on the Rift, it’s a must.

    But, as Zuckerberg predicted, games are just the beginning. VR could easily change the way we consume media. Early on, Oculus showcased a VR Cinema application that lets users sit in a virtual empty movie theater and watch Man of Steel on a full-size screen. “Last time I was sick with the flu,” Carmack says, “I just lay in bed and watched VR movies on the ceiling.”
    Teleconferencing is another idea in the works. It’s easy to imagine strapping on a Rift and finding yourself across a table from someone who is actually thousands of miles away (or at least you’ll be across from their avatar). Oculus has VR Chat proto­types in the works, and a demo that Epic Games unveiled in March allows two players wearing Rifts to interact with each other’s avatars in the same virtual living room. “The key,” Abrash says, “is generating the cues that tell us we’re in a real place in the presence of another person: eye motion, facial expressions, body language, voice, gestures. Getting all that working perfectly is a huge task, but getting it to be good enough to be widely useful may be quite doable.”

    The list of potential uses goes on. Bring a classroom full of kids inside any museum in the world—no lines, no price of admission. Hell, that goes for vacations too. Even getaways of the mental variety: Why spring for a shaman-guided ayahuasca trip in Peru when you can dive into a drug-free epiphany anytime you want? And let’s not even talk about the oft-predicted sex simulators. “Hardware, while essential, is just an enabler,” Abrash says. “In the end, the future of VR lies in the unique, compelling experiences that get created in software, and if I knew what those would be, even in broad outline, I would be very happy. Right now we don’t even know what kind of artwork and rendering techniques work in VR, much less what experiences.”

    And that, more than anything, points toward the challenges that lie ahead. New experiences are under development at this very moment—and each one may well require the same ingenuity, the same willingness to forge an entirely new visual language, that Luckey and his team have called on to get the Rift where it is today.
    The hardware problems have been solved, the production lines are almost open, and the Rift will be here soon. After that it’s anybody’s guess. “I’ve written 2 million lines of code over the past 20 years, and now I’m starting from a blank page,” Carmack says. “But the sense that I’m helping build the future right now is palpable.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mexico to legalize vigilantes fighting drug cartel


APATZINGAN, Mexico (AP) — Mexico's government plans on Saturday to begin demobilizing a vigilante movement of assault rifle-wielding ranchers and farmers that formed in the western state of Michoacan and succeeded in largely expelling the Knights Templar cartel when state and local authorities couldn't.
The ceremony in the town of Tepalcatepec, where the movement began in February 2013, will involve the registration of thousands of guns by the federal government and an agreement that the so-called "self-defense" groups will either join a new official rural police force or return to their normal lives and acts as voluntary reserves when called on.
The government will go town by town to organize and recruit the new rural forces.
"This is a process of giving legal standing to the self-defense forces," said vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran.
But tension remained on Friday in the coastal part of the state outside the port of Lazaro Cardenas, where other "self-defense" groups plan to continue as they are, defending their territory without registering their arms. Vigilantes against the demobilization have set up roadblocks in the coastal town of Caleta.
"We don't want them to come, we don't recognize them," vigilante Melquir Sauceda said of the government and the new rural police forces. "Here we can maintain our own security. We don't need anyone bringing it from outside."
With Saturday's ceremony, a federal commissioner now in charge of the violence-plagued state hopes to end the "wild west" chapter of the movement, in which civilians built roadblocks and battled cartel members for towns in the rich farming area called the "Tierra Caliente," or "Hot Land."
The new rural forces are designed to be a way out of an embarrassing situation, in which elected leaders and law enforcement agencies lost control of the entire state to the pseudo-religious Knights Templar drug cartel. Efforts to retake control with federal police and military failed. Eventually government forces had to rely on the vigilantes because of their knowledge of where to find the cartel gunmen.
Since the commissioner, Alfredo Castillo, was named in January, federal forces have arrested or killed three of the main leaders of the Knights Templar. The fourth, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, is in hiding and rumored to be in the rugged hills outside his hometown of Arteaga.
But the vigilante movement has been plagued by divisions, and its general council dismissed one of the founders, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, as its spokesman earlier this week because of an unauthorized video he released directed at President Enrique Pena Nieto. Another founder, Hipolito Mora, is in jail accused of the murder of two alleged rivals. Castillo told Mexico's Radio Formula on Friday that he is also investigating claims that Mireles was involved in the killing of five vigilantes near Lazaro Cardenas on April 27.
Meanwhile, no one is giving up their guns, even assault weapons prohibited under Mexican law.
Vigilante Irineo Mendoza, 44, drove down from his mountain hometown of Aguililla to register his gun with authorities this week. He plans to take the weapon back home with him because, he says, the Knights Templar remain hidden in the mountains.
"These are the guns we are going to fight them with," Mendoza said.
Many predict little will change after Saturday.
"This (demobilization) agreement is just something to please the government," said Rene Sanchez, 22, a vigilante from the self-defense stronghold of Buenavista. "With them or without them, we are going to keep at it."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

oculus rift demo

How Two Indie Devs Snuck a Concealed Oculus Rift and Laptop onto a Roller Coaster for the Ride of a Lifetime

The below article is in the realm of the idea I have in mind for combining a real roller coaster and a virtual one:


How Two Indie Devs Snuck a Concealed Oculus Rift and Laptop onto a Roller Coaster for the Ride of a Lifetime

oculus rift real vr roller coaster-01
Image based on a photo by Beyond Neon

It’s an overcast morning at an undisclosed theme park in the UK, the temperature is just right—wearing a sweatshirt won’t be conspicuous. Good thing too, lest security find the device strapped around Edmond O’Driscoll’s chest.

After passing through security and making their way to the target, Edmond O’Driscoll and Jonathan Forder were ready to put their plan into motion. They’d take the device onto the roller coaster where weeks of planning would culminate.

As the carriage pulled out of the station, O’Driscoll activated the device concealed beneath his clothing with a single click from a mouse duct taped to his arm. He was about to go on the ride of his life.

Once safely out of range of the ride’s cameras, O’Driscoll pulled forth from his hood a black box and placed it over his eyes just before the drop. His partner-in-crime, Forder, readied a hidden camera to film the whole thing.

Equipped with a hidden laptop and Oculus Rift, O’Driscoll may be the first person to have ever gone on a ‘Real VR’ roller coaster with perfect motion feedback. The duo’s system displayed a virtual version of the exact same roller coaster that O’Driscoll and Forder were on. With some practice they managed to sync the virtual reality roller coaster to the real rollercoaster.

How They Pulled It Off

O’Driscoll told me that both he and Forder were enamoured with the original Rift Coaster demo and wanted to take the experience to the next level. The idea was to create a virtual version of a real rollercoaster so that the physical feedback would match up perfectly with the virtual experience.
From there you could immerse the rider in multiple experiences on the same ride. Maybe the rider is sitting in the cockpit of a virtual fighter jet, looping and spinning to avoid enemies on their tail. Perhaps the roller coaster track is crumbling before your eyes, or maybe a portion of the ride can become a virtual scare house. With the blank canvas of virtual reality, the possibilities are limitless.

Planning and Virtual Coaster
The project started with more questions than answers.

“To be honest, we had no idea if it would work; whether the rift would function under the G force of the ride or if we could get the VR in sync with the roller coaster.” O’Driscoll said. Sneaking the system into the park and onto the ride would also be a challenge.

“To be honest, we had no idea if it would work; whether the rift would function under the G force of the ride or if we could get the VR in sync with the roller coaster.”

The team started by finding a freely available model of the roller coaster track online and brought it into Unity. Forder was responsible for animating the track; he used point of view clips found online to make sure the model and timing were right. They wanted to show that VR could transport an ordinary ride virtually to anywhere, so they placed their virtual model in a space environment.

Concealing the System
Once they had the model animated and ready for the Oculus Rift, it was time to devise a way to conceal the system. The roles were decided; O’Driscoll would wear the rig, Forder would film it, guerrilla style. Sneaking a camera in was easy enough, but the VR coaster system, consisting of a laptop, Oculus Rift, mouse, and power supply, would be a bit more difficult.
“Yes, it was heavy and very uncomfortable… it was not very easy for me to bend! ” O’Driscoll said.
For the most part, the components were strapped around O’Driscoll’s chest with duct tape and hidden under a sweatshirt. The laptop would have been plenty to manage, but they needed a power supply for the Oculus Rift. That came in the form of an old surge protector that had a backup power supply. A mouse ran from the computer down O’Driscoll’s arm where it was taped so he could easily click the left mouse button to start the virtual ride without having to look at the laptop’s screen. The bottom of the mouse was taped over so that the mouse cursor, pre-positioned over the simulation’s start button, couldn’t move. The Oculus Rift was hidden inside of the hood of O’Driscoll’s sweatshirt for easy access once they got onto the coaster.

Sneaking Into the Park
“We didn’t exactly ask,” said O’Driscoll when I questioned how they got through security. “To be honest we were pretty aware we could get kicked out so we didn’t mess around much except for when we were on the coaster.”

Getting through security could be risky. After all, when a security officer finds a bunch of wires and electronics hidden under someone’s clothes… things other than virtual reality experiments come to mind.

“There was two teams of big security officers at the gates but they were only searching bags… at that point we were wearing everything we needed,” said O’Driscoll. “In regards to them thinking we were bombers, we went during such an off peak period that there was practically only a handful of visitors there. The park was so empty it felt like a dream.”

Syncing and Riding the ‘Real VR’ Coaster
Once they were through the gates, it was on to the roller coaster. But they still had to manually sync the start of the virtual reality coaster with the real thing. O’Driscoll had practiced his timing using point of view clips online, but it would take a few tries to get it lined up just right.
“It took us a few attempts for the sync but wow when it worked, it really worked!” O’Driscoll said. “Being thrown around on a coaster naturally shakes your vision, and I believe this shaky vision would have helped mask possible errors in the tracking, making our proof of concept feel a lot smoother. It really showed to us the importance of the visual journey on a traditional roller coaster and how, with VR, this journey could now be taken into what was before impossible…”
“It took us a few attempts for the sync but wow when it worked, it really worked!”
To the pair’s surprise, the Oculus Rift stayed on during the ride with no issues. O’Driscoll told me that his hands up to his head in the video are actually him keeping the hood held up to avoid the ride cameras. He also had no issues with nausea, even when the simulation was out of sync.
“Personally I didn’t feel sick but I’m sure this comes down the individual… something that I’m sure helped was that the VR coaster was identical to the actual so my body still felt what my mind saw. Creating VR tracks that are different to the actual track would be natural step to explore but I’m sure this will lead initially to a few puked-on people.”

It sounds like the ‘Real VR’ coaster wouldn’t be the last we’ll hear from O’Driscoll and Forder.
“Myself and Jonathan Forder took this project on because we saw it as a natural step in VR experiences. We do hope to explore this concept with a theme park partner but whether we do or another team does, from what we experienced this technology on roller coasters is unavoidable as there is just way too much potential. On other projects watch this space, we got a great of team of guys and another fun project in the works.”

About the ‘Real VR’ Duo
Edmond O’Driscoll studied product design at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. From there he went into film production, and eventually into the digital realm where he’s worked on augmented reality experiences for clients such as Mercedes and Citroen. In 2014 he began freelancing in digital production. He says that freelancing gives him “the real freedom to explore all the strange fun concepts that my friends in the industry and I didn’t before have time for.”
Jonathan Forder is a programmer, designer, and audio engineer, with a knack for working with the Unity game development engine. You can learn more about Forder at his website.

Friday, May 9, 2014

China mulls high-speed train to US: report

China mulls high-speed train to US: report
Photo taken on June 27, 2013 shows China's first intelligent high-speed test train produced by CSR Qingdao Sifang Co Ltd waits to be tested in Qingdao, a coastal city in East China's Shandong province. China is considering building a high-speed railway across the Siberia and Bering Strait to Alaska, across Canada to the US. In not so distant future, people can take the train from China to the US. [Photo/Xinhua]
China is considering building a high-speed railway across the Siberia and Bering Strait to Alaska, across Canada to the US. In not so distant future, people can take the train from China to the US, according to Beijing Times Thursday citing Wang Mengshu, a railway expert and academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

The proposed journey will start from China's northeast region, cross Siberia to Bering Strait, and run across the Pacific Ocean by undersea tunnel to reach Alaska, from Alaska to Canada, then on to its final destination, the US. To cross Bering Strait will require approximately 200km undersea tunnel, the technology, which is already in place will also be used on Fujian to Taiwan high-speed railway tunnel. The project will be funded and constructed by China. The details of this project are yet to be finalized.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Drones for consumers

After seeing several videos of drone flights across jungles, one at Yosemite, and two covering disaster stories including a fire and tornado damage, I searched for consumer drones and found this:

Top 10 consumer drones - $200 - 5,000.
Most range from high hundreds to over a thousand.

This one is for film - comes with a GoPro camera, runs 15-20 min.