Last weekend was an explosion of wacky projects, do-it-yourself products, and massive art installations, including everything from steampunk motorcycles and fire-breathing metallic dragons to musical tesla coils and robot petting zoos. What I speak of is Maker Faire. Hitting the Bay Area for two full days of mayhem, Maker Faire showcased some unbelievable inventions and talent. Not only was it a way to showcase fringe tech hobbies, but it evangelized the do-it-yourself ethos. DIYers from around the world flocked to show off their greatest creations, demonstrating that the best products are not always the ones you buy – but the ones you make.
What really blows my mind about this event is that you are seeing the spark of innovation everywhere! People are creating brand new electronics, vehicles, mechanical devices, musical instruments, workshops, and businesses, all across the board. At one point I wandered into a vintage computer kiosk, and began scavenging through old machines and cords to see if anything sparked my fancy. As I browsed these classics from a bygone era, I was surprised to come across an original Apple II signed by Steve Wozniak.
It was not for sale. But it brought to mind the evolution of personal computing, and how the personal computer and Apple grew out of a group of DIYers tinkering with a bunch of computer parts and inventing new ways of using them. That’s exactly what was happening all around Maker Faire, except it wasn’t just about computing – it was about everything! Every kind of hobbyist imaginable was innovating right here right now, and any one of them could unknowingly be participating in a future revolution much greater than themselves.
While some hobbies are simple and fun, like machine-gun wielding garden gnomes and Mario themed brick-lamps, others are shockingly relevant and viable. The exhibit I participated in for the event was for do-it-yourself virtual reality, called FOV2GO (an acronym based on “field-of-view,” a common measure of how much peripheral vision can be perceived in a given set of VR goggles). This virtual reality kit is not just DIY, but it provides dirt cheap, world class, incredibly immersive virtual reality with nothing more than smart phones and basic lenses!
How is this possible? Because it just happens to turn out that smart phones, as an industry, have rapidly advanced the specific technologies necessary to create inexpensive, accessible, high quality VR. And this is a very recent, very cutting edge development. Just to compare, in the nineties VR became famous for expensive HMDs that had low resolution, low field-of-view, lousy graphics, and were very clunky. They were priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. Today, the military is now using much more refined VR HMDs, with higher resolution, higher field-of-view, and better graphics – and yet still very clunky, and still priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. Now – right now - with smart phones we can have HMDs that are just as refined (high resolution, high field-of-view), and are super light weight and cost $20 plus the price of a smart device!
But what specifically is it about smart devices that make them so exceptional? Two things mainly: the high resolution screens and the built-in gyroscopes. The retina display on the iPhone 4, for instance, provides 960×640 DVGA high resolution on a small, slim screen. This wasn’t being done until the iPhone 4 did it. With such high resolution on such a compact screen, we can now construct super lightweight VR head-mounted displays. And because the iPhone 4 happens to be only a few hundred dollars, we can accomplish this VR very cheaply. And this goes for most smart devices – iPads, Androids, you name it.
Not only that, but all these smart devices come with gyroscopes! Who would have thought? Gyroscopes aren’t just useful for playing Where’s My Water? - they can track any kind of orientational data. In other words, when you put an iPhone up to your face and use it as a window into a game world (like a first-person shooter), the device will track your head movement so you can look around in real time. No mouse, no D-pads, no analog sticks – just your natural head movement, like God intended.
This is the beginning of a new market. The smart phone VR experience is exceptional, and for the time being there are very few games and experiences created for such a device. For the Maker Faire showcase of FOV2GO, we showed off a few experiences such as Shayd Mobile, Tales from the Minus Lab, and an augmented reality experience using the phone’s camera and the Unity game engine to overlay virtual models onto the real world. The most thrilling was an actual VR game developed by Perry Hoberman, in which you played a film noir detective raiding through offices and breaking into banks in order to uncover a mysterious crime.
It was played on an iPad 3 with very large lenses, allowing for a tasty field-of-view approaching 130 degrees. Considering that the human eyeball sees at 180 degrees, this was pretty realistic! You start out walking around with a flashlight in a dark office, and you have to find the light switch. Using other inputs on the device, you can click on documents on the desk and read them by the dim lighting, or use your flashlight to get a closer look. Eventually you can pull out your gun and fire bullets! It was a lot of fun, and very immersive in a sensory way.
In the spirit of Maker Faire, I decided to make my own prototype lens casing for use with smart phones. With FOV2GO scripts and the Unity Engine, smart phone VR apps can display images in side-by-side stereoscopic 3D. In other words, it displays two views that are at slightly different vantage points, approximating the different vantage points perceived by human eyes. When you place stereoscopic lenses in front of your eyes, the images are then focused into a single image, allowing for the 3D effect in which the environment appears to grow or recede from the plane of the screen. Combine that with the smart phone’s built-in gyroscope, and you have yourself some virtual reality! Because head-mounted displays tend to stick out horizontally due to the necessary distance between the lenses and the screen, they tend to grow front heavy and require additional supports on the head. This additional headgear is what often caused the bulky look of professional HMDs.
However, I’m postulating that the closer the lenses are to the eyes, the slimmer the overall HMD can become, thus allowing for sleeker and sexier HMD designs. At the same time, because the lenses are closer to the eye, the screen can be much closer and appear much bigger, effectively enhancing the field-of-view. The downside to this method is that it seems to cause some eye strain, and it also can’t be used by people who wear glasses. Not sure what to do about that! But I’m still experimenting!
May the spirit of Maker Faire live on! See you there next year