Without explicitly announcing a new specific product, Samsung quietly implied that they may be developing a new standalone mobile VR HMD during a session during their developer conference last week. While there were no big VR announcements during the main keynote at SDC, in a session titled “What’s on The Horizon: A Look at the Future of VR at Samsung” Tae Yong Kim Samsung Electronic’s VP, Head of Graphics R&D, showed a graphic with a question mark in between a Gear VR mobile VR headset and a Samsung Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality HMD. Kim said that the Gear VR is “fully mobile, quickly attaches via a cell phone, and affordable” while the Odyssey offers a “premium experience coming from the positional tracking of the headset and the controllers, and the computing power of the PC.” He said, “The question is ‘How do we combine the benefits of those two technologies together for our next VR system?’”

Kim then showed a slide saying the next steps for Samsung’s mobile VR include inside-out tracking and 6 degree-of-freedom controllers, and he said, “We are partnering with global partners like Intel to bring inside-out technology to our next mobile product portfolio.” Neither Intel nor Samsung had any further comment about this quiet announcement of a “next VR system” and “next mobile product” in Samsung’s portfolio, which seems more significant than merely adding positional tracking and 6-DoF controllers to existing Gear VR devices.

It looks like we’ll have to wait until CES this year to learn if this is more than a positional tracking and 6-DoF tracking update to Gear VR, and whether Samsung is developing their own standalone headsets independent of Facebook’s Oculus Go. It’s unclear what software would be running on Samsung’s new headsets as it appears as though Samsung has a non-exclusive agreement with Oculus since the Samsung S8, S8+, and Note 8 are both Daydream and Gear VR-enabled, but it doesn’t appear that Facebook has a non-exclusive agreement with Samsung. Or if Facebook is able to expand to any OEMs beyond Samsung, then appears as though they have not done so yet. It could be that Facebook is planning a walled-garden hardware ecosystem similar to Apple, and will be focusing their energy on the control that comes with building their standalone headsets.

It’s unclear how healthy and sustainable the current partnership between Facebook and Samsung is. It appears as though Facebook mostly handles the software while Samsung handles the hardware, and while there’s obviously overlap between the two, it’s possible that these next HMDs will indicate whether Facebook takes more control over the hardware and Samsung takes more control over the software.

tom-hardingI had a chance to talk with Samsung’s Tom Harding, who is the Director of Immersive Products in charge of product strategy and bringing VR to the market. We talked about the Gear VR, marketing VR, Samsung Internet VR, Gear 360 and Round cameras, the 3-DoF Gear VR controller, as well as the the collaborations Google with Daydream and ARCore and with Facebook/Oculus on Gear VR.

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I challenged Samsung for not investing many resources within the VR content ecosystem or attending very many community VR events over the past couple of years. Harding says that Samsung’s focus has been on scale and making VR solutions available to all, and that they’ve been primarily focusing on driving adoption. But I wonder how much you can drive adoption of VR technologies without also investing in the content that will ultimately drive grassroots word of mouth and adoption.

A number of independent video creators expressed frustration that Samsung has not been doing more to support the needs of content creators, including how Samsung has not created any marketplace for immersive content creators to sell their work. One creator told me that Samsung did not not offer them any licensing fees to feature their work in the Samsung VR app, and a survey of content creators whose work was featured at Sumsung’s Evening of 360 show revealed that there was not any payment offered for featuring their work. A lot of the content curation and marketplace development has been offloaded to Oculus since they serve as the primary point of contact with the VR development community, and so Samsung has been really disconnected from the needs of content creators. Samsung is in a financial position to invest a lot more within the future of the VR medium, but it appears as though that they have not been taking a holistic approach to supporting the VR content ecosystem or more directly engage the grassroots of the VR community. I hope to see Samsung a lot more in the year to come, and that they take the initiative to engage, listen, and help serve some of the larger needs of the VR community.

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Facebook’s Oculus Connect 4 developer conference happened last week, and I share some of the highlights including my hands-on impression of the standalone Santa Cruz headset, the latest updates from Facebook Spaces, and a number of updates to be delivered later in 2017 and 2018 including a new VR 3DUI called Dash. Dash is built with React VR, and will be providing immersive computing functionality including being able to pin windows applications within the context of VR apps.

darshan-shankarOculus’ Dash functionality is starting to overlap some of the feature set of BigScreenVR, which just raised another $11 million dollars proving that immersive computing may be one of the first real killer apps of VR that could drive adoption. I had a chat with Darshan Shankar, who was optimistic that major companies like Microsoft and Facebook are starting to bake some of these screensharing features within their core functionality since it shows that immersive computing is a compelling use case. Shankar sees screensharing as a legacy feature that is helping BigScreen bootstrap a user base that is willing to have other immersive social experiences in watching movies or other events in VR, and he talks about some of his plans for BigScreen on mobile VR and making BigScreen the goto cross-platform, social VR application.

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Here’s the keynote from Oculus Connect 4:

Here’s the Facebook Spaces tour of Puerto Rico that Zuckerberg later apologized for. The tour had a tone-deaf quality that uses the tragedy of Hurricane Maria into a marketing pitch for virtual reality & Facebook Spaces.

During the Oculus Connect keynote, Zuckerberg reiterated that he sees that VR has the potential to provide a more optimistic vision of the future, but at the same time Facebook Spaces has not implemented any way of expressing sad facial expressions. You can use the Oculus Touch joysticks to have your avatar look surprised, shocked, confused, listening, and happy, but they haven’t implemented sadness yet. So having cheery and smiling cartoon avatars take a virtual tour of a disaster area made it clear how big of a disconnect there is between Facebook’s optimistic view on the potential of VR versus the emotional weight and intensity of the harsh reality of the real world.

If Facebook really wants to get a billion people in VR, then they’re going to have to come a long way in telling the story of how VR can get us more present and connected within our mundane realities. Also Facebook will eventually need to eliminate the abstractions in how we express emotions in VR, but they’re going to need to address the many open questions around the privacy of our biometric data and what their plans are to move beyond their existing business models of surveillance-based capitalism.

In my previous interview with BigScreenVR’s Shankar, he told me that BigScreenVR was built with privacy in mind with peer-to-peer encryption, and by not having any information shared or stored on the BigScreenVR’s server. The privacy features of BigScreenVR is a key factor in why it’s been able to be so successful in driving adoption. While Facebook Spaces has a lot of amazing features, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the permissive and vague privacy protections of Facebook will prove to be a limiting factor towards Facebook’s goal in reaching one billion users in VR>

There is a growing backlash against technology being catalyzed by some of the architects of the persuasive habit-forming techniques. The Guardian does a survey of user experience designers and engineers who are taking drastic actions to curtail their personal technology addiction behaviors, and asking some deeper questions about the ethical responsibility of major companies in Silicon Valley to be socially-responsible guardians of the attention economy. Tristan Harris is one of these former persuasive designers who has formed a non-profit called Time Well Spent focused on gathering quantified data for how happy people are using different mobile apps, and Harris shared some data on Sam Harris’ podcast that people are happy with 1/3 of the time they’ve spent on the most popular apps, but that they’re unhappy with or regret how they’re spending 2/3 of their time.

julia-mossbridgeMost companies are optimizing for duration on their websites, but it’s difficult for them to measure the first-person phenomenological experience of that time spent on their site. There are more and more people who feel like they are being manipulated and hooked into forming habits on apps that are designed to reward compulsive behaviors. There’s a growing counter movement of consciousness hackers who are trying to take a more mindful and purposeful approach to how they use technology. They’re using biosensors to get feedback and insights on their behaviors, and are trying to cultivate more flourishing, well-being, connection, compassion, mental health, and sanity in their lives.

mikey-siegelAt the Institute of Noetic Science Conference in July, I had a chance to sit down with the founder of Consciousness Hacking Mikey Seagul as well as with Julia Mossbridge, who is the director of the Innovation Lab at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. We talk about transcendence technology, quantified self applications designed for transformation, designing human-aware artificial intelligence optimized for emotional intelligence and cultivating compassion, the matching problem, and the insights of neurophenomenology for combining first person and third person data.

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clay-bavorAt Google’s 10/4 press conference, they announced a new Pixel 2 phone and a range of new ambient computing devices powered by AI-enabled conversational interfaces including new Google Mini and Max speakers, Google Clips camera, and wireless Pixel Buds. The Daydream View mobile VR HMD received a major upgrade with vastly improved comfort and weight distribution, reduced light leakage, better heat management, cutting-edge aspherical fresnel lenses with larger acuity and sweet spot as well as an increased field of view of 10-15 degrees than the previous version. It’s actually a huge upgrade and improvement, but VR itself only received a few brief moments during the 2-hour long keynote where Google was explaining their AI-first design philosophy for their latest ambient computing hardware releases.

I had a chance to sit down with Clay Bavor, Google’s Vice President for Augmented and Virtual Reality to talk about their latest AR & VR announcements as well as how Google’s ambient computing and AI-driven conversational interfaces fit into their larger immersive computing strategy. YouTube VR is on the bleeding edge of Google’s VR strategy, and their VR180 livestream camera can broadcast a 2D version that translates well to watching on a flat screen, but also provide a more immersive stereoscopic 3D VR version for mobile VR headsets. Google retired the Tango brand with the announcement of ARCore on August 29th, and Bavor explains that they had to come up with a number of algorithmic and technological innovations in order to standardize the AR calibration process across all of their OEM manufacturers.

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Finally, Bavor reiterates that WebVR and WebAR are a crucial part of the Google’s immersive computing strategy. Google showed their dedication to the open web by releasing experimental WebAR browsers for ARCore and ARKit so that web developers can develop cross-compatible AR apps. Bavor sees a future that evolves beyond the existing self-contained app model, but this requires a number of technological innovations including contextually-aware ambient computing powered by AI as well as their Virtual Positioning System announced at Google I/O. There are also a number of other productivity applications that Google is continuing to experiment with, but the screen resolution still needs to improve from having a visual acuity measurement of 20/100 to being something closer to 20/40.

After our interview, Bavor was excited to tell me how Google created a cloud-based, distributed computing, physics simulator that could model 4 quadrillion photons in order to design the hybrid aspherical fresnel lenses within the Daydream View. This will allow them to create machine-learning optimized approaches to designing VR optics in the future, but it will also likely have other implications for VR physics simulations and potentially delivering volumetric digital lightfields down the road.

Google’s vision of contextually-aware AI and ambient computing has a ton of privacy implications that are similar to my many open questions about privacy in VR, but I hope to open up a more formal dialog with Google to discuss these concerns and potentially new concepts of self-sovereign identity and new cryptocurrency-powered business models that go beyond their existing surveillance capitalism business model. There wasn’t a huge emphasis on Google’s latest AR and VR announcements during the press conference as AI conversational interfaces and ambient computing received the majority of attention, but Google remains dedicated to the long-term vision of the power and potential of immersive computing.

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Brian-Blau-2017Brian Blau is the vice president of research for personal technologies at Gartner Research where he’s in the business of making predictions about the consumer adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. I last interviewed Blau in 2015 when he was saying that his predictions were a lot more conservative than other analysts who were predicting more explosive growth for VR, and Blau tells me that his more conservative estimates have more closely matched with reality where he slightly overestimated PC VR market and underestimated how fast the mobile VR HMD market would take off.

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I had a chance to catch up with Blau at Google I/O on May 17th, 2017 where we talk about the state of the VR & AR industries and what some of the potential catalysts for consumer adoption might be. A big point that Blau makes is that technologies get adopted when people are not explicitly thinking about them, and that there may be more drivers of immersive technologies through other ambient computing innovations. This interview was conducted a few weeks before Apple announced ARKit on June 5th and then Google ditched the Tango brand and depth-sensor hardware requirement for their phone-based AR on August 29th when they launched ARCore. Then on September 12th, Apple announced front-facing cameras on the iPhone X for companies like Snapchat to do more sophisticated digital avatars, as well as Animojis that provide the ability to embody emojis with recorded voices messages. Apple also announced it’s now possible to make phone calls via the Apple watch + Airpods, and so this is a push towards ambient computing with conversational interfaces, and moving away from solely relying upon screens on phones.

Like Duygu Daniels told me in 2016, Snapchat is an AR company, and it’s possible that they have had more of an influence on driving Apple’s technological roadmap than virtual reality has. The consumer use of services like Snapchat and Animoji may prove to be key drivers of immersive technologies since Apple decided to put a depth sensor camera on the front of the camera rather than on the back. The front-facing camera offers more sophisticated ways to alter your identity through AR filters, which when you can see in the virtual mirror of your phone screen changes the expression of identity through the embodiment of these virtual avatars. You can see how much Apple’s Craig Federighi changed his expression of himself while recording an Animoji during the Apple keynote:

Snapchat’s Spectacle glasses received a lot of grassroots marketing from users who were recording Snaps absent a phone. Will the additional digital avatar, face-painting features of the iPhone X inspire extra demand for consumers to want to pay $999 for these types of feature that are only made available by a front-facing depth camera? But it’s clear that the technological roadmap for mobile computing has now started to include volumetric and immersive sensors. Google made a bet with Tango that adoption would be driven by a depth sensor pointed outward into the world for AR, but it looks like Snapchat could be a key app that popularizes front-facing cameras and the use of augmented and mixed filters that change how you express yourself and connect to your friends.

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ramez-naamRamez Naam is the author of The Nexus Trilogy sci-fi novels, which explores the moral and sociological implications of technology that can directly interface with the brain. He gave the keynote at the Experiential Technology Conference in March exploring the latest research exploring how these interfaces could change the way that we sleep, learn, eat, find motivation to exercise, create new habits of change, and broadcast and receive technologically-mediated telepathic messages. I had a chance to catch up with him after his talk where we do a survey of existing technologies, where the invasive technologies are headed, the philosophical and moral implications of directly transferring data into the brains, and whether or not it’ll be possible to download our consciousness onto a computer.

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kevin-mackKevin Mack is an Oscar-winning visual effects artist and abstract artist who creates digital spaces with fluidly moving textures that are awe-inspiring in it’s ability to create a novel experience unique to VR. In Blortasia you float weightlessly exploring the ins and outs of a series of tunnels that have a consistent topological sculpture, but with an ever-changing shader of patterned frequencies of rainbox colors that cultivate a sort of visual neural entrainment. It aspires to recreate a psychedelically transcendent or transpersonal experience that goes beyond what your verbal mind can easily understand as there’s no content, message, story, game or objective beyond providing an experience that’s only possible in these virtual worlds. It’s this unique balance between seeing an exciting and novel visual experience that’s also simultaneously relaxing and has the power to induce powerful trance states that may have unique healing properties that are being discovered in medical applications for distraction therapy.

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Mack has a neuroscience background, and so he’s been collaborating with brain surgeons who are experimenting with using his Zen Parade 360 video as a hypoalgesic to decrease sensitivity to painful stimuli, but it also suppresses the normal thought processes of the left brain so that it neuroscientists can map out and discover new properties of our right brains. Preliminary studies are showing that his abstract design approach to distraction therapy applications in VR are actually more effective than other VR apps that were specifically designed for pain management.

Mack describes himself as a psychonaut having experimented with a lot of psychedelic experiences, but he’s also studied meditation, lucid dreaming, and a number of other esoteric and mystical practices. His career has been in the visual effects industry where he won an Academy Award for his work on What Dreams May Come, but with virtual reality he’s finally able to synthesize all of his life experiences and interests where he can allow people to step inside of his immersive VR art experiences that are designed to expand the blueprints of our minds. He sees that verbal language has allowed humans to evolve our science and technology up to this point, but that it’s also limited us and constrained us to a whole host of verbal neuroses. He hopes that his virtual reality experiences like Blortasia and Zen Parade can help free us from the shackles of our left brains that he sees are inhibiting the deeper parts of our intuition and unconscious levels of awareness. He’s personally had a number of amazing but also traumatizing experiences with psychedelics, and so he’s trying to use virtual reality in order to replicate those transcendent feelings of awe and wonder that come from mystical experiences in a more safe and controlled fashion.

Mack also shares his out-of-this world, retrocausality backstory that includes a substance-free psychedelic experience with a time-traveling artificial consciousness that’s he’s just starting to create now with neural networks embedded within his art. Is it possible that Mack in the process of actually developing a sentient level of artificial consciousness that will evolve to master the structures of space-time to bend the arrow of time? Or was it just the vivid imagination of a four-year old that has provided him with a powerful inspiration for his entire life? Either way, his Blortasia experience has stumbled upon some important design principles stemming the desire to create art that pushes the boundaries of consciousness.

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The sexual harassment lawsuit against UploadVR was reported to be settled via Tech Crunch on September 6th, and a week later the New York Times followed with more details about how Upload had been barely dented. The case was settled without any elaboration about what did or didn’t happen beyond a vague open letter from the founders of UploadVR. This issue has has splintered the VR community into different factions of people who are either actively blacklisting Upload or have written it off as an isolated incident that has resulted in changes and growth.

Former employee Danny Bittman wrote about his brief time at Upload in a recent Medium post and there were some women who spoke out in a Buzzfeed article in July, but beyond that not many people with first or second-hand knowledge of the lawsuit allegations have made statements on the record. (You can find my Facebook posts about Upload since May here: 1 2 3 4 5). There hasn’t been a lot of people who have been willing to talk about this issue on the record, but this seems to be changing after the latest round of news about the settlement lawsuit that has left segments of the VR community very unsettled.

selena-pinnellOne woman from the VR community who was willing to talk to me about the community fallout from the UploadVR lawsuit was Selena Pinnell, who is the co-founder of Kaleidoscope VR festival and fund. She is also a producer and featured participant within the Testimony VR project. I previously interviewed the director of Testimony VR project about their efforts to use VR to create an immersive context for women and men to share testimony about their experiences of sexual assault so that audiences can bear witness to those direct experiences. Skip Rizzo has said that healing from PTSD involves being able to tell a meaningful narrative about your traumatic experiences while remaining emotionally present, and Testimony VR is trying to create a new form of restorative justice by capturing these stories within VR that viewers can have have an one-on-one level of intimacy while they bear witness. Pinnell talks about how powerful it was to have over 150 co-workers and friends witness her testimony about being a rape survivor within the context of a VR experience.

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While VR holds potential for the future of distributing new forms of restorative justice, this issue with Upload feels like it’s a long way from achieving a state of justice and a full accounting of the truth of what happened. Members from the Women in VR communities privately do not feel like justice has currently been served, and Pinnell voices those common concerns as to why she can no longer support Upload as well as why in her assessment the leadership team of Upload never fully accounted for what exactly they did wrong and what they’ve learned.

She also says that it’s hard to trust the leadership after they originally declared that the originally allegations in the lawsuit were “entirely without merit.” Pinnell talks about how crushing it can be to have your testimony of your direct experience be so explicitly denied in this way, especially when it comes to taboo topics like sexual harassment or sexual assault. (Note that the original allegations against Upload were harassment, gender discrimination, hostile work environment, unequal pay, and retaliation, and there weren’t any allegations of sexual assault.) Pinnell emphasizes how important it is to try to listen to women when they are providing testimony about not feeling safe within a work environment, and to try not to go directly towards demanding objective proof from a frame of skeptical disbelief. Learning how to listen, empathize, and reflect the truth of a direct experience is a skillset that is needed here, and it’s something that the unique affordances of the virtual reality community can help to cultivate through projects like Testimony VR. But there’s many more unresolved issues and open questions that Pinnell and I discuss in deep dive into new models of restorative justice and the community fallout surrounding the Upload lawsuit settlement.

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isaac-cohenARQUA! was one of the ARKit launch applications that was designed by VR veteran Isaac “Cabbibo” Cohen, and it has the same indie charm and shader art aesthetic as his previous VR experiences of Blarp! and L U N E. ARQUA’s gameplay involves you creating a rainbow aquarium by playing kelp plants, schools of fish, and 3D rods that you place around your space by turning your body into the controller. Cabbibo is really interested in providing users of his AR experience with an experience of agency, creation, and beauty in a way that recontextualizes their relationship to their surrounding environment. I had a chance to catch up with Cabbibo after a presentation about Art in AR/VR in Portland, OR, where we talked about ARKit, exploring what makes a compelling AR experience, lessons that VR has to teach AR, and how data is the ‘R’ in MR/AR/VR/XR in that it’s the transformation of real objects into data that allows us to have mediated experiences within a symbolic reality.

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kim-pallisterIntel is investing in the future of immersive computing through their Virtual Reality Center for Excellence. They’re pushing the boundaries of high-end of VR gaming experiences, pursuing initiatives to help VR reach critical mass, and exploring how RealSense depth sensor cameras and WiGig wireless technologies fit into the VR ecosystem. I was able to demo an early prototype demo of an HTC Vive game rendered on a PC and transferred wirelessly to a mobile headset, and it’s part of a research project to search for additional market opportunities for how high-end PCs could drive immersive experiences.

I was able to sit down with the Kim Pallister, the director of Intel’s VR Center for Excellence to talk about their various initiatives to advance immersive computing, their WiGig wireless technology, RealSense and Project Alloy, and some of the experiential differences between their lower-end and higher-end CPUs. He predicts that immersive gaming markets may mirror differences in mobile, console, and PC markets, and that there will be a spectrum of experiences that have tradeoffs between price, performance, and power consumption. Intel is initially focusing on pushing the high-end of VR gaming experiences, but they believe in the future of immersive computing and are looking at how to support and are looking at how to support the full spectrum of virtual reality experiences.

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