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‘Ready Player One’ comes close to real virtual reality

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The release of Ready Player One was a significant moment for the virtual reality industry as it presented a VR-driven future that, like all good science fiction writing, draws on familiar themes recognizable by everyone today.

The release of Ready Player One this weekend is a significant moment for the virtual reality industry. Ernest Cline’s bestselling science fiction adventure will achieve a Spielberg-fueled launch to new heights of popular culture fame. It describes a world where living in the virtual reality of the OASIS becomes preferable to living within a dystopian future society riddled by war and energy crises. The movie will present a VR-driven future that, like all good science fiction writing, draws on strong familiar themes recognizable by everyone today, right down to the hardware described in the film.

In the story, the OASIS can be accessed virtually free of charge by anybody that is in possession of both an OASIS visor and a pair of haptic gloves. The visor already looks familiar. Whilst they are smaller and lighter, with greatly improved performance over the devices of today, anybody with $800 / £500 to spare can own a similar looking headset as soon as their favorite online retailer can ship it to them. The differences between today’s technology and that described in the visor are well characterized, and there are already billions of dollars being spent in efforts to close the gap.

The other essential item for accessing the OASIS is a pair of haptic gloves. In Cline’s own words, “When you picked up objects, opened doors, or operated vehicles, the haptic gloves made you feel these nonexistent objects and surfaces as if they were really right there in front of you.” (Ready Player One, p.58). Those that can afford it can then upgrade to higher levels of immersivity, with full-body suits, harnesses, omni-treadmills and even smell towers, built to serve the user’s every touch, smell, move and desire.

These products all have various reference points within VR offerings today. The standard haptics offering within consumer VR today is a pair of controllers (HTC’s Vive Controller, Oculus Touch & Sony’s PlayStation Move, etc.) containing various sensors and inertial haptic feedback driven by one of several types of electromagnetic motor. These controllers are a simple commercial starting point, and already there are many types of additional accessories and configurations that add variety to the haptics offerings. For example, Tactical Haptics have demonstrated reconfigurable controllers which integrate shear force surface haptics as accessories on top of existing VR controllers. Both the controller designs and the haptic sensations which they enable are becoming more diverse.

The next step is to go from controllers to wearable systems such as rings or gloves, and ultimately towards apparel. It is possible to integrate similar electromagnetic motors into rings (e.g. GoTouch VR) or into gloves (e.g. Virtuix), but development increasingly tends towards the use of flexible actuators which can better match the properties of the textiles and skin with which they interact. One prominent example of this is the piezoelectric EAP (electroactive polymer) from Novasentis, who are working with many leading VR players on future product opportunities. This can be extended up to full-body apparel, where different types of actuator can be integrated throughout an entire suit (e.g. see TeslaSuit’s solution, which uses direct electrical stimulation of the muscles).

Up one step further and the systems become larger, more bespoke and more expensive. Custom haptics controllers and motion simulators have been developed to allow the user to experience the forces and sensation associated with different virtual scenarios. These range from passive systems (e.g. Icaros’ personal flight simulator) through personal and even multiplayer simulators, not unlike those within video arcades or VR theme park attractions. Omni-treadmills will become part of this, sensing the direction of motion and then literally moving the floor under the user to enable full motion in VR. We have now reached the very high end of the industry, with extremely high prices and severely limited availability to a much greater extent than anything suggested in Ready Player One.

As the number of users, sophistication of content, and total revenue in VR grows, these higher end haptics options will, in many cases, begin to see the increases in volumes and drop in prices that we can expect from any growing hardware industry. However, from a development point of view, it is important to focus on the areas in which today’s offerings are fundamentally lacking. To do this, we must break “haptics” into parts including tactile and kinaesthetic, plus other categories such as thermal sensation. The majority of haptic solutions, and nearly all of the consumer-ready haptics options today, are tactile. This includes any kind of vibration or surface textural change where there is no net force applied to the user. Where net force is applied, this is kinaesthetic feedback. This is typically deployed via devices such as body-anchored exoskeletons, or grounded manipulandums or robotic systems. A broad overview of the different categories of tactile and kinaesthetic devices used for haptics in VR today is shown in the image.

However, this classification outlines one key difference between the haptics devices in Ready Player One and those in our reality today. Nearly all of the consumer-ready products, and even those which are pre-commercial but likely to reach consumer markets within the next year or two, involve tactile feedback. Kinaesthetic feedback (i.e. where the net force of the actuator on the body is non-zero) is found in high end and custom systems, but is severely lacking in accessible consumer products. Advanced haptics features such a thermal variation are even rare in high end systems.

This is far from saying that creating the kinds of sensations described in Ready Player One are impossible. In fact, we can look to companies like HaptX (formerly Axon VR) who develop high end haptics solutions involving tactile, kinaesthetic and thermal feedback, achieved by combining several actuator technologies together. Today their efforts focus on gloves, but ultimately their goal is to produce products very similar to the full body haptics suits described in Ready Player One. In fact, Cline’s description in the book referring to “an elaborate exoskeleton” for kinaesthetic feedback combined with “a web like network of miniature actuators” against the skin is relatively close to a likely design strategy if you asked this suit to be developed today (maybe with some additional microfluidics).

However, whilst these products could be achievable, they are far from being shipped as part of consumer VR bundles. For example, HaptX’s gloves will remain as extremely high end devices (e.g. for military simulation) for the foreseeable future, costing several orders of magnitude more than would be tolerable for a consumer device. We will rely on elements of technology like this eventually trickling down to consumer markets before we can expect to touch and feel our way through our own virtual Easter egg hunts.

As Ready Player One is released in cinemas around the world, IDTechEx are also releasing their latest market research report after four years covering the haptics industry. Haptics 2018-2028: Technologies, Markets and Players details the entire haptics industry today, including description and benchmarking of different haptics technologies, data and forecasting on haptics markets, and 35 different company profiles (as part of 66 companies covered). For example, IDTechEx has included interviews and/or other primary research from each of the companies mentioned in this article, detailing aspects of their achievement and technology, plus providing critical analyses of their progress via ranking and SWOT analyses. This report is one of nearly 100 high quality market research reports offered by IDTechEx, and fits alongside parallel topics such as Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality, Wearable Technology and other User Interfaces reports to provide comprehensive coverage as these industries evolve.

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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