You're a giant, angry robot.
Oh look, there's a 40-story office tower in front of you. One swipe of your hand and that office tower is now a dusty pile of rubble. Impressed with your own handiwork, you jump over your destruction. Your landing triggers a near-earthquake that ends up causing another building to collapse. To celebrate, you smack the nearest standing building with your fist -- just because you can.
Ok, we confess: You're not actually a building-smashing robot. You're playing a game called "HateBot," which capitalizes on some pretty nifty new virtual-reality technology.
While we spoiled, 21st-century inhabitants are pretty used to life-like gaming systems, SmartGoggles are upping the ante with immersive gaming experiences like the one described above. Created by Maryland-based technology company Sensics Inc., the SmartGoggles platform is a step forward into the promised land of virtual reality. Not yet on the consumer market, Sensics is looking to sell their design to gaming developers and consumer electronics sources, as well as partner with companies like SideKick, which created "HateBot". And the timing might be right; while there are currently a few different types of virtual reality products on the market, lately there's been a bigger push for them.
Perhaps that's due to a tiny tech company called Google, which has been playing with a pair of glasses featuring an augmented reality capability. Essentially, the glasses look like the spectacles you might use to read the New York Times, except these little guys populate your vision by putting up information or images on the lens. They might show you the route you should use to get to the grocery store, for instance, or engage you in a video chat as you walk down the street. Even manufacturers like Oakley (which produces sporting equipment and eyewear) are in the game. They're targeting the sporty type, who'd like to read on their glasses how far their golf ball lies from the cup, for example, or maybe when to turn around to catch that football being thrown from behind.
SmartGoggles, as we'll see, have a great deal of potential in a virtual reality market. While the helmet-type prototype we'll be exploring here is nicknamed Natalia, the technology could translate into many different representations.
What Makes SmartGoggles So Smart
Let's start by making clear what a "simple" virtual reality system currently looks like. As Yuval Boger, CEO of Sensics says, "'Off the shelf' virtual reality goggles currently on the market are essentially monitors that are small enough and light enough that you can support them on your head. That virtual reality goggle would accept video source that could come from an iPhone or Internet or Playstation, and so on" [source: Boger].
Many don't realize that most virtual reality systems are actually hooked up to a computer, tablet or phone, cheerfully playing whatever those devices tell them to. While SmartGoggles can work with devices, too, they can also operate wholly independently. They can download and run applications without an external connection and thus, won't have any wires to trip you up. Their power source is also battery-operated and charges like a cell phone. The heart of SmartGoggles is a 1.2 GHz dual core processor that runs the same Android 4.0 system that you'll find on a smartphone. And like your smartphone, they're actually running a computer as opposed to just receiving input from one.
Another unique advantage to SmartGoggles is the system-on-module (SOM) approach. Instead of installing an extremely customized and detailed computer in each product, the SOM is a microprocessor that has basic PC characteristics, like RAM and a processor, built directly on the carrier board. While the SOM controls basic processing activities, the carrier board is in charge of the special applications that are needed in a device (for instance, motion tracking for SmartGoggles).
Having basic processing functions simply "stick-on" to the carrier board is cost beneficial, as you don't need to customize the whole board -- the essential processing system, after all, won't need to be changed. The SOM can be bought off-the-shelf in bulk, saving money if you need to slap them on a whole bunch of customized carrier boards. This is great for a product like SmartGoggles, which would need to keep costs down when trying to compete in the gaming market.
But the thrill of virtual reality doesn't come from staring at a processor, as you'll discover on the next page.
SmartGoggles: Tech-y Goodness
To grasp how the technology works, let's pretend we're playing a game with our SmartGoggles on. First off, what you're wearing is more comparable to a helmet than goggles: a bulky device that fits over your head to cover your ears and eyes but is still light enough to allow you to move freely. This virtual reality system is immersive, meaning you only see what the screen shows you, as opposed to one that superimposes images on your actual line of vision.
Each eye is looking at a very small OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen, magnified to fill your field of vision, with a high resolution of 1280 by 1024. Because each eye has a screen, depth perception is possible, which means you're fully surrounded by a virtual 3D image. As we're in virtual HateBot's world, let's take the opportunity to smash the nearest building with our fist.
How do the SmartGoggles know what to knock down on our screen when we punch the air? The front of the helmet features 10 cameras that are able to track the motion made in front of them. They look at your hands 60 times a second, placing them in your virtual field of view in real time. These cameras are used as motion-capture devices that can track the flailing movement of your hands and arms when, for instance, HateBot is on a rampage. Because the helmet can move wherever your head moves, you get a 360-degree experience. You don't have to limit yourself to standing in front of a device (like you would with a Kinect) or keeping your hands in a "strike zone" of space.
Cameras, along with other aspects of the technology, also play a part in user interface. For instance, if the game you're playing asks if you'd like to play again, the motion cameras can tell you're pointing at the "yes" option -- or giving a thumbs up, for that matter. A built-in microphone could also follow a voice command. One more forward-mounted camera brings live video into the goggles, a feature that could be used for a video conference, or even a photo.
SmartGoggles also have an accelerometer, which measures the force of acceleration. In a smartphone, the accelerometer might tell you if you've turned the phone into a horizontal position and will send signals to the system that it needs to reorient the screen. SmartGoggles use the accelerometer to tell the HateBot to look up to the sky when you do or to jump over or stomp a building when it feels acceleration from your own body.
SmartGoggles Applications: Oh, the Possibilities!
While virtual reality is not yet the everyday immersion we expected from the 21st century, products like SmartGoggles are certainly designed to evolve. Natalia was initially developed for a video game experience that took you a few steps further than standing in front of your TV, moving your controller to make your Wii avatar play tennis.
Primarily, that's what Sensics is touting it as: an amazing gaming platform that promises a far more engaging experience. For that reason, they're promoting the technology as a reference design, selling the blueprints to gaming developers or consumer electronics companies (like Nintendo, Google or the like) that can explore how to use it. (So the Natalia helmet model is just that -- a model designed to show companies how the technology could be used.)
And the technology is certainly not limited to gaming. "Augmented reality" glasses or goggles are a big deal right now; this is the kind Google is promoting with their Project Glass. This is a step less than immersive: Looking through your own field of vision, you see information about what you're viewing. Glance at the library, for example, and a pop-up can tell you the hours it's open. Not that you'll ever actually read a book anymore with all this 3D interactive technology around you. Who would, when you could be watching movies with your SmartGoggles on? An entirely absorbing 3D movie experience might be very appealing to cinemagoers and directors alike. No longer are you just watching Woody Allen fuss around an apartment; now you're practically feeling his anxiety next to you!
SmartGoggles (and their technology) are already being used for military and defense purposes. "Most of the uses we're seeing in the defense market and the military type applications are for training and simulation," Boger says. "So anytime you want to train a soldier, policeman or firefighter to operate a new kind of machinery or refresh his or her skills on a particular task, or just have them deal with situations that are very expensive or very dangerous to recreate in real life, that's when simulators could come in" [source: Boger].
If you're not a Navy SEAL, you could still see SmartGoggles popping up in other everyday situations. Consider the 15-year-old with a learner's permit: While you might want them to know how a car reacts to icy streets, you probably wouldn't send them out in the dead of winter to test their limited knowledge. SmartGoggles could provide a much more immersive, safer simulation.
Everybody looks pretty stupid wearing virtual reality headsets. For that reason alone, I was wary of SmartGoggles. Sure, they seemed a little more streamlined than the ones last seen in, say, a Sylvester Stallone sci-fi movie. But who wants to wear a computer on their head and walk around pretending they're an alien in a video game? Turns out, a lot of people probably do. And when I saw the possibilities for SmartGoggles technology -- video chats with a relative overseas, immersive 3D movies -- I'll admit that I was pretty ready to put on whatever stupid helmet they gave me. I was even up for taking a turn as HateBot, ready to crush a building with my fists.
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