Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality in your living room

Dr Stefan Greuter of GEE Lab (where I’m doing my honours project) recently wrote an article for The Conversation: “How to build a virtual reality system – in your living room.” And today I got to try out his system!

VR at GEE Lab

Called SpaceWalk, it uses a variety of off-the-shelf components to create the VR effect. On my head is an Oculus Rift, which is a VR headset that got its start on Kickstarter, and made news earlier this year when it was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. The Rift is attached to a Windows Surface, which lives in a laptop case over my shoulder.

As I walk around the space, a Microsoft Kinect is tracking my movements, and adjusting my position in a virtual space made using the Unity engine. This information is being sent via wifi to the Surface.

The effect is that I can walk effectively untethered in a virtual space.

VR Set Up at GEE Lab

In his book The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson makes a distinction between two types of inventors: Forgers and honers.

Forgers created new technology and then forged on to the next project, having explored only the outlines of its potential. Honers got less respect because they appeared to sit still technologically, playing around with systems that were no longer start, hacking them for all they were worth, getting them to do things the forgers had never envisioned.

SpaceWalk is an awesome example of honing.

100 Rooms in Inform 7

As a writing project, I’m going to create 100 rooms in the Inform 7 text adventure programming language.

There is only one rule for each room: there must be an exit. Once the player uses the exit, the game is over.

The Watchers teaches kids about online privacy

The Watchers is a game designed by seven kids with two game designers. It plays on iPad, but has a neat ‘real world’ board game feature.

The Watchers isn’t like other edugames out there. It was designed with a team of 7 kids, who injected it with imagination and humour, while pushing for creative approaches to the presentation of educational content. The game doesn’t attempt to teach dry skills; rather, its goal is to stimulate discussion and raise awareness about tough questions.

Rather than teaching children to memorize ways they can avoid “stranger danger,” the game facilitates the development of autonomous privacy decision making skills. In so doing, children can use the game to practice making assessments about which individuals or companies they should share their information with, as well as critically thinking about what the consequences of those choices may be.

Also check out their design diary for the project at the Gaming Privacy blog.

(Thank Kate Raynes-Goldie.)

Impressions of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

I had the opportunity to play/read “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” It is a beautiful, interactive book, with a story that looks and feel like a Pixar short movie with lots of heart.

The general layout is that each page of the book has an interactive picture that you can explore. Underneath the picture is the text for the story that is also read aloud by an American-accented narrator.

Each picture is a little different, so it really was like exploring to see what each could do.  (I particularly liked a piano-playing moment, where the note and the key was highlighted, suggesting new possibilities for learning music!)

It is a beautiful little app. Even so, I have some reservations.

I have had many people tell me that this is the way kids will read book, and I feel uncertain, even a little reluctant to embrace this future.

Firstly, when people mention the word “interactive”, my mind tends to flash to this 1999 essay by Douglas Adams, who reminds us that Twentieth Century media has tended to make us more passive, and that putting the adjective “interactive” as a selling-feature is ironic as entertainment for most of human history has been so interactive that we haven’t needed to call it such.

My second reservation involves a question: what is the ultimate goal for the producers of the app? Will adding an interactive capability to stories increase the engagment of readers to the story?

My son Gabriel had used the app before me, and when I asked him about it, I started by asking him about the story. What was it about?

“I don’t know,” he told me, before telling me in the same breath that I should turn to a particular page to interact with a picture.

It leads me to question the purpose of reading using tablets. In some interactive books, the words on the page take second fiddle to the other gadgets that the reader can play with.

Comprehension was something we did in English in when I was twelve years old, where we would have to answer questions about a piece having read it only once.

My research space of one (just turned five) suggests that comprehension of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” after the first read is very low.

The user’s temptation (and natural inclination) is to ignore the text and focus on the awesome interactive pictures around the text. Ignore is perhaps the incorrect word here: psychologist may call it “perceptual blindness”, while magicians call it misdirection. There is so much happening on the screen that our brains will not notice the gorilla standing in the room.

As a larger comment on the “interactive story books” I have so far seen for tablets, let me step back twenty or so years. I remember computer games in the nineties was spent discovering and developing storytelling in this new world of interactivity. When CD-ROMs came out, the by-line “interactive movie!” was often splashed across game boxes. It was an explosion in the gaming industry with many titles forgotten, but a few still remembered today (Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island to name just two.)

“Interactive books” on tablet devices seem to have forgotten all the major lessons from that game story-telling hey-day, and focus on the technology rather than asking what is the outcome that they want for their app.

In the case of reading, my vote is for “comprehension” to be way up the list, and scattering the page with distracting gadgets slams that down.

It might be argued that repeat ‘reading’ of the book will mean the reader will get a better understanding of what the story was about. This is assuming that with all the other distracting apps on your iPad will let you get back to it. Once you’ve flipped through the pages and played with your favourite interactive six or seven times, will the reader want to return it the story again? I have no research to back this up, but having seen the demise of the graphic adventure game in the nineties, and knowing how my son’s limbic system is looking for the next dopamine hit, I would think the new levels of Angry Birds will win out every time.

Good Game: Bye Junglist

The first time I saw an episode of Good Game was late last year when I finally replaced the clunky analogy TV with a computer tuning card.

I quickly found myself turning over at the end of Top Gear on a Monday to watch Good Game on ABC2. It’s well made; slick and silly without being (too) corny, and presented actual reviews of computer games without becoming advertorial pieces like other electronic entertainment shows on some commercial channels I could name.

(The one review that got me hooked was a preview for Gears of War 2. The team were not allowed to film their own in-game footage, and rather than use the provided PR footage, Bajo and Junglist decided to make their own.)

Fast-forward to last Monday when I tune in and find the duo of Junglist and Bajo has been replace by the new duo of Bajo and Hex.

(And I recognised Hex; a few months ago the Me On 3 competition was on, and of all the videos uploaded to YouTube, Steph’s was the first that I saw that was actually, well, good. And I commented as such at the time to no one around me who will remember.)

During the episode, I kept half an eye on the Twitter #ggtv tag, and read various comments along the vein of “Who is the blonde girl?” This was both expected and disappointing as people use the pseudo-anonymity of Twitter to vent their spleen and be mean.

As the episode went on I felt another disappointment: not not the fact that Hex replaced Junglist, but that he’d been replaced at all. I liked Junglist, and I liked the Junglist/Bajo team. Junglist was the Yin to Bago’s Yang; Junglist’s dry wit juxtaposed Bajo’s bouncy “someone’s setting fire to my foot” delivery. The team made it something to tune in for, in the same way we watch Top Gear for Clarkson, Hammond and May doing something stupid, rather than reviews of cars we’ll never drive.

So with Junglist being replaced without warning, and probably against his will, I’m feel a funny sense of loss. I’m not going to rage, pound my fists bloody, write strongly worded letters to the ABC (PO Box 9994 in your capital city, BTW.) But I sincerely hop this isn’t the end of him on the ABC.

Having said all that…

It’s written in the Hagakure: “It is said that was is called ‘the spirit of an age’ is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. In the same way, a single year does not have just spring or summer. A single day, too, is the same…For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.”

The old Good Game, for good or bad, is gone. Possibly by ABC management looking for a different slice of the demographic pie, and I doubt online petitions are going to change things. The point is, the show is still here, and we can still the get best out of it. Once Bajo and Hex find their groove.