Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Cardboard World

Sorry for the pause of more than a dozen months. Overtaken by events, and all that.

I got back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. It's an annual ComicCon of whiz-bang equipment being hawked to the credulous masses every January. Thanks to a good friend, I became a temporary "Exhibitor" and wandered the merchandise tables for several days.

UHDTV seems to have reached the tipping point for home purchases. With 50" screens selling for under $500, I think this is the year they'll start appearing on people's living room walls. In about three years, this little essay will seem quaintly naive, but 4K television is quite an amazing advance for the movie-watching public. Sony has a 4K projector about the size of an old cassette tape that can beam an eight-foot-wide screen onto a wall. I think hardware TVs may be replaced by these little doodads, as it's much easier to ship and hang a fist-sized box on the ceiling than it is to mount a picture window-sized monitor on the wall.

My favorite two bits of hardware from the show, though, were involved with building Virtual Reality (VR) spaces.
Ricoh Theta S
One item was the Ricoh Theta, a slim plastic stick about as tall as an iPhone with two fisheye lens at opposing sides of the stick. The device records 360° still and video images and broadcasts same to nearby Bluetooth devices. The clarity is astounding. The accompanying software allows for editing and timelapse photography. Its ability to capture an entire sphere of any location in high-definition makes the Theta a game changer for tourist imagery. As it's a mere $346 list price, I think it's going to be a big seller in the coming year.

Way down the price pyramid, but just as much the game changer is the Google Cardboard viewer. Vendors were handing out version of the viewer for free as tschotskes, and the supported base of media available for the device is expanding exponentially by the day.

Briefly, Google Cardboard is a View-Master like device to see 3D images through a stereoscopic pair of lenses. The reason it's called "Cardboard" is that the viewer is typically a carefully folded cardboard box, with appropriate slots and pieces of Velcro used to hold the thing together. By dropping an iPhone or Android into one side of the box, the viewer can be used as a simple VR device. Google has quite a few example programs on their site, and many YouTube videos support the Google Cardboard VR standard.
Google Cardboard

The Cardboard viewer is ingenious and amazing - - I put one together in about three minutes, slipped my iPhone into the far end of the box, and had the device calibrated and ready to go in less than another minute. The iPhone's accelerometer passed axis changes on to the software, and the video screen updated my views immediately.

In one example tour, I walked by the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice. I hovered over a baby gorilla in a jungle, and even stood atop the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars.

The technology isn't quite ready for prime time but it's easy to see how ubiquitous this device and others of its kind will become. I want to learn more about VR technology, so I've ordered a Ricoh Theta to explore the matter in more detail. Expect many experiment posts shortly.


Ricoh Theta S

Google Cardboard

CES 2016