Monday, February 18, 2008

Why Sci-Fi Fails

I'll get right to it. There are two things that tend to be the genesis for future oriented science fiction*; an extrapolation of current trends, or an exploration of a possible future technology. The problem comes from the fact that trends and technologies don't develop in a vacuum. While someone is hard at work making artificial intelligence happen, someone else is hard at work making biotechnology push new boundaries, and a third person is ensuring that nanotechnologies** will do something more practical than making things slippery.

So if a science fiction story tells us that there are flying cars, the author better have extrapolated out the how and why of it to everything else in the world. Flying cars mean that there's a propulsion system that can lift relatively heavy things and move them with relatively high precision. It would have to be at levels of efficiency that rival wheel based transportation. This means that it can't just be a new fuel system, because a car with wheels will always be more efficient than one that flies. So either the fuel requirements are reduced to the level that people just don't care about the increased costs, or some technology is developed that brings flying car costs down to the level of cars with wheels while not reducing the cost of cars with wheels.

So in a world with flying cars, do we see desks that float in mid-air? If someone moves a hospital bed, it shouldn't be on wheels either. In fact, there should be flying buildings that utilize the same technology as a way to stay disaster proof and increase mobility. And since this technology presumably runs on some sort of anti-gravity technology (one of the only ways to make it worthwhile without dirt cheap energy), we should see weapons based on it, as well as space travel. And if dirt cheap energy is the reason we have flying cars, then we should see vast changes in the social and cultural landscape.

The problem is, people (authors) just don't think things out enough. A lot of science fiction has things added in that aren't explained just because it looks cool. While that's a fine endeavor, I'm much more concerned with the future and what it holds.

I would guess that the reason I notice this so much is that I read a lot of old science fiction. Asimov and Heinlein are particularly bad about this. Even as the technology progressed in the real world, Asimov's worlds never real progressed past the state of the art of the 50's. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land had robocabs but no speech-to-text. The mail is physical, coming in envelopes. I firmly believe that someone writing in the 60's could have predicted the internet and everything it came with. Pretty much the only thing the internet did was make communication free. With that came a few silent economic and social revolutions.

Good sci-fi is based off of good science. Making a believable world is as easy as looking at the modern one and figuring out how everything will progress in the coming years.

* This as opposed to present oriented sci-fi, in which aliens or the like decide to visit Earth.
** Ten years from now, blogger won't highlight nanotechnology as an incorrect spelling.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Practical Applications of Virtual Overlays

If you haven't read the last two posts, do that first before you read this one.

While new avenues of media and enhanced interface possibilities for virtual goods sounds nice, there's a whole other realm of applications for this kind of technology. If the technology develops, these are sort of a given.

Physical items are limited by physical space. Normally, as much information as possible is packed onto a product, especially if the product and its packaging are intractable. The example I'll be using here is a can of pop; the packaging contains the UPC, nutritional information, recycling information, customer service information, expiration date, storage instructions, identifying information, and on top of all that it needs to look good so that consumers will buy it. And on top of that, it needs to keep the product pressurized and easily chilled. It's a miracle that a simple can of pop can convey all that information.

But there's a trick here, because it really doesn't. It relies on context. Nutritional information is rife with abbreviations, recycling information is usually limited to about 15 characters including spaces, and the UPC is worthless without a whole lot of information stored on computers. Here's another observation; my can of pop gives me far more information than I need. If I'm drinking a can of Mountain Dew, I generally don't need any information about it other than knowing the brand. And when I buy it, the only thing that the cashier needs to know is the UPC. So couldn't we increase efficiency by having two people see a different thing?

But having the consumer see one thing and the cashier see another is just the tip of the iceberg. In the virtual world, information doesn't take up space. We can fill the can with as much information as we want, having only some of it being visible at any given time. Not only can you include detailed nutritional information beyond the space available, but you can include customer testimonials, related products, special promotions, and a plethora of other things.

How would this work in the real world? I would walk into a store and see all of these products as they are now, but possibly with some mild animations on them. When RFIDs are cheap enough to print, they'll be on everything, meaning that the products will be communicating directly with my computer so that the proper effects can be presented. If I pick something up and look at it, this action will register with my computer and a floating web of options will be presented to me based on either my past choices (if my computer sees that I check the detailed nutritional information of everything, it might just pull that up automatically) or on most common actions at that store. The RFID chip printed on the product doesn't have to contain any information except a web address - once the computer has gotten that, it can link up to a computer that actually stores that information.

"But wait!" you say, "That sounds really annoying! I already hate flashing banner ads on my internet, and now I'll have them in real life?" Well ... that all depends. Just like banner ads can be cut out with the right add-ons, product information could be cut out too. It really depends on who has majority control over what does and does not get shown through virtual overlay. If it's the companies, then "dynamic marketing" is something you might have to put up with. If it's the people, then you should be able to walk down the aisles with nothing being displayed but gray bags and cans that don't entice in any way (overriding legacy information).

And with lenses you can do other things too. Drive-in movies can be arranged at arbitrary locations and with minimal cost, because there's no mechanical apparatus required. Posters wouldn't need to be put up, because you can just stick a chip to a wall that tells people's computers what to see. Better yet, you can just set it up to be completely virtual, so that the on-board computer accesses information about what should be where and gets it without needing to use RFID. Or if you're lost, you can simply call up directions from the net; with GPS, it would be possible to have the lenses project out a red line for you to follow*. Or if I'm shopping, my cart can bring up a virtual display that keeps a running total of what I'm buying. All of this requires no hardware investment beyond the cost of a computer, wireless internet, and lenses.

Scenery changes also mean that I can replace the view outside my windows with something more soothing; a lush jungle, a sunny beach, or silent woods. Replacing the view is still thinking a little too low level though; instead, I could make new windows, with the added benefit that they wouldn't leech heat.

Can you tell that I want it to be the future?

*This technology will be available on cars within the year, though it projects the line onto the windshield instead of your retinas.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Magic of Wearable Computing

Here's virtual reality technologies as they will look in ten to fifteen years:

Instead of glasses, you'll be wearing contact lenses. They will either contain a small camera, or you'll be wearing one around your head. They'll be connected to a computer that's small enough to be worn all the time, with power life hopefully being more than a day so that it can be worn continuously and charge while you sleep. The camera will allow whatever program you use to tell where your head is at any given time, track where you are in the physical world, and track various real world objects. The contact lenses will ideally be able to track where you're eyes are looking at any given moment so that various optical effects can be recreated.

The most obvious (and to my mind, most boring) application of these lenses will be full immersion virtual reality. You still won't be able to touch or smell anything, as those technologies come later, but you would be able to put yourself inside a movie, or given enough physical space, put yourself inside a game with virtual things to shoot at. This is probably the first direction for the technology to go, because it means that very few objects need to be real world tracked, if any.

The less obvious application is overlaying virtual things onto physical things. If you pick up a blank book, the lenses can project words onto your retinas so that to you the book looks like Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, or whatever else you feel like reading. Your physical bookshelf would just need one book, while your virtual bookshelf would be able to hold every book ever printed.

Similarly, you could replace your television with a virtual television. It would be projected onto your eyes by the contacts in such a way so that it would seem like the screen was being projected onto a wall in your house. The obvious advantages (besides cost) are being able to move it wherever you want to, having it be invisible to people who don't want to watch it, and even muting it if you have the sound coming in through micro-headphones instead of installed.

Another example; you could replace your computer with a virtual computer. As you'd be running this all on a lightweight computer anyway (with a power about 100-fold of what we have today), it makes a lot of sense to take the typical user interface of monitor+mouse+keyboard and remove it from the computer entirely. What this means is that you would have your lenses project a keyboard onto any flat surface and a monitor projected into the air above it. Most of this, like on today's desktops, would be done without you really knowing how it happens - to you, it would just look like you had given substance to a computer by sitting down at a table. Input could be done in a number of ways; either you would wear a ring on each finger so that they could feed information back to the computer, or you could coordinate with the camera (which would mean you have to keep your fingers in at least peripheral vision when you type). To use the "mouse" you would just slide a finger or two across the table.

But this brings up an interesting point - if I could have a computer interface be represented by almost anything, with cost not being an issue because it's all virtual, why would I choose it to be represented by a keyboard and monitor? Why wouldn't I choose to view virtual files in some novel way, like having my e-mails stacked on top of my desk, or having my photos exist in some virtual photo album, or having a virtual phonograph that played all my music? All these virtual items would be available to you at any time you wanted them, because your computer would travel with you wherever you went.

The virtual television would be a fine solution for viewing legacy media, but once the technology to do a virtual overlay exists, full immersion would likely merge with the movies. At the most basic level, you could do something like the old movies of the '50s with red and blue glasses. It would be more realistic of course, because it would have more information, and because it wouldn't be bound by the screen. The advances in videogame technology would likewise be immense, but the same problem that's happening now will still be happening then; the quality of media can't match the advances in technology.

Next time - practical applications of the virtual overlay in advertising, marketing, and informatics.

Why We Don't Have VR Headsets

VR headsets are one of those hardware applications that seems like it holds such promise and wonder, but has never got off the ground. In that way it's like the flying car. Both of these technologies are perfectly capable of being produced today, and the demand for them would certainly be too, but they both have obstacles which would need to be overcome.

The problems with the flying car being mass-produced are many-fold. The most obvious issue is that the fuel needed to put a car in the air and move it around is much greater than the cost of moving something with wheels. The benefits of having a flying car aren't that substantial compared to that of a normal car: you wouldn't have to follow the roads and you would be able to avoid most other traffic. That isn't to say that other traffic wouldn't be there, but with three dimensions of travel instead of just two it would be a lot easier to avoid anyone else. But this brings us to the final problem of the flying car; moving in three dimensions is much more difficult and dangerous than moving in two. Consider the differences between getting a driver's license and a pilot's license and you can see why it would take considerable cultural and technological changes for the flying car to become a reality.

The VR headset has problems of a different sort. The first problem is software. If I buy a VR headset today, the games on it won't work on any other VR headset, and since no large software companies support them, the games are most likely made by the same company that made the headset, and for that reason probably not very good.

No software means that few people will buy headsets; a lack of hardware penetration means that it isn't profitable to make software. This is something that the videogame industry has made quite clear. Have you ever thought about why there are only three competitors? It's because they're the ones who spend millions of dollars on putting the hardware into homes, advertising it, and developing the technologies. Neither Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo could offer that level of support without other companies making the software. The amount of capital investment needed to enter the market is massive, and it's not a business that you can dip a toe in.

So right now, since no big company has invested in making the VR headset a reality, the technology is lagging behind in relative terms. The current generation looks a little like bulky sunglasses. The image is stereo (meaning that you see a different image with each eye) to mimic your natural eyesight and give the illusion of real sight. The glasses can go transparent so that you can see the real world. The glasses track your head movements, so that when you turn your head to the left you're seeing whatever is to your left in the virtual world, again mimicing the real world.

Up next; what the technology will look like in ten to fifteen years, and what it will mean for knowledge based industries.