How does a virtual reality headset work? (Asked by Sanjay from Aberdeen, Scotland)

Without giving too much about this earphone piece, but I thought it interesting and related to what Im now doing.

Virtual reality, which Im going to define as the creation of a computerized 3D environment that can be interacted with and manipulated in much the same was as the real world can, is a pretty multi-faceted concept. There are quite a few ways to allow interaction with a virtual environment (VE), but the headset is perhaps the best known.

So, the key thing that a VR headset needs to be able to do is track the movements of the users head (and, where possible, their eyes) in order to allow for better interaction with the VE. After all, if I tilt my head from where Im sitting and look at the Macho Man Randy Savage action figure that stands on my desk, the positioning of my eye line will change my perspective of the figure. So VR, in order to be convincing, needs to work on the same principle.

A good follow-up question would be why does a grown man have an action figure of Macho Man Randy Savage on his desk? But frankly, thats a story for another time…

Anyway, VR headsets commonly use two screens, one for each eye, in order to create a stereoscopic effect, which allows the illusion of depth perception to take place. A PC (or MAC) will then generate the 3D environment in response to the subjects movements (this technology is not a million miles away from the design of free roaming 3D video game environments).

Theres a really cool scene in one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies, which serves as a nice example. The scene appears in Three To Tango, starring Matthew Perry (of Friends fame) and Neve Campbell. In the scene, Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt (who work as architects), compete with a rival team for an attempt to refurbish an old building. The rival team (for trivia buffs, they are played by Dr. Cox from Scrubs and Phoebes Dad from Friends) create a lavish, all-encompassing, VR environment for their would-be employer to explore, whilst Perry & Platt use an old-timey optical illusion device to better explain theirs.

Essentially, despite appearances to the contrary, both technologies operate on the same principle. Both are, when all is said and done, optical illusions. The difference with VR is that is reacts to you as you react to it, whereas the old timey optical illusion stuff simply stays the same.

In terms of the headset, thats pretty much all its doing. It is the program (being run from the PC or MAC) that is the really clever piece of design.

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Android Astronaut Takes Off

For years people have been telling me that relations, love and happiness are the crucial things in life…At present I realise that I’m able to take or leave all that so long as We have this technology in the world.

audioRobots are in the news a lot lately. From Google’s mysterious plans to do something vaguely robotic over the next ten years (we’re not allowed to know exactly what), to Amazon’s proposal to build flying drones for international deliveries, it seems that the metal munchkins are everywhere, but none are as cute, nor as interesting, as Kirobo.

Resembling a cross between a mid-90’s SNES protagonist and an overgrown Lego man, Kirobo the robot stands at just 33CM tall (which is still positively gargantuan for a Lego man). His claim to fame? Kirobo is the world’s first robot astronaut and is currently orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where he has been since August of this year.

Kirobo was designed and built during a collaboration between an advertising company called Dentsu, the University of Tokyo and car manufacturers Toyota. He was designed as a companion for Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is perhaps best known as the first Japanese person to command the ISS.

Kirobo’s creators hope that the diminutive robot will provide emotional support to Wakata, providing interesting sociological data regarding whether robotic companions can comfort individuals who are subjected to long periods of isolation.

Kirobo has been specially designed to navigate zero gravity environments, he can also speak and understand spoken commands. In fact, Kirobo has many of the same properties as a smartphone in that he can record video and make (very) long distance calls (although his high score on ‘Juice Cubes’ is not yet a matter of public record). Kirobo’s facial recognition software means that he can recognise and react to certain individuals (presumably empathizing with their moods).

In addition to being a cutting edge piece of technology, Kirobo also appears to be of a friendly disposition, the little guy has already called us from space, saying, “My dream is to see human beings and robots live together as friends,”
Kirobo also reportedly requested Wakata’s presence at the station, saying “I really want to see you soon”, he’ll be waiting a long time, however, as Wakata is not due at the ISS for about eleven months.

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