Fantastic Augmented Reality and Where to Find It


Pokémon Go was big last summer, but it was a flash in the tech pan. It couldn't scale. But it was a big augmented reality (AR) game that was mobile and required no additional hardware - especially the odd-looking goggles we currently associate with virtual reality. The game was platform agnostic. It used location services to geo-locate players with a virtual world. It worked.

I never played Pokémon Go, but I did observe others playing. For those of you who also didn't participate, here's what it is all about.

Your avatar is displayed on a map using the player's current geographical location. There are PokéStops that provide players with items, such as eggs, Poké Balls, berries, potions and lure modules which attract additional wild, and sometimes rare, Pokémon. These stops and battle locations (gyms) are re-purposed portals from Ingress, developer Niantic's previous augmented reality game. 

In AR mode the game uses the camera and gyroscope on the player's mobile device to display an image of a Pokémon as though it were in the real world.


I can certainly see more game applications for AR. I would pursue the rights to the Harry Potter world's latest franchise whose name itself suggests an AR game: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  

But is this all we can expect from augmented reality? 

Its use in education has been limited, but it has been used to superimpose text, graphics, video and audio into a student’s real time environment. As a kind of supercharged QR code, in textbooks and in real spaces, such as museums and physical displays, material can be embedded using “markers” that trigger when scanned by an AR device and supply supplementary multimedia materials.


Using AR for more serious purposes is not that new. In 2000, NASA's X38 display (shown here) had a video map with overlays including runways and obstacles for use during flight tests. 

The applications for AR are numerous. For architects and builders, AR can aid in visualizing building projects. Computer-generated images of a structure can be superimposed into a real life local view of a property before the physical building is constructed there. It can be used before any construction begins while architects are rendering into their view animated 3D visualizations of their 2D drawings. 

Similarly, AR allows industrial designers to experience a product's design and operation before completion. Volkswagen used AR for comparing calculated and actual crash test imagery and to visualize and modify car body structure and engine layout. AR was also be used to compare digital mock-ups with physical mock-ups for finding discrepancies between them.


We are not there yet, but in education AR should become more common and more interactive. Computer-generated simulations of existing places and historical events. In higher education, applications such as Construct3D, are used to help learn mechanical engineering concepts, math or geometry. 

Primary school children using interactive AR experiences will probably end up in high schools and colleges using AR and VR in ways we can't quite imagine today. AR technology in the classroom will be integrated, rather than a novelty, and mixing real life and virtual elements will feel more natural. 

What Google’s New Open-Source Software Means for Artificial-Intelligence Research

"Google wants the artificial-intelligence software that drives the company’s Internet searches to become the standard platform for computer-science scholars in their own experiments.
On Monday, Google announced it would turn its machine-learning software, called TensorFlow, into open-source code, so anyone can use it.
“We hope this will let the machine-learning community — everyone from academic researchers, to engineers, to hobbyists — exchange ideas much more quickly, through working code rather than just research papers,” Google announced on its website.
Until now, researchers have had access to similar open-source software: Torch, built by researchers at New York University, as well as Caffe and Theano, are also open to everyone. TensorFlow is meant to combine the best of the three, Jeff Dean, a top engineer at Google, told Wired."


Virtual Reality on the Cheap

Assembled Google Cardboard VR mountImage: Google Cardboard via Wikimedia Commons
Remember when Google Cardboard was shown at last year's at I/O?  This cheap virtual reality (VR) device made of cardboard and rubber bands turned out to be the big buzz for many people. Sure, it wasn't the fancy Google Glass, but it was Google.
It has been a year and is anyone really talking about Glass anymore? The official website is a dead end.  Google Glass is wearable technology with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD). The idea was to experiment with a mass-market ubiquitous computer. It has information in a smartphone-like hands-free format and a wearer can interact with the Internet via natural language voice commands.

Google Glass sold for $1,500. In January 2015, Google announced that it would stop producing the Google Glass prototype but remained committed to the development of the product.

Cardboard, on the other extreme, is decidedly low-tech. It is cardboard, with lenses, a few patches of padding and Velcro, and a rubber band to keep it from sliding around. The expensive part is that you need to add your phone.

You download the Cardboard app from Google Play or Apple's App Store. There are a number of versions of Cardboard that you can buy now.

It is not meant to be Google Glass. It is closer to using Oculus Rift or Samsung's Gear VR.
You hold Cardboard up to your face like the old toy View-Master I had as a kid. Now, that old toy is coming back with some help from Google as part of Google's goal to expand Cardboard's use.

Though the term "virtual reality" has been around since 1938, the use of it to mean an artificial reality in a technological way is from the 1970s. One should not confuse virtual reality with augmented reality. VR and AR are similar in immersing the user, but AR users continue to be in touch with the real world while interacting with virtual objects around them. VR takes you out of the real world and immerses you in another world. Sometimes that immersion is so immersive that users get dizzy or nauseous, especially with software that emphasizes motion like the early days of wide screen cinema and 3D films.

The DIY nature of Cardboard is appealing and with a phone and an investment of $20 or $30, you can give a VR headset a try.


Robots of the Dead

I am an admirer of Albert Einstein. I've written about him and I would have loved to have met him and be able to have a conversation with him. But I don't know how I would feel about talking to a robot version of him.
That is possible since a recent Google patent describes robot personalities based upon the voices and behaviors of dead celebrities or loved ones. The patent is about robot personalities as software that could be transferred between different robots online. They could be famous people or personalities customized to your preferences.
These artificial personalities that mimic the dead aren't all robots. You probably have seen John Wayne seeming to sell Coors Light commercials or Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner or Audrey Hepburn and Bruce Lee resurrected as digital avatars in TV commercials.
But have you heard of the the uncanny valley? It's that place where human-like figures (in animated films or robotics) feel creepy because they are too close to real. Have you seen that creepy zombielike digital avatar of the late Orville Redenbacher?
Then again, a commercial using a digital avatar of actress Audrey Hepburn to promote Galaxy/Dove chocolate had me thinking it was a really  good lookalike doing the commercial. It is actually done with computer graphics(CGI) of Audrey's actual face superimposed over a live model. A computerized Audrey mask.

Are you ready for the dead to return in robotic form?

                                                                                      This entry was first posted on Weekends in Paradelle.

The Creepy Treehouse in the Uncanny Valley

Whether or not you feel that social networking and Web 2.0 applications like Facebook and Twitter have any educational legitimacy or not, teachers are experimenting with using them in their courses.

In some cases, students might welcome their use in a course. The teacher might be seen as innovative. But some students find teachers in these areas to be an intrusion into their private space.

A term being used for the latter reaction is the "creepy treehouse." Chris Lott might be the person who coined the phrase. Jared Stein offered several definitions of the term on his blog, Flexnologoy. I don't agree with the ones that talk about "luring kids in" (that's the way also defines it, as in "It's totally creepy treehouse that Professor Jones wants me to be his MySpace friend.").  I lean more towards Stein's "Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it's closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution."

I do believe teachers can use these social tools without entering the creepy treehouse. Michael Staton (who founded Inigral, Inc. and is working on a free CMS on Facebook) posted on his blog about that same sentiment.
...need to debunk the Creepy Treehouse,as it seems to have become some sort of rallying cry and is pulling people in the wrong direction. I'm going to debunk it with contrarian metaphor: the Functioning Mall.  (If you come up with something more catchy, let me know.)

First off, let me tell you that the metaphor of the Creepy Treehouse is powerful. There are many different ways you can build a Creepy Treehouse. Instructors crossing lines by getting into personal or social settings where they are not particularly invited is totally creepy treehouse.
However, this in no way suggests that instructors should not be using innovative, even social technologies to engage students. Adults and Teachers and Parents are allowed to and should get on the Social Web, but they must do it carefully and obey the general laws of coexisting with teenagers.I don't think it's the treehouse that is creepy. It's who is inside and what they are doing there. It's not very different from that literal treehouse that some kids built out in the woods near your house.

Reading about all this actually set me to thinking about an older term I was familiar with from animation and is also used in robotics. That term is the "uncanny valley."

From Wikipedia
"The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch's concept of "the uncanny" identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny." Jentsch's conception is famously elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay, simply entitled "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche"). A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as with the film The Polar Express and Beowulf."
Creepily real robot
In simpler terms, it's when the animation or robot gets so close to looking real that we start to feel uncomfortable. It's an idea Steven Spielberg touches on in his film Artificial Intelligence: AI. It's Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy.

When the creepy treehouse is erected in the uncanny valley, there's going to be trouble. Second Life might be such a valley. With all it's fantastical inhabitants, there are also those who want super-realism in both the avatars and the settings. When teachers and schools build their treehouses in Second Life, I think it immediately takes some of the charm/fun/interest out of the place. Who wants to play where the grownups are? When the teacher is using Facebook, it's time to find something new. Maybe...

Probably, some of my feelings on this come from having started teaching in a time when the line between teacher and student was clearly drawn. All my early mentors warned me "not to try to be friends" with my students, and I saw teachers who did cross the line - and it bothered me. But that type of impropriety is not my fear with the new technologies and I don't see these social areas as dangerous in that way.

I have a MySpace account (rarely used) and a Facebook account (checked most days) and a bunch of others that I signed up with so that I could see what was going on there. There are some former students of mine that are my "friends" there, and it's actually nice to keep up with their lives. I'm not surprised when they make me a "limited view" friend. They post things online that they should keep offline. It's interesting to see that when some of them graduate from college, they begin to delete photos, leave groups, delete postings.

Maybe the creepiness increases as the age of the students decreases. I imagine this is more of an issue in the upper levels of K-12 than it is for higher education.

I keep reading that Facebook is developing its own course management system. That's creepy, and I think it just might kill Facebook for students. Without any good statistics and just anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that students want Their Space to be separate from School Space. Like my sons when they were much younger, they want me to stay out of their clubhouse. When mom and dad start hanging out in the clubhouse and redecorating, it's time to find a new place. When parents discover the band you love, their music seems a lot less cool.