Neil Schneider on AR, VR, 3D and The Immersive Technology Alliance

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Neil Schneider, Executive Director and Founder of the Immersive Technology Alliance, takes us through the Alliance’s objectives and its role in the expanding AR/VR industry. In this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014, Mr. Schneider and Steve Waskul discuss the construction of the Alliance, including its overarching goal, as well as the latest AR/VR technology that has yet to hit the market.

“So tell me about the Alliance,” Steve opens the conversation. Originally the Stereoscopic 3D Gaming Alliance, Neil responds, the Alliance realized in 2009 that it needed to expand its mandate “to include VR, AR, stereoscopic 3D, and well beyond gaming.” They were in the middle of a VR revolution, he explains. With over 30 companies now, like Electronic Arts and Panasonic, their focus is on immersive technology. With VR, he explains, that means you feel like you’re completely enveloped in the 3D environment. Or with AR, where the world is digitally enhanced, “you see things that aren’t there.”

Yes, Steve comments, the capabilities for AR are fascinating. In total agreement, Neil shares that while we often see this technology utilized for gaming, even companies like McDonald’s are on board. With AR apps that utilize characters on their food containers, “you can literally play with your food!” AR has very practical applications as well, he continues. Scope AR, he explains, utilizes AR glasses for training purposes like teaching employees how to adjust and dismantle a water pump. For Neil this is a huge innovation because it gives people who are “manually challenged” another tool to learn their trade.

In a previous conversation, Steve follows, he discussed how AR can make it possible to look at a painting in a museum and, based on where your eyes are focused, relevant information or video content will pop up. Nodding, Neil shares that one of the finalists in SIGGRAPH’s AR/VR contest created a similar application. By holding up a tablet or smartphone to a painting, he continues, you can see additional moving artistic features that appear as you scan the painting.

So with the Alliance, Steve asks, have you seen any exciting things that haven’t hit the market yet? “Absolutely,” Neil pauses. For him, it’s important to remember that while AR/VR has been around for a while, it’s only recently become affordable. For example, in March of 2013 former Valve Corporation employees Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson utilized Kickstarter to create their company, Technical Illusions. Currently they are developing a product called castAR. The idea behind this technology, he explains, is that people wear glasses with mini projectors that shine onto retro-reflective material to create virtual environments. There are so many applications in both gaming and education, he continues. Imagine dissecting a virtual frog in high school- “think of all the frogs that will be saved!” Neil exudes, eliciting laughter from Steve.

What’s really exciting about this, Neil continues, is that this technology will only cost hundreds as opposed to thousands of dollars, and the retro-reflective material only a couple dollars a meter. “People are imagining literally filling their room with this wallpaper,” he enthuses. Although this technology may not be as complex as utilizing a cave to create a virtual environment, this is a great example of how we can take big technology and make it accessible to the general public. Additionally, he finishes, the power requirements have decreased substantially over the years, making things like 100” displays a very realistic acquisition for the home.

What about applications that enable you to practice surgery, Steve inquires. One of the bigger markets right now, Neil responds, is Telemedicine, which would include performing surgery from remote areas. Another area he’s seen AR utilized in recently is the airline industry. Because airline engineers are often very specialized, it makes it difficult for an engineer to work on a plane he’s not familiar with, and consequently, the repair takes more time than it normally would. With AR technology, he explains, one engineer can leave “notes,” so to speak, so other engineers have a better idea of where and how the repair needs to be done, reducing the amount of time needed for the repair.

Steering the conversation in a slightly different direction, Steve mentions speaking with several different people from Intel at SIGGRAPH last year about perceptual computing. Fascinated by the idea that today’s powerful CPUs have additional cycles that can be utilized to sense what’s happening in the environment and act on it, Steve wonders if this has a role to play in the VR/AR realm. Yes, Neil affirms, a lot of work is being done right now on gesture recognition. Devices from companies like Leap Motion will certainly enable more realistic VR experiences for consumers and should hit the market in the near future.

As their discussion draws to a close, Steve inquires, “What is the broader goal of the Alliance?” Most of the members, Neil answers, are very formative and largely driven by limited resources. So essentially, he continues, their mission is to make immersive technology successful. Because they are non-profit and have no vested interest in specific technology, the Alliance wants to see a large and diverse immersive technology industry that will most benefit the consumer. With the aim of giving their members “a fighting chance,” Neil explains, they offer open forums for problem solving free from the intrusion of the press, as well as vast opportunities for networking with industry partners and experts.

The 3D stereoscopic industry was once very political, Neil discloses, but the people in the immersive technology field are much keener to open up and connect. “Why do you think that is?” Steve asks. Is it just because that industry is so proprietary? When the 3D stereoscopic industry first started, Neil responds, gaming companies didn’t really see 3D as part of their business model. Consumers weren’t asking for it. “The challenge that stereoscopic 3D faced was that everyone wanted to cut out their corner of the market,” Neil elaborates, creating confusion in the consumer marketplace. Ultimately, this “held things back” for the industry. Despite the challenges of the past, Neil says he is confident that with transparency and open communication the immersive technology industry will continue to move forward to success.