Google is known to be working on a range of wearable computer-based devices collectively labeled Android wear. Probably, best known is Google Glass, a wearable device worn on a glasses-like frame or over glasses that projects a tiny computer screen over one eye and allows the user to do all the things an advanced smart phone can do including responding to voice commands. Hailed as the end of the computer screen and keyboard, the $1,500 sticker price seems to be slowing its adoption. Due to be released in early July is the Google Watch which will run Android apps.
But one surprise has been Google’s weird response to the virtual reality visor challenge. Best know of virtual reality visors, of course, is the Oculus Rift. Widely promoted as a device that will transform gaming by giving the gamer the illusion of actually being in the physical space of the computer-generated game word and bringing new realism to gaming, a potentially large market anxiously awaits its final release from development. Mark Zuckerberg was so enamored by it that he recenlt bought the company. Potential developers have been hot on the heels of the Oculus project. While Microsoft seems to have temporarily placed its own virtual reality visor being produced under Project Fortaleza on hold, Sony is rumored to be quietly working in its own (http://venturebeat.com/2013/09/03/playstation-4-vr-rumor-claims-sony-is-working-on-virtual-reality-headset/).
So it would not be so surprising if Google made its own foray into this terrain albeit that Google is not as close to gaming as Microsoft and Sony. But was this Wednesday’s announcement a joke? Google announced this week that its engineers on their own 20% time to work on projects of their choice had come up with an inexpensive cardboard design for attacking an Android phone in front of the eyes using a housing made of cardboard. The design was released to anyone who wanted to experiment with it and to encourage third parties to develop potential apps. This a long way from the two billion dollars Mark Zuckerberg spent to acquire Oculus Rift. But Oculus Rift is far more than smartphone strapped in front of your eyes. Is Google merely poking fun at Oculus Rift or is this for real?
A MUVE (Muli-User Virtual Environments) refers to an online virtual world that is not a game and in which users can construct their world. It’s very different from MMORPG’s (Massively Muti-User Online Role Playing Games) like World of Warcraft that highly limit what the user can create and constrain the user in some sort of game scenario. In a MUVE like Second Life users can create terrain, design their own avatars with custom clothing and animations, create buildings and design interactive objects. Beginning around 2005 virtual worlds like Second Life came to be seen as having the potential for creatively delivering online distance learning, marketing and serving as a place for companies to carry on enterprise activities including meetings which did not require employees to travel to a real life site. People could interact within Second Life as avatars enhanced with voice communication and the ability to project real world content into the virtual world. My own university was one of many institutions of higher learning that experimented with Second Life. The picture shows the Second Life region that was created by the New Media Consortium as a replica of the famous Rose Garden area of our campus. It was there that we hoped to market the university and offer online classes. By 2010, most companies and universities abandoned the use of MUVE’s after they failed to achieve the potential that was expected. Some of the failure was due to a learning curve that was too sharp for many casual users, the preference by users alternative means to interact that did not involve entering a virtual world on an avatar and the failure to really exploit the capabilities of a virtual world. Around 2010 the health of virtual worlds worsened and worlds like There.com shut down. Although most virtual world use was recreational in nature, Second Life, the most successful virtual world began a downward spiral in growth.
Second Life founder, Phillip Rosendale, was replaced as CEO of Linden Labs, the parent conmpany of Second Life, around 2008 at the peek of growth. Two years ago, Rosendale announced that he would launch of a new virtual world based on more recent technology with the potential to do what Second Life had done but much better. This project is called High Fidelty. This project is at the alpha stage with a limited number of people allowed to experiment. Some of the features of the new world are ability to use it easily on a range of devices (computers, tablets and smartphones), much more powerful tools for users to create their own worlds with voxxels leapfrogging over mesh as the basic unit of construction and the ability to use the new virtual reality viewer, Oculus Rift, for a feeling of total immersion in the virtual world.
OIn Tuesday of this week, Linden Labs announced its own intentions to launch a new virtual world using technologies siimillar to High Fidelity and with the idea that Second Life would likely be eventually replaced by it. What is not clear is whether this world is actually High Fideliity. If so, it would very much be like the story in which Steve Jobs left Apple Computer to design the NeXt computer when he was pushed out as CEO and then brought that project back to become the basis for the Macintosh computer. Perhaps, once again the founding creative genius will return to take a company forward.