Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Top 5 VR Products at a health conference

Last week, the hospital I work at hosted a conference on the role of Virtual Reality in medicine. After strolling through demo booths, here are the top five companies and products that blew me away.

Number Five: AppliedVR

AppliedVR is a startup that provides VR equipment and support for hospitals to use to manage pain. It’s a simple business, but it makes sense. Virtual Reality is incredibly immersive, which studies have shown can effectively calm patients and distract them from anxiety and even physical pain during procedures like blood draws. Setting up and maintaining equipment and software is something most hospitals are unlikely to be prepared to manage, so AppliedVR encourages them to outsource it. Regardless of AppliedVR’s future, the future of VR to transport patients away from their bodies during medical procedures and to provide mental stimulation to patients confined to a hospital is all but certain to assume a place in hospitals in the future.

Number Four: The Dolphin Swim Club’s Waterproof VR

Jack is in the back, demoing the headset in a psych professor's very funky backyard pool.

The Dolphin Swim Club is a company focused on manufacturing a waterproof VR headset, primarily for allowing patients to simulate swimming with Dolphins. It’s a strangely specific goal by a married Dutch research team. They felt that swimming with dolphins was a powerful experience, but that the logistical constraints of bringing patients to dolphins was heavily limiting, and that dolphin captivity was inhumane. So they did what any sensible Dutch scientists would: filmed 3D encounters with wild dolphins in Egypt and then 3D printed a waterproof enclosure for a VR-capable smartphone. They held a demonstration in the backyard swimming pool of one of the conference’s keynote speakers, and their product was deceptively well designed in its simplicity. The dolphin experience was great, but the larger potential comes from exploring VR while weightless. VR presents unusual sensations due to its lack of physical forces. Submersion disables much of the proprioception that VR contradicts, creating an ethereal sensation that I expect to become far more available over the next three years.

Number Three: Pico Interactive’s Pico Neo VR headset


The Pico Neo is a cordless VR headset with resolution, refresh, tracking, and processing currently only seen in corded VR headsets. All VR requires compromises. Conventional stand-alone systems, in which the computation, rendering, and tracking takes place inside a smart-phone or similar device compromises on almost every feature. Premier systems like the Vive and the Oculus seek to impress a user with an experience that feels real by processing the graphics on a full-sized computer and tracking the headset’s position with surrounding cameras, and using video resolution and refresh rates higher than found on most smartphones. This requires a tether from the headset and a substantial amount of setup. Pico is trying to build a device that uses a superior method of tracking and a lot of custom hardware to miniaturize the processing and tracking so that it can fit inside a stand-alone headset. They still have to make compromises, but fewer than you’d expect.

Number Two: Virtual Education Systems’ V/AR Patients


This is pretty simple. It’s really just a video game-based training simulator for doctors. It looks like Elder Scrolls, if Elder Scrolls had 50+ quests where an old person in a checkup room answered questions about their symptoms and responded physiologically to drugs and procedures. In my simulation, I shined a pen-light into the eyes of a 60 year-old female complaining of disorientation to confirm that she was not exhibiting signs of a concussion. She even responded to questions I asked verbally. It’s a simple thing, but just another demonstration of how well-executed VR can simulate most jobs as a form of training.

Number One: OSSimTech’s Sim-Ortho surgery simulator


More than any other product on display, the Sim-Ortho made me say, “Wait, we can already do THIS? Holy shit, the future is going to be nuts.” Their surgery simulator consisted of a 3D monitor and a stylus attached to two actuator arms.  As you move the stylus, its position is tracked on a 3D screen below.  This is neat to watch, but the moment when things get real is when your stylus collides with the 3D model.  When this happens, the stylus you're holding stops.  For real.  It doesn't vibrate, it doesn't freeze, it just restricts further movement that collides with the model.  You can trace out the shape of a bone with your eyes closed.  You can tap the bone like a xylophone.  I drilled a hole through a vertebra, and I could feel the resistance disappear as soon as my drill bit emerged on the far side.  I couldn't twist the bit while it was in the hole, and when I tried to withdraw the bit, I found that the friction was much higher if the bit wasn't spinning, just like a real drill.  This video doesn't do justice to the experience.  This is the realistic haptic response VR has been teasing at since Superman had to save Lois from cyberspace on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman back in '94.  It's finally here, and it's amazing.*

*This is only meant to communicate how long this idea has been around.  In the actual episode, Lionel Luthor's VR system has no haptic feedback system.  They just wear goggles and wave their arms in the air.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Black Panther Review

Everyone at the theater was having a blast, but none more than this guy.

I ... I can't even.

Going in, Tony and I discussed the hype.  I said that although I loved Thor: Ragnorak, I still felt its hype was overblown.  I told him that although I expected Black Panther to be great, I didn't think it could live up to its hype unless it matched Captain America: Winter Soldier, which I contend is the high watermark for standalone superhero adventures (The first Iron Man is comparable, although I think it's an apples-and-oranges comparison).

Well... it did it.  Superlatives like "best" are subjective, and I'd still give give Captain America: Winter Soldier the edge in hand-to-hand combat choreography, but there's no denying that this movie is the first and only film I can think of that matches Winter Soldier, and surpasses it boldly in world building.  That world building, man... shit.  Wakanda Forever.

One reason I've always revered Winter Soldier in a way that even first Iron Man can't match is that I think that today, as always, superheroes reflect and model our values.  In the 90's Batman represented America's Tough-On-Crime (TM) stance.  Through the 60's and 70's, Superman represented an optimism for a brighter future in the midst of a shifting and uncertain world.  That's why my Mom has always been a big superman fan, despite having never picked up a comic.  Superman is America's patron saint of patient, loving, justice.  Zach Snyder apparently didn't share my appreciation for Superman's real-world power as a symbol, which is the true tragedy of the DC films, far more so than their simple terrible construction or low entertainment value.  Fortunately, we have Chris Evans' Steve Rodgers to show kids today what doing the right thing for the right thing's sake looks like, the way Christopher Reeve inspired my Mom.

And now, standing along side him, we have Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa.  The world's a messed up place right now, and we need to collectively recognize the behaviors we all aspire to emulate.  Black Panther does.

On an additional note, it's also helpful to recognize mistakes made, which is hard to do.  Michael B. Jordon's Killmonger adds as much in his compelling criticisms of the world we live in as T'Challa does in striving for a better world. 

Anyway, a solid 5 out of 5.

These aren't actors who were in the film.  This is just how the AUDIENCE was treated.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Falcon Heavy Launch : A big day for Humans

Last week, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, a rocket capable of lifting cargo beyond Earth's orbit, to the Moon or Mars.  Along with presumably thousands of other people, I watched the live feed with baited breath.  So I was surprised when I encountered friends online who respectfully questioned why this was really of any consequence.  Sure it's thrilling.  So was the Eagles' Superbowl victory.  But does a billionaire sending a sports car into interplanetary space really have any more significance than a sports victory?

I think it does.

Although the stated goal is distant, I think that the technologies developed to explore space are usually of the most benefit here on Earth.  Life support equipment in particular is always designed with the goal of making humans healthier and more comfortable while using the least resources.  There isn't anything of that is designed to provide humans with clean water and food on Mars that isn't of use in the under-served parts of the world.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Saw the Backstreet Boys (?)

I went to Vegas for a little weekend trip and we ended up seeing the Backstreet Boys.  I never listened to them, but Tony was a big fan back in his youth, so I went along.  It was good!  They put on a solid show.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Documenting the 2018 Women's March in LA

Last weekend, I went to the Women's March in Downtown LA.  While I was there, I had a specific goal.  For a while I'd thought that it was often frustrating how dependent protests were on media outlets to publicize them.  But after the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and 2017, I realized how critically damaging this reliance is.  It's not just about the visibility of activism: it's about publicizing the facts on the ground.  In the case of  the pipeline protests, stories came out about a woman suffering grave bodily harm when anti-riot ordinance malfunctioned and nearly took off her arm.  The police insisted that any injury had been the result of improvised explosives prepared by protesters.  This kind of uncertainty was shocking to me.  What the hell was going on in rural North Dakota?  Were protesters wildly exaggerating?  Was a peaceful protest being met with state violence and covered up?  I just wanted to know what it felt like on the ground.

Later, in 2017, I was bewildered that I couldn't find images or video of the Los Angeles Women's March, which I hadn't attended.  I heard there were a lot of people, but I couldn't find crowd estimates immediately afterward or suitable images that communicated the atmosphere.  It's hard to believe in an age where so many people have cameras.  In any case, I was having trouble finding clear documentation.  So I decided to make that a goal to improve on myself.  I don't think I'll fix this personally, but I hope to contribute.  So this weekend, I shot footage and edited it together as best as I could.  The march was great, and as a first effort in citizen journalism, I'm pleased with the video that came out of it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Mjolnir: making the famous hammer of the gods

I made a replica of Mjolnir according to the classic descriptions (as opposed to the well known comic book version).  Unfortunately, Tony and I were both concerned that it might be too brittle for casual use during a party, so he used an alternative, but I was generally happy with the look and it has a great heft.  I'm definitely going to use plaster like this again in the future.

Mjolnir, crafted in the classic Norse style

Monday, December 18, 2017

Loki, Thor, and Heimdall at a gathering of the gods

Last weekend, we went to a truly amazing party.  In celebration of the solstice, everyone was asked to come in the guise of one of the ancient deities.  Upon arriving, we were each given three coins labeled with the powers conferred by our characters, and told that we could not use the powers, but were able to trade them and use the ones we received.  We were also each given personalized win conditions.  I attended as Loki, the god of mischief.  Tony attended as the mighty Thor.  Jack came as Heimdall, the watchman.  And we had a blast.  The Egyptian gods, Greek gods, and Aztec gods were present, but the Norse gods clearly owned the night.

At the party, I arrived in the guise of Sif, Thor's wife and goddess of the Earth.  Heimdall was given instructions to reveal me, so I spent the beginning of the party trying to evade discovery.  Eventually, after several thwarted attempts to uncover me, Odin and the rest of the Norse gods used some in-game spell to force me to appear.  This attracted everyone's attention to follow the drama, which afforded me the opportunity to gift one of my coins -- labeled "Chaos" -- to a friend, who immediately used it to force everyone within ten feet to randomly exchange the coins they'd worked so hard to trade and acquired.  Tony, Jack, and I all were shocked at how instantly the room was thrown into genuine pandemonium.  

Over the course of the evening, I changed wigs and masks several times, teased the other gods and stirred up fun.  I can honestly say I've never received so much positive attention at a party.  Loki is a hilariously fun character to play.  Tony made a super-fun Thor too.  In fact, all the folks who'd come as Norse characters -- Odin, Freyr, Sunna, Mani -- seemed to be the most lively attendees.  The entire Norse lineup owned the night.

From left to right: Heimdall, Freyr, Thor, Sjöfn, Odin, Sunna, Mani, Loki

Heimdall and "Sif".  I am seriously surprised how good I look in drag.

Thor arm wrestles Maat, Egyptian god of Justice

Heimdall and Loki

Thor & Heimdall

Thor addresses his fellow gods