Virtual Reality on a Dime

Photo of a Google Cardboard viewer
“Assembled Google Cardboard VR mount” by othree – Google Cardboard

Google’s virtual reality efforts are getting a lot of press these days, so what’s all the commotion? For the past two years, Cardboard has been the flagship of Google VR. If you’re new to the world of virtual reality, Google Cardboard is essentially housing made of cardboard that turns your smartphone into a virtual reality viewer. Similar products include Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR, but they come with a hefty price tag. A Cardboard viewer, on the other hand, will run you about $20 or less; Google even provides the blueprints if you want to create your own from scratch.

Photo of a girl looking through a View-Master
“Black-Ta” image from Flickr user Steven River

If you’re still scratching your head, think back to the good ‘ole View-Master. With Cardboard, you’re also looking at images through a viewer, but the experience is more interactive. Instead of viewing stagnant images, you can watch 360-degree videos that respond to your movements. For instance, in Bjork’s 360-degree music video, you’ll see Bjork standing on a beach in front of you, but you can also look up at the sky, down at the sand, even behind you. Pretty impressive stuff, eh?

Unfortunately, creating a 360-degree video isn’t quite as affordable as viewing one. GoPro has a VR camera rig called Jump that can be yours for the low low price of $15,000. That said, you can create your own 360-degree still images for free with the Google Street View app! In Google terms, these images are called “photo spheres”, or a series of images stitched together to recreate a 360-degree experience. I took one of my office and the process was incredibly simple; the app prompts you to move your phone around as you take photos to capture your whole environment. The final product isn’t 100% seamless, but the price is right and sharing is remarkably easy. If you’re eager to try out Google Cardboard, check out the #360Video YouTube channel. Even without the viewer, this will give you an idea of what we mean when we say virtual reality.

In addition to Cardboard, Google recently announced a new virtual reality viewer platform called Daydream, set for release this November. Daydream is considered an upgrade to the existing Google Cardboard viewer at more than double the price ($80). If you’re curious about VR, Cardboard remains an excellent choice for beginners. Daydream may be the latest model, but it’s unlikely to rival the simplicity, DIY quality, and accessibility of Cardboard.

If you’re interested in emerging technologies and digital creativity, join us on Mondays this semester at the IQ-Wall for Maker Mondays workshops, presented as part of the Scholars’ Commons Workshop Series – yet to be covered are stop-motion animation, internet of things and logo design:

Maker Mondays series event information

You might also want to check out upcoming events in the Digital Tools and Visualization Methods for Humanists series, which will be covering a variety of topics from 3D Scanning and Printing to IQ-Tables to much more.

A New Way to Take Notes

When do you prefer pen and paper over mobile apps or software? I was recently asked this question and it made me realize how different the two mediums are with certain tasks. I personally cannot imagine using a mobile app to figure out a math problem, or pen and paper to write a paper. Yet there are times I’d like to save notes written on paper and be able to reference them electronically. Fortunately, LiveScribe recently debuted a new wifi “smartpen” meant to bridge those two mediums together and provide an alternative to a clunky stylus.

The LiveScribe Sky wifi pen instantly digitizes anything you write and sends it via wifi to a mobile device. It can be synced with the Evernote application, making it very easy to reference for later use. It also has the capability to record sound as you are writing, which makes it perfect for taking notes in a lecture or presentation. You can also tap the notes on the paper and the audio will play from when the notes were being written, which may help you decode sloppy text.

This smartpen must be used with special paper because a camera, built into the pen, records the position based on tiny dots within the paper. The writing is scanned at 72-dpi resolution and once uploaded to Evernote, can be searched. Currently this pen is available in 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB capacities. Users also get 500 MB of storage through a partnership with Evernote.

Augmented Reality a Reality

Earlier this month Google gave the world a sneak peak of Project Glass, the newest creation to come out of the company’s top-secret Google X lab. Project Glass is an augmented reality system worn much like a pair of glasses that displays information layered on top of the user’s visual field. In short, it’s a smart phone for your face.
Project Glass and other similar technology opens up a world of possibilities for social networking, entertainment, education, and even tourism. The concept video released by Google depicts just a few ways that the augmented reality system could simplify our everyday interactions.  The individual in the video uses the specs to check the weather, navigate the streets of New York, book concert tickets, share pictures, and chat with his friends. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Project Glass is the sleek design. The system looks like a high-tech headband with a tiny unobtrusive display screen on one side. Although they might not be the peak of fashion, these are no bulky nerd glasses.

It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for augmented reality in libraries. Imagine an individual trying to locate a book in the stacks of Wells (assuming there are still books in this futuristic scenario). She could use voice commands to search the library catalog, chat with a librarian via Skype, follow an arrow that would lead her directly to the location of her book, and scan the barcode on the book to immediately retrieve reviews from library databases – all without even so much as lifting a smart phone or downloading an app.

Keeping all this futuristic awesomeness in mind, there are a host of ethical, social, and even psychological questions that arise with the development of augmented reality technology. Issues of privacy, commercialization, and information overload are but a few reasons to be hesitant about welcoming Project Glass with open arms.  However, as the inevitable extension of mobile computing, this technology is coming down the pipeline whether we’re ready for it or not.   There are many applications of augmented reality that are downright revolutionary, but it is best to proceed with caution into this brave new world.

Sidebar: Don’t expect to be sporting your very own pair of Google glasses on the beach this summer. While Google employees are currently testing prototypes, the company does not anticipate a public release of the product this calendar year.

Apple’s new education apps

For a graduate assistant in DUX, I’m actually a bit of a luddite when it comes to new technology.  My phone is not smart, my computer remains firmly planted on a desk, and my books are the kind that won’t crash when you spill coffee on them (a necessity, given my reading habits).  That said, when I read about Apple’s new iBooks Author software, I drooled a little bit.  iBooks Author works in conjunction with the iBooks 2 app, released by Apple in mid-January, to allow Joe Nobody to publish his very own digital book.  It’s clearly geared toward the educational community with an emphasis on textbook publishing, but ostensibly you can publish any kind of book your heart desires (yes, even that sci-fi novel you wrote when you were 16.  HarperCollins doesn’t know what it was missing).

No, I don’t harbor a secret desire to publish a textbook (or Zombie Vampires from Mars, even though it would have been an instant classic), but I do harbor a not-so-secret desire to see educational materials become more accessible.  Apple has teamed up with several prominent publishers to deliver textbooks that normally cost somewhere in the triple digits at much lower (dare I say reasonable?) prices.  Digital distribution makes good sense in the textbook market, where new editions come out every few years.  Who wants to drop another $200 because the editors added a new chapter and updated citations?  No one!  Just consider how much coffee $200 could buy.  iBooks Author further increases accessibility by enabling instructors to publish their own materials digitally.  I could see this technology easily taking the place of traditional course packs, which are expensive for the university to print, expensive for students to buy, and wasteful of natural resources (yay trees!).  All this with the fun of mixed media (embedded YouTube videos in my textbook?  Yes, please!) makes me think that edu-apps like iBooks and iBooks Author are indicative of the future of educational materials.

Caveat 1: As it stands, iBooks textbooks are only viewable on Apple mobile devices.  There seems to be some way to convert these files to PDFs so they can be viewed on other devices, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details and Apple’s documentation certainly isn’t helping me out on this front.  In the name of educational democracy, a work-around for students without iPads would need to be in place before the iBooks app is fully implemented in the classroom.

Caveat 2: There’s some lingering confusion about authors’ rights with regard to the content they publish and sell using the iBooks Author platform.  Check out this post from the New York Times technology blog and this article from the Telegraph to read about the two sides of the issue.

As a future librarian, my question is this: How can libraries get it in on the edu-app fun?  Here in DUX, we’re working daily to make our available resources more mobile-friendly.  What else can libraries do to reach students who increasingly learn digitally?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Students and Tablets

The Pearson Foundation recently came out with a report that highlights the changing landscape of tablet usage among students, in both high school and college settings. The study was done to “gauge college students’ and college-bound high school seniors’ opinions about digital device ownership and purchase intent; perceptions towards tablets; tablet usage and features of interest; and preferences between digital or print formats when reading, studying and doing other school-related activities.”  The outcomes are particularly interesting for a number of reasons-while ownership of devices is still low (only 7% of the almost 1100 college students  and 4% of the 200 high school students surveyed owned tablet devices), the interest in tablets is booming. Nine out of ten of those who own tablets said the device helped them study more effectively and efficiently, and three quarters of those surveyed said they thought tablets helped students perform better in class. One of the biggest shifts, researchers note, is the way that this interest in and acceptance of mobile technology affects the use of digital textbooks. Check out the entire report!

 

Overview of eBook Formats

Electronic Books are becoming more and more popular with the success of eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle and the emergence of tablet computers. Although many readers still prefer paper, eBooks take up less space, are often cheaper, and can provide reading enhancements like flexible font sizing and multimedia. One of the most daunting hurdles to readers that are new to eBooks is the wide array of eBook formats. Here are three that are worth paying attention to:

PDF

The .pdf format was developed by Adobe Systems as a way of preserving document layout across computing platforms. Short for Portable Document Format, .pdf files emulate the traditional structured layout of print books. As a result, it is an excellent format for publications that require tight control of layout, fonts, and images, such as legal or technical documents. The price of this level of precision is a limited ability to resize and reflow text. Originally a proprietary format, Adobe has made .pdf available as an open standard. PDF files are also easily viewable desktop computers using free software like the Adobe Reader.

AZW

The .azw format is the propriety format used by the Amazon Kindle eReader. All eBooks purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store are delivered in this format, which includes a proprietary Digital Rights Management system that requires users to use a Kindle or Kindle software. Amazon has made its Kindle software available for desktops, smartphones, and tablets, allowing readers to read their books on any device. Unlike the .pdf format, .azw files are “reflowable” and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The Kindle and Kindle software will also read the legacy format on which .azw is based, called Mobipocket (.mobi). Many books at Project Gutenberg are available in this format.

ePub

The .epub format is an open standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. ePub files are reflowable and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The IDPF hopes to finalize the ePub 3 standard by mid-2011, which will include support for embedded video and audio. ePub files are supported by several devices including the iPad, Barnes and Noble Nook, Borders Kobo, and the Sony eReader. The Google Books project and Project Gutenberg both offer books in .epub format.

A note on Digital Rights Management (DRM)

All three of the eBook formats discussed here can come with a variety of proprietary digital rights management encoding that may limit which files may be read on which devices.

Savvy business for “dumb” phones?

The Social Network (also known as “The Facebook movie”) batted a little under .500 Sunday night at the Academy Awards, ultimately racking up three wins – for editing, best original score, and best adapted screenplay – from its eight total nominations, including a potential Best Actor nod to Jesse Eisenberg for his role as CEO Mark Zuckerberg (I find Justin Timberlake a bit more compelling myself).

Oscar, Schm-Oscar, Zuckerberg himself might say: 600 million users strong, Facebook rolls on, a juggernaut seemingly immune to the frequent kerfuffles raised by users over privacy of user data, interface changes, and how to finally, once and for all, suppress all those Farmville notifications from so-and-so.

With that many users, it’s no surprise that there’s plenty to say about Facebook. Some might be most interested to consider the possible ramifications of the company’s move last month to raise millions of dollars, from Goldman Sachs and an unnamed Russian investor, in what appears to be the prep for going public. Others might find the story of a Spanish nun expelled from her convent for – that’s right – “spending too much time on Facebook” compelling.

Unsurprisingly, I was most attracted to this story: no longer content to provide apps just for smartphones,  Facebook is moving into the “feature phone” market.  What’s a “feature phone”? Flip phones, candy-bar phones, or others … slightly lower-end than often pricey smartphones, feature phones can run some applications, but aren’t built around an operating system like Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, or Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. While the pundits are lining up to say that 2011 will stand as the tipping point for smartphone adoption in the United States (see our own Bret’s post on the topic, plus the Horizon Report 2011 [PDF]), there are still millions and millions of feature phones in use in this country, and millions more around the world.

Now all those folks can download the Facebook feature phone app, and get 90 days of free data. Maybe not long enough to get them tossed out of a convent, but probably plenty of time to get hooked for Facebook Mobile to become part of their day-to-day. Will other corporations and providers move into the feature phone market? As tablet sales take off, will consumers opt to spend there and save on phones? At least one person has recently noted his interest in pairing his tablet with a feature phone (through which he could create a Wi-Fi hotspot). What happens when two disruptive technologies collide? I don’t know, but if I figure it out, I’ll be sure to post it in my Facebook status.