Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Making the virtual a reality

A meetup for technology tinkerers called “makers” at Phandeeyar last week showed attendees another world through Google-developed goggles made of cardboard.

A man stares into another world through Google Cardboard goggles, pictured above. Photo: Catherine TrautweinA man stares into another world through Google Cardboard goggles, pictured above. Photo: Catherine Trautwein

Software industry vet and part-time “maker” Jim Powers brought his Google Cardboard “low-cost virtual reality goggles” by the downtown innovation lab on January 22.

Though Myanmar’s makers might not currently have the resources to construct their own virtual realities, a glimpse at the technology sparked ideas about how it be used here.

Virtual reality technology seems to be coming of age this year, Mr Powers said. Perhaps the industry’s best-known brand, Oculus Rift, started as a project crowd funded on Kickstarter and ended up acquired by Facebook for US$2 billion last year. And though companies like Sony and Oculus Rift have emphasised the tech’s potential impact for gaming, its possibilities seem as endless as the worlds developers choose to create.

“A teacher could have their students looking through the human body,” Mr Powers said. “There’s talk of, say, a surgeon in the UK performing surgery by robotics on somebody in Kenya. They’ve got the VR goggles on, that’s [as if] they’re there, they can look around the surgery.”

Google Cardboard’s goggle recipe calls for magnets, lenses, cardboard, an NFC tag and smartphone. The California-based giant doesn’t sell the gear for making the goggles, but instead makes the plans available for building them. Mr Powers got his set from a kit sold through a third party, which cost about $20.

Though he bought a kit, Mr Powers said users could DIY the goggles. “The exciting thing is, it’s a phone and a piece of cardboard,” he said.

He also said Google Cardboard began as one of the search giant’s “20 percent” projects – meaning employees devoted one day a week to the initiative as a passion project. Now, the firm has a team behind its development and upward of 500,000 goggles have been put together, he continued.

Google Developer Group Yangon community manager Ko Ye Lin Aung, who attended the event, said acquiring equipment constrained what people can do in Myanmar. “Even this technology is not widely available yet,” he said. “For right now, it’s a little bit hard to get some accessories especially for this country.”

“Another thing is that people here don’t really appreciate technology yet because we don’t have any proof of how it can help. You can use software or you can hire two people, which is cheaper,” he laughs.

What goggles become capable of can hinge on their availability, according to Mr Powers.

“As these VR goggles become cheaper and more available and the tools to develop the software become available, then you’ll start seeing more creative things and they’ll be more accepted,” Mr Power said.

He sees potential use cases for VR tech in Myanmar for tourism or conservation.

Ko Ye Lin Aung also spoke about travelling via Google Cardboard, specifically by capturing Shwedagon Pagoda through special pictures that would yield an immersive view of the sacred Buddhist site. “You feel that surrounding. It’s totally like you are there,” he said.

“The future is virtual reality, because you don’t necessarily have to go to somewhere just because you want to see it.”

Virtual reality technology could also link people as much as places. Kids across continents could become VR pals rather than pen pals, Mr Powers said.

“You could have educational sharing with other countries,” he said. “People aren’t really aware of what’s going on here, and [people in Myanmar] have been living in their own world here for so long, and it would open up for them.”