A Future Including Virtual Reality

Seeing is believing—at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. However, seeing may not mean believing anything in the future. During the building of the PC for Build Your Own PC on a Budget, I investigated various new technologies, including virtual reality, where what you see may not exist at all. Of course, gamers are eagerly anticipating the Oculus Rift, which promises to transform gaming with a monitor into an experience where you really feel as if you’re there. This kind of technology isn’t quite available yet, but will be soon. Even when the hardware is ready and the drivers work as promised, truly immersive games will take time to create. Look for this experience to evolve over time to the point where the Holodeck featured in Star Trek actually does become a reality.

To attract attention and become viable, however, technology must answer specific needs today. It was with great interest that I read Marines test augmented reality battlefield. Unlike the Oculus Rift, this technology actually does exist today and it demonstrates some of the early uses of virtual reality that you can expect to see. In this case, the background is real—it’s an actual golf course. The virtual reality system adds the hardware of war to the scene, including tanks, mortars, and features, such as smoke. What the marine sees is a realistic battlefield that doesn’t exist anywhere but the viewer’s glasses. This is the sort of practical use of virtual reality that will continue to drive development until we get a holodeck sometime in the future.

Virtual reality for gamers and the armed services is nice, but it’s also becoming a reality for everyone else. Samsung and Facebook are introducing a virtual reality solution for movie goers. That’s right, you’ll be able to strap some glasses to your head and get transported to a comfy living room with a big screen TV where you can watch the latest movies offered by Netflix. The Gear VR device promises to change the way that people see movies forever. This particular device actually works with your smartphone, so you need a compatible smartphone to use it. In addition to movies, Gear VR also promises to let you play virtual reality game and become involved in other immersive environments. All you really need is the right app.

An immersive experience, where you eventually won’t be able to tell real from created, is what virtual reality promises. Using virtual reality, you could travel to other parts of the world, explore the ocean depths, or even saunter through the solar system as if you’re really there, but still be in your own home. Virtual reality will eventually transform all sorts of environments, including the classroom. Imagine children going to school, interacting with other students, learning from the best instructors, and never leaving their home. A student could get a top notch education for a fraction of the cost that students pay today.

Coupling virtual reality with other technologies, such as robotics, could also allow people to perform a great many unsafe tasks in perfect safety. A human could guide a robot through a virtual reality connection to perform real world tasks that would be unsafe for a human to perform alone. Think about the use of the technology in fighting fires or responding to terrible events that currently put first responders at risk. Virtual reality will eventually change the way we view the world around us and I hope that the experience is as positive as vendors are promising today. Let me know your thoughts about virtual reality at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Star Trek, One Step Closer

I’ve written a number of posts about 3D printing because it has so much potential for creating a new kind of world where things aren’t such as concern any longer. If all you really need are some raw materials to print out anything you need, the overstocking of stuff really isn’t a concern any longer. You will have only those items you need because spares of anything aren’t a problem. That’s how things were on Star Trek. People seemed less inclined to hoard anything because there simply wasn’t a reason to do so. That’s why a recent ComputerWorld article, How astronauts 3D printed a wrench they needed in space, grabbed my attention.

The article points out another use for 3D printing, which is fine, but there are a lot of articles about 3D printing now so that’s not really the focal point. The focal point for me is that the printing process met a practical need in an environment where the need couldn’t be met in any other way. The kicker is that the astronaut in question really wanted a ratchet to go with the wrench and they were able to send him one! In reality, the printer received the plans for the ratchet and simply printed it out like any other part.

The essence of the article is about printing things in space that the astronauts need to accomplish useful tasks. At one time, not long ago, if an astronaut didn’t take something along, it wasn’t available. However, read the story in more detail and you find out that the setup recycles the old plastic devices. This means that an astronaut can create a wrench when needed, discard it, and use the same plastic to create something else. That’s the principle behind the replicator in Star Trek. Old things were remade into new things. So what we’re seeing is science fiction becoming science fact right before our eyes.

The future holds the promise of allowing people to perform tasks in a creative way without having to worry nearly as much about resources. The use of 3D printing will eventually make it possible to create anything needed anywhere. Just how long it takes us to move to the next step will be interesting. There is still a lot of low hanging fruit to pick on the technology tree, but eventually we’ll need to conquer the harder issues of being able to produce complex items at the atomic level. That step should prove interesting indeed. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

3D Printed Buildings

Like most new technologies, 3D printing is going to go through stages where people scratch their heads and wonder whether the technology will really work for some purpose. Previous blog posts have covered a number of interesting uses for 3D printing. The story really began to take shape in Potential Commercial Uses for 3D Printing. Most of the uses in that post were a bit on the mundane side, but I really thought the use of 3D printing for horseshoes was one of those uses that would make people think. The point is, 3D printing is being used for an odd assortment of tasks at the moment and printing buildings seems to be just one more in a long series of what could be interesting uses.

The ComputerWorld article makes it plain that the technology is being used for this purpose in China. I’m almost certain that the building wouldn’t pass muster in this country (then again, I could be wrong and I’d love to hear from anyone who has an opinion on the matter). Attempts to research the article further haven’t produced much, so it looks like someone wrote it up as a special interest story and that’s the end of that. The point is that these ten buildings went up in just one day and used materials recycled from other buildings. The whole story reminds me of the scene in I Robot where a robot comes and tears down a building, presumably so that another could be put in its place. At some point, 3D printing of this sort could make it possible for robots to demolish and build custom abodes for anyone who needs one in a fraction of the time and cost that buildings require today.

Where do you think that 3D printing will go in the future? Is it possible that the Star Trek version of the future will really take shape in the form of 3D printing. Of course, in Star Trek the replicator was simply another type of transporter, but 3D printing seems like a more concrete manifestation of the technology to me. Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Thinking About 3D Printing Technology

Any Star Trek fan will tell you that the replicator technology shown in the show is treated as an ordinary occurrence that isn’t so ordinary today. In fact, a number of the ordinary objects, such as communicators, in the show have become reality and some of them are becoming so common that they’re ordinary to us too. Compare a smartphone to a communicator and you realize that the Star Trek creators didn’t actually go far enough—smartphones are actually a lot better than communicators. This makes me wonder if 3D printers might become the replicators of the future.

There has been a lot of news lately about three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. The idea behind the technology is simultaneously easy and complex. The simple part is that a printer adds layer upon layer of one or more substances to create some type of object. The object is described as part of a drawing. Of course, the drawing must indicate all sorts of things in addition to the overall appearance of the 3D object, including which substances to use and what color to make them as needed. Creating a precise description of everything needed to create a real world object can be a complex undertaking and some objects defy simple description.

As with any new technology, 3D printing has plenty of hype surrounding it (such as the printer being able to pay for itself in as little as a year). In fact, hype is a problem because it builds unrealistic expectations. Anything you read about 3D printing today is in an experimental stage for the most part. John Dvorak explores the problems with the hype in his post, “Enough With the 3D Printer Hype Already.” Yes, creating a gun using a 3D printer is doable, but result isn’t really usable today (tomorrow may be another story). However, I get the feeling that many detractors haven’t read quite as much as they should before making a judgement about 3D printing and the sorts of things it can do.

There are other uses for 3D printing that only large organizations can afford. For example, I read about the use of 3D printing technology to create artificial reefs in the August edition of National Geographic (in the Next section). The printer is the size of a house and produces an 1,100 pound result that really isn’t in the realm of something that most people would want to create. However, it’s a useful output of 3D printing technology that is in use today. In fact, there are many uses for 3D printing today, but it’s important to remember that this technology is in its infancy.

Although many of the uses for 3D printing that you read about are for common objects that we can produce less expensively and with greater precision using other technologies, it’s the uses that aren’t available today that intrigue me most. For example, you can use a 3D printer to create a tiny lithium battery. This battery is the size of a grain of sand. You might wonder where a battery like that might see use. Of course, use in spy gear comes to mind immediately, but a more productive use is in medical equipment where battery size is currently a problem.

In fact, for now at least, the main practical area of 3D printing may be for medical use. There was a recent story that talked about doctors printing an emergency airway tube to save a baby’s life. What most people don’t realize is that hospitals don’t typically carry standard airway tubes in the right size for infants because the number of sizes needed would be quite large. In this case, printing proved to be the only practical way to create an airway tube sized for this particular child.

Of course, not every medical use will save lives in such a dramatic fashion. Many uses will be more mundane. For example, a doctor could print a new ear or a new bone for you when needed. Some of the medical techniques use cells from a person’s own body, which makes the risk of rejection quite small. However, even these articles state that this particular use of 3D printing technology is still experimental. The point though is that the technology is being tried in these areas and the result is something that you can’t easily manufacture.

Creating objects using 3D printers is a reality. The cost of those printers is also decreasing in at least some cases. However, the technology is still quite new and you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Eventually, you’ll likely see 3D printer technology used in a way that makes those replicators on the Enterprise pale by comparison. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.