Saturday, June 21, 2014

How a Hackathon Hacked Me

If you read my blog, I am sure you are very familiar with a hackathon and have probably even participated in a few. For those that have not (hi mom), this post is going to share what a hackathon is and the experience I have had with the ones I have recently organized and been involved with. It won't cover the events themselves, but more how it has affected me and my view on how to help facilitate the innovation I want to see in the world.

What is a hackathon?
Hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. 

Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created. - Wikipedia

I have participated in hackathons for the past few years and it all started with my first experience with the iPhone developer camp several years back. I personally have never won a hack, but it has always been a great way for me to improve my skills, help others where I can, and get exposed to some pretty amazing projects that get created over the course of a weekend. This really is the most impressive thing about hackathons to me. Folks come to the event with preformed or on the spot teams and work around the clock to create applications in just a few days. And it is not just for tech developers and designers but also open to those that just have an idea on how to improve something. A fair number of these weekend solutions and projects go on to become companies that address a specific market need.

This spirit of doing is what has motivated me to organize the AEC Hackathons and a few others that are going on this year. No I am not changing my career to be an event planner, but I do see the value of this type of event. I have witnessed first hand the innovation that can be created when one provides an environment for smart people to come, collaborate, explore, create, and solve problems.

I will say that being engaged in a hackathon beyond just as a participant has been a life changing ordeal. The energy and passion from the attendees is unlike any other event I have ever attended. At our last AEC Hackathon, I had a moment during the closing ceremony that was so profound for me that I logged it into my personal journal. "I looked out in amazement and it was at this moment that I lost all train of thought. I am standing in front of something powerful, a wave of energy and passion fueled by a thirst for change and improvement. I need to say something to keep things rolling as I am the MC, but I am so impressed with what has transpired I am at a loss for words. I am looking around a room of collaborators that just blew my mind in the quest for improving some element of the built environment. I have not known a lot of these people longer than this weekend but I sure respect the hell out of how hard they worked and pushed the envelope to make some process of our real world more efficient." I can think of no better way to bring about innovation and work with other talented passionate people.

Another interesting thing I have observed is how the spirit of a hackathon has changed the thinking of those from more traditional industries and their take on how innovation can happen. Unlike other events they are use to attending, it isn't about listening to a sage on the stage but rolling up your sleeves and getting stuff done. Following our AEC Hackathons, there have already been several other hackathons for those in the AEC space since.

I highly recommend attending a hackathon if you have not been to one. It is unlike any other event you will attend. I personally am involved with a few more coming this year that are outside the AEC space and I invite anyone to come join us. It will definitely change the way you see how innovation is made and just might hack your thoughts on how to bring about the change you want to see in your own industry.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Augmented Reality startup Blippar acquires Layar

From Techcrunch: Augmented reality startup Blippar has confirmed it has acquired Layar, an AR pioneer that launched in 2009. Terms were undisclosed in a blog post on the company’s site today. We broke the news of the acquisition last week, but this announcement confirms our previous story. The acquisition makes Blippar one of the largest AR players globally, giving it a powerful positioning in the AR and visual browsing space, which may help its adoption in the mass consumer space where AR has tended to languish. Only Oculus VR, which was acquired by Facebook, has reignited interest in the AR space, so Blippar now looks very interesting when looked at from that perspective.

An internal memo, obtained by TechCrunch writer Ingrid Lunden, referring to Blippar’s CEO and co-founder, Ambarish Mitra, previously confirmed the deal, which was due to be announced officially on June 19. The memo detailed how Layar CEO Quintin Schevernels visited Blippar’s offices to discuss “how we could work together to bring our vision to hundreds of millions of people.” 

London/NYC-based Blippar, founded in 2011, has raised an undisclosed amount from Qualcomm Ventures. Netherlands-based Layar, founded in 2009, has raised some $17 million from Intel Capital, Sunstone and others. Blippar’s product creates “blipps” in which users snap pictures in printed or other display ads through the Blippar app, triggering bigger interactive ad campaigns for many leading brands.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Gravity tablet - 3D sketching with Augmented Reality

 A group of students from the Royal College of Art have designed an augmented reality tool that allows designers to sketch in three dimensions. Gravity consists of a stylus and a tablet, familiar tools used for digital drawing, that have been adapted specifically for sketching in 3D. It was started in London in October 2013 as a group project between four Innovation Design Engineering students of the Royal College of Art.

 As the user draws above the clear acrylic sketchpad, radio signals are used to track the movements of the stylus from coordinates on the pad. These are sent to an Arduino board which is contained in a black panel that forms one edge of the pad. Controls on the pad can change the planes on which pen is sketching, meaning the drawing can be given volume. The drawings can be rotated and approached from any angle and other people can view the drawing using their own headset, and even add to it.

 From its video, it looks like the tool connects to a variety of augmented reality headsets and the RCA team has also connected it to an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset using the Unity3D game engine.

 The Gravity team unveiled publicly their innovation on February 5th for the Royal College of Art WIP Show 2014. Their website says they are now actively raising investments for their patent pending innovation with the strong vision that Gravity can change the way we create in 3D. I look forward to getting my hands on one and start creating. Now I just need to learn how to draw.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Facebook to acquire Oculus VR

Facebook has announced plans to purchase Oculus VR, the company behind the Rift headset, for around $2B in cash and stock. This includes $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook common stock. This is what Mark Zuckerberg had to share via the Facebook blog:

"I'm excited to announce that we've agreed to acquire Oculus VR, the leader in virtual reality technology. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. For the past few years, this has mostly meant building mobile apps that help you share with the people you care about. We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we're in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences. This is where Oculus comes in. They build virtual reality technology, like the Oculus Rift headset. When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you're actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it's different from anything they've ever experienced in their lives.

 Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences. Immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there's a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We're going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this. But this is just the start.

After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures. These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more.

One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people. Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can't wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us."

It will be interesting to see how Facebook incorporates VR headsets and complementary technologies into their platform.

Monday, November 25, 2013

AEC Hackathon - Taking the Architecture, Engineering,& Construction Industry into a new future

November 8-10, 2013 was the very first AEC Hacktahon held at Facebook's Menlo Park campus.

A first for the Architecture, Engineering, Construction Industry, the AEC Hackathon is a non-profit event that creates on-the-spot teams of technologists and industry stakeholders to shape the future of our built environment.

My goal of the event was to help the Architecture, Engineering, & Construction Industry go 'Tony Stark' for a weekend and the attendees of the event did just that. For my motives and thoughts pre-hackathon, see these earlier posts titled AEC Hackathon – Where Techies and Builders Change the World and Hacking a Building a Techies way. The event turned out better than I could have ever hoped for.

The 130+ people that attended came from all over the U.S. and represented firms of all sizes with a few coming from as far as Asia and Europe. I was blown away by the caliber of attendee, tech gadgets (Oculus Rifts, 3D printers, scanners, Google Glass), the amount of collaboration between groups, and what was accomplished in just a weekend. This video courtesy of McGraw Hill ENR construction news shows some of the awesomeness from the event.

I highly recommend the videos of the speaker presentations at the AEC Hackathon Youtube Channel and the hacker team presentations can be seen in the video below. Team aeChack posted their project on Github here that is a free, online and open source platform for running and visualizing environmental analysis using daylighting and energy analysis engines. A great web3D example that utilizes the power of WebGL and the three.js Javascript library.

The attendees, a.k.a. AEC Pirates, made it an event like no other and something happened that weekend that is so desperately needed for the industry. I can't possibly capture in a post the passion, excitement, and energy that surrounded the event. Already it has kicked off ideas for other AEC related hackathons including a BIM hackathon that will take place at Autodesk University.

The next official AEC Hackathon will take place March 14-16 and stay tuned to the event's website and Twitter page for more details as they are announced. In addition to the event here in California, there are AEC Hackathons planned throughout the year for the East Coast and in other countries. I am happy to see this simple idea grow into reality and become a community of do'ers that are improving the tools and processes of how we build our environment and future. Hope to see you at the next one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

castAR - augmented reality glasses

The interest in wearable computing thanks to products like Google Glass and the Pebble smart watch has created a boom of Kickstarter projects for augmented reality hardware. Joining the crowdsource club is castAR from Technical Illusions.

Technical Illusions was founded by chip wizard Jeri Ellsworth and game programmer vet Rick Johnson. Jeri Ellsworth is best known for creating a Commodore 64 emulator within a joystick. It ran 30 video games from the early 1980s, and was very popular during the 2004 Christmas season, at peak selling over 70,000 units in a single day. Johnson most recent work was at Valve working on hit games like Left 4 Dead , Portal 2, and DOTA. The experienced duo combined forces upon leaving Valve to focus on developing the new augmented reality technology. “We believe that augmented reality is the future not only in gaming, but ultimately the new user interface in computer technology.”

Information from their Kickstarter page:

How does it work?
 castAR's projected augmented reality system is comprised of two main components: a pair of glasses and a surface. The frames of the glasses contain two micro-projectors—one for each eye. Each projector casts a perspective view of a stereoscopic 3D image onto the surface. Your eyes focus on this projected image at a very natural and comfortable viewing distance. A tiny camera in-between the projectors scans for infrared identification markers placed on the surface. The camera uses these markers to precisely track your head position and orientation in the physical world, enabling the software to accurately adjust how the holographic scene should appear to you. The glasses get their video signal through an HDMI connection. The camera is connected via a USB port on the PC. We are still experimenting with communication options on mobile devices.

What are castAR's components?
 Glasses - The castAR glasses contain a set of two high resolution micro-projectors. Each projector independently refreshes at 120 hertz and has a very high fill factor (i.e. no screen door effect). While the retro-reflective surface eliminates the majority of the cross talk between projectors, active shutters eliminate the rest. There is also an integrated tracking camera (see the Tracking Camera section below). They easily fit over prescription glasses; final weight is expected to be less than 100 grams.

 AR & VR Clip-On - This clip-on attaches to the front of the glasses to transform your experience into either true AR or true VR. True AR allows you to use our glasses without the retro-reflective surface, augmenting the real world. True VR is a fully synthesized environment; the computer generates all aspects of the visuals you see. The clip-on has been designed to be comfortable and lightweight, yet still provide the immersive atmosphere you want. With this component, you will have no need for any other head mounted display.

Tracking Camera  - This highly accurate tracking system is capable of detecting movements of sub-millimeter. It is also extremely fast, capable of tracking at 120 hertz, and is low latency, cutting out several frames of delay compared to other tracking schemes. Custom hardware logic on the glasses handles localized processing of the image data. As this logic does all of the analysis-intensive work, the connected computer simply receives the results, thus freeing its CPU up for other tasks. The system is also very power efficient and will have negligible impact on your battery life when used with mobile devices. The tracking camera can be purchased separately to be used on head-mounted displays that don’t have highly accurate tracking, such as those which rely solely on gyros.

Magic Wand The Magic - Wand can be used as both a joystick and a 3D input device. The handheld portion of the wand has buttons, a trigger, and a thumb stick. The wand also tracks its own movement in 3D space, allowing you to seamlessly interact with your virtual environments. 

RFID Tracking Grid - The RFID Tracking Grid sits underneath your surface. When used with the bases (see the Bases section below) or your own RFID tags, the software can track and uniquely identify them across the surface. This allows you to associate tags with physical objects such as miniatures, cards, board game pieces, or anything else that fits on top of the surface. You can use the tracking and identifying abilities to augment your pieces, such as displaying stats or a health bar next to a physical miniature, or calculating the distance between two separate miniatures.

Bases - Bases are designed to allow you to conveniently use your existing miniatures. For most standard-sized miniatures, our base will easily snap onto the bottom. Bases come in two varieties: RFID and RFID Precision. RFID allows you coarsely track and uniquely identify game pieces across the RFID Tracking Grid. Precision Bases have a custom circuit board that allows for both RFID tracking as well as two-way communication. The two-way communication can be used for such things as increasing the precision of the position tracking or to control small motors and other miniature electronics. For example, you could have a dragon miniature with a Precision Base that has a tiny smoke generator and some red LEDs attached to it. The software could then tell the base to turn on the smoke generator and the red LEDs, providing an illusion that the dragon is breathing fire.

Larger Surface This surface is twice the size of the standard one, for people who want a larger area to experience their projected augmented reality on. Software Development On the software side, we offer several options for developers.

Software Development Kit: If you are doing a custom game or other application, you can use the SDK to get access to tracking data / rendering matrixes as well as RFID data.

Unity integration: Simply create an empty GameObject and add our interface script to it. You’ll be off and running under castAR within a few minutes. Additional scripts for the Magic Wand and RFID objects are also available.

(Potential) Support for existing VR applications: We are also investigating ways to get existing VR applications up and running on our system. Both the Unity integration and the SDK will be available free of charge. We also plan on making as many of our test / samples / experiences available for free to the public as well.

 With a Kickstarter goal of $400,000 that raised $1,052,110, seems there are a lot of folks that want to do castAR. I am eager to see what comes from it.