Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Prosthetic Reality

There’s a new hub for virtual reality in town, and it’s pretty cool. Just west of Queen and Bathurst sits a funky new spot called House of VR, featuring by-the-hour usage of their VR stations and a wide variety of games and experiences.

The walls are all modular so that the space can change to accommodate different sizes of groups, as well as open up to a big, airy space on the second floor for the current art show.

It’s called Prosthetic Reality and features 45 artists, illustrators, animators and sound designers all experimenting with the field of augmented reality.

 You may be wondering, what is the difference between AR and VR? For those who don’t know, AR or augmented reality consists of overlaying sound, image or video overtop of what you normally see in front of you. A good example of this is the forever-popular game Pokemon Go.

Pokemon appear by happenstance in the wild, which also happens to be the very sidewalk you are standing on. With the help of some sort of hardware (in this case, your phone), it seems like Pokemon are literally all around you in the real world of Earth.

VR or virtual reality will still make it seem like that Pokemon and you are standing on the same physical ground, but that physical ground is completely different from the real one you see in front of you. That’s why VR almost always requires a headset (digital goggles that enclose and cover your entire eyesight). You can’t see anything of the world around you, which is why some people (myself included) experience feelings of dizziness or nausea when using VR.

This is one of the reasons that VR is considered the “Wild West” as an industry; there are no rules or best practices for use so everyone is trying to set standards from scratch. Obviously the big players like Google are doing their part to make their research open source and accessible for small developers, but it can certainly be difficult to calibrate a fully immersive, completely fabricated world so as not to be disconcerting to users. Perhaps as we become more used to the technology, younger generations will be quicker to adopt it, much like the internet and smartphones for millennials. 

Anyway, suffice to say that AR is somewhat easier to understand and interact with for the current user (who probably doesn’t know much about the technology when they use it for the first time).

The entire second floor of the House of VR is currently covered with beautiful posters and illustrations of various kinds. Each one contains a hidden 5-10 second animation loop (complete with sound) that brings the image to life off the wall through an app on your phone called Eyejack.


The lovely Marj checking out a particularly spooky piece. The AR turns the woman's face into the lid of a giant eyeball.



You can see that the beauty of AR lies in the merging of our known, real world with an unknown fake one. The grounding in reality makes the new part more exciting to me than being dropped into a totally new place where I have no base understanding of anything. But maybe that’s my nausea talking for me. The centrepiece of the exhibit is a lovely mural of jellyfish which come to life through the augmented reality screen.


VR certainly also has its place, and will probably become the future of how we spend our leisure time and communicate with others over large geographical distances.

The exhibit also includes a VR headset with which visitors can test out Google’s Tilt Brush, a virtual reality painting program that reminds me of KidPix from way back in the day. Painting in 3D space is a lot of fun, and I can see it being used as a prototyping tool for who knows how many professions. The program does come with a built-in dressform upon which users can draw clothing. Here's a video of me doing that:


Today is the last day of the exhibition, but you can visit House of VR anytime as Queen Street is its new permanent home. They also sell an art book of all the works, which you can view with the Eyejack app on your phone. Check out House of VR’s website here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mounties, iDays & Meow Wolf

Weekly Update 2017-33: Mounties and the magic of supergroups, how to inject innovation into your agile design process, and Meow Wolf, an alternative Disneyland for people who like things a little weird.

Music: Mounties
Supergroups are both a blessing and a curse for music lovers. This very Canadian supergroup comprised of Limblifter's Ryan Dahle, Hawksley Workman and Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat has only put out one album so far, way back in 2014. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing them perform the album at Riot Fest in 2014 and again at Lee's Palace, but I get the feeling that this band, like many other supergroups, will never surpass the one-album norm. It seems that they find each other in interesting ways like award shows or recording with other bands at the same studios, make one amazing album, and then lose interest in favour of the original bands from whence they came. I'm bitterly thinking of the supergroup Divine Fits as I type this.

If one album is all we ever get from Mounties, I will suffice to be happy with that because three years later, I still listen to it at least once a month. Check out Guaranteed Blonde Enough and Headphones.

This week has been an exercise in fitting a month of summer activities into a quarter of the time. I went waterfall hopping in Hamilton, got naked at the nude beach on Toronto Island, went to Osheaga in Montreal, jammed with my band on a rooftop patio in Kensington, saw a great documentary about Native Americans and the history of rock music in the 1960s, and visited the Pickering Food Truck Festival.

I also decided that I would display my Arduino research as a series of blog posts, each one about a different experiment and what I've learned from each one, as I build knowledge toward my dream project of a ping pong table sensor that tells you when the table is free to play!

That said, this week I'd like to publish my first Arduino post of the series. Many people are unfamiliar with the maker community, so I'll be outlining a bit of the history and background as a primer as well. I'm also going fishing this week FINALLY so I'm keeping the goals light for now.

Random Thought: iDay
Working as a product designer, I have found that the beginning stages of the design process are always the most important. Know your user, understand their processes, needs, problems, and experiences, and find creative solutions for those problems. This all sounds easy, but how do we access the part of our brains that contains the “aha” moments? How do we foster an environment that will allow us to find the innovative solutions?

In comes a concept called the “iDay”. Short for innovation day, an iDay is a specialized, hyper-collaborative ideation session that takes places in that beginning discovery phase of the software development life cycle.

iDays are different from brainstorming sessions in a very important way: they involve different project teams, stakeholders, users, and any other involved parties. An iDay can consist of designers, researchers, developers, members of the client team, and end-users. I have always been a big proponent of the fact that anyone can be a designer, given the right scenario. Different perspectives are key factors in understanding a problem from all sides, and so designers should have constant access to the brains of everyone involved in the problem.

So you've got all these wonderful minds together in a room. What comes next? The design team should be prepared with a series of prompts to present to the room, giving everyone 2-3 minutes to jot down any blue-sky ideas they may have regarding that problem. Then, everyone is given a chance to present their ideas. Each idea is written down on a post-it note, and after a few different prompts have been run through, the collection of post-its might look something like this:

Image courtesy of InVision

This may look like a lot of post-its, but it's actually the starting point of an affinity map – something from which the designers can extract key takeaways, draw conclusions, validate assumptions, and even re-define requirements.

Innovation can sometimes seem like a black box, but these sorts of formal processes that allow more voices to be heard will in turn foster an environment of openness and collaboration, perhaps even inspiring non-designers in a company to start thinking in new ways and uncovering new ideas.

Inspiration: Meow Wolf
Formed in 2008, a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue have come together to provide the public with an immersive experience for all the senses.

Over 100 artists and makers came together to become Meow Wolf.

Their biggest project and the only permanent exhibition is House of Eternal Return, a huge installation housed in what used to be a bowling alley. Lovingly referred to as “Bizarro Disneyland”, this 20,000 square-foot series of rotating art installations is an amazing tourist destination in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Ever open the fridge door and forget what you were looking for?

The project was funded in part by George R.R. Martin, and allows visitors to explore freely without any instructions or guidance. Simply interact with whatever you want, in whatever order, and see if you can solve the mystery.

From Meow Wolf's website:
House of Eternal Return is a unique art experience featuring an astonishing new form of non-linear storytelling that unfolds through exploration, discovery and 21st century interactivity.
The House is a 20,000 square foot art exhibit designed by the Meow Wolf collective. There are dozens of rooms, secret passages and interactive light and musical objects with which guests can play for hours or investigate the mystery of the Selig family, who disappeared one night after conducting a forbidden experiment inside their Victorian mansion. Who were the Seligs? Where did they go? and why is their home overrun by figures in white lab coats?
 I love the idea of a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure immersive experience. There's so much to do, it's like sensory overload!

Move through the glowing dinosaur skeleton into another dimension?

14 real, working arcade games straight out of the 80s.

DO NOT pee in this toilet. Visitors are invited to stick their heads in the bowl for a clue. The water is actually solid polymer...there's no toilet paper left anyway!

It's really wild. I hope to visit someday soon, but in the meantime I am really happy that such a place even exists. The fact that over 100 artists and makers from all walks of life could come together to create something so wonderful, unexpected and just plain weird is mind-boggling to me.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Death From Above, Design Thinking & Fiesta Gardens

Weekly Update 2017-32: Headbang and shake your butt at the same time to Death From Above, pinpointing what exactly is design thinking, and finding my happy place in a garden centre.

Music: Death From Above
Epic synth-rockers Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger have been making music on-and-off as DFA for the past fifteen or so years (but who's counting). I got into their music during what was thought to be a permanent “off” period, but luckily for us all they decided to make more music. And since then, I have seen this band in all sorts of strange venues from Wakestock 2013 in Collingwood to a secret show in Sonic Boom in Honest Ed's (RIP) to a free show at Nathan Phillips Square as part of Panamania 2015.

If you like fast beats, craaaaaazy bass riffs, a little bit of yelling and a really good time, you'll love this band. And they're from Toronto! Check out this amazing solo by JFK at Osheaga this year. They've still got it.

And that lighting is insane.

Well, I went to Osheaga and made it back in one piece. I'd say that's a big enough accomplishment in its own right! Between the extreme amount of rain, severely long and narrow layout (the normal festival location is currently under construction) and staying in an Airbnb boarding house in a suburb, I am happy to report I made it out alive. The festival was quite fun, but I'd definitely do it differently next time. On the plus side, I ate a delicious raclette from a food truck! I wish Toronto had these.

Eating Oka raclette on a bed of mushrooms and potatoes while watching a band called Foxygen. This was a weird mix.

This week, I'd like to combine my Arduino tests into a new portfolio piece so I can show the world (and you) what I've been working on so far. From there I'll collect my thoughts and hopefully finish the final project. It's also FriendCanoe time again, so I'll be working on that for our next meeting.

Random Thought: Design Thinking
An oft-misunderstood section of design, I've been trying to describe the profession of design thinking to my friends lately with some difficulty. To me, design thinkers are the unspoken superheroes of making things happen. They can see a problem from all angles, and have the ability to bring people together from different areas or walks of life who wouldn't normally interact but together are more capable of positive change than apart.

Design thinkers solve fuzzy problems with both sides of their brain. I found an interesting chart online that illustrates the intersection between business thinking and creative thinking (mind the typos):

Image from Pinterest.

You might think of design thinking as a problem-solving methodology that allows you to create solutions by taking into account human factor, design, technology and business.

Take an example: there are so many different kinds of chairs. Depending on the space a chair may occupy and the needs it is required to meet, its functional and aesthetic design will vary greatly. One might ask; will the chair be used in a residence? In which room? Or perhaps for commercial use in a restaurant or bar? A restaurant chair is optimized for about 45 minutes of comfy sitting, after which you might get a little uncomfortable, your back or posture might need repositioning and you start to wiggle around a bit. One must also consider who will be sitting in the chair and what action or task they will perform while using it. An office chair will be different from a waiting room chair. With all these options, it takes someone who can see the problem from all sides to determine what type of chair is best for the use case.

Inspiration: Fiesta Gardens
Whenever I am feeling down, I go for a bike ride. On such a bike ride, I usually subconsciously bike by Fiesta Gardens (the garden centre of environmentally-friendly supermarket Fiesta Farms). And if I'm biking by the garden centre, I'm going into the garden centre.

They have such lovely plants, I could walk around there forever. It's outside but well-shaded, has lovely things to look at, and even plays soft classical music on speakers throughout the store.

Plants that attract cool garden friends!

These cacti are so cute, they look plush or crocheted. But trust me, they don't like to be touched.

I must admit I was a little surprised at this Barbie-themed gardening display, which I can only presume is for girls. I don't know if we need to use Barbie as a role model to get girls (or any children) interested in gardening and plants, but whatever gets them in the door, I suppose. The Nickelodeon version (presumably for boys) is a little less inspired.

Did you know about these crazy things? They can die and come back to life forever! Plus, I didn't realize the song of the same name by Iron & Wine is probably named for this plant.

It's lovely to be around plants, and the little typed notes about caring for each one are nice to read. I especially love how closeby the centre is during bonfire season because they have lots of firewood and are pretty close to Christie Pits.