Musing #36: The Next Big Thing

I just started reading 'The One Device' the other day and have made it past the first couple of chapters wherein the book briefly touches over Apple's transition to innovation after its lost years. Of course, this is not the first time I have come across the story as the Steve Jobs' biography covers it in much greater detail. However, the underlying message to take away is that well-executed ideas can make a huge difference to the fortunes of a company, even though the innovation may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although the situation is far from similar, reading this phase of Apple's history makes me ponder over the flux the Indian IT industry finds itself in now. If anything, the requirement for innovation in the industry has been expedited. However, what comes around in the public domain sounds more like Orwellian Newspeak. The mention of AI, Automation, Cloud, Digital, Agile in the broadest of terms seems to have little more intention than to placate the shareholders. After all, shareholders in India seem to be a particularly emotional bunch going by the swings that take place after an obvious piece of news is shared by the media. This has necessitated the use of these terms along with others like Big Data, DevOps which have been in circulation for a pretty long time, enough for them to not be considered as part of a novel strategy. Yet, it forms the basis of optimism for a huge industry and its employees.

Ideas need execution to be successful. The basic tenet of the Indian IT industry has been cost arbitrage and providing services for cheap. Unfortunately, the same strategy seems to be permeating itself in the “new” fields. Hence, when the industry speaks of AI, it isn't referring to top of the line machine and deep learning. Instead it alludes to automation of basic operational tasks based on limited algorithmic branching. Even the innovation that does occur in this space is not happening here in India but through talent hired abroad with the usual instruction based implementation being passed on to cheaper coders in India. Similarly, the digital revolution through products and platforms is based on imitating the functionalities of well-established software at a fraction of the price. It is thus a case of simply picking the low hanging fruit.

Establishing any roadmap is based on industry trends and a fair bit of optimism. One certainly must move along with emerging technologies but the success of any buzzword isn't guaranteed. Case in point is that of Virtual Reality. Not until a few years ago, it was seen as the next big thing. Cost has always been attributed as a key factor in the uptake of VR. However, that isn't the case for something like Google Cardboard. It certainly offers a basic experience but at the same time illustrates the fallibility of VR. Beyond the initial novelty of the experience, it becomes very difficult to get people to come back again. One can only take so many rollercoaster rides, scenic walks and museum visits in isolation. Gaming and interactive story telling might be expected to alleviate this but VR has become part of a vicious circle wherein it has been unable to attain critical mass which has in turn kept content creators from investing too much in it. The VR industry is taking recourse by cutting hardware prices for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but unfortunately it seems destined to be niche. As has been the case in the past, mobiles will have to lead the way. However, it seems inevitable that AR experiences as those that will be provided by Apple's ARKit will be the mainstream option for once again it is just a case of incremental innovation.

This brings me back to the Apple and iPhone story. All the pieces of the puzzle were long in existence but none of them were put together in the manner which made the iPhone seem like magic. The next big thing might will not be a revolution but a simple evolution that seems like magic. Being ahead of time is as much as a failure as being late to the party. What one needs is a bridge between the present and the past such that people find the journey to the future much more exciting than the destination itself.

Musing #31: The Binaural Experience (Doctor Who Knock Knock)

I had encountered binaural aural audio before, not in the least in the BBC Click segment from a few months ago which I have linked to this post. However, I never experienced it in an immersive environment which I think is vital in truly appreciating this technology.

The mention of binaural audio once again in the most recent episode of BBC Click made me finally commit to experiencing it in an immersive setting. I am of course referring to the Knock Knock episode of Doctor Who.

At this point, I should state the disclaimer that I am not a Doctor Who fan. It is not because I detest it but the fact that I never got in to it. The most time I have spent on Doctor Who must be on Wikipedia where I had read about it a few years ago, just to understand what it is all about. Hence, I went in to this episode quite blind without much of a backstory to relate to.

I must say that even as a standalone watch, this episode was quite interesting. It is because it was in the vein of a "haunted mansion", something I can relate to quite easily with my interest in crime fiction. Rather than rely on jump scares, the episode focusses on the aural experience and rightly so, since it is the centrepiece of this episode. I guess my Sennheiser HD 598 SE contributed a lot to the enjoyment of it all.

This experience has certainly left me asking for more. I am pretty sure that BBC will come up with further episodes featuring this technology since they have invested more than 5 years in to it. At the same time, I think it is highly unrealistic to expect it to be mainstream. The additional effort of post-production sound mixing and the limited audience of headphone users might not make it economically viable to pursue this approach regularly, but it is nonetheless a peek in to the role that 3D sound will play along with VR in the near future.

Musing #10: My tryst with virtual reality

Virtual is getting real this year with all eyes on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to set the bar for how people perceive virtual reality nearly two decades after it earned itself a bad reputation. However, most people’s first experience with VR has been and perhaps will be with the Google Cardboard. My own experience dates back to nearly 2 years ago when I first got myself a “Google Cardboard”. I put it in quotes because although there was no official kit available, I got mine from China through Amazon US which is a very convoluted route of purchasing something. The reason however was that it didn’t cost much more when compared to getting it from a Chinese marketplace like AliExpress and Amazon’s refund policy is much better. In fact, I got mine for free because the product failed to reach me within the stipulated time.

However, the cardboard approach is only a stop gap one for it is not meant to be a durable one. It picks up smudges rather easily and requires the pre-occupation of at least one hand. So, the next step in affordable VR is to get a more durable unit with straps that would offer a hand free experience. It is in this endeavour that I had picked up a unit called ‘Converge VR’ about a year back. It offered a more intuitive way of interacting with Google Cardboard apps by replacing the magnet with a clicker that tapped on the screen, making it theoretically operable with a lot more devices that don’t come equipped with magnetometer at the precise spot where the first version of cardboard required it to be. Also, an adjustable strap as well as lens meant that I could get a sharper and focussed image while not having to have my hands give the impression of holding my face from falling off.

Alas, things didn’t quite work out as expected. For a price of over 1.5k INR, the product fell short on a number of fronts. For starters, the clicker was simply a hit or miss affair and worked intermittently if at all on most of the phones making app interaction a huge pain. Also, the weight distribution after putting in a ginormous phone like the OnePlus One made the headset really uncomfortable to balance over the face and it repeatedly came sliding down over the nose. However, the worst thing was that a noble intention from the maker of this device made it completely unusable for me. When I met him in person, he switched the normal lens with an experimental one offering a larger field of view (FOV) and while on paper in seemed like a good idea, it ended up being the worst thing I agreed to for it made the headset completely unusable by inducing giddiness within 5 minutes of anyone wearing it. I assume it is not motion sickness but rather some focus issues with the experimental lens but nonetheless it made the device impossible to use to the point where it is lying largely unused.

After such experiences one may be a bit cagey about trying random VR headsets, most of which are based on Google Cardboard. I see now that Converge VR is moving things forward with a newer version (DK3) but call me unconvinced about trying it out unless I can get a huge discount for returning my previous headset. As things stand, the Google Cardboard is still going to be the entry point of VR for most since it is now part of the packaging of mobiles as well as Happy Meals amongst other things. The moot point here is to enjoy the VR experience keeping in mind the price point you are enjoying it at. For being free, Google Cardboard does a pretty good job if you keep your expectations paired down. One may argue that the next step forward is the Gear VR (or call it Oculus Mobile). But when you consider the price it comes at with the need for a flagship Samsung Galaxy phone, you could just as well jump to the Rift or Hive should it be available to you, for a high end desktop is bound to be cheaper than the phone. The times we live in!

The Oculus Rift has certainly made a name for itself for being the first mover and being acquired by Facebook which certainly deepened its R&D wallet. It has also built a purpose-specific storefront and one may postulate that FB’s intent is to create a virtual social network but that won’t be as accessible if the Rift continues to sell for $600. On the other hand, as someone with a huge Steam library, I am inclined much more to the Vive for its integration with Steam and the general goodwill of the PC community that Valve enjoys. The freedom of movement that comes with the Vive is also a key differentiator compared to the Rift. However, with the price tag of Vive and a powerful PC, one would hope that an affordable PC + Vive bundle comes a bit down the line for those with 5-year old PCs (Sorry Apple! The iPad Pro won’t do) for it would certainly usher in a new dimension. Irrespective of how things pan out, here’s one for the future of technology.