Friday, 14 November 2014

Initial thoughts on the Oculus Rift

I've been using (i.e. playing around with) the Oculus Rift DK2 now for a couple of weeks, and here are my initial observations:

  1. The resolution is staggeringly low. The 3D view is great for something low-fi like a Tuscan scene, but toggling back to the desktop is a huge relief in terms of the pixel-sharp clarity of the average desktop display. I can't find any image on the interweb that really conveys what the view through a Rift headset looks like, but if you put a pair of tea-strainers over your eyes and then donned a scuba facemask, you'd get the idea.
  2. The first time you look around a skillfully crafted 3D scene using the Rift is truly jaw-dropping (in spite of my comments above). In my case this was the inside of a spaceport in Elite Dangerous:
  3. Oculus have steadily shifted their ambitions from the idea that VR could be suitable for a very wide range of applications to emphasizing the Rift is suited to a seated experience. The unavoidable fact is that virtual motion of your body while you're wearing the headset cannot provide the appropriate sensory input re-inforcing that motion.  I.e. the 'roller-coaster demo' which is the first and only demo I had the opportunity to experience before I bought the Rift DK2 is a total waste of time. So applications in which you are stationary and seated and simply moving your head have no disconnect with your real-world sense of motion so there's no reason for motion sickness which is inevitable otherwise. Not as much fun though. Earlier discussions of VR motion sickness tend to conflate issues such as your body motion unsupported by real sensory input with technical issues such as lag in the display. OK, both cause sickness but the former is a fundamental constraint while the latter is fixable with better technology.
But overall, the technology clearly has great possibilities. The good news is that resolution and field of view are engineering issues that inevitably will improve with each generation (and will also demand higher graphics rendering performance). Motion sickness due to a disconnect between your VR world experience versus your real-world sensory perception is not going to be solved any time soon. But this still leaves plenty of room for 'seated experience' VR applications such as a virtual office/desktop.
The production 'Rift' product from Oculus will certainly be an improvement on the DK1/DK2 (e.g. maybe each eye will be ~1300x1440, with less screen door effect), but there is no way it will significantly alter the fundamentals of what you see with the current DK2 to make a major difference.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Bloomberg's multi-screen VR, resolution multiplier, and the rotating eggcup transform

Bloomberg are demonstrating a demo of a multi-window desktop mapped into 3D VR viewable through an Oculus Rift:

It is counter-intuitive that you'd want to look at 20 displays, each of (say) 20" @ 1600x1200 resolution (i.e. a 8000x4800 pixels display area) through glasses with 2x960x1080 pixels. Ok, I agree, the view is going to be pretty dire and you will get neck ache, but it doesn't seem to be as bad as viewing 8000x4800 at 960x1080 should suggest, because you can swing your head around and lean-in to view any screen in more detail.
A 'resolution multiplier' of 37 (i.e. pixel count of display area / pixel count of Rift)  as suggested here is wayyy too much to be optimal, but when (not if) higher resolution VR glasses become available the ratio for this demo will come crashing down.

To display the screens effectively, rather than having the screens static in the VR space (i.e. rendered on the inside of a sphere centered on the user's head), we should use a transform that enlarges the screen in the center of the users view while compressing the edges.  This is a bit like the distortion of a reflection you see in a spoon, or as in this drawing by Escher:
Say this sphere were used... as you look around you need the sphere to appear to roll around you, showing more of the left or right as your head rotates.
Or you can visualize the same concept viewing an Earth globe:
The 'sphere' distortion (aka transformation) is useful to illustrate the point, but actually you want a wierd cylindrical object where the top and bottom of the cylinder curve towards you, a bit like an eggcup, something like:
The shape above is a hyperboloid which is a reasonable approximation to what you could use. The console images would only wrap around the front section (so every console is in view) and the shape would appear to rotate as you turned your head, a bit like a rotating teacup viewed from the teapot (alhough we're using a single eggcup...)

 The cylinder could rotate in front of an apparently stationary background so the VR isn't too disorienting.

So I name this technique the rotating eggcup transform...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Oculus Rift supports 'high resolution' desktops via a resolution multiplier effect

Here's an interesting scientific detail: for virtual desktop use the relatively-low-res Oculus Rift DK2 actually feels higher resolution than it really is, because of the way you can pan around a large virtual screen, and lean in for a closer look. For desktop use this is a resolution multiplier effect.

The Oculus Rift VR DK2 headset has a native resolution of 2 x 960 x 1080 (i.e. it's a 1920x1080 HD display split vertically in two).

So you could assume this makes for a fairly poor display to present a standard computer desktop, e.g. via the Virtual Desktop.

It is true the headset can only display 960x1080 pixels at a time but if you define a desktop of (say) 1920x1080 it is relatively convenient to move your head around to see the full content. Not the same as the full resolution, but a lot more convenient than having a scrollable virtual desktop you move left and right on via the keyboard.

This may actually pay off when a later VR headset really does have the resolution you want for each eye (I don't know, maybe WQXGA i.e. 2 x 2560 x 1600) but actually your desktop can appear much larger (e.g. 5K) because now you have more than enough within the 'current window' but can pan around (by moving your head) to other displayed information.

So unlike the Virtual Desktop mentioned at the start of this post, maybe the 5K+ larger display I'm suggesting should be virtually curved, and appear to wrap around the user. So this brings us full circle (pun intended) to the curved requirement for large displays that I've referred to in regard to real monitors earlier in this blog.

Games, as always, explore new tech ideas before anything else. On this Elite:Dangerous video, see how the wrap-around 'user interface' has many more pixels than the window of the users real-time view...

Monday, 27 October 2014

WTF? The Google Inbox website is kinda broken

In an interesting twist in the 'what's important to the end user' industry soap opera, the Google website promoting Google Inbox makes some interesting design choices regarding web usability. In particular it discards the concept of web 'links'. Really? So the page for 'Request Invitation' shouldn't have a URL? I can't link readers of this blog to the 'highlights' page?

There's a lot of dynamic scrolling going on but ultimately the entire 'site' is served via a single web URL, a la full-page Flash sites of maybe a decade ago.

The HTML 5 developers did a good thing introducing features that removed the need for Flash. But if Google developers buy into the Flash-style website-as-a-single-page model then others are definitely going to do that, and we're going to head off on a detour on the interweb superhighway.

Maybe I'm just out of date. Apps are the way to go, the internet is just wrong.

Although, seriously, as posted earlier, I think the assessment of user value from Google for Inbox is misguided (in spite of the Google-Wave-like effusive user enthusiasm currently in the TwitterSphere), and the Google inbox website is actually symptomatic of a glossy marketing-led fire-and-forget approach.

If Google really wanted to see if Inbox is a killer app, they should quietly make it available as a slightly inelegant beta, and see if it goes viral.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Google announces Gmail Google Inbox: a clever idea that misses the point

After the failure of Google Wave (now Apache Wave), Google is having another try with Google Inbox. They are missing the point, and here's why:

Fundamentally, deeply and irrecoverably, email developers (like those on Gmail, but also all the others like Microsoft Outlook) cannot get their head around the fact that the actual email message is not the defining core central element of an email platform. It was a great concept to center all the functionality around the messages when these were infrequent and all the technical resources at the developers disposal were 100% absorbed in the exciting complexity of transferring a message from A to B and storing and displaying them.

When technology moved forward a bit and storage of text emails was less of a state-of-the-art problem, the email developers kept the message as the 'core object' of the system but added the innovation of being able to store those messages under the concept of folders. This was simplistic and inevitable if you realised that emails were typically stored as plain text files on the system so email folders had an easy, obvious but limiting implementation of storing those messages in file-system folders (i.e. directories) on the computer.

Google Wave kept the concept of the message as the core defining element of the system but linked them together in threads/waves/conversations. If you have a sense of how email works (i.e. one person sends an email with a given subject line, others might reply) you can see how displaying 'threads' is a thing you might do to messages about as obviously as putting them in folders. But it doesn't alter the fundamental premise that the message is the core defining element of the system.

Things have changed. The person that sent the message is a more important defining core data concept than the ephemeral thing that is the actual message, but email clients (and, surprisingly, Google Inbox) still stick to the notion that the key problem to be addressed is connecting YOU to your MESSAGES.

Actually, more important is connecting YOU to the OTHER PEOPLE YOU KNOW. Email systems do a good job of enabling you to see or send messages, put them in folders, see them in threads, search for messages and a host of other message-centric things, but actually provide very weak support around the concept of people.

There is a a simple way of illustrating this limitation in any email client. Anywhere in the system you see a reference to a message (e.g. in a list of messages in a folder) you can click on the message headline (e.g. the subject appearing in the inbox) and BOOM, you go straight to that message. Obvious, no? But anywhere you see a person mentioned (e.g. in the 'from' field of a message, or even in your address book) the support is weak, fragmented and hard to predict. Next time you look at an email, try clicking on the email address in the 'from' field and see what is does. Typically nothing, maybe it allows you to copy that email address, maybe (but unlikely) it takes you to the address book.

The only sensible solution is to treat person (referenced by email address)  as a first-class data object everywhere in the system. In the same way that clicking on an email message subject always takes you to the comprehensive display of that message, clicking on a person reference should always take you to an enriched definitive display for that person. Even simple email clients have useful information to display in that context (all emails to/from that person), and often this could be implemented as an extension of the existing address book functionality (currently inboxes and address books all appear to have been written by independent developers even when bundled together in the same client.

I've explored this issue in a hack to the email Roundcube client, making person more of a central element.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The first purpose-designed curved desktop monitor arrives...

So finally, in Sept 2014, Mars has lined up with Jupiter and manufacturers have worked out that desktop monitors can be larger, this means they have to be higher resolution, and the size means a curve makes sense...

Congratulations to LG, who actually have a 34" product, their 34UC97 3440x1440 QHD 21:9 curved display:
As predicted here, you need to test with a straight edge to actually detect the curvature but you have to expect the manufacturers to be very conservative at first...

Dell have been teasing with a curved display, also 34", the Ultrasharp U3415W curved LCD monitor
In a slightly farcical piece of marketing, Dell have worked out they need two of these monitors side-by-side for you to see they are actually curved. (By the way, for games, 2 monitors generally sucks because the join is right in front of the player - you need 3 monitors to avoid that).

Good to see monitor sizes creep up to 34", but this is IMHO still rather missing the point of increasing digital desk ratio, and desktop monitors should get significantly larger (and more curved).

The question is whether buyers take these relatively expensive products or just buy a 4K TV and stick that on their desk. (Seriously, the possibility of this option should reduce the price of fancy new monitors...)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Large 16:9 monitors have height issues...

With the default 16:9 ratio for TV display panels, desk use creates more of an issue with the height rather than the width. To counter this you really want the bottom pixels of the display area at the lowest point possible to be visible by the user, and this requires counter-sinking the stand into the desk:
So this results in a desk layout something like this:
I'm sure this could be done more elegantly but you get the idea.  An alternative would be to cantilever a VESA stand from the back of the desk with the bottom bezel below the back edge of the desk, but that would involve a heavy bit of kit hanging off the back of the desk.
I wonder whether manufacturers think of patenting obvious ideas like this. Wouldn't surprise me...

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

First UHD Curved Desktop Monitor announced

Finally, a device has appeared that is IMHO workable as a desktop UHD monitor: The Samsung 55" HU8500.

55" might be a bit large for most desks, but the screen is curved so the angular issue of the extended width is mitigated.  UHD is effectively four HD panels, so in terms of apparent resolution this is like four 27" HD panels arranged in a 2x2. So it's probably larger than ideal (most people don't use HD at 27" - more common is 22" or 24") but it's close.

And it's the only screen I've seen so far that is UHD, curved, and small enough to put on a desk. But it's MUCH bigger than people currently think is 'normal'.

Here's a contrast with a genuine internet 'office' image (actually advertising Green Card immigration services):
And if we take out the 'traditional' screen and put in the Samsung curved UHD 55":
I know the picture editing is terrible. Apologies. I wanted the screen further back but couldn't adjust the perspective correctly.

Friday, 16 May 2014

May 2014: 49" Ultra HD, $640 - no mention of use as a desktop monitor???

A new Ultra HD monitor (i.e. TV...) announced today, the Xiaomi MiTV 2
49 inches of 4K goodness for $640 (in China though, so this might never appear in the West). Built-in Android as a freebie extra.
What's strange to me is there's NO mention anywhere of using this thing as a desktop monitor. OK it might not be for everyone but really? No Linux hacker wants all this borderless screen real estate?

49" is about the optimal size - each HD quarter screen is ~ 24", and we've been happy with that pixel density for years. From experience, the height of the screen would feel a bit wierd (you'd definitely scrap the little legs), but you might not want to make the screen wider on your desk without curving it.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Flat small monitor versus curved large Ultra Hd

Here's another comparison of screen size thought 'normal' today, and the target we should be aiming for.

1. A 'stylish' cubicle mockup provided by an office furniture vendor in (I kid you not) 2014.

2. With the shortly-to-become-possible larger single  curved Ultra HD monitor:

Maybe this suggests a plausible size (at Ultra HD, 3840x2160) and curvature for desktop use. The challenge will be that affordable LCD panels will be designed for TV, and they'll have a sub-optimal curvature for desktop use, i.e. they'll be too flat. But that'll match initial user expectations anyway (but they'll be wrong...)

The larger monitor is TEN times the screen area of the one the furniture vendor thought suitable (I measured the two images...). This example is exaggerated (the furniture vendor is nuts) but illustrates the delta between current expectations versus what should soon be cost-effective.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The curved desktop future, via Apple

More on the 'Ultra HD curved desktop' future...

Apple will probably announce a new Mac with a curved screen, with the usual 'this changes everything' marketing hype. Maybe that will help change opinion on the appropriate size of a computer desktop. Not a big deal but if you asked a sample of computer users 'how large should your display area be' I suspect today you'd get a typical expecation of maybe a 24" screen. As mentioned before, Ultra HD computer monitors are naturally larger such that a 50" monitor becomes reasonable, and at that size curving the display makes sense for at least two reasons;
  1. it keeps the angle between the screen and the eye more consistent, so you get a more even image with less perspective distortion
  2. it keeps the distance between the eye and the screen more consistent, so focussing is easier especially for older users who would struggle to adjust their focus distance from the center to the edges

But the Apple device (if such a thing comes along) will be conservative, maybe looking like th image below:

The image above is good for TV, but for a computer desktop a less conservative approach would look like the image below

 Plenty of people have experimented with multiple flat monitors (state of the art in 2013) and with complete freedom of choice they've chosen a significant curvature, validating the approach:

So in a nutshell, my case is the center image is what we'll choose when it's socially acceptable, but we'll get there via a series of steps - Ultra HD, gentle curve, larger with more curve.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Digital Desk Ratio

For a long time I've thought there's a disconnect in business regarding the most efficient amout of 'digital' real estate on a knowledge worker's desk.  I.e. office staff tend to have big desks and small computer monitors.

I have worked in the Investment Banking industry for many years so maybe I'm more used than most to seeing desks that look like this:
I could understand some people looking at the image above would think that it's an unusual requirement for an unusual business with no relevance elsewhere, but below is an image of how computer gamers would be happy to have their desktop setup:
 In a nutshell, I believe there is significant cultural baggage associated with the 'normal' size of office digital real estate which acts against a reasonable expectation that users would have more screen real estate because:

  1. Our business lives have become more digital
  2. The cost of LCD displays has become so low as to be irrelevant for most office workers

There must be good reasons why most office workers have a lot of desk and not a lot of digital display space. Perhaps those reasons include:

  1. The 'cultural norm' I alluded to earlier (a single 20" screen looks 'normal')
  2. Maybe connecting multiple displays appears technically complicated to some
  3. There is still an expectation of a business case to justify the investment even though the screens are now $150.
  4. No-one is asking the IT department to improve the digital desk ratio (the ratio of digital screen area to desk area)
For the record, my office Digital Desk Ratio is 22.1%.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Curved = Flat

I learnt something new about curved screens today (thanks to a demo model in John Lewis, Cambridge..)... If you view the screen from relatively close, it actually looks flat. It's a wierd optical illusion but it works and may turn out to be important for desktop displays.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ultra HD + Curved makes sense for the desktop

Most computer displays these days are re-hashed TV lcd displays, hence the prevalent 1920x1080 pixel form-factor. This resolution limits the screen size on your desktop to maybe 24" - anything larger and your sitting too close to a fuzzy mess. I have two screens on my office computer - a 20" 1600x1200 (portrait) and a 37" 1920x1080. The latter is just a TV used via its DVI input, and is pretty awful to use for office apps like Word or Excel (but it's great for spinning around in the office and sharing when we're looking at application screenshots...). I suspect many people's expectation of a 'sensible' monitor size is actually based on what's available, constrained by this limitation.

TV's are obviously going Ultra HD (i.e. 3840x2160) - this will happen even though media content at this resolution will lag far behind. The price will be below $1000 in 2014. Ultra HD displays are just too good for digital displays for this opportunity to be missed.  Even when viewing HD media content, at the very least you will be able to shrink the video window and display the online guide, or program info, or whatever on the same screen.

If you accept the above premise (Ultra HD TV's will become affordable quickly), the first benefit is to computer users who want a larger display.  A 50" Ultra HD panel has excellent pixel density for a high quality display.
But if you have the screen a couple of feet in front of you (i.e. on your desk), a large flat display is less easy to see than a curved one. This is demonstrable from the many users (including me, at home) that have three similar displays on their computer. These are always angled into a curve for convenient viewing. In my case with three 20" 1600x1200 monitors (all portrait), the outer monitors are set at maybe a 40 degree offset from the center. So the current delicate curve is probably sub-optimal for a desktop.

I can understand readers of this thinking "A 50" desktop display? That's crazy large and I'll never do it." but why at work in your office would you want a 80" desk and only a 20" screen?