Bitcoin Pundicy: Recent Wrap-Up

AWildDuck is my primary soap box. Here, I have the luxury of pontificating on whatever screams for a pithy opinion with sarcastic spin. But, regular readers know that I was recently named most viewed Bitcoin writer at Quora…

Quora is not a typical Blog. Both questions and the numerous answers form the basis of a crowd-sourced popularity contest. Readers can direct questions to specific experts or armchair analysts. The reader voting algorithm leads to the emergence of some very knowledgeable answers, even among laypersons and ‘armchair’ experts.

During the past few weeks, Quora readers asked me a litany of queries about Bitcoin and the blockchain, and so I am sharing selected Q&A. Although a pundit, I resist an urge to be verbose or bombastic. My answers are not the shortest, but they are compact. Answers may contain metaphors, but they explain across a broad audience and with the fewest words.

Check out an answer to a question that you know the least about. (For example, do you know what the coming ‘halving event’ is about?). I would be interested in your opinion.


            Ellery Davies is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association

Blind Signaling and Response presentation posted

Online services mine personal user data to monetize processes. That’s the business model of “free” services. Even if mining is consensual, policies and promises cannot guaranty privacy. It succumbs to error, administrative malfeasance, hackers, malware and overreaching governments. Is there a technical solution? One that supports monetized data mining and manipulation, but only under predefined conditions, rather than by policies and promises?

Philip Raymond has spent the past 4 years searching for a privacy Holy Grail: The ability to facilitate data mining and manipulation in a way that protects user identity, restricts use to predefined purposes, and insulates results from other uses, even within the service that gathers and manipulates the data.

Prior to this week, there was scant public material on the Blind Signaling mechanism. A PowerPoint overview was accessible only by students at a few universities and the French mathematician who is donating resources to the project.

This week, Université de Montréal posted a live video presentation that steps through the BSR PowerPoint slides. It was filmed at a computer privacy workshop hosted by the university math and encryption departments. Master of Ceremonies, Gilles Brassard, is recognized as an inventor of quantum cryptography, along with his colleague, Charles Bennett. [Brief History of QC]

Blind Signaling and Response  by Philip Raymond…

I am often asked about the algorithm or technical trick that enables data to be decrypted or manipulated—only if the user intent is pure. That’s the whole point here, isn’t it! We claim that a system can be devised that restricts interpretation and use of personal data (and even identities of individual users who generate data), based on the intended use.

The cover pulls back near the end of the video. Unfortunately, I was rushed through key PowerPoint slides, because of poor timing, audience questions, and perhaps a lack of discipline. But, I will be happy to present my theories directly to your screen, if you are involved in custodial privacy of user data for any online service (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc) or ISP, or upstream provider, or an Internet “fabric” service (for example, Akamai).

How it Works

The magic draws upon (and forms an offshoot of) Trusted Execution Technology [TXT], a means of attestation and authentication, which is closely related to security devices called Trusted Platform Modules. In this case, it is the purpose of execution that must be authenticated before data can be interpreted, correlated with users or manipulated.

Blind Signaling and Response is a combination of TXT with a multisig voting trust. If engineers implement a change to the processes through which data is manipulated (for example, within an ad-matching algorithm of Google Ad-Words), input data decryption keys will no longer work. When a programming change occurs, the process decryption keys must be regenerated by the voting trust, which is a panel of experts in different countries. They can be the same engineers who work for Google on the project, and of course they work within an employer NDA. But, they have an contractual and ethical imperative to the users. (In fact, they are elected by users). Additionally, their vote is—collectively—beyond the reach of any government. This results in some very interesting dynamics…

  1. The unique TXT-backed architecture gives the voting trust power to block process changes, if a proscribed fraction of members believes that user data is being disclosed or manipulated in conflict with prior user terms and expectations. Members of the voting trust are bound by non-disclosure, but their ethical imperative is to the end user.
  2. Blind Signaling and Response does not interfere with the massively successful Google business model. It continues to rake in revenue for serving up relevant screen real-estate to users, and whatever else Google does to match users with markets.
  3. Yet, BSR yields two important benefits:
  • a) It thwarts hackers, internal spies, carelessness, and completely undermines the process of government subpoenas, court orders and National Security Letters. After all, the data is meaningless even to in-house engineers. It is meaningful only when it is being used in the way the end users were promised.
  • b) Such a baked-in process methodology can be demonstrably proved. Doing so can dramatically improve user perception and trust in an online service, especially a large collection of “free” services that amasses personal data on interests, behavior and personal activities. When user trust is strengthened, users are not only more likely to use the services, they are less likely to thwart free services via VPN, mixers or other anonymizers.

Incidentally, the idea to merge a TXT mechanism with a human factor (a geographically distributed voting trust accountable to end users) was first suggested by Steven Sprague (just hours before my presentation in the above video…I had been working on a very different method to achieve blind signalling). In addition to being insightful and lightning quick to absorb, process and advise, Steven is a Trusted Platform expert, director of Wave Systems and CEO of  Rivetz. Steven and I were classmates at Cornell University, but had never met nor heard of each other until our recent affiliation as advisers to The Cryptocurrency Standards Association.

To learn more about Blind Signaling and Response—or to help with the project—use the contact link at the top of this page. Let me know if you watched the Montreal video.

Disclosure: The inventor/presenter publishes this Wild Duck blog under the pen name, “Ellery”.

Samsung Pay: Advantage over Apple & Google

When I got my new Samsung Galaxy S7 phone, I was lured into trying Samsung Pay. Samsung offered a $30 debit card for trying the wireless payment feature by the end of the month. I bought my phone on March 31 at about 9:30 PM. After driving back to my town, it was already 10:30 PM. Where can I find a place equipped with the latest point-of-sale equipment?

Samsung Pay lets users pay at a register without pulling plastic from a wallet. Just swipe up the app from the bottom of the phone (images of stored credit cards slide across the screen) and wave the phone near a credit card terminal. My authentication is my thumb. The fingerprint scanner built into the phone’s home button is considerably faster than the one on my daughter’s iPhone.

I had assumed that Samsung Pay was essentially identical to Apple Pay and Google Wallet. That is, I assumed that it used the NFC antenna to transmit a short range radio signal into the point-of-sale terminal—or perhaps a Bluetooth or WiFi signal. After all, the three technologies are all built into my new phone. Even my 3 year old Galaxy S4 has these three technologies.

But one thing puzzled me. At a local, all-night pizza shop, the POS system was at least 15 years old. It was an early Veriphone terminal with samsug_galaxy_s7no chip reader, no internet capabilities and an ancient RS-232 cable connecting it to the cash register. It seemed unlikely that NFC or Bluetooth was available for such a relic, even as an aftermaket upgrade. The shop owner agreed that I would have to reach for a real credit card.

Of course, this bothered me, because it was now less than 70 minutes to midnight. I had just purchased a shiny, new phone and the incentive for trying Samsung Pay was about to expire. How many retailers or restaurants are are open on a weekend at midnight? And how many would have a the new payment gear on premises?

Amazingly, when I placed my phone on the old card card reader at the pizza shop, both my phone and the cash register confirmed that I had just paid. I even received an instant message from American Express with a receipt for the pizza! (What?!!). I had seen the TV commercial starring Hannibal Buress even before I bought my new phone, but the main point—that Samsung Pay does not require new equipment nor even a tech savvy merchant—had apparently sailed over my head. 

I thought that this was a fluke. Perhaps someone had installed the new feature into the pizza shop equipment during a maintenance visit. But in the weeks that followed, I used Samsung Pay at even more antiquated cash registers. It even works with a cheap plastic reader plugged into the headphone jack of older phone (see photo). Even more puzzling, many of these merchants had no WiFi and my Bluetooth was turned off. How the heck did it work?!

There is no way that these sellers had NFC or other radio gizmos to accept payment. Yet, there it was! Each time I waived my phone at an ancient cash register, I received an instant receipt from the bank processor over the carrier network. As far as I could tell, it was the only network in the building. No one could explain how my phone had communicated with the old equipment—even with all radios disabled.

Tonight, I came across this article in a Samsung newsletter. It turns out that the ability to communicate with very old equipment really is magic!               [continue below photo]…

Samsung Pay even works with the free Square Reader

Samsung Pay even works with the free Square Reader

Last year, Samsung purchased LoopPay for about $250 million. That company figured out how to create a modulated magnetic field (they call it Magnetic Secure Transmission). A magnetic field emanates from the phone into the mag pickup head within the a card swipe slot (it’s actually a tape-recorder read head tucked into each card reader). The POS terminal thinks that a plastic credit card is being swiped through the payment slot! Amazing!!!

cassette_adapterIt reminds me of the cassette adapters that folks would stuff into car stereos before car makers added audio inputs, USB and Bluetooth. The audio quality is considerably better than using an FM transmitter, because, with the adapter, two polished magnetic tape heads were placed in direct contact with each other. Samsung Pay (formerly LoopPay) figured out how to couple the magnetic data at distance and in any orientation. Cool, guys!…I am really impressed.

Samsung Pay is compatible with almost every pay station in the universe. In theory, you could even use it at an ATM, although I suspect that the software would have to enable it for that purpose. It is the most clever use of backward compatibility and extending the investment of legacy infrastructure that I have encountered.

Post Mike Hearn: Can Bitcoin still Reign?

Beyond this first paragraph, I won’t mention Mike Hearn—despite invoking his name in the title. Enough has been written about the disillusioned core developer who, in January 2016, publicly declared Bitcoin a failed experiment, even as it continues to garnish adoption and increasing VC investment. Mr. Hearn points to a lack of leadership among the p2p community, dwindling incentives, and a seemingly intractable architecture disagreement among the miners who validate distributed transactions. Mr. Hearn is a terrific engineer, but I suspect that he is not a sociologist or market visionary.

As I began researching the potential for collapse or success, I collected my notes about Bitcoin’s future under the working title: “Market Traction: Clinching an emergent sector” . But this seems rather obtuse and sleep inducing. A good subtitle for this post would be “Random Thoughts About Bitcoin Growth Pains”.

As such, I won’t bother illustrating it with cute or pithy graphics. It’s just a justification and clarification of my continued confidence in a ‘failed experiment’.

A Bitcoin skeptic has asked me to justify my optimistic view of Bitcoin. After all, there is trouble in Dodge City: Dwindling financial incentives, a transaction volume that is straining the architecture and infighting amongst miners about forking and block size.

You might think that being first to a new market—or first with a radically new method—increases the chance of success. Alas, it isn’t so. Even if it were a maxim, Bitcoin is not the first digital currency.

Yet, Bitcoin is virtually assured of success. Not because it’s first, but because it is better/cheaper/faster, it has a two-sided market, and it can be extended by the features and benefits of its rivals.

Background

Bitcoin isn’t the first digital currency. Numerous instruments have moved cash across the Internet and in the 150 year mail-order era that preceded the Internet. In addition to credit and debit cards, there was Western Union, DigiCash, E-Gold, Flooz, beenz, Cybercash, Cybermoola, PacketPass PayPal, and more. There are also institutional and B2B mechanisms for payment or settlement, like wire transfers, letters of credit, SWIFT, EFT and ACH (also known as ‘paperless checks’).

A lot has been said about Bitcoin and what sets it apart from everything that came before. Is Bitcoin truly revolutionary? Heck, yes! It has many unique qualities. It differs from antecedents in three important ways:

  • Pure, Capitalist Dynamics
    Bitcoin is not backed by a government, organization or the promise of redemption for fiat currency. Instead, value is derived from supply and demand. Since the supply is well understood and capped with mathematical certainty, its long term value will be closely tied to growth in recognition, circulation and adoption.
    .
  • Decentralized & Permissionless
    Bitcoin trade and settlement has no nexus or central authority. Transactions are completely decentralized and peer-to-peer. In the past, a decentralized coin had to be made of something valuable or it had to be backed by a stable government and difficult to counterfeit. Bitcoin is a new breed of currency—a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer currency built on the blockchain.
    .
  • Not so Anonymous—but traded and stored with impunity
    Unlike cash, its use is not truly anonymous—at least not if you intend to ever convert it to cash or pay for something in the real world. But it is easier to hide then cash and so it can be stored and spent with impunity. That is, no government can force you to turn over your wallet without your cooperation. And the only way you can be prevented from spending or receiving Bitcoin is to be locked in solitary confinement with no visitors, no phone, no mail and no Internet. Since Bitcoin is just a string of numbers, a payment channel can be opened via carrier pigeon or by simply blinking a flashlight with Morse code.

Bitcoin is the first of a new breed of crypto currencies—decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer instruments built on the blockchain. That’s because Bitcoin is the original demonstration platform of the blockchain. The blockchain and the payment instrument were described together by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 1998.

Does creating the table and getting the first seat guaranty success? Of course not! Just ask Sony. The Betamax was beaten by VHS. And there were others before it, like the Sony U-Matic and Quasar Time Machine. But Bitcoin has two things under its wings that Betamax didn’t have…

  1. Bitcoin has achieved a 2-sided network. No one else is even close. With each week that (goes by, a 2 sided network shuts out competitors, unless they bring a whopping advantage. That’s why Adobe Acrobat (PDF viewer) has trumped all other portable doc formats.
    .
  2. But what if something better comes along. Something clever, fast, more robust or with improved privacy. What then? No problemo. Bitcoin can freely add any improvement proposed or demonstrated by others. Why? Because cryptocurrencies are open source projects without licensing requirements. You think not?! If any altcoin were not open source, then no one would trust it, because no one knows who has the coins, how many were pre-mined, what is the monetary cap, and who controls code evolution.In summary, Bitcoin can evolve to add future improvements or solve its own problems. That’s what is happening right now, as it is forced to address its own growing pains.

Final Thought

One coin, Ethereum, may be an exception. It might achieve the same entrenched and ubiquitous status as Bitcoin. But Ethereum represents another major step in Blockchain evolution. It is not just a coin, it is a contract consensus and enforcement mechanism. As such, it is not just a currency. Bitcoin has a similar feature (called “Smart Contracts”), but Ethereum is like Smart Contract on steroids … and it has been crafted in a way that makes it easy for anyone to jump on board and create their own contracts. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum has a compelling backstory and a very young, visionary inventor.

 

What has changed since “Pale Blue Dot”?

I am not an astronomer or astrophysicist. I have never worked for NASA or JPL. But, during my graduate year at Cornell University, I was short on cross-discipline credits, and so I signed up for Carl Sagan’s popular introductory course, Astronomy 101. I was also an amateur photographer, occasionally freelancing for local media—and so the photos shown here, are my own.

Sagan-1

Carl Sagan is aware of my camera as he talks to a student in the front row of Uris Hall

By the end of the 70’s, Sagan’s star was high and continuing to rise. He was a staple on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, producer and host of the PBS TV series, Cosmos, and he had just written Dragons of Eden, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Contact, which became a blockbuster movie, starring Jodie Foster.

Sagan died in 1996, after three bone marrow transplants to compensate for an inability to produce blood cells. Two years earlier, Sagan wrote a book and narrated a film based on a photo taken from space.PaleBlueDot-1

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken in February 1990, by Voyager 1 from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (40½ times the distance between earth and the sun). At Sagan’s request (and with some risk to the ongoing scientific mission), the space probe was turned around to take this last photo of Earth. In the photo, Earth is less than a pixel in size. Just a tiny dot against the vastness of space, it appears to be suspended in bands of sunlight scattered by the camera lens.

Four years later, Sagan wrote a book, Pale Blue Dot, based on the landmark 1990 photograph. More recently, numerous fans have dubbed a 3½ minute excerpt of the audio book version into viral video tributes. (The most popular of these videos appears below this paragraph). In this very popular clip, Sagan makes a compelling plea for reconciliation between humans and a commitment to care for our shared environment. He unites humanity, appealing to everyone with a conscience.     [Full text]

—Which brings us to a question: How are we doing? Are we getting along now? Are we treating the planet as a shared life-support system, rather than a dumping ground?

Sagan points out that hate and misunderstanding plays into so many human interactions. He points to a deteriorating environment and that we cannot escape war and pollution by resettling to another place. Most importantly, he forces us to face the the fragility of our habitat and the need to protect it. He drives home this point—not only explaining it, but framing it as an urgent choice between life and death.

It has been 22 years since Sagan wrote and produced Pale Blue Dot. What has changed? Change is all around us, and yet not much has changed. To sort it all out, let’s break it down into technology, our survivable timeline and sociology.

Technology & Cosmology

  • Since Carl Sagan’s death, we have witnessed the first direct evidence of exoplanets. Several hundred have been observed and we will likely find many hundreds more each year. Some of these are in the habitable zone of their star.
  • Sagan died about 25 years after the last Apollo Moon mission. It is now 45 years since those missions, and humans are still locked into low earth orbits. We have sent a few probes to the distant planets and beyond, but the political will and resources to conduct planetary exploration—or even return to the moon—is weak.
  • A few private companies are launching humans, satellites or cargo into Space (Space-X, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin). Dozens of other private ventures have not yet achieved manned flight or an orbital rendezvous, but it seems likey that some projects will succeed. Lift off is becoming commonplace—but almost all of these launches are focused on TV, communications, monitoring our environment or monitoring our enemies. The space program no longer produces the regular breakthroughs and commercial spin-offs that it did throughout the 70s and 80s.
                                                                                                                                        continue below photo…
Sagan explains the Drake Equation. (Click for 2 photos with solution)

Sagan explains the Drake Equation. (Click for 2 photos with solution)

Survivable Timeline

  • Like most scientists, Carl Sagan was deeply concerned about pollution, nuclear proliferation, loss of bio-diversity, war and global warming. In fact, the debate over global warming was just beginning to heat up in Sagan’s last years. Today, there is no debate over global warming. All credible scientists understand that the earth is choking, and that our activities are contributing to our own demise.
  • In most regions, air pollution is slightly less of a concern than it was in the 1970s, but ground, water pollution, and radiation contamination are all more evident.
  • Most alarmingly, we humans are even more pitched in posturing and in killing our neighbors than ever before. We fight over land, religion, water, oil, and human rights. We especially fight in the name of our Gods, in the name of national exceptionalism and in the name of protecting our right to consume disposable luxury gadgets, transient thrills and family vacations—as if we were a prisoner consuming his last meal.

We have an insatiable appetite for raw materials, open spaces, cars and luxury. Yet no one seems to be doing the math. As the vast populations of China and India finally come to the dinner table (2 billion humans), it is clear that they have the wealth to match our gluttony. From where will the land, water, and materials come? And what happens to the environment then? In Beijing, the sky is never blue. Every TV screen is covered in a thick film of dust. On many days, commuters wear filter masks. There is no grass in the parks and no birds in the sky. Something is very wrong. With apologies for a mixed metaphor, the canary is already dead while the jester continues to dance.

Carl Sagan's wife designed the plaque bolted to the outside of the first man made object to leave our solar system

This plaque is bolted onto the first man-made object to leave our solar system

Sociology: Man’s Inhumanity to Man

  • Sagan observed that our leaders are passionate about conquering each other, spilling blood over frequent misunderstandings, giving in to imagined self-importance. None of this has changed.
  • Regarding our ability to get off of this planet, Sagan said “Visit? Perhaps…Settle? Not yet”. We still do not possess the technology or resources to settle even a single astronaut away from our fragile home planet. We won’t have both the technology and the will to do so for at least 75 years—and then, only a tiny community of scientists or explorers. It falls centuries shy of resettling a population.
  • Hate, zealotry, intolerance and religious fervor are more toxic than ever before
  • Today, the earth has a bigger population. Hate and misunderstanding has spread like cancer. Weapons of mass destruction have escaped the restraint of governments, oversight and safety mechanisms. They are now in the hands of intolerant and radical organizations that believe in martyrdom and that lack any desire to coexist within a global community.

Sagan-quote

  • Nations, organizations and some individuals possess the technology to kill a million people or more. Without even targeting civilians, a dozen nations can lay waste to the global environment in weeks.

Is it time to revisit Pale Blue Dot? Is it still relevant? The urgency of teaching and heeding Carl Sagan’s words has never been more urgent than now.


Postscript:

Carl Sagan probably didn’t like me. When I was his student, I was a jerk.

Sagan was already a TV personality and author when I took Astronomy 101 in 1977. Occasionally, he discussed material from the pages of his just-released Dragons of Eden, or slipped a photo of himself with Johnny Carson into a slide presentation. He clearly was a star attraction during parent’s weekend before classes started.

Indeed, he often used the phrase “Billions and Billions” even before it led as his trademark. Although he seemed mildly mused that people noticed his annunciation and emphasis, he explained that he thought it was a less distracting alternate to the phrase “That’s billions with a ‘B’ ” when generating appreciation for the vast scope of creation.

At this time that Sagan was my professor, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Like a lunkhead, I wrote to Newsweek, claiming that his adulation as a scientist was misplaced and that he was nothing more than an PR huckster for NASA and JPL in the vein of Isaac Asimov. I acknowledged his a gift for popularizing science, but argued that he didn’t have the brains to contribute in any tangible way.

I was wrong, of course. Even in the role of education champion, I failed to appreciate the very powerful and important role that he played in influencing an entire generation of scientists, including, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Although Newsweek did not publish my letter to the editor, someone on staff sent it to Professor Sagan! When the teaching assistant, a close friend of Sagan, showed me my letter, I was mortified.

Incidentally, I always sat in the front row of the big Uris lecture hall. As a student photographer, I took many photos, which show up on various university web sites from time to time. In the top photo, Professor Sagan is crouching down and clasping hands as he addresses the student seated next to me.

Is San Bernardino iPhone fully Encrypted?

Here is a question that keeps me up at night…

Is the San Bernardino iPhone just locked or is it properly encrypted?

Isn’t full encryption beyond the reach of forensic investigators? So we come to the real question: If critical data on the San Bernardino iPhone is properly encrypted, and if the Islamic terrorist who shot innocent Americans used a good password, then what is it that the FBI thinks that Apple can do to help crack this phone? Doesn’t good encryption thwart forensic analysis, even by the FBI and the maker of the phone?

iphone-01In the case of Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, the FBI doesn’t know if the shooter used a long and sufficiently unobvious password. They plan to try a rapid-fire dictionary attack and other predictive algorithms to deduce the password. But the content of the iPhone is protected by a closely coupled hardware feature that will disable the phone and even erase memory, if it detects multiple attempts with the wrong password. The FBI wants Apple to help them defeat this hardware sentry, so that they can launch a brute force hack—trying thousands of passwords each second. Without Apple’s help, the crack detection hardware could automatically erase incriminating evidence, leaving investigators in the dark.

Mitch Vogel is an Apple expert. As both a former police officer and one who has worked with Apple he succinctly explains the current standoff between FBI investigators and Apple.


The iPhone that the FBI has is locked with a passcode and encrypted. It can only be decrypted with the unique code. Not even Apple has that code or can decrypt it. Unlike what you see in the movies, it’s not possible for a really skilled hacker to say “It’s impossible“” and then break through it with enough motivation. Encryption really is that secure and it’s really impossible to break without the passcode.

What the FBI wants to do is brute force the passcode by trying every possible combination until they guess the right one. However, to prevent malicious people from using this exact technique, there is a security feature that erases the iPhone after 10 attempts or locks it for incrementally increasing time periods with each attempt. There is no way for the FBI (or Apple) to know if the feature that erases the iPhone after 10 tries is enabled or not, so they don’t even want to try and risk it.

oceans_of_data-sSo the FBI wants Apple to remove that restriction. That is reasonable. They should, if it is possible to do so without undue burden. The FBI should hand over the iPhone to Apple and Apple should help them to crack it.

However, this isn’t what the court order is asking Apple to do. The FBI wants Apple to create software that disables this security feature on any iPhone and give it to them. Even if it’s possible for this software to exist, it’s not right for the FBI to have it in their possession. They should have to file a court order every single time they use it. The FBI is definitely using this situation as an opportunity to create a precedent and give it carte blanche to get into any iPhone without due process.

So the answer to your question is that yes it is that secure and yes, it’s a ploy by the FBI. Whether it’s actually possible for Apple to help or not is one question and whether they should is another. Either way, the FBI should not have that software.

The New Era of Virtual Reality

 A Wild Duck guest editorial

Richelle Ross-sRichelle Ross is a sophomore at the University of Florida, focusing on statistics and data science. As a crypto consultant, she educates far beyond the campus. Her insight on the evolution and future of Bitcoin has been featured in national publications. Richelle writes for CoinDesk, LinkedIn, and Quora, providing analysis on Bitcoin’s evolving economy.


In 2003, I remember going to see my first IMAX 3D film,
Space Station . My family was touring NASA at Cape Canaveral Florida. The film was an inside view into life as an astronaut enters space. As the astronauts tossed M&Ms to each other in their new gravity-free domain, the other children and space_station_1I gleefully reached our hands out to try and touch the candy as it floated towards us. I had never experienced anything so mind-blowing in my 7 year life. The first 3D film was released in 1922. Yet, surprisingly, flat entertainment has dominated screens for in the 9½ decades that followed. Only a handful of films have been released in 3D—most of them are animated. But now, we are gradually seeing a shift in how people experience entertainment. As methods evolve and as market momentum builds, it promises to be one of the most groundbreaking technologies of the decade. I foresee Virtual Reality reaching a point where our perception of virtual and real-life experiences becomes blurred—and eventually—the two become integrated.

Ever since pen was put to paper, and camera to screen, audiences have enjoyed being swept into other worlds. For those of us “dreamers” being able to escape into these stories is one way we live through and expand our understanding of other times and places—even places space_station_2that may not be accessible in our lifetimes. Virtual reality is the logical progression and natural evolution of these experiences.

I caught the VR bug after one of my Facebook contacts was posting about it and sharing 360 degree videos that were of no use to me unless I too had the headset. Having been a Samsung user for the last several years, I purchased the Samsung VR headset to understand what all the hype was. Just as with my childhood experience visiting the space station, the VR Introduction video sent me floating across the universe. But this time, it was much more compelling. I could turn my head in any direction and experience a vast heavenly realm in 3D vision and tied to my own movements. Behind me was a large planet and in front were dozens of asteroids slowly moving by.

Similar to visiting the Grand Canyon, this is one of those novel experiences you really have to experience to appreciate. Within about ten seconds of trying it out, I had become hooked. I realized that I was experiencing something with far greater potential than an amusement park roller coaster, yet I also recognized that any applications I might imagine barely scratch the surface. This unexpected adrenaline rush is what leads tinkerers to the imaginative leaps that push new technologies into the next decades ahead.

Video games are probably the industry everyone thinks of being affected by this new paradigm. I immediately thought about the Star Wars franchise with its ever expanding universe. It will be a pretty exciting day when you can hold a lightsaber hilt that comes to life when you wear a headset and allows you to experience that universe from your living room. You could even wear a sensored body suit that allows you to feel little zaps or vibrations during gameplay. With more connected devices, the possibility of Li-Fi replacing Wi-Fi and so on, video games are just scratching the surface.

I discussed what the future of VR could offer with Collective Learning founder, Dan Barenboym. We explored various difficulties that impede market adoption. Barenboym was an early enthusiast of virtual reality, having worked with a startup that plans to deploy full-body scanners that give online life to gamers. The project began long before the film Avatar. Berenboym suggests ways that this dan_barenboym_5624swould improve online shopping by allowing people to see their avatar with their own personal measurements in various outfits. This doesn’t have to be limited to at-home experiences though. Dan suggests that instead of walking into the boutique changing room, you walk into one with mirrors connected to VR software. Your reflection ‘tries on’ different virtual outfits before you pull your favorite one off the store rack.

We also discussed the current obstacles of VR like the headset itself, which is a hindrance in some respects as it is a bit uncomfortable to wear for prolonged use. The other looming issue is money. There are many ideas similar to the ones we brainstormed, but startups may struggle to get off the ground without sufficient funding. The Oculus Rift is one great example of how crowdfunding can help entrepreneurs launch their ideas. It is easier than ever before to share and fund great ideas through social networking.

Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, shared his own vision in 2014 after acquiring the Oculus Rift. Zuckerberg eloquently summarized the status of where we’re headed:

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 oculus_rifthave a chance to build it together.”

What could this mean for the social networking that Zuckerberg pioneered? I’d venture to say the void of a long distance relationship may be eased with VR immersion that allows you to be with your family at the click of a button. You could be sitting down in your apartment in the U.S., but with the help of a 360 camera, look around at the garden that your mother is tending to in the U.K. The same scenario could be applied to a classroom or business meeting. We already have global and instant communication, so it will serve to add an enriched layer to these interactions.

The concept of reality itself is probably the biggest factor that makes virtual reality so captivating. Reality is not an objective experience. Each of us has a perspective of the world that is colored by our childhood experiences, personality, and culture. Our inner dialogues, fantasies of who we want to become, and areas of intelligence determine so much of what we’re able to accomplish and choose to commit to outside of ourselves. Michael Abrash describes how VR works with our unconscious brain perceptions to make us believe we’re standing on the edge of a building that isn’t really there. At a conscious level, we accept that we are staring at a screen, but our hearts still race—based on an unconscious perception of what is happening. Tapping into this perception-changing part of our brain allows us to experience reality in new ways.

As VR becomes more mainstreamed and incorporated into all areas of our lives such as online shopping, socializing, education, recreation, etc., the degrees of separation from the real world that society applies to it will lessen. Long-term, the goal for VR would be to allow us to use any of our senses and body parts. We should see continued improvements in the graphics and interaction capabilities of VR, allowing for these experiences to feel as real as they possibly can.

One can only imagine the new vistas this powerful technology will open—not just for entertainment, but for education, medicine, working in hazardous environments or controlling machines at a distance. Is every industry planning to incorporate the positive potential of virtual reality? If not, they certainly should think about the potential. As long as we pay attention to present day needs and issues, engineering virtual reality in the Internet of Things promises to be a fantastic venture.

Author’s Note:

Feedback from Wild Ducks is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, add your comment below. Until then, perhaps we will meet in the virtual world.

— RR