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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thinking About the Next Revolution

The man in the picture is turning on a light with his thoughts. Depending on how you look at it, this is an interesting technology trick, a possible aid to paraplegics or another way that the virtual and physical worlds are becoming indistinguishable.

The device is a combination of Google Glass and a commercially available electroencephalograph, or EEG, which reads brain activity by monitoring electrical impulses on the scalp. Its wearer is Andrew Krage, a co-founder and senior architect at Daqri, a company in Los Angeles that works mostly in computer vision.

Daqri has built other EEG-based software, including an iPad app that measures concentration. Turn the device’s camera onto a special diagram laid on a flat surface and see how far a subject can “levitate” off of the paper a series of images that are superimposed on the iPad screen. It is used by makers of sensitive instruments, like satellites, to ensure that workers are sharp before they undertake delicate tasks.

The company’s aspiration is to create “the Photoshop of 4-D design,” offering designers a way to insert into three-dimensional space digital objects, said Brian Mullins, Daqri’s co-founder and chief executive. The company still does work of its own, creating things like moving animations of Lego constructions on top of the toymaker’s catalog and educational tools like a virtual human body for anatomy students.

A more advanced application scans a room to figure out its dimensions and furniture. A virtual helicopter can then be flown inside the space, avoiding the solid objects and “learning” new dimensions of the room as the camera moves. Most of the time, anyway - this software is not perfect. The result is either a training tool or a toy that combines the animation and physical reality, with both changing at the same time.

This ability to manipulate objects over space, coupled with the EEG work, is what Mr. Krage is doing with the Google Glass application. To Mr. Mullins, it is the beginning of a longer-term trend toward blending our external thoughts and the world seamlessly. Not only will the underlying software and processing power improve, but there are even projects on Kickstarter to make cheaper EEGs.

“Plato was wrong: A table and the idea of a table are equally real,” he said. “I can make it out of titanium, or I can manifest it as a virtual object, and then create it with a 3-D printer. Right now we are creating applications based on concentration, but the capabilities will increase.”

That may sound grandiose, but it may also be a reality of the Information Age. It makes a little more sense when you consider that software, possibly the greatest generator of wealth and innovation, is completely insubstantial; it may reside on tape or a disc, but it is really just a series of statements about how something should be organized.

Maybe other insubstantial realities lie ahead.