Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Affinity: Virtual Laboratories for Professionals

Affinity combines virtual and physical environments to increase collaboration, productivity and mitigate environmental stress.
The Problem
Inhabitation of the virtual environment is at an all time high. According to Jane McGonigal, the earth’s population chooses to spend 3 billion hours a week gaming within a virtual environment. At the same time global education standards are falling, productivity is decreasing, and mental disorders related to the lack of physical and emotional activity are rising. Disciplines have become so specialized, and so esoteric, that members of different fields struggle to communicate and collaboration suffers. The relationship between the physical and the virtual is limited, for now, by the restriction of the screen. It is difficult to inhabit virtual space within a physical one without the use of projection. Conversely, the transference of physical objects into the virtual environment requires relatively simple technology that many people already possess. As Humans we possess 4 skins. First is our physiological skin that contains our organs and fluids in addition to mitigating toxicity within the body and temperature without. Secondly, we have our clothing which works with the first to provide comfort and safety from our environment. This skin also provides us with a medium with which to present ourselves based on our personality. Thirdly, we have the spaces which we have created for ourselves to dwell within - architecture. Lastly, we have our technology that we have grown to depend on to do a myriad of tasks for us such as tell us directions, connect us with counterparts, etc. However, each of these layers we surround ourselves with remains very separated from the rest. How then may we take advantage of our freedom within a virtual environment to teach, produce, and treat? How can architecture - our third skin - become the platform upon which we bring our virtual realities into the physical reality? By creating a composite material out of our third and fourth skins can we finally create a space in which all information is shared and understood? An environment that promotes development while adapting for those which require additional support?
The Solution
Virtual Space: AffinityVR
 My proposed solution to this problem involves two spaces, a virtual environment (VE) and a physical environment (PE), both autonomous in their own right but also integrated. The VE, named AffinityVR behaves as a massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG). Game play in AffinityVR exists within a world divided into a large number of labs. These labs are accessible to the user by piloting his or her avatar through corridors or by returning to the lobby. The lobby is the users home within the VE. Within the lobby the user has access to names and descriptions of all labs and who is currently participating in them. The purpose of the lobby is to expose players to topics currently under development which they may not have heard of prior. Similar to the homepage of TED ( where lecture topics are presented in cloud view and are refreshed at random, and in index view by category, AffinityVR will allow players to view all the labs within the game and choose their entry point into the world and maintain affiliations with multiple projects. In addition to the labs there is a common area where people can go to ask question from other players, seek positions within project teams, or look for players with specific talents for current projects. 

Lobby Space in "Super Mario Bros. 3"
Lobby Space in "Super Mario Bros. 3"

Lobby Space in "Genesis"
Lobby Space in "Genesis"
There are a number of objects that come together to bring functionality to AffinityVR. These objects currently consist of characters (user piloted and non-player characters (NPCs) or Bots), machines (virtual robot simulators, virtual electron microscopes, virtual surgery equipment, virtual hadron colliders, etc.), Maps (environments or scenes), and data-sets (encyclopedic databases accessible by all characters). NPCs are characters which are controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) and contain data-sets specific to their character. 

Players may work directly with NPCs when experience is needed from other disciplines and players with that knowledge are unavailable. 
Physical Space: AffinityPR 
The physical counter part to AffinityVR, AffinityPR, exists as a research and development (R+D) hub. These hubs, or Affinity Spaces, act as the port between the two realities and therefore is the place where virtual objects become physical until advances in hardware allow for less dependence on specific locations. The primary program of this hub is thought of as a maker space, complete with all the digital equipment needed to perform exercises from any field. These spaces also act as a physical analogous to the VE complete with offices, labs, and communal spaces where users can work and interact within the physical realm.
To successfully merge our architectural with our technological skin a system of intricate and highly advanced interfaces is implemented. These interfaces are comprised of a combination of hardware and software. Transference of light and sound between realities is the most simple and can be achieved through many consumer products already available. Transference of mass and intelligence is much more difficult and requires some technology with limited availability or technology that currently only exists in theory. 
Oculus Rift VR goggles (HUD) equipped with binocular imaging sensors are used to immerse the user in the VE while allowing the user to switch between VR and AR modes. While in either mode these additional sensors allow for gesture based control of the virtual environment and position tracking within the PE. A state of the art workstation computer is required to link the HUD to the server containing the VE. These servers may be either on-site or in the cloud (discussed further under software). Future versions may be able to operate on mobile devices thanks to the transparency of the Android operating system. Headphones with microphones are used to transfer sound between realities. Cameras and imaging sensors are used for 3D scanning of physical objects into virtual meshes, facial recognition, skeletal tracking, and teleconferencing. RF arrays and fiducial markers embedded within the architecture provide position tracking within the VE. To transfer objects (those with mass or those which contain an event or motion) from VE to PE a collection of digital technology is used including 3D printers, CNC routers, robotic arms, drones, etc. Any machine that can be controlled remotely using digital technology can potentially be connected to the system and controlled through simulation of its virtual counterpart. 

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Goggles
Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Goggles
Development of AffinityVR is performed in C# .NET 4.0. All virtual objects are created in Autodesk Maya and compiled using Unity3D Pro. The application received from Unity3D Pro may run on independent workstations but Affinity can only be played in single player (single player interacting with NPCs) this way. To achieve the massively multi-player effect we desire, Affinity will be submitted to Steam, an online gaming community created by Valve. Within Steam users will log in with their Steam username and password, download Affinity and create their profile. Control of hardware will be achieved through integration of product specific libraries within Unity3D Pro using C# .NET 4.0, and if necessary, C++, Python or Java depending or hardware manufacturers specifications with their software development kits (SDKs). Affinity will incorporate consoles within game play to operate a large number of work related software such as, Autodesk Maya, Rhinoceros, Catia, Mathematica, Autodesk Revit, Visual Studio, Eclipse, Modo, zBrush, Processing, etc (if there is industry specific software you feel would make a positive addition to Affinity please contact our design team. We welcome every suggestion). These consoles provide Affinity with the primary means of virtual creation. This also allows for every aspect of Affinity to be fully customizable by the users. 
Overcoming the esotericism of contemporary disciplines is one of the most difficult tasks for Affinity to accomplish. This project will rely on a diverse set of icons specifically designed to be used in situations where words do not convey the correct interpretation. Research for the development of these icons will look to the evolution of the Hanzi (pictographs used in Mandarin) from informative paintings to a recognizable set of characters.

 Affinity Applied
Development of Affinity began with an intensive analysis of games, game theory and game evolution. Lessons learned from these studies will be used to inform game play that relies on the aspects of discovery, exploration and play that contribute to learning and development. Problem solving, pattern recognition and crowd-sourcing attributes also are intended to increase the success of this platform. It is our vision that AffinityVR act as phase 1, allowing users to take advantage of the platform from where ever they are currently located. Phase two of the project will requisition a hub either through partnering with an existing maker space or construction of a dedicated hub (not within the scope of this fundraising effort). Within phase one AffinityVR can be implemented within existing businesses to allow its employees access to the collaboration within either on an office-wide or a world-wide network. Businesses can use this platform to increase employee productivity, imagination, and mitigate work related stress through customization of their work environment. Medical clinics can use this platform to develop environments for the treatment of patients through cyber-therapy and potentially remote treatment with the advancement of robotics. Schools can use this platform for distance learning and sharing of resources and facilities. Individuals can use this framework for job searching and support of kitchen-table innovation. 
Please visit our Kickstarter campaign preview to make comments or suggestions!