While the future of flying cars we were promised is still a way off (if not postponed indefinitely) all manner of counter-rotational flying devices are readily available in all manner of sizes and we’re finding all manner of uses for them. The common nomenclature for these machines is drones. That label comes with so much baggage I hesitate to use it all. The military uses drones, big, deadly drones…we the people use UAVs, quad…hex…octorotors, flying machines. Thanks to the rapid miniaturization of various sensors and microprocessors due to the impossibly fast growth of the smartphone market these versatile flying contraptions are readily available and relatively easy to operate.
As a cheap, stable, easy to fly platform UAVs quickly found themselves carrying cameras to places that are traditionally difficult and much more expensive to get to. This has been a tremendous asset to the agriculture, construction, energy and transportation industries (to name a few). Film and TV also made quick use of the flying camera but can the UAV get out from behind the camera and become the subject?
Just recently a group of artists, technicians and engineers set a world record for flying 100 automated multirotors with the addition of sequenced LEDs set to a live orchestra.
Having been part of a project to use UAVs in a live show last year I can assure you this was no small feat. I would have preferred this video held on some shots of the machines longer but the gist is there. These things can mesmerize and delight us. They can be a show but we can also push them further. The inherent agility built into these machines isn’t being pushed hard enough. The variety in shape, size and function needs to be incorporated into a choreographed, character driven show. Given the right parameters you can coerce quite a bit of character out of these battery powered bits of metal, carbon fiber and plastic. I encourage you to take a look at Raffaello D’Andrea’s latest TED Talk (and compare it to his talk from 2 years ago).
I believe D’Andrea and the team at Verity (and undoubtedly others) are pushing the edges of what these things can be and what they can do. Yes, it’s a new toy but it’s a new toy with much unfulfilled potential.
Those don’t look safe. At first glance a machine with 4 (at least) rapidly spinning blades flying freely around you seems like a terrible idea. It’s bad enough if you injure yourself but put these things in front of a paying audience and you’ll make more than a few lawyers nervous (or twitchy with anticipation). There is, of course, risk in everything. If you did indeed watch the above TED Talk and the one from 2 years ago you’ll notice a big difference. There’s no safety net this time. Confidence in the technology has grown with the technology itself as it inevitably does. With the right systems in place the risk of an accident has been greatly reduced.
There is a delicate dance that has to be done to expand the use of these machines in a live entertainment venue. Legal and safety concerns are still large hurdles in most places but they are not insurmountable. The real challenge is to do something interesting with all of this airborne gadgetry. To use these machines to enrapture an audience and hopefully get them to forget that they’re looking at a machine at all. All of the tools are available and waiting for us to pick them up to craft an experience that will be worth experiencing. But of course, that’s always the biggest challenge.
There’s been tremendous progress in the VR world these last few years and no one denies that. Unfortunately the progress has led to great excitement and great excitement of any technology leads to over inflated expectations. Gamers, Hollywood, educators and almost everyone else are trying to figure out where the big thing for VR is going to come from and how to be a part of it. Content creators are eager for this new platform to take off and deliver on the promises being made. My fear is that the big thing is a ways down the road and the returns on any investment in VR are not going to be all that impressive for a while. If VR doesn’t deliver, enthusiasm will wane and the big investors will look elsewhere for the next new toy that promises the next big thing.
I hope we can all slow down a little bit. Take a breath. Focus on some really interesting and very niche applications for VR. The general public isn’t ready to strap a viewer on their head for more than 5 minutes and they certainly aren’t ready to invest in one for their home. We have a long way to go in teaching the not-so-early adopters what this is, how it works and why they might want it. During one of the talks it was mentioned that Google’s Cardboard is too simple and not enough of an interactive VR experience to move us forward. The truth is Cardboard has significantly lowered the barriers to entry. Nearly anyone can cheaply (assuming they already own a smart phone) and easily have a VR experience. Cardboard is teaching the general populous what this experience is and getting us used to holding a viewer up to our face to peer into a different world (however slight those differences may be). Cardboard is absolutely limited in the experience it can provide but I believe it is an invaluable tool in making VR comfortable and “acceptable” to a great many people.
Focus on the Small
Until the more sophisticated hardware proliferates there’s a limited audience for any content. By focusing more narrowly we can create some really interesting experiences that will help lay the foundation and develop a few basic rules for this new experience. If we want VR to stick this time (and we do) there needs to be a ton of experimentation so we can get to a place where truly great and unique content can be created. We are in that experimental phase and if we try to rush through it VR will be littered with re-purposed movies and reformatted video games offering nothing truly unique or inspiring. The money to develop content or hardware will dry up and we’ll wait another decade for the next daring entrepreneur to resurrect a world of technology that has limped along.