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Virtual Reality Series Part II

Thomas Topp - Wednesday, February 01, 2017

This article is the second in a short series about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR); having discussed the difference between VR and AR, as well as the origins of the concepts and technologies, this article will focus on the development of VR for training programs and a new frontier of amusement. Later articles pertain to contemporary VR devices and adopting AR as a lifestyle.


Virtual Reality Series

Part II: Training and Gaming


As discussed in the previous article, although the first head-mounted display (HMD), the “Sword of Damocles”, was invented in 1968, VR and AR remained the purviews of military research and video game design until the research boom of the 90’s. Both industries focused on increasing the systems’ immersiveness and responsiveness, resulting in more realistic graphics, wearable tech, and the expansion of VR and AR into niche fields.

Recognizing the revolutionary possibilities of VR, in 1966 the US Air Force commissioned Thomas A. Furness III to develop the first flight simulator. Working out of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, from ‘66 to ‘89, Furness developed advanced cockpit simulators for fighter aircraft. In 1982, the first training flight simulator, the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS), was used to offer trainees a virtual environment where they could develop skills without real-world consequences to mistakes.

Beyond offering a safe environment for soldiers to learn, simulators also allow trainees to experience various scenarios, landscapes, and situations. By using a virtual program, soldiers are able to repeat training exercises, and therefore get more training hours with less down-time; simulators are also much cheaper and eco-friendly than in-air flight training.

Using flight or driving simulators allows the trainee to become familiar with the controls and handling of expensive, and potentially lethal, vehicles before being placed in the cockpit or being the wheel. Simulations can also be used to train medical personnel to better perform complicated surgeries and become familiar with various procedures in a controlled, corrective and repetitive manner.

The other major industry for VR and AR during the decades before it became relatively mainstream was video gaming. In particular, Atari played a key role by hiring Jaron Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman, who would later go on to co-found VPL Research in 1984. VPL Research is credited with developing early wearable tech, such as the Data Glove, allowing people to manipulate virtual objects in three dimensions; the Eye Phone, an HMD that tracks head and eye movements; and the Data Suit, a full body outfit covered in sensors that allows measurement of arm, leg, and trunk movements.

Unfortunately, the technology remained prohibitively expensive for the daily consumer, and VR for the layman was largely relegated to arcades. For example, in 1991 Virtuality released the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR entertainment system under the same name. A Virtuality system costed roughly $75,000, and contained multiple player pods, headsets and exoskeleton gloves, making the system the first immersive VR experience available to the public. Other VR arcade systems were more widespread, such as driving and first-person shooter games, some of which incorporated haptic feedback to more fully immerse the player.

The next article in this series will delve deeper into contemporary -- here meaning “since 2000” -- VR and AR devices, particularly those developed for personal use.  More...

Virtual Reality Series Part I

Thomas Topp - Friday, January 27, 2017

This article is the first in a short series about virtual reality (VR); the origins of the term and concept from imagination to realization, as well as disambiguation of the term augmented reality (AR). Later articles will focus on VR in gaming, adopting AR as a lifestyle, and modern VR devices.


Virtual Reality Series
Part I: From Imagination to Reality

When Oscar Wilde said “Life imitates art,” he was not referring to science fiction; however, in an age of exponential technological growth and nearly ubiquitous smart devices, it is easy to draw a connection. Virtual Reality (VR) was first described in 1935, less than a decade after the invention of the television, by Stanley G. Weinbaum. In his short story, “Pygmalion's Spectacles,” characters could use a pair of goggles to experience a holographic version of invented scenarios, but unlike modern VR headsets, such as Google Daydream, Weinbaum’s device also allowed the user to experience smell and touch.

The term “virtual reality,” was coined three years later in 1938 by French author and playwright Antonin Artaud in a collection of essays titled “The Theater and its Double.” However, the term “virtual” has only been used to describe something that is rendered via software since 1959. The partial realisation of Weinbaum’s invention was achieved in 1968 by Harvard professor Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull. The device was not a pair of goggles, but rather a head-mounted display (HMD) so heavy it was suspended from the ceiling, earning its name “The Sword of Damocles.”

The Sword of Damocles was not only the first VR device but also the first augmented reality (AR) device; the difference being that the former replaces the user’s visual input with a virtual one, while the latter overlays graphics on the existing physical landscape. The world portrayed in The Matrix is more akin to VR; while the portrayal of the Terminator’s vision in the Terminator films, more closely resembles AR. For a more modern example, readers who have played Pokemon Go! may be familiar with how the device’s camera ‘sees’ the surroundings, including Pokemon who may be hiding in a tree, perched on top of a mailbox , or standing on the sidewalk.

Despite VR and AR developing during the early 70’s, it seemed relegated to marginal cultures, such as cyberpunks or recreational druggies, who viewed the technology as a vehicle for social change or a new frontier and artform, respectively. VR gained more mainstream popularity through movies like Brainstorm, Tron, and The Lawnmower Man in the early 80’s, and a decade later CyberEdge and PCVR, two VR industry magazines, were in circulation.

The research boom of the 1990’s was aided by the publication of Howard Rheingold’s non-fiction book, Virtual Reality, which expanded interest in VR beyond sci-fi and computer enthusiasts. Unfortunately, because of the available computing power and the exorbitant costs of producing such devices, VR remained largely theoretical. Research and development between the 70’s and early 90’s was conducted mostly by the medical, military and automobile industries for simulations, design and training purposes.


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The Rise of DDoS Attacks

Thomas Topp - Friday, November 04, 2016

On October 21st, millions of people on the on the East Coast were denied access to dozens of major websites such as Netflix, Twitter, Spotify, Reddit, Pinterest, and Paypal; as well as to news sites like CNN, Fox News, The New York Times and the Guardian. Later in the day, a wave of similar outages affected the Atlantic coasts of the United States and Europe.  

The attack was focused on Dyn, which is one the companies that runs the internet’s Domain Name System, (DNS). The first attack came around 7am EST, although a second followed at noon and a third just after 4pm. The Department of Homeland Security began an investigation the same day.

The outages were the result of a cyber attack known as a DDoS, or Distributed Denial-of-Service, a threat that is becoming increasingly more common, according to  Brian Krebs, an independent security researcher, noted earlier in October on his blog KrebsOnSecurity.com. Simply put, a DDoS attack is designed by hackers to flood a network with useless traffic until it crashes.

Amazon’s web services division, the world’s largest cloud computing company, was also affected, although Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Dyn, could not confirm if the outages at Dyn and Amazon were linked. Flashpoint, a cybersecurity firm,  attributed the attack to malware based on the Mirai source code, infecting an entire network of devices with the self-propagating code and thereby overloading it.

The Mirai source code powers the “Internet of Things” botnet, which allows objects to be sensed and/or controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure and thereby allows more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems. Ideally, the IoT improves efficiency, accuracy and economic benefits, although its scope, including smart devices, security systems and integrated networks, means that attacks can be devastating.

The IoT was born in 2008, when the world first had more smart devices than human being, at which point cybersecurity experts warned such devices were incredibly insecure. “Among the numerous vulnerabilities are that most of them have open and discoverable administrative controls, default passwords and no capability to be patched or updated,” writes Taylor Armerding of CSO Online.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that there are now estimated to be roughly 16 billion smart devices in the world, securing all of them would be a Herculean feat. And what may be surprising is that the attack is not expected to have originated from a national enemy or cyber criminal mastermind, but rather by “script kiddies” who used the Mirai malware source code after finding it posted publicly on hacker websites.

Another major problem is that many users do not know how to, or the importance of, securing their devices. However, the onus is not necessarily on the user, Chester Wisniewski, principle research scientist at Sophos, explains: “Today almost all of the responsibility is on the consumer, who more often than not is not aware of the risks and doesn't know what to do to mitigate them… Consumers have some responsibility, but shouldn't have to become security specialists.” He maintains that “The burden should be almost entirely on the manufacturer to make it as simple as possible.”

Mike Lynch, chief strategy officer at inAuth, adds a second point which is that product designers and manufacturers are not necessarily security experts. “In the eyes of many organizations, building in security protocols is an unnecessary expense that eats into margins, both factors combine to create conditions where security is relegated to afterthought status,” he said.

While this attack will almost certainly not be the last of its kind, because it affected an entire DNS, as opposed to being relegated to individual owners, we may begin to see a movement toward better encryption and security protocols taken more seriously and on a wider scale.


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