IoT vs VR: A Marriage Made in Sport Heaven?

Gamified indoor climbing and virtual stadiums: can a successful marriage of the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR) change the face of sport and fitness? Mike Shorter, Senior Creative Technologist at Uniform, tells us about their experiments in the field ahead of a special Binary Gathering...

New technologies have always jostled for pole position: inventions flare up and die down, or move in as the Next Big Thing. One current struggle is between the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR). Attending conferences, reading trend reports and participating in conversations within Britain's tech sector, it feels something like a changing of the guards. IoT, a young innovation by any standards, is losing momentum and attention to the phenomenon of virtual reality, something youthful in ability and old in theory.

For VR has been in our lives for a long time – albeit in a fictional sense. Films like The Lawnmower Man (1992) and eXistenZ (1999) have piqued our interest, and now we can experience it for ourselves at very little cost. So what happens if we refuse to leave IoT in the dust? What happens when we don’t choose to focus on one technology over the other? Before answering, let’s explore each a bit further.

Changing of the guards

At its worst, IoT is an easy way to make the most gimmicky gadgets around. Some designers and futurists feel that IoT objects are on the cusp of taking over our lives and shutting us out, both physically and mentally. Personally, I wonder if the term IoT isn’t already starting to feel dated. Have we reached the point where we assume connectivity? But there’s a fine balance. Who doesn’t want to be able to control/sense anything from anywhere? Our thermostat now changes the temperature and our smart door... locks us out? We know successful IoT objects as rooted in respect: for both the original product imbued with internet-connectivity and the users.

If the hype around VR is to be believed, we can expect pervasive virtual reality in homes, workplaces, cinemas, art galleries and on the street in the near future.

As Palmer Freeman Luckey – founder of Oculus VR and inventor of the Oculus Rift – said last year: “Now we all carry phones. I think the same thing is going to happen with VR. People are going to have their own personal device. Especially as it converges with augmented reality, I think it will be a personal thing that is important to people to upgrade and be on the leading edge.”

I feel VR is at its strongest when transporting you in either time, place or reality. The content can be tricky; it must be justifiable and immersive. By justifiable I mean creators must ask themselves: why isn’t this simply a video? What is virtual reality adding to the experience? If the answer is nothing, you’re in trouble. This is similar to the widely–spread notion that any good physical IoT product should not be replaceable with an app.

One of the most intriguing things about VR is that we still don’t really know what to do with it. Do we view content through a phone or a dedicated device? What will audio add to the experience? How do we know where to look? There is no defined user visual language as yet. This is exciting, because as a community of creators, users and experimenters, we are in a position to discover solutions and best practice together.

Complementary or clashing technologies?

So as IoT devices flood our world, and VR is primed for mass use, what space – if any – do they both inhabit? How does each technology function in the other’s space? Where can they complement or inform each other? What will it look like when virtual reality controls an IoT device, or vice versa?

I think IoT can be used to bolster an already immersive experience, adding elements of surprise, intelligence or convenience. When combined with IoT, virtual content is not only reliant on what way you are facing, but by numerous other factors, some digital, some real world. Maybe you are checking out Google Map’s 360 degree mapping of the Alps: wouldn’t it be cool if it was stormy out there, it was stormy in your headset? IoT sensors could be used to control VR experiences. Maybe a change in temperature, door opening, tide data could affect what you see in your headset. These sensors could even be directly related to you. For example, if your FitBit data feeds directly into a VR experience, could it be used to gamify both the FitBit and VR content?

There’s a warning here. If we are aiming for meaningful outcomes from the potential relationship between VR and IoT, we must be careful not to mash them together for the sake of it. Tech + tech does not always equal better tech. What does one bring to the experience of the other? Consideration, respect for content and the user, and a dash of magic are ingredients for successfully integrating virtual reality with IoT.

Uniform’s exploration of the potential relationship between IoT and VR began about four months ago. Our first thoughts were slightly anxious: we worried this had the potential to be a technology overload. Our initial exploration was not to develop new ideas to take to market, but to address that initial concern. Is the marriage of IoT and VR useful?

The future of sport

We kicked off (pun intended) by exploring how we could use exercise data to control skill in a gaming environment. The result was FitBit Pong.

FitBit data controlled the speed of your Pong paddle. The more exercise you did in the real world, the fitter you were in the virtual gaming world. Could this model could be flipped? Could we be rewarded in the real world for doing something well in VR?

You’ll notice that there’s nothing VR about Fitbit Pong, as it was the first step in our exploration. The next stage saw us actually combine IoT and VR and still tap into elements of reward and gamification. Which is why we made Grip.

Using RFID technology, Internet-enabled climbing holds and virtual reality, Grip uses IoT and VR to teach, celebrate and gamify indoor climbing. The inspirational content for this prototype stars World Climbing Champion Shauna Coxsey and her coach Mark Glennie. The potential for Grip doesn’t stop here, as the core tenets of try - learn - achieve - reward translate across every sport I can imagine. The current reward content for this product is a view from the top of a mountain, which works well in VR as you can look all around you, including up and down to gain a sense of height and location. So much so you may even fall over as you look down!

The VR content for this is justified by the user being able to look around at Shauna’s body position and zoom in on certain holds and movements to get more information. There is also an increased sense of action as movement and activity happens both in front of you and behind you. Grip is installed in The Climbing Hangar in Liverpool, so you can pop down and give it a go for yourself!

We loved Grip, but knew we were biased as several of us are avid rock climbers. We wanted to open this discussion to the masses to see how they would use the power of IoT and VR in their favourite sports. We created an app that allowed people to sketch storyboards of their ideas, upload them to an app and see them in VR. To make things more exciting, the VR content was controlled by two IoT devices. First, a big red button (everybody loves a big red button!). When pressed, it would load in a dramatic stadium backdrop to everyone's sketches. Second was a physical sound-sensing object that increased a VR scoreboard score in the stadium. The more people cheered for their ideas, the higher the numbers!

We tested the app at SXSW this year and had some extremely positive feedback. The best part was the collective gasp when sketches went from 2D reality to 3D virtual reality. Our app (and physical IoT devices) have been further developed and tweaked to bring back to you - the Binary Festival community. At our gathering (IoT vs VR) we’ll help people build their own IoT device to alter VR experiences. Should be wild!

We firmly believe there is a future for this technology mash up. We simply need to craft the content and interactions in a meaningful, justifiable and immersive way. We certainly haven’t cracked it yet, but we are one step closer and thoroughly enjoying the experiments.

Mike Shorter is Senior Creative Technologist at Uniform

Twitter: @uniformtweets

Get to grips with IoT vs VR at Uniform's Binary Gathering at Constellations (13:30 - 16:00), Liverpool, on 24 May 2016

Binary Festival 2016 Blog: a special media partnership between The Double Negative arts magazine, Creative Tourist culture and travel site and Binary Blog. See the Festival on 24 and 25 May 2016 in Liverpool, UK

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