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Category Archives: Presence in the News

News stories explicitly or implicitly related to presence from a wide variety of sources

Presence and retail: In Walmart’s VR simulation, Black Friday never ends

[This timely story from Vox describes the current and likely future uses of presence-evoking technologies in retail; the original version includes a second image and two videos. –Matthew]

In Walmart’s virtual reality simulation, Black Friday never ends

Walmart’s technological embrace is a big bet on shopping’s human element.

By Patrick Sisson
November 15, 2018

Staring down a seemingly endless aisle of products, including an entire grocery store-within-a-store, it seems like the shopping never ends at Walmart’s Santa Clarita Supercenter, 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Inside, through an entryway wedged between freezer cases full of seafood, past employee locker rooms, behind a door with a frosted glass logo — a Walmart icon superimposed on a graduate’s cap and tassel —one version of computerized commerce never stops.

This space attached to the retail floor is one of Walmart’s roughly 200 training academies, part of a two-year-old initiative to improve and expand training of the company’s roughly 1.2 million employee associates, the front-line workforce that meets, greets, and checks out customers. Contrary to many people’s perception of the low-cost leader, this training effort is very high-tech. Last year, the academies began offering lessons in virtual reality.

Designed by a Silicon Valley startup, these lessons showcase the value Walmart places in employee education, and the shifting fortunes of virtual reality. The largest corporate investment in the nascent VR industry, which will see 17,000 Oculus Go headsets sent to the company’s 4,700 US stores, offers a vision of the technological changes altering the retail landscape. It’s also an uncanny valley of grocery shopping.

After slipping on an Oculus headset and tightening the velcro straps around my temple, I’m greeted by a boot screen, basically a white expanse in every direction, punctuated by black dots to form a grid. There’s a vibe of Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix, but instead of trading martial arts moves or leaping off buildings, I’m transported to the center of a busy intersection inside a Walmart store during Black Friday.

It’s a bit claustrophobic, with customers streaming past me in every direction. Spinning my head, I see a family pushing a cart filled with emoji slippers, then a man rushing past with a haul of electronics, and finally, a team of associates giving directions to lost shoppers.

As I circle around, the facilitator guiding me through the simulation can pause the action, allowing us to discuss, digest, and learn from what I’m seeing. I’m told the passing customers, who all seem to be casting glances at me, are doing so on purpose; the simulation is meant to put employees on the spot, letting them adjust to the pressure, noise, and expectations of Black Friday shoppers to gain situational awareness before the big day.

Retail’s survival of the fittest will be fought in stores, not just online

As the retail world continues to be rocked by changing consumer habits, Walmart’s massive bet on virtual reality may seem like a peculiar part of the company’s technology portfolio. After all, Walmart bought retail site for $3.3 billion in a bid to bolster its e-commerce offerings and counter Amazon’s rise.

But the company’s VR play, and plans to bring virtual reality training to every associate, shows the world’s largest company is still investing in human resources and the in-store experience. Sometimes derided as a futuristic folly, or feared as another tech tool that will divorce us from reality, VR training, as Walmart executives and retail analysts see it, symbolizes the importance of the human element. Read more on Presence and retail: In Walmart’s VR simulation, Black Friday never ends…

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Forget VR treadmills – Google patents motorized, omnidirectional VR sneakers

[It’s just a patent for now, but Google has an idea that could make virtual experiences more immersive and natural. The story below is from Ars Technica, where it includes four more images. See also a 2017 Gizmodo story about the Cerevo Taclim tactile feedback shoes.

Read more on Forget VR treadmills – Google patents motorized, omnidirectional VR sneakers…

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A new virtual reality experience takes you inside a black hole

[Another place presence-evoking technology can take us… This story is from Astronomy and includes a 2:23 minute interactive 360 degree video (also available via YouTube). –Matthew]

[Image: An image from the newly created virtual reality simulation of a black hole. Credit: J.Davelaar 2018.]

A new virtual reality experience takes you inside a black hole

You can’t visit our galaxy’s supermassive black hole in person, but now you can feel like you’re there.

By Chelsea Gohd
November 19, 2018

Inside a Black Hole

Have you ever wanted to travel to the center of the galaxy and witness the power of a supermassive black hole in person? With current technology, humans couldn’t travel the 25,640 light-years from Earth to the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole in a single lifetime. Nor could we survive being so close to the extreme gravitational forces of a singularity. But a new virtual reality simulation gives us all the chance to swoop close by a black hole and experience the time and space-warping effects of their immense pull.

Scientists at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Goethe University in Germany have used computer models of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. Using a series of detailed images from the models, the team developed a 360-degree VR simulation of Sagittarius A*. This resulting simulation can be viewed with any VR device.

“Our virtual reality simulation creates one of the most realistic views of the direct surroundings of the black hole and will help us to learn more about how black holes behave. Traveling to a black hole in our lifetime is impossible, so immersive visualizations like this can help us understand more about these systems from where we are,” Jordy Davelaar, corresponding author on the research paper behind this project, said in a press release. Read more on A new virtual reality experience takes you inside a black hole…

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Researchers in Japan make android child’s face strikingly more expressive

[The refinement of the robot child Affetto’s ability to evoke presence in just 7 years suggests that we may cross the Uncanny Valley in the not-too-distant future. This story is from Gizmodo, where it includes three videos, including a looping video with both versions of the robot; for more information including links to other videos, see the Osaka University press release. –Matthew]

Read more on Researchers in Japan make android child’s face strikingly more expressive…

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Hyperrealistic nipple tattoos are changing the game for breast cancer survivors

[Although we rarely think about it, cosmetic surgeries and even make-up are designed to evoke a sense of presence, the perception of the absence of mediation by technology. This story from InStyle makes the point vividly, emphasizing the positive impact these techniques can produce; see the original story for more images. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: Ergey Filimonov/Stocksy –]

Hyperrealistic Nipple Tattoos Are Changing the Game for Breast Cancer Survivors

By Romy Oltuski
October 18, 2018

This April, Piret Aava spent the full duration of a sluggish, five-hour train ride home from Washington, D.C., to New York City drawing nipples. “Someone next to me was looking at me like, What are you doing?!” the Estonia-born cosmetic tattoo artist says with a laugh. But her neighbor also seemed impressed with the lifelike sketches.

Best known as The Eyebrow Doctor, Aava has built an eyebrow microblading empire tending to the arches of Serena Williams, Malin Akerman, and scores of beauty editors. An appointment with the semi-permanent tattoo specialist comes with a $1,500 price tag, a year-long wait list, and bragging rights to a full-brow look coveted by 40,000 Instagram followers. She’s devoted more than a decade to thickening cilia.

But since attending a workshop in D.C. this spring, Aava’s become even more invested in a new niche: three-dimensional tattoos of areola for women who’ve lost theirs to breast cancer.

Nipple tattoos are becoming an increasingly popular option among women who’ve undergone breast reconstruction surgery after cancer, she says — and with good reason. Scroll through Aava’s small but growing gallery of areola, and you’ll have to squint to make out that they’re actually flat, drawn images. The nipples appear to protrude. The surrounding skin seems to pucker; chapped, dark folds fade into lighter, smoother rings of flesh. They’re so hyperrealistic that Instagram, which has yet to #FreeTheNipple, took down a photo of one of her tattoos, citing the platform’s strict no-nudity policy. (You’ll see for yourself as you keep scrolling into this article.) “I take it as a huge compliment,” says Aava, who created a second account, @AreolaDoctor, to make sure her brow-focused page isn’t penalized. Read more on Hyperrealistic nipple tattoos are changing the game for breast cancer survivors…

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Kognito uses conversations with virtual humans to prevent suicides on campus, increase empathy in doctor’s office

[A November 12, 2018 story on NBC10 in Philadelphia about La Salle University’s success using the simulation program Kognito to help faculty, staff and students identify and help people who are at risk for suicide led me to the May 2018 story below from CNET with more information about Kognito and other uses of its presence-evoking simulations. See also a 5:53 minute video report from February 2018 from Fox5 in New York via YouTube. –Matthew]

[Image: Interactive role-play simulations are helping health care professionals build empathy and practice communication skills. Source: Kognito.]

Virtual humans could improve conversations at the doctor’s office

Game-like simulations are training health care professionals to be more empathetic and to tackle conversations on tough topics like mental health.

By Abrar Al-Heeti
May 3, 2018

You sit down to talk with your doctor, but you sense he’s in a rush to get to the next patient. Add to this the lack of training many physicians have had in effective patient communication, and it becomes nearly impossible to have an engaging conversation about your health.

But virtual humans might help to change that.

Simulations using virtual patients are training health care professionals to be more empathetic and to tackle important conversations on topics like mental health and substance abuse.

One health simulation company, Kognito, uses gaming technology and virtual patients to create mock clinical scenarios in which real-life physicians, nurses and other practitioners test out different conversation paths to see how virtual patients respond. They’re then given real-time feedback on how to have more effective and meaningful conversations.

“Simulations and gaming technology can help create a safe environment for people to learn through practice,” said Kognito co-founder and CEO Ron Goldman. “It’s risk-free. I can try to do things in a simulated environment that if I try to do them in real life can have bad consequences on people’s health.” Read more on Kognito uses conversations with virtual humans to prevent suicides on campus, increase empathy in doctor’s office…

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Furhat addresses Uncanny Valley and diversity challenges in social robotics

[The new Furhat robot addresses the Uncanny Valley and diversity challenges involved in creating medium-as-social-actor presence. The story is from ZDNet, where it includes a 1:02 minute video. There’s also a press release on the company’s website and a collection of videos on YouTube. –Matthew]

Robots have a diversity problem. This Swedish startup could change that

Furhat Robotics is seeking to revolutionize social robotics by moving away from a one-face-fits-all approach.

By Greg Nichols
November 13, 2018

Swedish startup Furhat Robotics, which makes a tabletop social robot that’s a bit like an in-your-face Alexa, unveiled its latest generation social robot last week. The key feature of the robot is an expressive face that’s designed to leapfrog across the Uncanny Valley and foster genuine communication with users.

Furhat’s secret sauce is a rear projection unit inside the robot’s neck that displays a lifelike animated face on an anthropomorphic mask. Unlike most humanoid robots, the platform doesn’t suffer from the “close but no cigar” cringe-factor induced by silicon and rubber humanoids. Read more on Furhat addresses Uncanny Valley and diversity challenges in social robotics…

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New advertising for and inside virtual reality

[Two stories on advertising and virtual reality: First, Adweek describes a new Facebook ad campaign for the Oculus Go (Variety also notes the emphasis on media consumption rather than games) and the importance of engagement by current users vs. the number of headsets sold; the story includes four of the ads, which are also available on YouTube (1, 2, 3, 4). Then, 360i reports on the first programmatic advertising (targeted, algorithm-based placements) inside virtual reality experiences, in this case to promote the second season of National Geographic’s television series Mars. See The Drum for more coverage. –Matthew]

[Image: The rapper Wiz Khalifa stars in a new Oculus Go ad about VR entertainment. Credit: Facebook]

Watch Wiz Khalifa, Leslie Jones and Jonah Hill Experience Virtual Reality in New Oculus Ad

It’s all about entertainment

By Marty Swant
November 13, 2018

Oculus has a new star-studded 60-second spot that aims to highlight how virtual reality entertainment—not just gaming—could be appealing to the masses.

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, the Facebook-owned VR company has recruited a slew of celebrities—Wiz Khalifa, Leslie Jones, Jonah Hill, Adam Levine, Behati Prinsloo and Awkwafina—to wear an Oculus Go headset while watching everything from basketball games to Oscar-winning movies.

According to Rebecca Van Dyck, CMO of AR/VR at Facebook, the goal of the ad is to help show all that’s possible within a headset beyond gaming—a feature the company initially marketed earlier this year when the headset first debuted. She said 80 percent of people who’ve already bought the Go are new to VR.

“We also just wanted to continue to normalize VR a bit more,” she said. “Especially with this really accessible price point.”

The Go, Facebook’s most consumer-friendly VR device, costs $200, a price the company hopes will make VR accessible enough for anyone interested in buying their first headset, without having to attach it to a powerful PC or an Android smartphone. Read more on New advertising for and inside virtual reality…

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VR program lets cancer patients at Penn Med watch the sunrise from their waiting room

[I know from personal experience the potential value of a new program at the University of Pennsylvania that uses virtual reality and presence to reduce stress in hospital waiting rooms. This story from The Daily Pennsylvanian describes the program and plans for expanding it. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: Fern Nibauer-Cohen]

Virtual reality program lets cancer patients at Penn Med watch the sunrise from their waiting room

By Katharine Shao
November 11, 2018

Few people look forward to spending time in a hospital waiting room. There is typically bright, fluorescent lighting, a selection of sterile furniture and, if you’re lucky, a smattering of old magazines to thumb through while you wait for your turn.

Penn Medicine wants to turn that experience on its head by transporting patients to an alternate world. With the Radiation Oncology Department’s new virtual reality program, patients can spend their waiting time looking at the sunrise from the edge of a dock instead of staring at an empty wall.

The department’s new VR mindfulness program is currently being hosted in the Roberts Proton Therapy waiting room at the Perelman Center located at 3400 Civic Center Blvd. The eight-minute voice-guided meditation experience provides patients an alternative to reading a magazine or watching TV while they wait for treatment. The immersive audio-visual scene gives them the opportunity to relax as they lose themselves in a serene environment of a virtual lake.

“It allows you to refocus yourself. We all have stresses, and cancer patients have a lot of stresses. It allows some of those [stresses], for just a little bit, to slide away,” Chair of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine James Metz said. Read more on VR program lets cancer patients at Penn Med watch the sunrise from their waiting room…

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China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency debuts ‘AI anchor’ to read the news

[Presence-evoking technology is impacting the delivery of news, raising important ethical questions. This story is from Mashable, where it includes a 0:31 minute video of an “AI anchor”; for more information and a longer video, see coverage in The Verge. –Matthew]

[Image: Source: Press From]

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency debuts ‘AI anchor’ to read the news

By Matt Binder
November 8, 2018

The state-run press agency in China, Xinhua, will now deliver news using “AI anchors” made of digital composites that use synthesized voices to “read” the news.

These anchors look realistic, but are actually digital composites that are rendered using actual footage of human anchors reading the news. The AI anchors are able to “read” any text fed into the artificial intelligence using synthetic voices that are created through the use of composite audio recorded from the real-life anchors.

According to the South China Morning Post, an English-language anchor and a Chinese-language anchor were created by Xinhua in partnership with local Beijing search engine company Sogou. The anchors premiered on Wednesday at the World Internet Conference in China.

Xinhua News Agency says that the AI anchor, “can work 24 hours a day on its official website and various social media platforms, reducing news production costs and improving efficiency.” The state-run news agency considers the AI anchors to be members of its reporting team. Read more on China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency debuts ‘AI anchor’ to read the news…

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