Finding the right data is too often an exercise in frustration…

I haven’t written in a while, first because I was slamming busy in my role as a VR dev at Meta, and most recently because I’ve been battling stage IV lymphoma. (Bummer.)

BUT along the way I’ve learned a lot about medical scanning and various medical image data. I’ll post some experiments in Houdini soon, and perhaps look at bringing in some of that medical data into VR.

As I explored this interest, I ran into a phenomena I’ve encountered many times before: the sloppy and poorly organized nature of academic and medical data sets. This ad-hoc approach of every organization and university throwing their data into often poorly managed databases and sharing them via cheaply made websites created by interns or undergraduates is, frankly, pretty pathetic. Often I find myself spending more time identifying a source of usable data and then navigating the myriad of organizational schemes, cryptic project-or-paper based naming, unclear file structures etc than I actually spend doing something interesting with that data.

Worse, I’ve been appalled at how academics and medical professionals share data amongst themselves. I recently ran across a world-class physician who was reduced to sharing CDs of radiology image data with colleagues over postal mail (!) to discuss time critical patient issues(!!)

This is, frankly, unacceptable. Academics and physicians, take some time and clean up your data infrastructure. You’ll be glad of it, I promise.

A few fields have done this however. Those in the fields of geosciences, physics and astronomy have some amazing resources. They have learned a few principals:

  • Don’t horde data for no good reason. Sure data has value, but sharing data can prove equally useful by accelerating progress and collaboration. Open source models are popular for a reason – they pay long term dividends.
  • Agree on standards. If you are generating datasets, take time to document then and provide tools to convert that data to widely used formats (“standardization”). If possible, make that data fit a useful range (“normalization”).
  • Document your data sets in plain English. Don’t assume the data is only of interest to specialists. Avoid acronyms, trade jargon, or project names or numbers.
  • Provide more than one download option. Don’t force every file of thousands to be downloaded individually, make .zips available. Conversely, don’t make a 100 gig zip file the only option, either.

With all that said, there are excellent resources for all kinds of data. NASA, JPL, The Visible Human Project, mapping and GIS data in general comes to mind. But if I’m looking for something a little more esoteric, I often first check the Harvard Dataverse. 


Working in VR

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been busy at Meta. Working in VR on a daily basis has been fascinating. Meetings in VR, working in a virtual office with a Quest Pro, and (now that the pro can be seen in public) traveling with that same virtual office.

There are a lot of things I can’t share but one thing which strikes me is the sheer speed at which VR is becoming a transformative tool for all kinds of business. Interestingly enough, the “standard” business use cases are emerging more rapidly than many of the creative scenarios.

In hindsight this makes sense… You can get a lot of work done with 2d applications on laptops and mobile devices already. While often creative work requires high-end physical setups with resolutions and color clarity not yet available in VR.

What VR is bringing to the table is that you can now use your ”standard” workplace applications tools in virtual spaces… which you can take with you.

By this I mean your workspace is not limited to your portable screen any more. You can take along your whole office (albeit a virtual one), with arrays of huge monitors around you to multitask as you prefer. And already you have increasing control of what the rest of the office around you looks like… a fireplace nearby, or a night sky and aurora above you… a music system, knickknacks on a shelf, photos of a loved one, a working clock on your desk, and so on.

The point is your virtual space can exist wherever you do. In a hotel room, airport terminal, or the cramped confines of airline seating (where the ability to be anywhere other than 9 inches away from the seat in front of you becomes a godsend..) Tired of the current layout or your view? You can change it around whenever you choose. Need an additional monitor? Just spawn another one.

With mixed reality, you can increasingly blend the real world around you with the virtual. You can see your real hands typing on a virtual keyboard. You can remain in VR but confidently move between your couch and your desk. Don’t worry, if your pet walks into your space you can see it, too.

And you can collaborate with your coworkers in your virtual office space, regardless of where you are. I do the majority of my work from my home and meet in VR a lot. I tend to prefer it to zoom meetings.

Sure, you are in a somewhat cartoony place with somewhat cartoony coworkers and self. Surprisingly that really doesn’t matter – you get used to it and even better you don’t have bad hair days or need to worry about what your physical surroundings may look like.

The sense of presence makes a big difference. The nature of discussions is impacted I think, and in a positive way. For better or worse, you are in the meeting. And I find the additional engagement this sense of presence delivers causes me to participate and remember the meeting more.

This sense of additional engagement from a VR presence has been observed in a number of studies which have measured considerable increase in participant’s retention of information in VR versus videoconferencing. And unlike physical real-world meetings participants can be scattered across the planet.

The first time I went to a real-world meeting with my team at meta I was immediately comfortable and productive with my teammates – despite never having actually been in the same room with them before. I knew them already, from VR. Their body language was familiar, their whole presence was known to me already, the fact that we were physically in the same room for the first time was unremarkable.

That’s not to say face-to-face communications are going by the wayside, not at all. Businesses are discovering that it’s critical to make sure closely partnered coworkers get some “real world” time. VR cannot replace face-to-face interactions entirely. But it can make remotely dispersed teams more comfortable and productive.

From any physical location you can all group up. You can read each other’s expressions and body language and feel their proximity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t look your best because your avatar looks fine. Meeting in VR gives you the immediacy of dropping into a videoconference with the familiarity (and retention) of a face to face meeting.

I can tap my headset and see the “real” world around me if I need to. My passthrough image on the Quest Pro is accurate and fully stereoscopic so I can comfortably reach out to grab a cup of hot coffee from a flight attendant, or pet my dog on the head in my home office… before jumping back “into” my VR space.

In a VR workspace I can mute myself but remain in the virtual room. I can see my laptop screen or project it onto the VR whiteboard so everyone can see it. I can draw on the whiteboard from my desk, point at it with a “laser pointer,” or get up in front of it to present to the others. Attendees who call in from “2d” (aka video participants using their cellphones or webcams) are there too.

And like the internet once did, this is going to change everything.

It’s transformative. This is why companies are purchasing headsets designed specifically for this kind of working, and why companies like Microsoft and Accenture are moving to bring their tools and workforces into the VR space.

Like the internet when it was new, you’re going to have to experience it for a while before the benefits of this new kind of media really sinks in. The tools and workflows are going to change and improve. Offices will get rid of the miles of cubicle spaces that exist today and instead emphasize conference spaces and comfortable temp locations for a more mobile and dispersed workforce.

Home workspaces will become more important, while costs once applied towards physical office infrastructure will be reduced to a degree and applied towards equipping a more remote workforce, and supporting periodic meetups.

This isn’t going away: you are going to experience it (if you haven’t already.) And in time literally everyone will. It’s that transformative.

Like the early internet, or smart phones, DVDs, streaming, the web and online shopping this inevitable, and it’s coming soon.

The first years are going to be marked by frustrations and constant change, but that’s part of the fun. Fortunes will be made and lost, new markets will emerge, and surprises are going to happen every step of the way… Enjoy the ride!