29 January 2016

Using VR to Make Experiments More Realistic

Avatars are all around us: they represent real people online and colonise new worlds in the movies. In science, their role has been more limited. But avatars can be extremely useful in linguistics, new research shows. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics use virtual avatars to investigate how real people behave in interaction. The method makes it possible to study with great precision how people adjust to each other in conversation. An exciting question in psycholinguistics is how people adapt their speech to each other in conversation. The research method of choice has long been the "confederate": a conversational partner who, without the other participant knowing, has been instructed to speak in certain ways. However, some aspects of speaking cannot be studied in this way, for instance minute changes in speech rate or intonation. Researchers have exchanged the human confederate for a virtual reality avatar, opening up exciting new possibilities for studying the dynamics of dialogue. To get around the problems of human confederates, some studies have used pre-recorded sound files instead of confederates. However, speaking to a sound recording can feel very different from speaking in a face-to-face context, and indeed studies have shown that language behaviour is different when interacting with a sound recording compared to a video.

Researchers set out to determine whether virtual reality could be used to combine the best of the confederate and sound-only methods. Virtual reality makes it possible to create a physical presence, an avatar, whose behaviour and speech patterns we can control to the tiniest detail. Researchers decided to test the effectiveness of this avatar using syntactic priming, a phenomenon in which participants adapt their grammar usage to match that of the other. Because syntactic priming is well understood, it provides the ideal testing ground for an implementation using virtual reality. Recent work has suggested that the degree to which people adapt can be influenced by their opinion of the person they are interacting with. Researchers invited people to do a card game with either a human confederate, a human-like avatar, or a computer-like avatar. The two avatars looked identical and differed only in their behaviour: the human-like avatar showed realistic facial expressions such as smiles, eyebrow raises and eye contact, while the computer-like avatar had none of these. As predicted, the human-like avatar worked just as well as the human confederate: both resulted in the same amount of grammatical adaptation, whereas the computer-like avatar did not. These results suggest that future conversational experiments can use virtual reality avatars and investigate behaviour in ways that were previously impossible.

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24 January 2016

Can Our Minds Live Forever?

The soul is the pattern of information that represents you, your thoughts, memories and personality, your self. The laboratories of 21st Century Medicine in Fontana, Calif. specialize in the cryopreservation of human organs and tissues using cryoprotectants (antifreeze). Can brains be so preserved? Researchers are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize.

In the past the team explored the infusion of a rabbit brain through its carotid arteries with a fixative agent called glutaraldehyde, which binds proteins together into a solid gel. The brain was then removed and saturated in ethylene glycol, a cryoprotective agent eliminating ice formation and allowing safe storage at −130 degrees C as a glasslike, inert solid. At that temperature, chemical reactions are so attenuated that it could be stored for millennia. If successful, would it be proof of concept?

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23 January 2016

Friendly ATTAC Keynote

On the 22nd January 2016, I gave a keynote at the ‘Serious games research day: networking event for games researchers and serious games developers’ at Berchem, Belgium. The title of my presentation was ‘Procedural Generation Techniques for Serious Games and Virtual Environments’.

The presentation covered three main areas of procedural modeling for games and virtual environments I am researching on over the past few years including (a) fractal terrain generation, (b) procedural modeling of buildings and cities, and (c) crowd modeling.  

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21 January 2016

Mind Control by Cell Phone

Electrical signals between neurons generate electric fields that radiate out of brain tissue as electrical waves that can be picked up by electrodes touching a person's scalp. Measurements of such brainwaves in EEGs provide powerful insight into brain function and a valuable diagnostic tool for doctors. Indeed, so fundamental are brainwaves to the internal workings of the mind, they have become the ultimate, legal definition drawing the line between life and death. Brainwaves change with a healthy person's conscious and unconscious mental activity and state of arousal. But scientists can do more with brainwaves than just listen in on the brain at work-they can selectively control brain function by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This technique uses powerful pulses of electromagnetic radiation beamed into a person's brain to jam or excite particular brain circuits. Although a cell phone is much less powerful than TMS, the question still remains: Could the electrical signals coming from a phone affect certain brainwaves operating in resonance with cell phone transmission frequencies? After all, the caller's cerebral cortex is just centimeters away from radiation broadcast from the phone's antenna. Two studies provide some revealing news. The first, led by researchers of the Brain Science Institute, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, tested whether cell phone transmissions could alter a person's brainwaves. The researchers monitored the brainwaves of 120 healthy men and women while a Nokia 6110 cell phone—one of the most popular cell phones in the world—was strapped to their head.

A computer controlled the phone's transmissions in a double-blind experimental design, which meant that neither the test subject nor researchers knew whether the cell phone was transmitting or idle while EEG data were collected. The data showed that when the cell phone was transmitting, the power of a characteristic brain-wave pattern called alpha waves in the person's brain was boosted significantly. The increased alpha wave activity was greatest in brain tissue directly beneath to the cell phone, strengthening the case that the phone was responsible for the observed effect. Alpha waves fluctuate at a rate of eight to 12 cycles per second (Hertz). These brainwaves reflect a person's state of arousal and attention. Alpha waves are generally regarded as an indicator of reduced mental effort, "cortical idling" or mind wandering. But this conventional view is perhaps an oversimplification. Researchers argue that the alpha wave is really regulating the shift of attention between external and internal inputs. Alpha waves increase in power when a person shifts his or her consciousness of the external world to internal thoughts; they also are the key brainwave signatures of sleep. If cell phone signals boost a person's alpha waves, does this nudge them subliminally into an altered state of consciousness or have any effect at all on the workings of their mind that can be observed in a person's behavior? In the second study, researchers at the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre in England devised an experiment to test this question. The result was surprising. Not only could the cell phone signals alter a person's behavior during the call, the effects of the disrupted brain-wave patterns continued long after the phone was switched off.

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13 January 2016

Scubus S - The First AR Scuba Diving Mask

Scubus S is one of the few projects that brings hi-tech into the world of scuba diving. The biggest problem of all for scuba divers is surely underwater communication which is limited to hand sign language and in order to communicate you must be in a constant visual contact. Imagine a scuba diver signalling that he’s out of breath. How do you think can he afford and wait until the fellow diver will pick on that? Or imagine full spectrum of underwater beauty that the diver is constantly want to share, the moments and… “Oops! Just missed it!” All thanks to scuba diver waiting on his fellow scuba diver to react again. Now this is where technology and augmented reality shines and can truly change the experience and empower people underwater.

The Scubus S steps in with its pre-typed messaging and chat option. Unfortunately the Bluetooth, radio waves or any type of wireless tech doesn’t work that good or doesn’t work at all underwater. For scubus S to work underwater the company is using what the submarines used as means of communication for decades – the acoustic wave which turns out travels underwater even better than on the surface. But it has its limitations too. Nonetheless you’ll be equipped with up to 20 pre-typed messages. You’ll manage group chat and other data of the Scubus S via a wrist-worn remote. To compensate for not being able to chat like on a messenger app the Scubus S will have an HD camera with 12MP photo and 1080p @ 30 fps video as well as LED flashlight.

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