Next year let’s all celebrate an augmented reality Christmas

It’s that time of year again. Christmas has come around and it’s time to deck the halls with all those decorations that have been gathering dust in the attic for the last year. Gordian tangles of fairy lights, baubles that may or may not have become cracked in the transition from tree to box and the motherlode of tree decorations of mysterious origin.

But before you get all wrapped up and frustrated in one of the more gloriously troublesome of Christmas traditions, let’s instead take a moment to look forward to how we may be making things festive in the future. In all likelihood, it will look fairly different and rather more virtual.

Augmented reality tech, if it can capture the same hype as virtual reality, is sure to steamroll the market in the next few years. Though Google Glass fell rather flat, the tech is coming along to overlay our reality with all the various aspects of the digital world. It seems to make perfect sense then that our future celebrations may not rely on physical aspects.

While we may be currently tied down by bulky headsets (even Microsoft’s untethered HoloLens seems pretty big to have on for long periods) Google Glass proved at least in concept that this won’t always be the case. Being bold, we might even say that you’ll have a svelte set of augmented reality glasses perched on your nose in just ten years.

Once a part of everyday life such devices will render precariously standing on a ladder to get those lights on your roof just right a thing of the past. Instead we imagine a more advanced form of geotagging, where you can design the way your house looks by pinning its location.

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To anyone strolling by without their glasses, it will look perfectly ordinary. But to those with an augmented reality device, the tech will respond to the location and display the exterior of the home just as lit up as you choose. From the simplest string of lights to the most elaborate of displays you can imagine, and all without having to lift a finger.

Once past the giant flashing Santa and assorted reindeer, your visitors will also get the chance  to embrace a more updated version of a long-standing tradition before crossing the threshold. Beneath the holographic mistletoe, they’ll have the chance to instantly capture and share the moment across social media.

Inside, the decorating continues. With smart enough GPS and what we assume to be some kind of design app, we imagine you simply telling the app that your house consists of X rooms and exteriors, and each of them can be decorated to suit refined tastes or fit out Santa’s Grotto.

This is fairly unlikely to come for free, but the in-app purchase of a fancier setup than the basic free package provided seems a fairly good deal for the loft space cleared up. Think of it kind of like The Sims, where if you want expanded options for decorating and designing your house you have to buy the expansion pack.

Of course, there are potential issues. If you thought your relatives could be judgemental before, wait until they see that you didn’t shell out for the Winter Wonderland package. You just know that Aunt Janice is going to be inquiring into your finances, tutting away at the lights of just one colour.

The problems only continue if you take into account that there may be older relatives who aren’t using an AR device. As far as they’re concerned, you just didn’t bother to decorate and are lacking in Christmas spirit. Bah humbug.

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We here at Factor have a couple of suggestions to clear these obstacles and smooth the way to your ideal festivities. As far as Aunt Janice is concerned, while you may not appreciate dressing and undressing your very own Winter Wonderland, if it keeps her off your back it may be that you can have physical decorations as well as digital ones.

More difficult is the issue of those who won’t or can’t adopt the augmented reality tech. While small hologram projectors would give them the same impression, it would rather defeat the purpose of everyone else bringing along their Google Glass, Hololens or whatever it is Magic Leap is working on.

One solution is to simply guilt them into getting on board by gifting them a set of the glasses. Those wishing for a less morally ambiguous resolution however, may prefer to think a little further forward to a Christmas hosted inside a smart home. Recognising each of your guests, your house may be able to personalise displays to suit each of their festive preferences.

Of course, there’s something to be said for pulling out the presents from under a real tree and feeling the irritation against your skin of real tinsel. There’s also something to be said for never having to sweep up pine needles again or work out just how you fit all the decorations in that one box.

However you choose to celebrate in the years to come, whether it be through a virtual lens or stacking up just as many lights as you possibly can on the outside of your house, Factor wishes you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”