The virtual reality war is set to be a battle of financial endurance

The eventual champion in the race for VR supremacy is likely to be the company that can last the longest without making a profit, according to a report published yesterday by a leading technology intelligence provider.

The report, which was published by Current Analysis in response to HTC’s reveal of its updated Vive VR headset and custom controllers,  acknowledged that content availability was likely to determine which headset – Oculus’ Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR or the Valve co-created Vive – would come out on top initially. However, it argued that it would take far longer for high-end VR headsets to become mainstream, meaning companies may need to run at a loss for some time.

“Whoever gets the largest commitment to the best content is likely to garner the lion’s share of early adopter purchases, but mainstream adoption and profitability could still be a long way off,” wrote Avi Greengart, research director of consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis.

As a result, the companies with the deepest pockets are likely to have the biggest advantage, giving the Facebook-owned Oculus a serious edge.

“Oculus should stress to developers that no matter who gets the best start, Facebook gives it the resources to survive long enough to succeed,” added Greengart.

Image courtesy of Oculus.

Image courtesy of Oculus.

With pre-orders for the consumer edition of the Oculus Rift opening later today despite no word yet on price or precise release date, the company looks set to get an early march on HTC, which will not be releasing the Vive until April.

However, Vive’s newly announced features, which include a built-in camera, could persuade some to wait, particularly as those who’ve managed to lay their hands on the updated headset are making some very positive noises.

“We demoed the system at CES and were impressed. It still has screen-door effect, but images are much higher contrast than before,” said Greengart.

“The camera allows the software to alert you to real-world objects in the room, which makes gameplay safer. The system was significantly more comfortable to wear and was not disorienting – or nausea-inducing – to enter or exit.”

Image and featured image courtesy of HTC

Image and featured image courtesy of HTC.

If the long-term success of virtual reality headsets does prove to be down to money, neither HTC nor Facebook is in a particularly poor position. Both have considerable cash to spare, and could certainly afford to keep the products afloat for several years.

However, for Facebook the Oculus Rift is an opportunity to get ahead on an emerging form of communication, something that is likely to be immensely valuable for the long-term success of its social media network. As a result, it’s likely to want to make the Rift a success no matter what the cost.

By contrast, HTC has far less crossovers between the Vive and its other products, meaning if the battle proves to be a long, loss-making slog, it could well find its shareholders unwilling to keep funding the headset.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.