28 Dec

Have you had trouble finding your mentor? Me too!

Mentors are making a comeback. Especially in the high turnover, high competition world of tech, finding that one guide who will teach you everything you need to know to be a titan of industry is in high demand. I’ve met a lot great people over my career who I’m certain could have served as great mentors to me. Yet, I always struggled to commit and could never decide exactly who was the perfect fit. Of course, this wasn’t a reflection on them, but rather, it was a reflection on my indecision and my own reluctance to the traditional mentor/mentee relationship. It wasn’t until I read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big  and started working with her 10-minute meditation that it really dawned on me—the best mentor for me is myself.

I know what you’re thinking : “How could you know it all?” It’s true, plenty of people have plenty of industry expertise to help you along the corporate ladder climb. But, what if you know, in your gut, that climb isn’t for you? Or, what if you choose a different route than your average industry peer? Then who do you turn to? Even the greatest of mentors may not have all the answers you need, especially when you take a path different from theirs. What worked for them may not work for you, and that’s ok, because no matter what turns you take, you will always know what’s right for you because of your own intuition.

Not sold yet? It’s a scary proposition to completely trust yourself, but when you think about it, you’re your best bet. Tapping into your intuition isn’t easy at first, but, it’s always there for you and, in the end, it’s always right. So how do you tap in and learn to really listen? I have a few tips and tricks that can help get you there:

  1. Spend some “Me QT”: What’s your favorite thing to do? What’s the activity or hobby that brings even a small sense of relaxation? I know a lot of people say running, journaling or yoga, but your activity can be anything. Driving, watching your dog play in the grass, cooking, even a glass of wine on your porch. Whatever gets you to that peaceful place of contemplation, where you become open to those deep truths and it’s quiet enough for you to hear them.
  2. Be the interviewer, and the interviewee: Once you find that zenning activity, ask yourself some easy general lifestyle questions and some not-so-easy career questions to get the self-mentoring conversation started. Am I more anxious than usual, and if so, is that from work or something else? What do I avoid doing and what do I seek out? What’s my best attribute and “super star” power? If I could do anything (without worrying about getting paid), what would it be? What are some things that I can do all day long while totally losing track of time? When do I feel flow? What’s the least favorite part of my job and what’s my favorite? What’s my most significant accomplishment and how did I feel while I was  doing it?
  3. Get out of your head: Whether you’ve noticed or not, your body always tells you what’s wrong before your mind does. So, if you can’t yet answer those tougher questions, work your way from the outside in, getting in tune physically first. Notice if you’re more tired lately, or if your sleep patterns have changed. Perhaps you’re eating differently or have some abnormal aches and pains. Are you uncomfortable sitting with yourself or in need constant distraction? Any or all of these indicate your intuition is telling you something isn’t quite fitting right in your life.

 

So next time you’re searching for answers and someone to lean on, just sit, listen and you’ll find your mentor.

And now that you’re happily your own mentor and you’re following that intuition that says your current work situation isn’t cutting it—now what? Stay tuned for the next installment when we talk through those next crucial career steps.

About the Author

Melissa Pacheco is a partner at Chameleon Collective specializing in executive recruiting. Through her years of experience, she combines a deep knowledge of all aspects of recruiting, an extensive talent network, an intuitive skill for assessing individual capabilities and an understanding of complex client needs. Marketing, creative, and technology are her areas of expertise, and she’s demonstrated an ability to recruit successfully for hard-to-fill positions and organizations going through significant change. Before joining the Chameleon Collective, she spent the last 10 years at SapientNitro & Digitas, recruiting in a variety of areas, from Executive Searches, Campus Recruiting and Mergers & Acquisitions. At SapientNitro, she introduced new technologies to the company’s recruiting efforts, expanded social media outreach, consistently exceeded recruiting targets, and helped the company win the Talent Board’s 2014 CandE Award for great candidate experiences.

16 Dec

Strategic Offsites: 5 Steps to Success

According to Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”  These words were just as relevant then as they are now for today’s business leaders. If you’re worrying that your strategic plan is missing part of the picture, or that new entrants are gaining competitive advantage, you most likely need to step back and realign your strategy with the market environment. For many organizations, the catalyst of meaningful change is a strategic offsite.

With a little bit of planning and a few tricks of facilitation, an offsite can transform your business by (1) uncovering market misalignment, (2) finding new opportunities for growth, and (3) aligning your leadership team for execution. The secret of planning a successful offsite can be broken down into five simple steps:

 

strategy_offsites

1. Determine who needs to be there. A successful offsite/planning sessions should involve no more than eight people total. Ensure key departments, such as sales, marketing, product, technology and customer service are represented, but inviting too many people will likely impede any productive discussions. Attendees should be the decision-makers — any others who should have input can be consulted before or after the offsite session.

The last essential person is the facilitator, who ensures everyone is engaged, asks probing questions and keeps the agenda on track. If you need help with facilitation, you can contact me or my colleagues at Chameleon Collective to help.

 

2. Ensure the executives attending are prepared. Send your decision-makers homework in advance of the offsite. Everyone should review the most recent strategic plan and measure results against goals. You can assign individual executives to each of the following tasks: study the market, collect market feedback (from customer service, sales and/or even a survey), analyze the competition, update your product roadmap and map out your partnerships. The more thorough your prep work, the quicker your leadership team can dig in and take action.

 

3. Create a detailed agenda for the offsite. Two-day offsites are ideal: the first day  focuses on the strategic direction and the second day focuses on execution. But, don’t expect to leave the offsite with your strategy all wrapped up and ready to go. Ideas will still require vetting and refining outside of the offsite group, so the second day not only outlines a potential plan, it also assesses what’s missing and creates action items for finalizing the strategic plan.

Here is a sample agenda that I’ve used in the past:

DAY 1: STRATEGIC DIRECTION

– Team Introductions

– Review Current Plan

– Market: Competitive Analysis

– Market: Environmental Scan – Where is it going in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years?

– Alignment with the Market – How do We Win?

– Discussion on Organization

– Evening Team Building Activity

 

DAY 2: EXECUTION

– Thoughts from Yesterday

– Product Roadmap Analysis

– Review Partnerships

– Review Budgets

– Goal Setting: Converting Strategies Into Company Goals

– Implementation Plans

– Individual Goal Measurement

– Communication Plan

Every agenda item is pertinent to the end goal, but staying on track throughout the day, with so many analytical minds in the same room, can easily be a challenge. Mitigate the chances of disruption by allocating specific times for each topic and, of course, include short breaks for relaxing, resetting and returning calls. Just don’t make the breaks too long so people get completely distracted with other priorities.

Your agenda should also incorporate multiple methods of engagement to ensure everyone on the leadership team has a voice. Some parts of the agenda can be an open discussions, with others better suited to small groups for more productive and cohesive brainstorming. And you’ll never know when arts and crafts may be needed — bring along some supplies, like stickies, in case you need to have a vote or discussion that requires individual, versus collective, opinions. If you know of any communication styles your executives prefer, find a way to incorporate them so all voices are heard and can relate their ideas in an effective and productive manner.

 

4. Plan what you want to get out of the offsite. Leave your offsite with plenty of ammo for the next phases, including strategic recommendations, clear action items (each with its own accountable party and due date), and an internal communication plan. Since it’s difficult to finalize your strategy without market and team input, the action items should cover the steps required to quickly research and vet the collective recommendations. People will also want to know what transpired over those two days outside the office, so the attendees need to be prepared to disseminate a cohesive message about the progress, even if the full strategy is not yet finalized. Your communication plan should encompasses instructions for both managing up (e.g., board, corporate management) and managing down (e.g., employees, team).

 

5. Set up accountability and support. The work only begins at the offsite. Before leaving, schedule a weekly touch-base meeting with your leadership team to track progress of action items and address any impeding issues. Within 30-45 days of your offsite, you should have a solid draft of the core strategy that can be presented to the broader stakeholders and team.

 

If set up correctly using this recipe, your two days away should be a productive and effective reset button for the entire team. Skipping the offsite is not an option. In today’s dynamic, rapidly changing market landscape, the only way to win is to constantly re-evaluate your strategy based on where you think the market is going. This means doing a deep dive at least once per year with lighter quarterly reviews.

If you’re putting this off because you don’t have time, give us a shout. Chameleon Collective has a strategic assessment and planning program that can easily help. We’ll manage your strategic offsite from concept and planning to day-of facilitation and post offsite execution.

Let us know if we can help, and may your next offsite be a huge success!

About the Author:

vsonsev-preferred-headshotVeronika Sonsev is a Partner with Chameleon Collective and also an advisor to a number of startups. She works with B2B clients in retail and digital media to help them accelerate revenue through strategy, marketing and business development. Prior to Chameleon Collective, Veronika founded and ran inSparq (acquired by Adiant Media), a software company that worked with some of the largest retailers and brands to market their trending products in real time.  She has also held senior leadership roles at Jumptap (acquired by Millennial Media) and AOL, and has experience launching to international markets, building new business lines, and developing strategic partnerships. Clients rely on Veronika to help them develop strategies for growing their business, tell their story in a way that gets customer attention, and secure those all-important deals to help their businesses scale.

Veronika is an active advocate for women in business, and in 2009, she founded the global non-profit Women in Wireless, which now has over 12,000 members and 10 chapters around the world. Her success as an entrepreneur combined with her support for women in the digital industry has led Fast Company to include her in its League of Extraordinary Women and TechWeek to name her as one of the Top 100 digital leaders in New York.

Veronika holds a B.A. in Economics and Russian Studies from American University and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  You can find Veronika on Twitter at @vsonsev and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vsonsev.

25 Oct

The Future of Retail Got Together in NYC

On October 19th, we hosted a Future of Retail Dinner at the fabulous penthouse loft of Laurel Touby and Jon Fine. The main item on the agenda was “where is retail going and how do you get ahead of the game?”

The dinner was co-hosted by Charlie Cole (Tumi), Laurel Touby (Flatiron Investors) and Veronika Sonsev (Chameleon Collective) and included executives from Kate Spade, HBC Digital, Coach, Adidas, Equinox, NY & Company and more.

We asked each of the executives attending to share an innovation priority that they are currently focused on or interested in learning about, and we got quite an amazing list:

– Personalization

– E-gifting

– Bots/conversation commerce

– Digital store technology

– Connecting bluetooth to identity

– AR/VR

– Underlying ecommerce platforms

It felt like the conversations could have gone on all night. Here are some photos from the event.

future-of-retail3-high-res

07 Oct

How to Win Friends and Influence Conversations

Are you always finding it’s about “who you know?” Whether starting a new business or trying to commercialize an existing product, it’s true that few things are as important as making and keeping the right contacts. Those right contacts (also known as your professional network) ideally help you get in the door faster, act as resources for valuable industry insights and often provide the required level of trust during negotiations to get those game-changing deals over the finish line. With much of my career tied to business development, my job performance relies heavily on having the right contacts and constantly enhancing my professional network.

So, how do you build and maintain your own professional network to help you access and close those all-important deals? While plenty of different networking strategies exist in every profession, for me, there are three tricks to the trade: 1) finding opportunities to give people exposure, 2) networking people with each other, and 3) developing thought leadership on a topic. Here’s how each of those tactics works:

1. Giving People Exposure

Whether I’m working with a conference, organizing a panel/small event or coordinating a dinner, I ensure my most innovative and knowledgeable industry friends have a voice. This benefits the event overall, but it also gives me a chance to build relationships with people at the cutting edge in their industry by elevating their visibility.

When I curate a panel, conference or dinner, I start building the agenda around a theme or topic I know people care about. If I’m organizing a conference, I may even create an advisory board to help develop the content and topics. We think about who is doing the most interesting things in relation to the theme based on recent news articles we’ve read or conversations we’ve had around town.

I then begin reaching out to potential speakers or attendees, starting with my most senior relationships. Once I’ve secured their participation, I focus on recruiting others who could serve as good additions, but who I also haven’t met before or know less well. By leveraging my friends who are already participating as social proof that the event is worthwhile, I’m able to build relationships with new contacts. Lastly, I fill in the agenda with other folks I want to keep in touch with, or who I think will have a lively perspective on the conversation. It’s a successful equation I’ve executed numerous times.

2. Networking People to Each Other

When you focus on specific industries (in my case, retail and digital media), people in the industry are mainly interested in meeting other people at the same level (or higher). I’ve found that most people interested in networking are usually either (a) thinking of their next job or (b) wanting to gain advice on something they are working on internally. Industry peer interaction is a great way to network or gather feedback. Thus, creating opportunities where the right industry folks can meet each other becomes a very valuable practice.

I organize happy hours and dinners to encourage this type of connection — because doesn’t everyone love food, drinks and engaging conversation? I carefully curate the guest list using the approach described above to include old and new friends and nurture the folks that RSVP’d with teaser intros of who they should meet, resulting in an excellent attendance record.

My other secret to maintaining high attendance: staying current on new opportunities, technologies and startups and offering the information to folks in my network when initially reaching out, so that I constantly lead with value. And, most importantly, I try to be helpful wherever I can and accept any invitations myself whenever I’m available. Ultimately, I try to be the contact industry friends go to when they need something.

3. Developing Thought Leadership

While I wouldn’t call myself an innovator, I generally develop a deep understanding of the industries I serve. I can identify their challenges and needs, as well as anticipate what they will see as opportunities. Although I may not offer all the answers to the latest burning questions, I often know the people who do and encourage them to share — either on panels or at a dinner with a specific topic or agenda. This presents the added benefit of giving people exposure per the first tactic discussed above.

Writing regular blog posts and contributed articles also develops your reputation for thought leadership, and I personally don’t do that nearly enough. Blogging starts a conversation. Sharing thought-provoking insights on social media and amplifying that blog content can contribute to that purpose as well.

In the end, you’ll discover many approaches to building a strong network throughout your career. I know plenty who have done it just by being the life of the party and by showing up to networking event after networking event. That’s not my style and seems much harder (and more exhausting) to execute, which is why I’ve cultivated this more formulaic approach to get the job done efficiently.

Over the years, I used this technique to build a valuable network of industry contacts, many of whom I also consider good friends. My network developed into my most powerful resource for staying current on industry issues, receiving honest feedback on ideas, and finding new opportunities.

I’m sure many of you have come up with other creative ways to build your networks — I’d love to see them here! Please share your approach and ideas in the comments section below. Happy Networking!

About the Author:

Veronika Sonsev is a Partner with Chameleon Collective and also an advisor to a number of startups. She works with B2B clients in retail and digital media to help them accelerate revenue through strategy, marketing and business development. Prior to Chameleon Collective, Veronika founded and ran inSparq (acquired by Adiant Media), a software company that worked with some of the largest retailers and brands to market their trending products in real time.

Veronika is an active advocate for women in business, and in 2009, she founded the global non-profit Women in Wireless, which now has over 12,000 members and 10 chapters around the world. Her success as an entrepreneur combined with her support for women in the digital industry has led Fast Company to include her in its League of Extraordinary Women and TechWeek to name her as one of the Top 100 digital leaders in New York.

Veronika holds a B.A. in Economics and Russian Studies from American University and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find Veronika on Twitter at @vsonsev and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vsonsev.

NOTE: This article was originally written and published for the Springboard Enterprises column in Inc.: http://www.inc.com/springboard/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-conversations.html.

20 Dec

5 Innovations Transforming Biotech

Biotech is an area of technology that affects all of us in some way or other.  It’s an area that I’ve grown increasingly interested in over the last couple of years as its innovations feel more and more like stories from the realm of science fiction.

There are completely new ways to create food or even to replicate human organs. It is now relatively easy to “design” DNA patterns. Moreover, perhaps the most exciting advance of all is a revolutionary way to provide medical tests, completely avoiding the need for a physical laboratory, which will have an incredible effect on improving the medical treatment of people worldwide.

Modern Meadow Printed Meat

First, we had 2D printers that printed copy using ink onto paper, or occasionally other items (like screen-printing for shirts). Then engineers created the 3D printer. Suddenly we are able to create entire 3D objects, often “printing” a near-perfect replica of the original item (depending on what material is used in the printing process). People now “print” everything from engine parts to replica guns.

Of course, you do not use ink in your 3D printer. You vary the “ingredient” depending on your needs. One unusual application of the 3D printer was to “print” bars of chocolate that are perfectly edible.

Now Modern Meadow has taken printing one stage further, with its bioprinter, designed to “print” artificial raw meat. This is, of course, bioprinting part of a living creature – a completely new level of advancement!

To enable this to happen, scientists collect stem cells from animals via a biopsy. These stem cells can replicate themselves. Once there are enough of the cells they are placed in a biocartridge, effectively they are a form of “bioink”.

Once the meat has printed, to whatever shape want, it fuses to become living tissue.

Why is This Important

Modern Meadow believes that they have a way to solve the world’s food shortage problem. Although 3D printed food obviously costs a fortune now, like all technology the costs will greatly diminish as it becomes more established. Ultimately, this might be a cost-effective way to help the parts of the world that currently suffer from a lack of food and malnutrition. Imagine the possibilities once this technology becomes affordable enough for people to use in the drought-stricken parts of Africa.

Will synthetic meatloaf join the mobile phone as a technology from the original Star Trek that has eventually made it into the real world?

3D Printed Organs

Let us continue with the theme of products made using 3D printers. There are already replacement body parts created using the equipment. To date, these are really just a quick and easy way to make artificial parts that do not include any body tissue – just like any other artificial limb.  The most common use has been using 3D printers to produce titanium replacement hip joints.

An obvious extension to the creation of 3D-printed meat, though, is the creation of 3D-printed organs, using human tissue as the ink, to use for transplant purposes. So far, most of the scientific trials have been with animal organs, but it was only a matter of time before tests advanced to creating human organs.

There have previously been a number of successful experiments involving the creation of organs for rats and mice.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, have come one stage further, though, with the “printing” of a prototype human outer ear. Among the materials used for the ear are hydrogel (to create the ear-shape), cells that grow to form cartilage, and silver nanoparticles to form an antenna.

Why is This Important

Of course, there are many things to consider before governments permit scientists to regularly create human organs. It is very important to ensure the public can distinguish between the very real possibilities of this technology and the fictional work of Doctor Frankenstein creating his monster.

There is one clear difference between creating 3D-printed meat and creating 3D-printed organs. Once the meat is created, its growth process is over, and people eat it. In the case of the organs, surgeons need to be able to transfer them into a human body and they will continue to “live”.

This will definitely be a topic that will keep the sociologists and ethics lawyers in work for some time, as they ponder just how far we are happy to let scientists advance this area.

CRISPR Selective DNA Editing

CRISPR began as a self-defence mechanism for bacteria, essentially, a way to self-vaccinate against invading viruses and plasmids. However, scientists have now retooled the CRISPR-Cas9 system into a more globally viable technology. The genetic code of nearly any species can be modified, and now that means for more than simply self-protection.

CRISPR is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – definitely a reason to use the abbreviated term, and correctly pronounce it as crisper! The exciting thing about the CRISPR/Cas9 system is that scientists now use it for genome editing. Genomes are the genetic material of organisms. The human genome consists of 3.2 billion nucleotide pairs and the order of these nucleotides gives each of us our individual genetic code.

In simple terms, we each have our own individualised genes. Our genes are made up of our DNA. Our DNA, in turn, is made up of chromosomes (23 pairs per person), and our chromosomes each consist of four nucleotides. Therefore, at its heart, CRISPR is a system that can be used to alter the basic elements of our DNA.

Why is This Important

The ability to use CRISPR for genome engineering will revolutionise genetic analysis by providing a targeted mutagen. Scientists now have the ability to precisely modify the DNA of virtually any organism. This gene editing could be used to bestow genetic advantages that previously took large amounts of evolutionary time or complex genetic breeding strategies to acquire.

Organs-on-Chips

There is a new technology known as microfluidics, that uses tiny networks of tubes on microchips to pump minute quantities of air, blood, nutrients and bacteria through, and which, are lined with human cells. In many ways they mimic silicon chips, except it is biological chemicals that are being pushed around trace quantities of human organs.

Why were these organs on chips invented? They exist mainly as an alternative way to test pharmaceuticals, without having to experiment on live animals.

Researchers started a company called Emulate in 2014, which is now performing pre-clinical testing with pharmaceutical companies.

Obviously, although these chips are at a micro level, there is a need to replicate the structure of organs on the chip – with great precision. They, for instance, can emulate the patterns of breathing.

Why is This Important

There are many problems inherent in the pharmaceutical research programs. Using animals for testing is very much a topic of concern in recent years, and does nothing for a company’s image (there are numerous books and films bases on the premise of things going wrong). Just as the microchip revolutionised the information industries, Organs-on-Chips has the potential to completely change how the pharmaceutical industry operates, making testing substantially cheaper, less controversial and easier.

 

Quantumdx

For years when we have had medical issues we have given various types of samples to our doctor, which have been sent away to a lab for analysis. Often we have waited for days in nervous anticipation for the results, hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. The further down the queue you are at the lab, the longer your sample takes to be processed, the longer you go through the agonising wait.

QuantuMDx has changed this normal pattern, with the invention of their Q-POC Handheld Laboratory. This is literally a portable laboratory that can be held in a physician’s hand.

How does this work? Your doctor will place your sample into a disease-specific cartridge, which is then inserted into the handheld reader. He or she simply presses a ‘Go’ button and waits for an analysis, which will only take 10-15 minutes. It can quickly detect the DNA signature of not only any diseases it detects but also the specific strain within your blood sample. It can even suggest which drugs should be used to fight whatever disease or infection the diagnosis finds.

Imagine, you can have a medical analysis while you wait at the surgery – or if you do leave, the prognosis will be known before you reach home.  Medical staff can start treatment virtually straight away. Apart from anything else, this minimises the risk of infection. The equipment is expected to sell for approximately $1500, and the tests only cost $5-$15, depending on what they are looking for.

Why is This Important

This has real potential to change the health of people worldwide. With such a rapid turn-around, treatment of illnesses and diseases will begin so much quicker, which obviously increases the chances of a successful result.

With the relatively cheap price for these units, along with affordable tests, there is real potential for patients who would not have had tests before to receive affordable and good treatment now. As the devices are completely mobile, they can even be used in remote regions that would never have had the opportunity for medical tests before.

The QuantuMDx Q-POC is set to revolutionise our medical diagnostics and, therefore, treatment. This is a chance for a revolutionary change in the wellbeing of people worldwide.

15 Jun

11 Virtual Reality (VR) Glasses Compared

Virtual reality glasses and head mounted displays have jumped out of the realms of sci fi and into reality in recent times. They are not ubiquitous, or even part of the mainstream yet, but they are definitely gaining something of a cult following.

VR glasses will soon be common enough, however, and it is not just niche cutting-edge futurists that are entering this marketplace. Many of the big name technology companies have now developed and are creating their version of glasses and headpieces for us to wear, as we enter the realms of virtual reality. Many are not on the market yet, but they will be in your headspace very soon.

The world of virtual reality appears to be going down two alternate paths, with full immersion experiences like the Oculus, Morpheus, and Vive, versus augmented reality experiences like Hololens and Magic Leap.  And then there is Google, who has made virtual reality accessible to anyone through Cardboard. Helping people understand virtual reality’s potential, even at the simplest level, will inspire more people to explore and adopt the technology.

Chet Faliszek, game developer at Valve, has another way to motivate people to jump into VR games quick: “Rule No. 1 is if someone has a headset on and you don’t, it’s your fault if you get punched”.

Sony Morpheus

Sony, of course, has invested many millions of dollars into making the PlayStation 4 a complete gaming, and indeed entertainment, experience. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they have developed a virtual reality headset to help you immerse yourself in your gaming even more deeply. They have named their product Project Morpheus (there definitely seems to be a Matrix connection going on here).

It incorporates a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED screen (indeed it is now 1920 x 1080, 960 x 1080 per eye), so you will definitely be immersed in a high-definition world.  It has a high refresh rate at 120Hz. You have a field of view of nearly 100 degrees.

Sony expects the Morpheus to enter into the marketplace in the first half of next year. At this stage, they say that it will sell for “several hundred dollars”

People who have trialled this unit talk about how they become fully immersed in their games, reacting to what they see around them and others in their virtual world reacting to their movements. They can hold onto the Move controllers and use them as items in-game. For instance, one player reported hearing a cell phone ring, in the game, and was able to pick up the Move controller and use it in the game like a real cell phone. Very shortly afterwards, the controller in the player’s hand morphed into a shootable gun.

The users suggest that it gives a high quality immersive experience, but it is let down somewhat by being uncomfortable to wear – clearly an area for Sony to focus their future development work.

One advantage that Sony has over much of the competition is that they have developed their product for an existing gaming system. There are now more than 30 games announced that will function using the Morpheus headset.

Microsoft: Holodeck and Hololens

Microsoft is, of course, a big player in the gaming market, with their Xbox One following on from their Xbox 360. It is no surprise, therefore, that they would want to be at the fore of immersive gaming.

They took a different tack initially, by inventing a system that turns your room into a gaming environment. This makes your lounge into your personal holodeck. This involves projecting your gaming environment over your whole room (not just your television screen) and you being able to react to it. While this is still very much an experimental concept, RoomAlive (as they have called it) involves using Kinect sensors and six projectors to map your environment onto your room. You can touch, shoot and dodge items in your virtual environment. Although not virtual reality or augmented reality as it’s classically recognized this did breach into territory that seems to carry over into their latest innovation.

Microsoft has also gone down the VR glasses route with the Hololens, as I have previously looked at. These are svelte as far as virtual reality glasses go. Microsoft has placed holographic capabilities in Windows 10.

At the recent E3 show, Microsoft demonstrated a new version of Minecraft, designed for people to play while wearing a Hololens headpiece.

As the video below demonstrates, Microsoft sees their Hololens as being used for much more than just gaming.

One obvious difference with the Hololens compared to most of the competition is that the Hololens does not make your world totally immersive. You can use it in your everyday life, and you effectively use holograms as you go about normal activities.

HTC Steam / Vive

HTC and Valve Corporation have combined to produce the HTC Vive virtual reality head mounted unit. It is part of Valve Corporation’s SteamVR project.

This unit (which in all reality does not look anything like glasses – it looks like a black box covering the upper part of your face) is still in its development phase, although it has been demonstrated at a couple of tradeshows, including recently in HTC’s keynote speech at the 2015 Mobile World Congress, as I covered at the time. There is a tentative release date of November this year.

There are two screens, one per eye, each with a resolution of 1080 x 1200, and a refresh rate of 90fps. It works with Steam VR base stations, which you can use to set a specific area in which to track your motion. You can use wireless controllers to represent the tactile objects that you can control within your game, for instance guns that you pick up mid game to fire.

The relationship with Steam, which is the largest player in the PC gaming market, means that this headpiece, also has the advantage of a ready-made audience.

Valve has also just announced a relationship with Microsoft. This means that the Vive should work well with Windows 10, and possibly Xbox One games (although that has yet to be confirmed).

 

Oculus Rift

Arguably, the best known of all the VR glasses prototyping at the moment is the Oculus Rift. Indeed the initial excitement about this product was so high that Facebook bought the product for $400 million in cash, $1.6 billion in Facebook stock, and an additional $300 million subject to Oculus VR meeting particular financial targets.

To be honest the initial versions looked somewhat clunky, but as Oculus moves closer to production, the product certainly has started to look less like a stylised gas mask that has climbed up the face. In fact, the version shown to the public this week looks like a normal consumer product. You can even wear it over your normal prescription glasses.

It is a pity that it still is not wireless, though. Unlike much of the competition, Oculus believes that virtual reality is best experienced seated.

Oculus has realised the importance of having software available, and have managed to get Oculus support in a number of Xbox 1 and PC games. Microsoft is certainly getting involved in the VR world! Interestingly it will come packaged with a normal Xbox controller – no need for a fancy virtual reality sensing device… yet.

Like many of these products, expect to be able to buy an Oculus Rift in the first quarter of 2016.

Oculus has demonstrated an exciting new addition to their virtual world at E3. The Oculus Touch comprises two handheld controllers. Each provides haptic feedback, so users can feel vibrations that correspond to their actions in their virtual world. There are six degrees of freedom tracking and a multitude of sensors can that recognize hand and finger movements such as pointing or giving a thumbs-up. Now when you punch someone in that fighting game you will actually feel the pain!

Google Cardboard

Remember those quaint devices from your childhood (or your parents’ childhood, depending on your age) called View-Masters. You used to stick circles of little pictures into them, bring the device to your eyes, and click your way through a story, lit up before you in something approximating 3D.

Now the View-Master is back for the 21st Century.

A while ago Google introduced their budget entry to the virtual reality world, Google Cardboard. This is basically a do-it-yourself device consisting of cardboard, lenses, magnets, Velcro and a rubber band, with your cell phone inside the box; definitely low tech! There is even an official Cardboard app for your android or iPhone.

I bought one a couple of weeks ago and honestly it’s been a lot of fun to demonstrate virtual reality’s potential to friends and family. There is a fun integration with Google Streetview that allows you to move around virtual spaces like Tokyo or the Eiffel Tower that has been a bit of hit regardless of it’s simplicity.

There is now a View-Master version of the app where you lay a View-Master disk of pictures on a table, and then look at them as if they were in your Google Cardboard glasses. The software takes the images from the table in front of you and makes the images appear in front of your eyes.

The  Samsung Gear VR

Samsung’s Gear VR operates like the Google Cardboard product, but exclusively with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 phones. It aims to be a phone-powered cut-down version of the Oculus Rift. Indeed, Samsung has worked with Oculus, and it incorporates some of the Oculus technology. One reason that Samsung has chosen that particular phone to use in this product is that it has a 2560 x 1440 5.7-inch display (better than many of the more expensive specialist VR sets). The glasses themselves are more user-friendly and better designed than much of the opposition, too. Unlike some products, including the Oculus that it is based on, being cell phone-based means that there are no cables tethering the glasses to anything. They are completely self-contained.

Outsiders Competing in the VR Glasses Marketplace

The above devices are the big guns of the virtual reality world. They do not have the space to themselves however. A number of smaller firms have also tried to enter the marketplace… some more successfully than others!

Magic Leap

Magic Leap is developing an augmented reality platform. They are done it almost by stealth, building it up without much publicity until they received $542 million of funding from a number of investors, including Google and Weta Workshop, late last year.

Magic Leap’s augmented reality headset works by shooting light directly onto your eye, rather than having a screen in front of it, as most of the other headsets do.

They have released a demonstration of how you could play a first person shooter game with it, inside your office.

Although it is still early days for the Magic Leap, they are now training developers on how to create games for this system.

Razer OSVR

Razer is developing a VR headset, as part of the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) ecosystem. They are part of an open standard for virtual reality.

There is also a $199.99 Hacker Development Kit available for people; to purchase and then build their own headpieces from this coming July.

It is good to see firms try to design products for the affordable side of the market; however, it appears that there is still quite some development needed yet.

3D Head

The 3D Head has been marketed as the “Oculus Killer”. Well … maybe.

What is it? In essence, it is simply a tablet strapped to your head. Not quite the immersive experience that the big devices will give you, but definitely different. It is a big helmet, with a tablet in the end, as far away from your eyes as it can get without looking too silly. There is some 3D technology in there, too.   It comes with an “interesting” controller, (which for some bizarre reason incorporates another tablet).

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What does the 3D Head have for it above the big name devices? Well, you can actually buy it now.

Sulon Cortex

The Sulon Cortex consists of a screen mounted in front of your eyes and a camera mounted on the back of your head. The camera can create a 3D model of the room you are in and feed the image back to the screen before your eyes (along with whatever “extras” you want added to your environment.

There is still quite some development needed. The virtual reality suffers from a low frame rate, certainly when compared to the better name units. There is also an issue of with the camera and your eyes not lining up when you are looking at the real world, along with picture delay. The object tracking also lacks precision. It is early days, however, and I hope Sulon can sort these issues out before the Cortex actually ships.

StarVR

Starbreeze Studios has just announced the StarVR virtual reality headset. It will have dual 5.5 inch LCD displays, at an astounding 5120 x 1440 resolution. It will include 360-degree head tracking, with a 130-degree vertical FOV, 210-degree horizontal. It’s engine, Valhalla, supports the Steam OpenVR framework, and they expect to publish games for the unit on Steam.

This definitely looks like it will be a high-end system, and those specs are higher than any of the competition that have currently been announced. The first game to be announced for it is The Walking Dead.

Why are These Important

As with many of the sci-fi writers’ staples, virtual reality is indeed virtually becoming a reality. The models on the market now are all either low-powered, or lacking in real capability, but the prototypes that appear at electronic trade show are improving in leaps and bounds.

It is only a matter of months until we have practical, lightweight, effective, and moreover fun, devices available. We will truly be able to see our world from a completely new perspective.

While it is inevitable that the initial focus has been on uses of these virtual reality glasses in gaming, it is only a matter of time until people develop other uses, whether it be virtual travel, virtual schooling or even virtual surgery.