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Nike Will Let People Design and Sell Sneakers for the Metaverse

Nike Will Let People Design and Sell Sneakers for the Metaverse

Although there will be no avatars at the time of launch, the brand’s stated ambition is for the virtual products released on Swoosh to become wearable on and off the platform. “I can imagine the avatars on RTFKT being able to wear our wearables, as well as avatars in games you already play,” says Ron Faris, VP/GM of Nike Virtual Studios, the brand’s arm launched in early 2022 to focus on the virtual sphere.

Of course, the NFT studio RTFKT (pronounced “artifact”) was bought by Nike in December 2021, so the porting of “codesigned” virtual clothing to that platform is hardly surprising. Beyond this, there are no specific details on the interoperability of Swoosh items with other platforms or metaverses, but Faris says the plan is to “work where our wearables will start to become more operable across more experiences or games that you find yourself playing.” In other words, wait and see. Meta’s recent announcement that its avatars will have legs seems like an ideal opportunity for virtual sneakers.

Nike already has a metaverse space on Roblox—Nikeland—where users can buy and wear virtual goods using not cash or crypto but in-game currency. Launched in November 2021, the branded virtual world has seen more than 26 million visitors, according to Roblox. Again, Faris does not seem to know how Swoosh will interact with Nikeland. “We haven’t contemplated exactly what that looks like,” he says.

By launching Swoosh, Nike may be creating its own virtual world that won’t need to rely on other platforms. Nikeland could be subsumed into Swoosh, but interoperability will surely have to be front and center for that to succeed. This is the very reason MSquared, Improbable’s division that builds metaverses for third parties, requires clients to ensure all of its virtual spaces be interoperable.

Nike isn’t the first high-end apparel brand to take on virtual products. Gucci has been somewhat of a pioneer: In 2021, the brand launched digital-only sneakers Gucci Virtual 25, which can be worn on VRChat and Roblox, and created Gucci Town on Roblox, an immersive space in which users can buy other virtual Gucci apparel. The bet has seemingly paid off: A digital-only Gucci bag on Roblox sold for more than the price of its physical counterpart (in in-game currency, of course). Vault, Gucci’s online concept store which hosts various crytpo and NFT projects, was introduced to The Sandbox in October 2022, solidifying the brand’s relationship with the metaverse.

Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger also have spaces on Roblox where digital merchandise is sold. And in June 2022, Balenciaga, Thom Browne, and Prada partnered with Meta to create virtual products for sale on the platform’s new Avatars Store. According to Bloomberg, the metaverse market may reach $783.3 billion in 2024, up from $478.7 billion in 2020—and virtual products no doubt play a role in this projection.

Nike may see a virtual product marketplace as the next logical step in its digital successes. The brand saw huge boosts in online sales in the wake of the pandemic, and by March 2022, digital channels and applications accounted for more than a quarter of its revenues, with digital sales rising robustly.

HoloKit X AR Headset for iPhone: Price, Features, Release Date

HoloKit X AR Headset for iPhone: Price, Features, Release Date

If you need evidence that Apple is working on a mixed-reality headset, take a spin with the HoloKit X. Created by Botao Amber Hu, a developer who has worked at companies like DJI, Google, and Twitter and is now CEO and founder of Holo Interactive, this headset relies entirely on existing capabilities of the iPhone to create interactive hands-free augmented reality experiences. It’s a powerful showcase of what’s possible if Apple ever made a headset using the tech already embedded in its smartphone.

Any such headset to come out of Cupertino would almost certainly cost more than a thousand dollars. (This is Apple, after all.) Look at Meta’s newest mixed-reality headset for reference; it starts at $1,499. Headsets in Microsoft’s XR platform cost between $600 and $1,000. These high prices are why the HoloKit X exists. Hu, who has long had a special interest in future computing and new media art, says he wants to “democratize” the world of mixed reality. As such, the HoloKit X costs $129, and all you need is a recent iPhone (excluding iPhone Mini and iPhone SE models) to power it.

An iPhone on Your Head

The HoloKit X is a plasticky headset with optical lenses inside. There’s no technology here (save for an NFC sensor, but more on that later). Just think of it as a viewer, not unlike old-school View-Masters. Similar to mobile virtual reality headsets like Google Cardboard, Lenovo’s AR set for Star Wars games, or the now-defunct Google Daydream, you need to mount an iPhone onto the HoloKit X. 

HoloKit X VR goggles with eyeglasses attached

Photograph: HoloKit

Unlike VR headsets, you’re not staring at a screen. The iPhone is mounted up and away from your eyes. Instead, you’re looking through the glass in a 60-degree field of view and can see the physical world as well as the people around you. The iPhone’s screen, while using the rear cameras to manage these AR experiences, is mirrored in stereoscopic vision to the lenses, making it so that you can effectively see virtual 3D objects embedded in the real world.

Exactly what you can do with the HoloKit X is limited right now. There are just a handful of experiences—what Hu calls “Realities”—in the HoloKit app, one of which is a multiplayer dueling game where you cast spells at an enemy. The visuals are clear, colorful, and pretty sharp, and the platform supports six degrees of freedom via Apple’s ARKit framework. Because of this, you can move around virtual objects and they will stay anchored in the real-world places where you position them. And when you’re playing a game, you can even duck to dodge blasts. The “enemy” can be another person using a HoloKit X in a shared space, a virtual character, or even a character controlled by someone with just an iPhone.

Since it’s entirely powered by an iPhone, the HoloKit app is leveraging existing technologies. The ability to play a game with other HoloKit X users, for example, doesn’t rely on cellular data or Wi-Fi, but rather the local networking technology that powers AirDrop. This is also what powers “Spectator View,” which allows anyone to use an iPhone and the HoloKit app to view your augmented reality experience in real time by pointing their phone at the scene. (You can record and share this to social media, or cast it via AirPlay to a TV for others to see.) Hu says Holo Interactive is also working on a Puppeteer mode that would enable someone else to direct your AR experience.

There are a few ways to interact with the augmented reality experience. The HoloKit app uses Apple’s Vision framework technology to identify and track your hand. I didn’t see a demo of this, but the idea is that you can just use your hands to interact with objects and the iPhone’s cameras will recognize your hand movements. Hu says HoloKit also supports any Bluetooth device that can connect to the iPhone, like PlayStation controllers.

What I did demo was the ability to use an Apple Watch’s gyroscope as a motion controller, just like a Wiimote. Hu strapped an Apple Watch to my wrist (it works with Watch Series 4 and newer) with the HoloKit watch app installed and running, and gave me a wand purely so I could feel like I was using it to shoot out spells. Lo and behold, I was able to cast spells with mere gestures or a flick of the wrist. I could even point my wand downward to load a charging bar and trigger a more powerful spell. Aiding the immersion is the use of spatial audio via any of Apple’s headphones that support that feature, so you can hear a spell whizzing past your right ear. The iPhone’s haptic vibration adds another layer of sensory input, but since the phone is mounted in the headset, it’s only vibrating up near your forehead, so you may not immediately sense it.  

You can use the HoloKit X with an iPhone XS, XS Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, iPhone 13, and iPhone 13 and 13 Pro Max, iPhone 14, and iPhone 14 and 14 Pro Max. (You’ll need to take off your case so it will fit.) You’ll get the best experience with an iPhone that has a lidar sensor, which became a staple on the Pro models—starting with the iPhone 12 series. 

Speak in (Many) Tongues With This Pocket Translator

Speak in (Many) Tongues With This Pocket Translator

As we begin to cautiously flirt with the idea of traveling once again—at least in regions where Covid-19 cases aren’t on the rise—a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of visiting foreign lands where he doesn’t speak a lick of the native tongue. My recent review of the Ambassador Interpreter revealed one option for getting by where you don’t have a lingua franca, but its requirement that each speaker wear a special Bluetooth headset makes it a bit awkward, particularly if you’re just trying to find out what’s in the soup.

Pocketalk device next to laptop and plant

The Pocketalk Plus is about the size of a phone.

Photograph: Pocketalk

The Pocketalk Plus offers the same concept—real-time, voice-based, two-way translation—but in a simplified package. Instead of earpieces and a phone intermediary, each person just talks directly into a device the size of a small cell phone. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the Pocketalk Plus is a cell phone, just one with an entirely singular purpose.

The rectangular device—5 by 2.5 inches in size and 4.4 ounces in weight—offers a color touchscreen, volume controls on the side, and an “action” button at the bottom of its plastic case. The system includes Wi-Fi and a global cellular radio that allows it to connect to the internet in over 130 countries. This is critical because the Pocketalk relies on the cloud to do its translations; it has no real intelligence of its own. Also, it’s important to note that the included SIM card is only valid for two years after activation. There’s also a camera on the reverse that you can use to snap a photo of text and get a printed translation returned. Charging occurs via a USB-C port.

Using the device for conversations is simple: select two languages and hold down the button to talk. Release the button and the system quickly converts what you said into the other language, displaying the translation both in text on the screen and playing it aloud. When the other side is ready to respond, just tap an icon on the screen to flip the translation direction around and repeat the process. It makes for a somewhat halting conversation, but with a little practice it becomes fairly natural. In any case, it beats attempting to point and pantomime to attempt to convey information.

The self-contained nature of the system makes it much easier to use than the Ambassador, though I found that the Pocketalk sometimes got confused as to who was talking, reversing the direction of the translation or, say, translating Spanish back into Spanish—even when the interface indicated otherwise. There’s also a beta feature that is supposed to let you translate between two languages without having to push the button, but it clearly wasn’t ready for prime time and sometimes didn’t work at all during my testing. The unresponsive touchscreen (800 x 480 pixels) and low-res camera are both dated, and while the unit claims a battery life of 192 hours, I was able to manage only about two-thirds of that.

The good news is that Pocketalk Plus works well when things are going right, and it supports an incredible amount of languages—currently 61 in audio and text, and 21 in text only, including some surprising choices like Marathi, Sundanese, and Esperanto. Via software updates, this number continues to expand, along with other upgrades. If you’re packing for a trip to two or more foreign countries, it seems like a no-brainer to include in your bag.

Pocketalk device next to travel book

It can translate spoken conversations, as well as photographs of text.

Photograph: Pocketalk

That is, of course, unless you just use a mobile app on your phone do the job. An increasing number of apps can do limited voice-to-voice translation, but they’ll cost you a yearly subscription fee in the range of $40 per year. Plus, you’ll need to arrange for international cellular service to use them. None of the available apps seem to have the breadth of language support that Pocketalk offers, but they’re probably fine for, say, two weeks in mainstream Asia.

Given the alternatives, the $299 price tag for Pocketalk Plus is asking a lot—and after two years you’ll have to tack on another $50 per year to renew its SIM card. That’s a difficult economic proposition, particularly as app-based translators improve, though the convenience, simplicity, and language breadth of the Pocketalk device are definitely big pluses.

I guess talk isn’t cheap after all.

The WIRED Guide to Virtual Reality

The WIRED Guide to Virtual Reality

When actual VR took root in our minds as an all-encompassing simulacrum is a little fuzzier. As with most technological breakthroughs, the vision likely began with science fiction—specifically Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” in which a scientist devises a pair of glasses that can “make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”

Moving beyond stereoscopes and toward those magical glasses took a little more time, however. In the late 1960s, a University of Utah computer science professor named Ivan Sutherland—who had invented Sketchpad, the predecessor of the first graphic computer interface, as an MIT student—created a contraption called the Sword of Damocles.

The name was fitting: The Sword of Damocles was so large it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Nonetheless, it was the first “head-mounted display”; users who had its twin screens attached to their head could look around the room and see a virtual 3D cube hovering in midair. (Because you could also see your real-world surroundings, this was more like AR than VR, but it remains the inspiration for both technologies.)

Sutherland and his colleague David Evans eventually joined the private sector, adapting their work to flight simulator products. The Air Force and NASA were both actively researching head-mounted displays as well, leading to massive helmets that could envelop pilots and astronauts in the illusion of 360-degree space. Inside the helmets, pilots could see a digital simulation of the world outside their plane, with their instruments superimposed in 3D over the display; when they moved their heads the display would shift, reflecting whatever part of the world they were “looking” at.

None of this technology had a true name, though—at least not until the 1980s, when a twenty-something college dropout named Jaron Lanier dubbed it “virtual reality.” (The phrase was first used by French playwright Antonio Artaud in a 1933 essay.) The company Lanier cofounded, VPL Research, created the first official products that could deliver VR: the EyePhone (yup), the DataGlove, and the DataSuit. They delivered a compelling, if graphically primitive, experience, but they were slow, uncomfortable, and—at more than $350,000 for a full setup for two people, including the computer to run it all—prohibitively expensive.

Yet, led by VPL’s promise and fueled by sci-fi writers, VR captured the popular imagination in the first half of the 1990s. If you didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, you may have seen the movie Lawnmower Man that same year—a divine piece of schlock that featured VPL’s gear (and was so far removed from the Stephen King short story it purported to adapt that King sued to have his name removed from the poster). It wasn’t just colonizing genre movies or speculative fiction: VR figured prominently in syndicated live-action kiddie fare like VR Troopers, and even popped up in episodes of Murder She Wrote and Mad About You.

In the real world, virtual reality was promised to gamers everywhere. In arcades and malls, Virtuality pods let people play short VR games (remember Dactyl Nightmare?); in living rooms, Nintendo called its 3D videogame system “Virtual Boy,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the headsets delivered headaches rather than actual VR. (The Virtual Boy was discontinued six months after release.) VR proved unable to deliver on its promise, and its cultural presence eventually dried up. Research continued in academia and private-sector labs, but VR simply ceased to exist as a viable consumer technology.

Then the smartphone came along.

Phones featured compact high-resolution displays; they contained tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers; they boasted mobile processors that could handle 3D graphics. And all of a sudden, the hardware limitations that stood in the way of VR weren’t a problem anymore.

In 2012, id Software cofounder and virtual-reality aficionado, John Carmack, came to the E3 videogame trade show with a special surprise: He had borrowed a prototype of a headset created by a 19-year-old VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey and hacked it to run a VR version of the game Doom. Its face was covered with duct tape, and a strap ripped from a pair of Oakley ski goggles was all that held it to your head, but it worked. When people put on the headset, they found themselves surrounded by the 3D graphics they’d normally see on a TV or monitor. They weren’t just playing Doom—they were inside it.

Things happened fast after that. Luckey’s company, Oculus, raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter to produce the headset, which he called the Oculus Rift. In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus for nearly $3 billion. (“Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate,” Mark Zuckerberg said at the time.)

In 2016, the first wave of dedicated consumer VR headsets arrived, though all three were effectively peripherals rather than full systems: The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive each connected to high-powered PCs, and the PlayStation VR system ran off a PlayStation 4 game console. In 2018, the first “stand-alone” headsets hit the market. They don’t connect to a computer or depend on your smartphone to supply the display and processing; they’re self-contained, all-in-one devices that make VR truly easy to use for the first time ever.

In 2020 the world of VR is going to be defined by these stand-alone headsets. The tethered-to-a-desktop headsets are still a high-end option for die-hards looking for the highest fidelity experiences possible, but an untethered stand-alone headset delivers on the promise of deeply immersive VR in the way previous tethered versions just haven’t—at least not without spending serious cash on hardware and accessories. The first next-gen stand-alone headsets are starting to hit store shelves already. Oculus released its version, the Oculus Quest, back in May 2019, and HTC is poised to release a modular competitor, the Vive Cosmos Play, later this year.

What is Virtual Reality The Complete WIRED Guide

The Future of VR

What all this is for is a question that doesn’t have a single answer. The easiest but least satisfying response is that it’s for everything. Beyond games and other interactive entertainment, VR shows promising applications for pain relief and PTSD, for education and design, for both telecommuting and office work. Thanks to “embodied presence”—you occupy an avatar in virtual space—social VR is not just more immersive than any digitally mediated communication we’ve ever experienced, but more affecting as well. The experiences we have virtually, from our reactions to our surroundings to the quality of our interactions, are stored and retrieved in our brains like any other experiential memory.

What is Virtual Reality (VR)? The Complete WIRED Guide

What is Virtual Reality (VR)? The Complete WIRED Guide

All hail the headset. Or, alternatively, all ignore the headset, because it’s gonna be a dismal failure anyway.

That’s pretty much the conversation around virtual reality (VR), a technology by which computer-aided stimuli create the immersive illusion of being somewhere else—and a topic on which middle ground is about as scarce as affordable housing in Silicon Valley.

VR is either going to upend our lives in a way nothing has since the smartphone, or it’s the technological equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen. The poles of that debate were established in 2012, when VR first reemerged from obscurity at a videogame trade show; they’ve persisted through Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition of headset maker Oculus in 2014, through years of refinement and improvement, and well into the first and a half generation of consumer hardware.

The truth is likely somewhere in between. But either way, virtual reality represents an extraordinary shift in the way humans experience the digital realm. Computing has always been a mediated experience: People pass information back and forth through screens and keyboards. VR promises to do away with that pesky middle layer altogether. As does VR’s cousin augmented reality (AR), which is sometimes called mixed reality (MR)—not to mention that VR, AR, and MR can all be lumped into the umbrella term XR, for “extended reality.”

VR depends on headsets, while AR is (for now, at least) more commonly experienced through your phone. Got all that? Don’t worry, we’re generally just going to stick with VR for the purposes of this guide. By enveloping you in an artificial world, or bringing virtual objects into your real-world environment, “spatial computing” allows you to interact more intuitively with those objects and information.

Now VR is finally beginning to come of age, having survived the troublesome stages of the famous “hype cycle”—the Peak of Inflated Expectation, even the so-called Trough of Disillusionment. But it’s doing so at a time when people are warier about technology than they’ve ever been. Privacy breaches, internet addiction, toxic online behavior: These ills are all at the forefront of the cultural conversation, and they all have the potential to be amplified many times over by VR and AR. As with the technology itself, “potential” is only one road of many. But, since VR and AR are poised to make significant leaps in the next two years (for real this time!), there’s no better time to engage with their promise and their pitfalls.

What is Virtual Reality The Complete WIRED Guide

The History of VR

The current life cycle of virtual reality may have begun when the earliest prototypes of the Oculus Rift showed up at the E3 videogame trade show in 2012, but it’s been licking at the edges of our collective consciousness for more than a century. The idea of immersing ourselves in 3D environments dates all the way back to the stereoscopes that captivated people’s imaginations in the 19th century. If you present an almost identical image to each eye, your brain will combine them and find depth in their discrepancies; it’s the same mechanism View-Masters used to become a childhood staple.

When actual VR took root in our minds as an all-encompassing simulacrum is a little fuzzier. As with most technological breakthroughs, the vision likely began with science fiction—specifically Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” in which a scientist devises a pair of glasses that can “make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”

Moving beyond stereoscopes and toward those magical glasses took a little more time, however. In the late 1960s, a University of Utah computer science professor named Ivan Sutherland—who had invented Sketchpad, the predecessor of the first graphic computer interface, as an MIT student—created a contraption called the Sword of Damocles.

The name was fitting: The Sword of Damocles was so large it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Nonetheless, it was the first “head-mounted display”; users who had its twin screens attached to their head could look around the room and see a virtual 3D cube hovering in midair. (Because you could also see your real-world surroundings, this was more like AR than VR, but it remains the inspiration for both technologies.)

Sutherland and his colleague David Evans eventually joined the private sector, adapting their work to flight simulator products. The Air Force and NASA were both actively researching head-mounted displays as well, leading to massive helmets that could envelop pilots and astronauts in the illusion of 360-degree space. Inside the helmets, pilots could see a digital simulation of the world outside their plane, with their instruments superimposed in 3D over the display; when they moved their heads the display would shift, reflecting whatever part of the world they were “looking” at.

None of this technology had a true name, though—at least not until the 1980s, when a twenty-something college dropout named Jaron Lanier dubbed it “virtual reality.” (The phrase was first used by French playwright Antonio Artaud in a 1933 essay.) The company Lanier cofounded, VPL Research, created the first official products that could deliver VR: the EyePhone (yup), the DataGlove, and the DataSuit. They delivered a compelling, if graphically primitive, experience, but they were slow, uncomfortable, and—at more than $350,000 for a full setup for two people, including the computer to run it all—prohibitively expensive.

Yet, led by VPL’s promise and fueled by sci-fi writers, VR captured the popular imagination in the first half of the 1990s. If you didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, you may have seen the movie Lawnmower Man that same year—a divine piece of schlock that featured VPL’s gear (and was so far removed from the Stephen King short story it purported to adapt that King sued to have his name removed from the poster). It wasn’t just colonizing genre movies or speculative fiction: VR figured prominently in syndicated live-action kiddie fare like VR Troopers, and even popped up in episodes of Murder She Wrote and Mad About You.