I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on an early copy of Spectacle, an upcoming Gear VR release from the developers at Cubicle Ninjas. Not only that, but Cubicle Ninjas Founder and CEO Josh Farkas has also taken some time out of his insanely busy schedule to answer some questions for us. Before we jump into the interview, allow me to briefly explain Spectacle and why it’s more than just a simple app.
At its surface, Spectacle is all about having fun. Cubicle Ninjas have created what I believe to be the first augmented reality (AR) app on the Gear VR store. The premise is simple: View your surroundings in Gear VR with real-time filters using the camera on your phone. There are multiple categories of filters, such as “Psychedelic”, “Color” and “Computer”. Within each of the many categories, there are a number of individual filters that will alter what you see, with over 100 filters in total. Some of these will outline, some will pixelate, and some will even animate. Not only can you see your surroundings through a series of filters, but you can even take photos of what you’re seeing. I foresee many Spectacle-filtered, VR-wearing, mirror selfies in our near future.
As fun and enjoyable as this app is (and I really enjoyed taking silly photos), some will be even more impressed by some of the technical challenges that Cubicle Ninjas has overcome. Let’s start with the use of the camera. Spectacle manages to almost completely eliminate camera latency. As someone who has tested the app, I can confirm that latency is extremely minimal, so much so that it isn’t even noticeable after a brief time in the app. We’ll get a bit more into that in the interview below.
The other standout feature is the way that Spectacle uses hand gestures as an input method. You read that correctly. While the touchpad is still used to take pictures, change zoom, and flip categories, the filters within the categories are changed by simply swiping your hand in front of your phone’s camera. If you want to fully remove filters and see through a filterless camera, a separate “wiping” gesture will handle that. The tutorial which runs when you first use the app explains everything to you.
Now that we’ve covered the app itself, let’s get to the interview with CEO Josh Farkas.
1) Can you give us a brief background on yourself and Cubicle Ninjas?
My name is Josh and I’m head ninja at Cubicle Ninjas. We’re a full-service design agency, helping smart people solve creative challenges. We fight to ensure good design wins, across web, mobile, brand, motion, and now, VR and AR.
I began my career as a children’s book illustrator, and after a dozen books realized that sadly there were more brain surgeons than professional illustrators for a reason. Soon I found graphic design and fell in love, working in-house for large orgs and agencies, confused why bad design won. Along the way I illustrated and published a few comics and startups. In 2007 I left to start Cubicle Ninjas, where I’m lucky enough to work alongside the smartest problem solvers I’ve ever known.
Our team is always exploring how new technology might be applicable for our clients. In 2014 we began offering VR as service, since then we’ve helped craft more than a dozen VR ideas into launched apps. It is crazy fun.
2) Looking at the Cubicle Ninjas website, there’s still an emphasis on web design. Has VR affected the plans of Cubicle Ninjas? Is there a story about how you made the jump to VR?
We often get asked if we’ve went ‘VR only’ yet. I think solving creative problems is our core skillset, which we can apply to any medium.
VR is a beautiful space, one we feel is benefitted from the knowledge of a wide range of disciplines. Since VR is so new we don’t have a common language for basic systems, which forces us to get clever in unlocking solutions. On Spectacle we were inspired by Richard Feynman for control methods (everything is waves!), Understanding Comics for framing for the tutorial (space, time, and representation), or even the Power Rangers on the noises for movement (woosh).
3) You’ve managed to overcome the problem of camera latency in Spectacle. How did you overcome this technical challenge with Gear VR?
The beautiful cameras shipping within Samsung devices are amazingly powerful. The camera alone tackles most of the latency issues (once we tapped directly into it).
But the biggest challenge we faced was balancing camera quality, screen size, and heat. If we were to use the highest quality camera settings the phone would shut down in around 2 minutes, so we had to find a balance that allowed for longer playtimes at acceptable tradeoffs.
4) You’ve managed to create a new method of input for the Gear VR using gesture controls. What motivated you to expand beyond the touchpad in Spectacle?
In the past year we’ve demoed the Gear VR to thousands and the biggest challenge is always control. There is a 2 minute, “Here’s how to use this thing…” conversation each time. Non-gamers get confused by tapping their head and gamers want a controller or something more precise. Both are kind of longing for something else. This means many just use one hand and swivel about, never using their full body.
We stumbled on a new way of tracker-less control on the Gear. It allows for high fidelity detection of swipes, multi-swipes, and other, as yet not released, gestures. It can work for AR or VR.
Our hope is that for a light-hearted app like Spectacle it encourages a different, equally playful tone in the controls. We often hear laughter when used, instead of silent fiddling with face knobs.
As VR becomes more mainstream we hope this method of interaction will be a third viable option! We’ll be releasing how we did this in the coming weeks, after we launch a few more things.
5) Anything you can tell us about future projects? Anything else coming to the Gear VR soon?
Coming soon is Guided Meditation VR for Gear VR, a virtual reality relaxation app. This will be hitting Oculus Rift and HTC Vive later this year as well.
We also have three other Gear VR apps in production. One we’re having fun with internally is a VR trivia app. We knew of Oculus’ upcoming trivia app, so we steered ours in a much different direction which we haven’t seen in VR yet.
Cubicle Ninjas is planning to make Spectacle available on the Gear VR store by the end of March 2016, or shortly thereafter.