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Virtual Reality: A Review

A considerable number of different 3D glasses scattered around. (Above: A considerable number of stereo 3D glasses technologies. Can you name all the techniques shown here? Comment below!)

Yesterday I spent a morning experimenting with my University's latest stereo equipment as part of the Virtual Environments module I've been taking this semester. With all that I've seen, I wanted to write something about my experiences on here.

Virtual reality and 3D is something that I haven't really had the chance to experience very often. In fact, the last time I was truly able to experience 3D was also through my University - probably through the open day (I can't remember). I've also never had the experience of using a controller before - which I'll talk about later.

With this in mind, it was all a rather new experience for me. The first tech we looked at was a stereo projector with active nvidia shutter glasses. They work by using a variant on the LCD to block out each eye when the image for the other eye is being shown. To this end, they need to sync this with the PC - hence their active nature - and the reason cinemas usually use clever cylindrical polarising filters instead (especially since the screen must be running at a minimum of 120Hz to avoid sickness and provide a reasonable experience).

Even so, the experience was quite amazing - even after seeing it once or twice before. With the additional knowledge about the way stereoscopic images are put together (using techniques such as parallax and concepts such as depth cues and depth budget), I found that I could appreciate what was going on much more than I could previously.

The head tracking that was paired with the shutter glasses was absolutely fascinating. If you were sitting in the seats in front of the stage you got a bunch of window violations and a pair of hurting eyes, when you were on the stage with the tracked glasses, it was a whole different story. It was literally like a window into another world - made all the more real by the projection onto the floor!

We also took a look at the cave, as it's colloquially known - a variant on the screen with 4 panels of a cube, with pairs of projectors back-projecting onto each of the sides - with the same infrared-based head tracking technology. This, too, was similarly cool - it has the ability to make you feel unsteady when looking down from the crows' nest of a large navel ship....

Though this is probably old news to most readers of this post, I found that the idea of using an Xbox controller to move the user around was quite a clever solution to the awkward issue that you can't walk around yourself much unless you like walking into invisible boxes wireframed in black. It certainly felt more natural than using a keyboard - which would have felt bulky and out-of-place. I'll be paying more attention to both controllers and other forms of alternative input when designing applications in future - as I've seen first-hand what a difference the appropriate form of input can make to the overall experience.

Until today, I've also been rather skeptical of Microsoft's HoloLens. Sorting through all the microsoft-speak and buzzwords is somewhat challenging - but the lectures we've had over the last 5 weeks helped with that :D The headset itself is actually plenty comfortable (especially compared to the Oculus Rift), and the head-tracking is astonishing - especially considering that it's all inside-out (as opposed to outside-in). The holograms really look like they're hovering in the environment around you - apart from the fact that they're clearly computer generated of course, and the gestures are actually pretty intuitive for how different the experience is to anything else I've experienced before.

The biggest problem though, as you're probably aware, is the small field-of-view. It's offset slightly by the fact that you can see around the hologram-enabled area, but it still causes frequent window-violations and only covers a fraction of your effective vision - which they don't appear to take any notice of in their marketing material (see the image below - the pair of people in the image can probably only see the very centre quarter of that thundercloud). If they can fix that - then I think that they may have something truly world-changing. It could be used for all sorts of applications - especially in engineering I think.

An image of a pair of people standing altogether far too close to a holographic thundercloud diagram.

The sound system built into it was cool too - I didn't manage to check, but I'm pretty sure only I could hear it, but it sure didn't sound like it! In the tutorial it really sounded like there was a voice coming from all around me - which leads me to think it might be programmable such that it appears to come from anywhere in the room - so you might even be able to have a conversation with a holographic projection of someone standing on the table in front of you (like Microsoft's holoportation demo).

Finally, we took a look at some of the things that the department have been doing with the Oculus Rift. VR is an experience on a whole 'nother level - and best experienced for one's self (it's really important to remember to clean the lenses in the headset thoroughly, and spend some time aligning them precisely to your eyes I found - otherwise everything will be blurry). I found the latter half of the (rather extensive) setup tutorial I went through later that day to test my ACW particularly immersive - to the point where you had consciously remember where you were in the real world - personally I had my leg just touching the edge of my chair to remind me! Though the audio wasn't as good as the HoloLens (see above), it was still adequate for the task at hand.

While I was running through the first-use setup tutorial it was evident though that it was quite clearly a Facebook product - in that you had to create an account (or sign in with Facebook), set privacy settings, and a few other things it hinted at during the setup (I was interested in testing my code I'd written, so I didn't explore the consumer side of the device), so if you're concerned about privacy, then the Oculus Rift is certainly not for you. Thankfully there are lots of other virtual reality headsets around to investigate instead :-)

The controllers made for an interesting experience too - they were a clever solution to the awkward problem that they couldn't track your hand as well as they'd need to in order to display it fully in virtual reality (Microsoft had it easy with the gestures for their HoloLens, apparently) - and they didn't end up breaking immersion too badly in the tutorial by roughly simulating your hand position based on which buttons and triggers you had pressed down. Definitely much better than a keyboard in this instance, since you couldn't even feel where the keyboard was in virtual reality - let alone find the keys on the keyboard to press, and that's not even mentioning the loss of movement and rotation you'd experience.

In conclusion, my whole view on stereo 3D, VR, and input methods have all been changed in a single day - which I think is pretty good going! Stereo 3D and Virtual reality is never going to go away - the potential behind it just far too tempting to not play around with. Designing applications for VR is going to be a challenge for many developers I think - since an understanding of depth dues and immersion is essential to designing effective experiences that don't make you feel sick. We can't leave the real world behind with VR yet (walking into a chair or table is an unpleasant experience), but what we've got right now is absolutely astonishing.

Art by Mythdael