“You should probably leave that alone until after the show”
The bar at vrLAB, part of the 2017 Brighton Digital Festival, was well stocked and inviting. But the warning was well meant. Virtual Reality, if done badly, can be a dizzying experience at best and downright nauseating at worst. The beer would have to wait.
Located in a performance space within the Old Market theatre in Hove, vrLAB consisted of a large number of exhibits ranging from interactive art installations, through training and educational tools to immersive gaming experiences. After a discussion about the current state of Virtual and Augmented Reality with one of the event’s sponsors, make[REAL], it was time to try out some of the toys.
Dominating one wall of the space was a large screen and four Oculus headsets demonstrating Loco Dojo, a party game developed by make[REAL]. Set in a cartoonish world and liberally sprinkled with humour, players take part in 16 mini games that take full advantage of the Oculus hardware, from ducking to avoid leaping sharks (demonstrating the impressive motion tracking abilities of the sensors) through to flinging food around using the Touch controllers. Having the mighty Brian Blessed provide narration to the player in his signature style only adds to the insanity and hilarity of the whole experience.
The immersive nature of the game was impressive with details that begged for a closer look, such as the intricate ‘wheel of fortune’-style hub used to select the next mini-game. The attention to detail is such that the player is tempted to lean over to peer into the world within.
With it’s bright, Saturday morning cartoon visuals and instant and universal playability, the Loco Dojo exhibit was popular throughout the session, with players limited to 10 minutes of play and an attendant working hard to ensure players did not accidentally pull any expensive hardware off tables during a particularly exciting bit of gameplay. The Oculus, like the Vive, requires a cable connection to a gaming PC, and getting tangled in wires while immersed in the world of Loco Dojo is a definite possibility.
As Ben Dykes of make[REAL] observed, the next challenge for headset makers is going to be finding a way to get rid of that cable.
Party games aside, one area where VR has been quietly making inroads over the last few years is in education and training. An introduction to what makes a nuclear power station (built for the energy giant EDF) was attracting interest. What would have been a lengthy and tedious presentation is transformed into a puzzle game using the HTC Vive. Once the headset is on, the player is presented with a picture of a completed nuclear reactor on a wall and various components scattered on the virtual floor below. Using the Vive’s hand controllers, the player then reaches out and connects parts together, with connectors lighting up when aligned. Passing components from hand to hand and turning them in the virtual space rapidly became second nature and with a shower of confetti I had built my first reactor.
My delight was short lived as I looked up to see level 2 hovering overhead – a considerably more complicated design to put together. As with Loco Dojo, taking time to take a closer look and walk around the model was irresistible. However, also like Loco Dojo, an attendant was on hand to guide the cable and ensure that my wanderings didn’t result in a powerful gaming PC experiencing a rapid unplanned disassembly upon contact with the floor.
Away from the complicated interactivity of the Oculus and Vive-based exhibits were technically simpler experiences based on Google Cardboard or Daydream or Samsung Gear. Utilising 360 degree video with interaction limited to staring at a fixed point or ‘hotspot’ in the display to jump to the next film, these devices represent a cost effective way of immersing the user in a virtual world.
Following a personal tragedy, Elvar Sig spent 12 months creating the very moving ‘Inside the Addicted Mind’, a sequence of 3 cautionary tales ending with a final summary. The simplicity of the experience belies the 12 months of effort put into the project by the photography student, utilising a normal digital camera, Photoshop and Premiere Pro to stitch together the scenes.
The result is a set of immersive films where the viewer can only look on helplessly as the characters make a sequence of seemingly minor decisions that eventually combine into potential disaster. Subtle use is made of motion tracking as the viewer can look to the left, right and behind as characters consider the possible outcomes as well as following a character through the various scenes, from a student bedroom to a family apartment. The visuals are utterly convincing, with an absorbing animation technique rather than traditional video.
The experience of viewing the characters’ journeys through alcoholism, painkiller addiction and so on was moving and thought-provoking and something that I would recommend to anyone. And with such a low cost entry point, this would likely be a better way of engaging and educating children and students without recourse to patronising or dull monologues.
Racing on Pasta
Time had flown, and with only a two hour slot in the vrLAB exhibition (to spread out visitors and give exhibitors time to recharge headsets and controllers) I had time for one more experience. I have to confess to being a bit of a fan of Wipeout on the original PlayStation, and so was keen to try out a returnee from 2016 – the Oculus-based Radial-G.
Of all the things I tried, this was the one that I was most concerned about in terms of motion sickness, since in this game it is all about the speed. Set on a race track of tubes and strips of mechanised tagliatelle, the player faces off against a number of racers with various options for weapons and speed boosts. And, to be frank, speed boosts are what this game is all about. With the Oculus headset, the player is completely immersed in the frantic game world. I quickly forgot about my competitors as I focussed on getting to the next boost to scream around the track as quickly as possible. Those looking for a complete Wipeout-style experience might be a bit disappointed, since the game is a bit sparse if one scratches beneath the surface, but as a pick-up and go VR racer the experience is something to behold.
Too Much To Do
I had run out of time. BBC Learning had an exhibit where a player could take a spacewalk around the International Space Station using the HTC Vive (although while watching it on screen, I was disappointed to see a fair few issues with clipping where the astronaut managed to put his hands through the hull of the space station – a bad day in the non-virtual world!). The BBC also had a Google Cardboard-based documentary following the events of the 1916 Easter Uprising through the memories of a witness to the event. Other exhibits included a noir-ish detective game, virtual galleries and painting and tools to educate on environmental issues. Packing all the exhibition had to offer into a short two hour window would present a challenge for even the most organised attendee.
There is no doubt that Virtual Reality is here to stay. The headsets are lightweight and the visuals far more convincing than the ‘Money For Nothing’ style polygons of the 1980s. Every person I saw take a spin on Loco Dojo or have a float in a virtual space suit came away awestruck. I suspect that there may have been a number of purchases of VR hardware by a few attendees, from a Google Cardboard box to a full Oculus set-up.
I remain very impressed by the breadth of applications – from the games and learning tools shown off by make[REAL] through to Elvar Sig’s cautionary tales. And to repeat Ben Dykes’ observation, the challenge for hardware makers now is to follow the lead of Microsoft with the HoloLens and dispense with the cables.
And no, not one of the VR experiences left me nauseous. Next time I’ll take that beer.
You can learn more about the work of Elvar Sig here: https://www.addictedmind.net/
More details can be found here: http://brightondigitalfestival.co.uk/
Meeting the people behind Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality (or VR) feels very much like a technology whose time has come. The giant headsets of the past that felt like an elephant was sitting on your head are very much a distant memory, with lightweight high definition eyewear from the likes of Oculus (now part of the Facebook empire) and HTC leading the way in immersive interactive entertainment, while Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear represent a low-cost entry into the world of 360-degree video. And then there is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which still commands an impressive lead in Augmented Reality, despite advances from Google and Apple.
Making it [REAL]
make[REAL], a Brighton-based company, are surfing this wave of interest with a wide variety of VR applications for education, visualisation and, of course, entertainment, over most of the current platforms. I spent some time with Ben Dykes and Sam Watts of make[REAL] during the vrLAB event at the Brighton Digital Festival to learn more about the current state of the art in VR and where things are likely to go next.
Ben’s background is in flight simulation; creating the countryside and vistas viewed from the cockpit windows. However, at the time of the formation of make[REAL]’s parent company, Makemedia, the technology to bring that sort of fidelity to the consumer market had yet to arrive. It took until the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign and the delivery of the first developer kits to bring true virtual reality to the masses.
Crossing the platforms
make[REAL] is not focussed on a single hardware platform, using the Unity framework to bring interactive experiences to the HTC Vive and HoloLens as well as the Oculus Rift. The tight-knit company’s skills have resulted in an impressive roster of clients, including McDonalds and EDF energy, all excited to leverage emerging technologies in education, marketing and brand-building.
One striking example of this is the work being done using the Microsoft HoloLens. Unlike the Rift or Vive, which are fully enclosed headsets, the HoloLens overlays the world around the user with imagery. The hardware is impressive, there are no cables to trip over and no gaming PC required. Everything is contained within a lightweight headset, with 3D sound enhancing the experience. make[REAL] have used the HoloLens to create a model of the proposed Hinkley Point C power station, and seeing the site in miniature, sat on the pool table in the make[REAL] offices was somewhat surreal! I spent quite some time walking around the table, leaning in for a close look at some of the buildings and dodging seagulls (a recurring theme for make[REAL] – this is a Brighton company after all!). Using the pinch selection method of the HoloLens, additional information about the facility could be learned. As a way of visualising a structure, I think this is pretty much unbeatable and considerably more practical than creating physical models to carry around to presentations.
Ben then switched the HoloLens to show a proof of concept developed by the company to show off the capabilities of the hardware. This time, a detailed 3D model of San Francisco appeared on the pool table with a simulated real-time feed of shipping movements in the harbour. I have to confess, while the live transits of the container ships were impressive, I spent much more time peering down the rendered streets below me like a creature from a Japanese monster movie. It is clear that as a business tool, the HoloLens makes a great case for itself and it will be interesting to see where Microsoft goes with the next version.
Of course, Microsoft is not the only game in town. Google’s Glass made a brief and unfairly derided appearance a few years ago. As with the HoloLens, the real strength comes from the business applications that arise from having a hands-free device that can overlay instructions, guidance and training on top of what the user is seeing.
While Augmented Reality is trickling into the mainstream, full Virtual Reality is very much a, er, reality.
Sam Watts took me through an example of work done for McDonalds aimed at inspiring young farmers to get involved in the industry, educate users on what is involved in food production while also entertaining and doing a bit of image building along the way. Consisting of a sequence of 360 degree videos and then an interactive potato farming game (yes, tractor driving is involved) the experience had a number of challenges, both technical and physical. Motion sickness can be an issue, particularly amongst older users due to thickening of the inner ear with age, so care had to be taken not to make the tractor driving too realistic. Too much bouncing on the seat might result in a bout of nausea. However, the adjustment of making the visuals smoother when the player was driving on the correct tracks but bouncier if the wrong course was taken, has given an educational bonus – don’t drive over the potatoes! The physical challenge was the nature of the then very new Oculus Rift technology and the gaming PCs needed to support it. Would it survive sunshine and shower country-fair conditions? How long could the cables be? In the end, and combined with Samsung Gear VR’s for the video portion of the experience, the project proved to be a great success.
More recent developments by the clever people at make[REAL] have included the Vive-based EDF nuclear plant jigsaw puzzle along with two pure game developments – the racer Radial-G (which was derived from a booth attractor for RS Components) and party game, Loco Dojo. Check out my write up of vrLAB at the Brighton Digital Festival to find out how I got on with all three.