The Tech Report attends Silicon Valley Virtual Reality 2016
Hey, have you met my friend VR?
I spent a few days last week at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Expo in San Jose. SVVR is a fairly small convention that showcases the latest developments in VR. The Turris VR chair that we covered last week was at the convention, but since it got its own article already, I won't talk about it here other than to say that it was subjected to nearly non-stop use for three days and got plenty of positive feedback. Turris aside, here's what I did and saw at the event.
Palmer Luckey from Oculus presented the event's keynote. Unsurprisingly, he's bullish on the future of VR. My plan to use Cortana to dictate notes failed epically (and humorously), though, which means I've got nothing to share that I'm confident he actually said. You'll have to settle for a recap of the other experiences I had at the show instead.
The first VR device I saw at the show was the somewhat imposing-looking Infinadeck. The Infinadeck is a true VR treadmill that allows for freedom of movement in any direction, thanks to a treadmill deck comprising individual sections of belt that can move in a perpendicular direction to the main belt. After signing a personal safety wavier, I hopped on and buckled in. There was no VR aspect to this demo, and I quickly found out why. It was plenty tricky enough to stay balanced with the floor effectively moving underneath me as it was. The deck moves when your waist pulls on the belt you're strapped into. The direction of the deck's motion (which can be any angle) is dictated by the armature above your head.
The deck itself delivers its promised functionality, but the whole system was fairly loose and sensitive to unintentional motions. The sensitivity left me in a constant state of unbalance, which explains the safety wavier and the lack of a Rift or Vive to goggle in with. You need all of your real world faculties just to stay upright on the Infinadeck. I suspect that with some adjustment and practice, this system would be something you could get better at operating, though. The Infinadeck appears to be for professional use only—I don't even want to know what one would cost.
Mobile VR was a huge deal at SVVR. There were probably 10 Gear VRs or similar devices for every wired Vive or Rift (and about a 5:1 ratio of Vives to Rifts, by the way). The second demo I tried was from the folks at Interactive Lab. It used a Galaxy Gear with a Galaxy S7 clipped into it. The demo was a room-scale setup that used reflective balls on the headset and a gun controller. Those reflective balls were tracked by emitters and cameras. In the demo itself, your character is placed in a space station that is being invaded by robots. I could move around and duck under cover to avoid being shot, but there didn't seem to be any penalty for getting hit.
The graphics quality of the demo was fairly impressive for a mobile solution—with a smooth frame rate, to boot. It was also extremely nice to try room-scale VR without being tethered at all. I didn't get any hint of motion sickness, either. As PC enthusiasts, it's easy for us to focus on the the high-end stuff, but this demo proved to me how compelling mobile VR at room-scale can be, as well.
The next demo I tried was Talaris Technologies' Stompz. Stompz are small devices that clip onto your shoes and translate the motion of walking in place into movement in a VR experience. Stompz don't use positional tracking, though. Instead, the associated software translates accelerometer signals from the devices into either a key press for walking forward (like W in our time-honored WASD) or a modifier and a key press to run (like Shift + W). The thresholds to trigger each control are adjustable to accommodate however much real world effort you want to exert. Talaris used a CV1 Rift for its demo, and movement direction was controlled by the direction the headset was facing.
Not to pick favorites here or anything, but I have to compare the experience of using Stompz and using the Turris. Mine is an extremely niche case, but coming from the Turris, I immediately felt uneasy about my walking direction being solely dictated by where I was looking—especially because I was walking in place instead of sitting. I do think that simply walking in place is probably a better solution to VR movement than some of the stationary treadmill options that are out there, though, because Stompz-like devices should require less effort and space to set up. If Stompz or something similar was upgraded to work with the Vive's lighthouse trackers, it could become something pretty special, though (come on room-scale goalie simulator!).
The only demo I had read about before getting to SVVR was Tactical Haptics'. The Tactical Haptics device is an add-on that clips onto an HTC Vive controller to take advantage of the absolute positioning data the controller provides. The add-on has a trigger you activate with your index finger, but the special sauce is actually built into the grip that the rest of your hand wraps around while holding it. The front and the back of the grip are rubber pads that can actually slide up and down the handle. When you're holding the Tactical Haptics device, this motion is translated into surprisingly convincing interactions with objects in VR.
In my favorite part of the demo, three virtual bungee cords hang in the space in front of you. Each one is a different thickness, and each responded differently when I reached out and stretched them. The sliding of the grips comes across to your hand as almost a torque-type sensation as you stretch and twist the bungies. There's obviously some pretty fancy software magic going on to make the interaction of the VR simulation, controller feedback, and real-world movement all sync up so well. It reminded me of a VR version of the Novint Falcon's abilities, but that's so obscure I doubt it will help many people understand. All told, Tactical Haptics' device is something I would definitely want to include in my VR experience if I could, but as of right now there is no release date or price for the product.
Life of Lon
One other demo I tried was for the VR game Life of Lon by Block Interval. When I tried it, I didn't realize I was playing a demo for an actual game instead of a tech demo that was showing off some particular VR innovation. I have to say that the demo probably lasted about five times longer than it needed to, thanks to an extended and non-interactive opening sequence. Maybe it was made with VR rookies in mind. After the demo finally gives you control, you meet a cute alien sea-otter type character and (hopefully) your curiosity compels you to follow him. The gameplay consists of pressing the A button on an Xbox controller and then tilting your head left and right. It's pretty intuitive and, with the right game design choices behind it, could be a viable control mechanism (but perhaps a bit of a limiting one, as well).
There are an insane number of people and groups all trying to work out this whole VR thing. I seems like everyone has something interesting to contribute, but no one could possibly say which ones are going to stick at this point. There were a ton of presenters at SVVR, and I only had time to check out a small number of them. I'm told that the Project Alice demo from Noitom and partners Lenovo and Nvidia was particularly impressive at combining different elements of VR, but I wasn't able to try it.
There were also dozens of different solutions for capturing 360 video for use in VR as well. It was clear that VR is not just the realm of real-time rendered images. I really need to get working on something like the 360-degree video drone above for the BBQ—the show gave me lots of new ideas for bringing that event to the world.
I'll wrap up my thoughts about SVVR with this. If you think hats in TF2, decorations in The Sims, horse armor, Counter-Strike skins, and cosmetic DLC in general are ridiculous already, just wait until social VR takes off and all those digital goods become virtual goods. It's only going to get weirder from here, folks.
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