Getting serious with virtual and augmented reality at the VRTGO conference

Last week I attended the VRTGO conference in Newcastle, a day of talks from various industry representatives describing how they were using Virtual and Augmented Reality in their businesses. Happily, not all of it was gaming-related, something which has been difficult to exclude from these events as, understandably, the gaming sector is what is driving the VR agenda at this time. Having said that, one of the representatives from Crossrail (a London-based project to link various underground railway networks) was able to answer my question of whether there was still any stigma surrounding the term ‘gaming technology’, responding that most people with any interest in the medium already had prior exposure to gaming and that, as a generational phenomenon, it was starting to become acceptable.

Outside of Gaming

Much of the non-educational work was centered around heritage, mainly architectural visualisations with added features such as the ability to see a site as it exists in its current, ruinous, state compared to how it might have been in its prime, complete with depictions of how people of the era dressed and interacted. Much of the development work involved the use of photogrammetry and, where available, the expensive LIDAR scanning of sites with historical significance. All in all, it was inspiring to see people getting creative and innovating with technology at the forefront of its respective medium. Of note were two companies, ‘DigitalVR‘ and ‘ChroniclesVR‘, based in the UK, who have been doing some work with photogrammetry. There’s a lot to establish by way of conveying narratives but these two groups seem to be in the right place at the right time when it comes to the learning process.

Referring back to Crossrail, the presentation started with a drone flying through tunnels designed to accomodate London’s bulging underground railway system. There was talk of using augmented reality to allow workers to focus on items at fault, report them via photo, and being able to call up servicing instructions through video feedback. Things were somewhat vague and theoretical in this regard but the idea is sound and is indeed what we’re expecting to see with the advent of Microsoft’s Hololens. There was no statement of intent with respect to committing to one type of interface device and things are very much in the innovation stage. Given that the companies associated with the building work are so vast and the project so logistically intensive, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to change the way they work overnight. It does, however, present a prime opportunity for data gathering and workflow optimisation.

Tackling Navigation in VR

One of the highlights for me involved a company called ‘nDreams‘. They exist solely for the purpose of creating VR experiences, which while at this moment in time sounds like a risky venture, is something which is likely to become a growth industry. It was a wonderful surprise to see this team examining how users engage with various interface devices and head-mounted displays. They were examining everything from rotational head movement speed to navigating 3D environments using a stare and click method. The data they had sourced from hours of research and experimentation was phenomenal and will surely be of use when it comes to establishing standard control interfaces for console and PC-based titles. This is the sort of work that excites me the most, rather than stabbing in the dark and doing something which seems ‘cool’, this group of people have brought their brains to bear on this problem with a view to creating a better user experience. It was as much of an academic pursuit as a games authoring workflow.

Interestingly, Samsung also sent a representative, the head of the UK division for the development and promotion of the Gear Headsets we’ve read so much about in the news. I quizzed him on when we’d see mobile GPUs catching up to high-end desktop configurations but the focus seemed to be more on providing novel VR experiences which, rather than being graphically compelling, focussed on the strengths of mobile VR to provide unique experiences. That’s understandable, especially given that one of the benefits of the Google cardboard-based approach is the exclusion of wires. It just made me wonder how long before we see phones with thunderbolt 3 ports through which an external GPU can be added (and put in the users pocket) in order to boost the graphical fidelity of the experience, alas no comment on that. Using Gear headsets would certainly cheapen the cost of our games nights at the University of Hertfordshire.

Browser-Based Virtual Reality

Of note was the work by a company called ‘PlayCanvas‘. They’re focusing on a browser-based approach to 3D and have developed a beautiful suite of tools designed to assist in getting real-time 3D content working through WebGL and HTML5. It should be worth noting that one of the main reasons I adopted Unity 3D so many years ago was due to its ability to render 3D content online, in the browser, by simply going to a web address and downloading a plugin. Sadly, Unity’s browser-based solution is lacking at present (due to most browsers having disabled the use of such plugins) though promises great things as they’re also looking at similar solutions. Interestingly, the PlayCanvas engine comes to around 125KB, which is a fantastic achievement when it comes to optimisation and efficiency. PlayCanvas are also looking at interfacing directly with VR headsets from within the web browser window, which would increase the accessibility by an order of magnitude.

Final Thoughts

There’s so much to talk about and take in when attending these conferences but yet another curiousity was to do with interface devices, or more specifically, seats with feedback mechanisms. The representatives of a kickstarter project called VRGo were on scene showcasing their product, a seat through which you are able to navigate a virtual environment by leaning in different directions. It’s certainly the right way to go about things when considering the implications for health and safety as, once someone stands up, virtual reality has proven to be quite unsafe (many people end up losing their balance due to conflicting brain signals regarding spatial awareness).

I regret arriving a bit late and missing the Sony VR presentation but, all in all, it was a great day out and well worth the 6 hour journey there and back (on the same day) to see what people were doing. I remain very excited at having seen the work nDreams are doing and hope to factor it into my PhD studies. It’s a great time to be in this industry as an entirely new frontier unfolds right in front of us. There are questions not just of usability and engagement but also ethics and how to develop content in a responsible manner so as not to contribute to the problems of escapism through gaming and internet addiction, which we are starting to see more of. I truly believe that the VR experience has the potential to improve the human condition and contribute to our collective mental evolution. Let’s see how much we can get right at the start and set a precedent for a tradition of excellence.

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