Ben Ingber gets 'Eyes-on' with the Oculus Rift
1,267You may well know East London’s Shoreditch for its hipster credentials.It’s the sort of place where you see a missing cat poster Blu-tacked to a bus stop, only when you get close it transpires there’s no cat and it’s actually a missing Macbook.
More importantly, you may know the area for Silicon Roundabout, birthplace to a number of technology startups including Last.FM, TweetDeck and Mind Candy (of Moshi Monsters fame). The Digital Shoreditch Festival, now in its third year, aims to showcase Tech City’s “outstanding creativity”, bringing together a community of some 15,000 creatives, technologists, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.
As part of this year’s programme, Inition, a multidisciplinary production company and reseller of various 3D technologies, hosted an event entitled “AR vs VR” (Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality) in the multi-roomed basement of their Shoreditch offices, and I went along on behalf of AVForums to see what was on show.
The space was densely packed with exhibits, and the focus was pleasingly on ‘try for yourself’ rather than ‘show and tell’; as an event it was refreshingly understated. Staff were on hand to help and guide but the emphasis was squarely on the products rather than the sales pitch.
For the first fifteen minutes I couldn’t help bounding around willy-nilly, the inner ten year old temporarily overwhelming the usually impassive / disillusioned thirty-three year old. But when I was ready to get hands-on, you can guess what I went for first...
The Oculus Rift and 360 Degree VideoThe biggest draw was the Oculus Rift, of course. The virtual reality headset has had people talking since it smashed its Kickstarter goal last year, and although VR has always been met with some cynicism there are surely few technology enthusiasts who wouldn’t want to give it a try.
The units available at present are all developer kits. There’s no built-in headphones and the resolution is below that expected from the consumer version, but the device is light and comfortable and functions extremely well.
Jonathan Tustain, Inition’s Communications Manager, explained that the key to the technology is that by modern standards the components are relatively simple and inexpensive. He described the Oculus as “basically two mobile phone screens”, adding that the device’s lenses and gyroscopes are cheaply available too. In that context it’s unsurprising that the consumer product could well retail for less than £200.
My first experience with the Oculus Rift (immortalised in the image above) was with Making View’s 360 degree video. Developer Daniel Ervik talked me through their spherical camera, which captures video simultaneously from all angles. It weighs around 650 grams and can be mounted onto almost anything. The examples Daniel had available were recordings from a racing car speeding around a track, and from the helmet of a crazy man jumping off a mountain in a wingsuit.
The captured video can be viewed interactively on the Oculus Rift, and I gave the racing car clip a go first. The point of view was slightly above the driver’s head, and as promised I could look in any direction as we raced around at breakneck speeds.
I was surprised to find there was no perceptible motion judder at all. While the resolution of the whole image is 4k, the actual resolution within your field of view at any moment is variable. But even when it dips, the experience was convincing enough. In fact at one point I couldn’t resist waving my hand in front of my face; it was as if my brain needed to prove that what I was seeing wasn’t real.
The racing clip was fun, but it was the wingsuit video that really impressed. Gliding low along the treeline was thrilling, and when Daniel gently turned my head to look backwards and I saw trees zipping away behind me I finally ‘got’ what made Making View’s technology so interesting.The Oculus Rift and Virtual Worlds.In the corner of the main room was a far more elaborate set-up. A red plank about seven feet in length lay on the floor. An Oculus Rift and headphones hung from the ceiling, connected to a beefy-looking PC via a mess of cables that led to a Kinect, a couple of desk fans and some monitors.
With the Oculus on and my feet at the edge of the plank that I could no longer see, I stood with my back to the wall. The programme started and after a brief orientation I found myself looking around a virtual world in which I was balanced precariously at the edge of a building.
The desk fans blew air in my face and through the headphones I could hear the wind whistling around me. I looked down and saw a virtual plank beneath my feet suspended between the building I was standing on and one opposite. For a moment, a very real moment, my brain told me it was real, and my hands slammed back into the wall behind me for reassurance.
I stepped forward, and of course I could feel as well as see the plank beneath my feet. Arms outstretched, I took a few unsteady steps and made it across, my heart still pounding from that first moment of looking down.
I watched a few others take their turns and interestingly only one person made it across without flinching at any point -- a girl no older than twelve. Make of that what you will.
Having caught my breath a little, I made for the Animazoo stand for what I wrongly assumed would be a more sedate experience. The device on show was the IGS-Glove, a gyro-based hand and finger tracking system. It’s made of a very thin mesh-like material, which contains twelve sensors that can capture movement in up to 60 frames per second.
The demonstration of the IGS-Glove also made use of the Oculus Rift.Through the headset it’s possible to see a representation of your gloved hand.The syncing of my movement to the virtual hand was nearly flawless.
I waved around a bit before one of the developers grabbed me by the wrist and held my arm still. There was a sound through the headphones like a knife through air and simultaneously someone gave me a real-life karate-chop tap on the wrist... and again for a moment, a very real moment, my brain told me it was all real, that they’d cut my hand off.
Okay, so it was a gimmicky demonstration, but it was nonetheless impressive. And of all the products on show, the technology behind the IGS-Glove has perhaps the clearest path to commercial success. It aims to solve the problem of capturing fine finger movements without line-of-sight, and it appears to do so very effectively.
In a recent podcast, this video of an omni-directional treadmill was discussed at length, and not taken wholly seriously by the AVF Games Editorial team. So naturally the Wizdish, a variant on the omni-directional theme, piqued my interest.
The Wizdish is a ‘locomotion platform’ that attempts to address one of the key limitations of any VR headset: the inability to move around in a virtual environment. It sets itself apart from its competitors by including no moving parts.
Instead, the combination of the dish and special ‘Wizshoes’ create low friction contact between the user and the device, and walking is simulated by dragging your feet along the surface of the Wizdish as if trying to move on ice (or as if attempting some kind of reverse moonwalk). Contact must be maintained at all times.
It works surprisingly well, but I can’t help but feel that function alone isn’t quite enough in this case. It’s difficult to imagine the Wizdish or anything like it in the average home.
3D and Augmented Reality.Dimenco's 50" 4K glasses-free 3D TV (above) was... well, large, very high-definition and 3D, but I still found the effect uncomfortable after a minute or so, which is my experience with a lot of glasses-free 3D. I'm not sure that'll matter too much in this case however, as I imagine the product is aimed at advertising rather than home use.
However, I was particularly struck by the zSpace, a 24 inch stereoscopic display that renders images in 1080p for each eye with passive 3D glasses. It also features head tracking, which creates a very convincing illusion of looking at something approaching a full 3D hologram, that you can view from almost any angle.
The accompanying stylus allows you to move objects around in three dimensions, with the Z axis ranging from the screen to what feels like the tip of your nose. The sense of simulated depth is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and the device was an absolute joy to use. Once again, the path from ‘demo in Shoreditch’ to ‘shelf in Tesco’ isn’t entirely clear to me, but I really hope the zSpace can find a place for itself because it’s an awe-inspiring little platform.
Just by the zSpace was a large table with the outline of a human body marked out. However, when viewed through an AR app on an iPad, the design pops into 3D as a hovering neon skeleton (above). Real world applications (and the building excitement surrounding Google Glasses) have already demonstrated there’s a use and a market for AR, and I’d fully expect this level of sophistication to be commonplace very soon.Back to reality.So although much of the AR and 3D screen technology is already trickling through to our daily lives, the more speculative technologies like the Oculus Rift have a bigger challenge on their hands. After all, it’s one thing demonstrating the Oculus Rift as a novelty to a new audience in a controlled environment, but quite another getting it to catch on in the real world.
As I said up top, as an event “AR vs VR” wasn’t glitz and glamour, it was nuts and bolts. For example, the Glove needed a bit of coaxing to get going before I used it, someone inexplicably fell over wearing an Oculus Rift (could that happen at home?), and I couldn’t get one of the AR displays to work at all.
Yet the under-produced nature of the event in combination with the developers' honesty about the current limitations of the hardware served only to make the possibility of what’s around the corner more exciting.
The fact is I left “AR vs VR” more inspired and hopeful about the direction of interactive 3D technologies than I was before I arrived. And although I’m not quite ready to put cash down on something like the Oculus Rift, I’m not far off... you could say I’m virtually there. (Sorry.)
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