I was asked to write a little something about virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality to give our academic community and overview of the current state of play and how these technologies can be used in education. What started in my head as a little webpage turned into a whole section on our My Sunderland wiki.
It’s that time of year again, the legendary SLS Innovation Event! And possibly the last one, as a pending University-wide restructure will soon mean the end of SLS in its current form.
This year’s carnival theme led to many bright, fun and exciting stalls and games. On our stall we had the Oculus Rift again, but this time we primarily ran a fairground ride called Cyberspace which features something you can only do in VR, jump off the ride while in motion. We made a game of this, getting people to see who could fly the furthest and winning a sweetie if you beat the current high score. The Rift was complemented by a demonstration of a fun new augmented reality app for iOS and Android called MSQRD, or Masquerade, which does funny things to your face, much like Snapchat’s new filters.
We also used Class Tool’s carnival appropriate random name picker to give away some little prizes and make people aware of the excellent resources on this site. Our balloon pop – with a star prize of a brand new car! – generated some noisy fun and a lot of mess. And finally, when we discovered that someone on the team could juggle, we couldn’t resist having a beat the juggler competition; juggle three balls for longer than Mel the Magnificent and you won a prize.
On the more serious side we were also raising awareness of Open Badges, awarding an attendance badge to anyone who came over to our stall and had a chat with us about how badges could work in their area to incentivise learners.
Obviously our stall was the best, and we were sorely cheated on the ‘Best Stall’ award (again!), but some other good stalls came form the Gateway team who managed to install a cinema, complete with popcorn, the CitySpace team with their sports related activities including a test your strength punchbag, and several teams who demonstrated their innovation by managing to have hook a duck games sans water. I won a duck on one of them, but proudest moment by far was being the only person to score the maximum 300 on an elastic band pinging thing for which I won a balloon bunny.
These events aren’t just to have a fun afternoon, they’re about all of the various scattered teams within SLS coming together to showcase the work they do for the benefit of the rest of us, so that we can work better as a department. It’s also where we celebrate excellence, with two awards given to celebrate personal and team excellence.
Had a meeting this morning with an academic in our Faculty of Arts, Design and Media to discuss the viability of taking a 3D model gallery he has developed of various artworks, and converting it to display on the Oculus Rift. Not sure what will come of that, but I have his Unreal files now and am doing some R&D to assess how difficult it will be. After the meeting, however, I was able to meet up with one of his brightest students who is creating various artworks using 3D scanners, modelling, printers, Kinect and in various virtual reality systems, and they were kind enough to let me have some hands-on time with their Samsung Galaxy Gear VR.
I was impressed, very impressed. Impressed to the point of seriously considering the jump to Android just so I could get one for myself. It’s light, comfortable, standalone and works perfectly. The Oculus Rift by comparison, and it is only a DK2 I have, is heavier and the amount of cables it requires to hook up to a computer and its external head tracking sensor is something which always annoys me whenever I have to take it away from my desk. I’ve also found the software to be problematic, with many apps just not running, not running as they should or running for a little while before crashing for no apparent reason. With the Gear VR in contrast, everything runs off your phone which slots into the front. I had a go of quite a few apps and games and everything worked exactly as it should. There is a touch sensitive D-Pad and action buttons on one side of the headset for control which I liked, and I found the experience and resolution of the two systems to be broadly comparable. Even though a comparison of technical specs will tell you that the Gear VR is higher resolution than the DK2, it’s still a little disappointing as you can see every pixel due to how close the screen is to your eyes; in a 4K world it’s like going back to VGA. Adjusting the focus on the Gear VR is a lot simpler thanks to a control wheel on the front of the device, rather than screws on each side.
Photo cheekily stolen from Samsung’s website, where you can get more information.
Some highlights from my second SLS Innovation Day where we celebrated the success of the department and all of the teams and services had the opportunity to showcase the best of their work to each other. Much more enjoyable and relaxing for me this time around as last year the event happened only a couple of weeks after I started work here and I was dropped into arranging the stand for the Learning Technologies Team in very short order.
Also this year, in the run-up to the event I was on the panel to chose the winners of the individual and team awards for innovation and I really enjoyed reading all of the applications and learning more about the fantastic work we do. All of the applications were of an incredibly high standard and it could have been really difficult to pick the winners, but I wrote a rubric for the panel to use in which we scored each nominee against the criteria the department was looking for in the applications. Once we had all done this individually, to try and eliminate any bias, we met to add up the scores and, though the results were really close, there was a winner by a single point in each category.
A tinge of disappointment that we didn’t win the award for best stand with our Oculus Rift, despite being a huge hit and generating some screams which could be heard clear across the room. I think we went too high-tech, as the winners this year and last were both bright, fun stands with games and prizes. Not from the best stand winner, but I did win the pink snake and a small orange teddy from the Careers stand who had a hoop toss game which I owned.
Kudos also for the range of vegan food on offer this year.
I had one of those really interesting and productive meetings yesterday with an outstanding academic that was brimming with possibilities and has filled me with ideas.
The academic in question teaches multimedia and game design and for the past year or so has been experimenting with the Oculus Rift in his teaching. I’ve been wanting to catch up with him to discuss his work since we acquired a Rift for the team back in December. He demonstrated some of the software which he has created which included a virtual walkthrough of our St Peter’s Campus, where he is based, and a driving game set in the streets of Newcastle. He was able to share some of his more complete work with me there and then so that I can take a more leisurely look back at my office. The screenshot is taken from the St Peter’s simulation and shows part of the exterior of the Design Centre. And a Dalek.
Then he gave me a quick overview of what it takes to develop software for the Rift, recommending we stick to the Unity engine for best ease-of-use to quality ratio, and Autodesk or SketchUp for 3D modelling which he said would actually be the most difficult and time consuming part of the process, as the models need to be very high quality – ‘game ready’ – meaning high polygon count and FPS. He has very kindly offered to visit the team and give us all a more in-depth one day crash course on everything we need to get started in May or June after his teaching has finished. Quid quo pro, I offered our services, Rift and a computer to run it when he attends open days and recruitment events.
Finally we discussed practical applications. Marketing applications are easy, and there are many events where we can, and will have a stall with the Rift set up to attract people over to us and then to start a discussion about what we can do for them. Applications to enhance teaching and learning are more difficult, though Keele University have done some good work in their School of Nursing and Midwifery. Some ideas we discussed included interactive 3D models of molecules for our Pharmacy department, mechanical equipment for our Engineering department, and a virtual gallery of work created by the National Glass Centre, though this is more of a marketing tool again. Equipment is another problem as there needs to be an appropriate amount of hardware for people to use, two Rift’s across the University is hardly sufficient. Of course departments can’t justify such an investment without having the appropriate software and concrete learning objectives ready to go.
We have a similar chicken and egg problem in the team in that none of us really have the necessary programming or 3D skills to develop for the Rift. In order for members of the team to be up-skilled for this we need to have a clear business case and a project to develop, but how do we attract such a project without the skills? And of course we have to do all of this in pretty short order in time to capture the zeitgeist surrounding VR at the moment.
Christmas came early to WaLTS today when we inherited an Oculus Rift from another department. The TL;DR version? It’s fantastic! Buy one!
For about an hour it looked like we were up the proverbial creak as the Rift needs USB and HDMI input and most of us in the office are Mac users. No DisplayPort to HDMI adaptors lying around, and even the few PCs we have don’t have HDMI. Then we stumbled on a DVI to HDMI adaptor in a box full of crap and one of the newer PCs had a graphics card with a DVI port. Success! I should mention that it’s the Dev Kit 2 version we have, and it was hooked up to a mid-range HP running 64 Bit Windows 7. Hardware problems solved, it was on to the software.
It’s not the worst I’ve ever had to set up, but it’s not transparent and you need to install the SDK and the runtime before any of the demos will work. Perhaps if we had read the instructions first… but in a room full of techies that wasn’t going to happen. Everything installed, in the right order, still wouldn’t work. The config utility simply wouldn’t recognise the device, all we got was the orange LED of disappointment. Swapping the HDMI and USB connections around had no effect. Eventually, through a bit of trial and error I was able to get it working as follows:
1. In Windows I had to detect the device as a new monitor and keep the setting on ‘Extend these displays’, after doing this the device was recognised in the utility;
2. In the Oculus Config Utility I had to set Rift Display Mode to ‘Extend Desktop to the HMD’;
3. Software would then work, but only when using the ‘…DirectToRift.exe’ version.
This was the only combination of settings where I could get anything to work. I found forums with people reporting the same problem and worked through many suggestions to no effect. It could be almost anything, but I suspect the PC is just a bit crap.
The Tuscany demo from Oculus worked perfectly, as did everything from http://riftaway.com. The best thing by far was Cyber Space and the ragdoll eject feature, which I discovered by accident because, as we’re established above, I don’t read instructions unless necessary, is hilarious. Discovering Space wouldn’t work, it loaded on the Rift but it didn’t display properly – the middle of the screen was missing so you couldn’t do anything. Don’t Let Go! looked like it would have been fun, but that simply wouldn’t display in the Rift, all I got was the stereoscopic display in the PC monitor.
The headset is surprising light and comfortably. One of us had used a DK1 before and said it was a big improvement. Despite being full HD, the resolution appears low and pixelated because the screens are so close to your eyes, but that is amply compensated for by the immersive experience which is truly outstanding. A little disorientating at first, and then a little more when you take if off, but in both cases it passes quickly. The cables are a bit annoying, there are a lot of them, and it would be nice if this could be simplified.
Well, the first thing to do is get it working properly. I think maybe getting a DisplayPort to HDMI adaptor for one the of Macs is the way to go here as most of the Macs are new(ish) and pretty high spec. Then we’ll want to develop something ourselves. I think I might struggle to come up with a business case for the boss to let us develop some cool games, but a virtual walkthrough of the campuses for prospective students is a good starting point; I could see us setting up a stall with the Rift at recruitment fairs, induction events, school visits, etc. and let people walk around the University while playing with the newest cool toy. We’re also a shoo-in for best stall at next year’s SLS Innovation Event I reckon.