VR Market Report and Rift CV1

Sketchfab today released the results of a survey giving an indication of the virtual reality market. It was no surprise to me to see the HTC Vive leading the way across the board, it is the standout device of the current generation.

Some caveats of course. The headline says the data is from their user base of 700,000, but read the text next to the little asterisk and you’ll see it’s actually a survey of only 1,000. Still not a bad sample size, but the users of Sketchfab are creative types using Macs and PCs which skews the results. The PlayStation VR, for example, makes an appearance on a few charts with some low level usage, but I would expect that there are a lot of console gamers not using Sketchfab which means that a portion of the VR market is missing from their report.

I had the chance to use a friend’s Oculus Rift CV1 over the Christmas break, the successor to the DK2 and the final retail version of the Rift. I had high hopes but was sorely disappointed! The quality of the HMD is an improvement, much more refined, but it also felt so much heavier, the whole time I was wearing it I felt like my head was being pulled down. It wasn’t pleasant and I couldn’t wear it for long. I tried three different games with very mixed results, Eve Valkyrie working best, and Project Cars the worst. No amount of jiggling and fiddling with the headset or settings was able to make the game anything other than an unplayable blur for me. A sharp contrast to Driveclub on the PlayStation VR.

Google Cardboard and Playstation VR

Finally got my hands on a Google Cardboard VR headset today. Ironically the cheapest and most common VR system is the one that has eluded me until today. Perhaps it’s because I’ve came at this backwards and tried the least advanced system last, the one that’s supposed to be a cheap, quick and easy demonstration of the technology to get people’s interest, that I was unimpressed. It simply isn’t immersive. Having to hold the headset to your head with one hand and all the ambient light that seeps in through the sides spoils the desired illusion. I tried a few apps and games, including what I thought the Cardboard would be good for, 360 degree videos, but they all disappointed. When having to move your head around to follow things there was noticeable lag which comes in part from the need to hold the headset on and the low processing power of mobile phones. I tried different apps with both an iPhone 6S and a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

I also got to play with a Playstation VR a few weeks ago thanks to a colleague. That was a different story. It’s big, it’s heavy, but also comfortable once it’s on. On dark screens light does seep in from the bright lights used for motion tracking, but once you’re in a game it’s completely immersive and the relatively low resolution compared to the Rift and the Vive is nullified. Set-up is a breeze which is exactly what you would want from a console driven system and everything just works.

This is the one. Undoubtedly if I were going to buy a VR system for personal use it would be the PlayStation VR. For non-gaming uses, quality and an even more completely immersive experience it would be the HTC Vive, but that’s over twice the price of the PlayStation VR and needs a gaming PC costing around £1,000, rather than a PlayStation 4 costing around £250, and which I already have.

Gimme Vive!

tracking_unit

The student who hooked me up with some sweet gear last month today allowed me to have a play with his new HTV Vive. Every time I try something new in VR it feels like going to another level – the technology is advancing so quickly and there are so many different ideas and concepts in circulation at the moment. It’s genuinely exciting.

The Vive was simply amazing, and I think it’s because this time I was stood up and able to walk around the room with the headset on. This is thanks to the two base stations (see photo) which are mounted diagonally across from each other at head height and track the exact position of the headset and hand controllers. If you approach the limits of the field a grid is projected to make you aware of the walls which looks a lot like Star Trek’s holodeck, purely a coincidence I’m sure.

I had the opportunity to do some painting with light using Tilt Brush, had a look around – and inside – a number of 3D models which were projected using Sketchfab and a modified version of Chrome, and performed a heart transplant in Surgeon Simulator VR.

Some Pretty Sweet Gear

gear-vr

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.

Immersive Interactive Demonstration

Attended a live demonstration of a fully interactive system from Immersive Interactive which our Faculty of Applied Sciences could be interested in purchasing. The system is designed to simulate as closely as possible any given scenario in a safe place. One of the examples they demonstrated was for paramedic training and included scenes set at accidents, inside an ambulance and then in a hospital. Our Faculty is interested in using it to simulate a pharmacy and other health related scenarios.

It works by using a combination of projectors, touch screens, Kinect sensor bars for motion control and voice recognition, surround sound speakers and a smoke / smell machine. It all runs off a fairly standard PC and a tablet for control. Anything can be projected onto the screens but 3600 video footage generates the best results and the system includes a 3600 camera made up of 6 GoPros for recording and creating your own scenarios. The pop-up demonstration here was limited to three three metre screens but when permanently installed in a room it can project onto all four walls and the floor, and can even be set up as rear-projection for a better effect, though this of course requires a lot of additional space.

I was fairly impressed by it, I can see a lot of potential in systems like this and, of course, the ultimate goal is a proper holodeck! It has the advantage over virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift in that multiple people can be present in the room and it isn’t blocking out external reality completely (though that could be seen as a plus). In the short to medium term I think both approaches have their strengths and are worthy of development. Of course, none of the hardware used here is special and one of my colleagues thinks we could put something like this together ourselves, but getting it all to work together smoothly is the difficult bit and that is what Immersive Interactive provides – service and software. But it’s not cheap, and they are only just expanding into FE and HE now. Only six FE/HE institutions have purchased the system to date, with the oldest being installed around four months ago. So, no research yet into the impact and effectiveness which is what is really needed before making such a big commitment.

Oculus Rift Development Opportunities

st_peters_dalek

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.

Windows 10 Impressions

Today I installed the latest technical preview of Windows 10 on a VM and had an initial poke about. Set up and installation was very easy, once I figured out you had to select ‘Windows 8.1’ in VirtualBox rather than ‘Windows Other’. I’ve used beta versions and previews of Windows for a while now, since Windows 7, but this is the first that really feels like beta software. All of the others have been nearly there, and certainly usable, but Windows 10 is full of bugs and stuttering. You definitely cannot use it in anger at this time.

However, it does look and feel pretty good for the most part, a nice incremental update on Windows 8 which works a lot better on the desktop. I would have liked to have seen Continum in action, the feature for tablets which toggles on-the-fly certain features based on whether or not a keyboard is detected or there is some other indication of a change from tablet to laptop mode. Not possible in a VM for obvious reasons, and I don’t have a spare Windows tablet lying around which I could get away with breaking.

Virtual desktops are nice, but long overdue. But I would say that wouldn’t I? I’ve been in love with Spaces on Mac OS X since Leopard in 2009, and I can remember using virtual desktops on Linux back in the early naughties when I had a piece of crap Compaq than came with the abominable Windows 98.

The new Start menu with integrated tiles is also very nice, as is the way TIFKAM* apps work in windows mode now, much more natural and consistent.

Some more details on TechRadar:

http://www.techradar.com/news/software/operating-systems/windows-10-release-date-price-news-and-features-1029245

http://www.techradar.com/news/software/operating-systems/10-great-new-features-in-windows-10-1267365

* The Interface Formerly Known as Metro. Modern UI just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Oculus Rift Thoughts and Impressions

oculus_rift

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.

What worked:

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.

Impressions:

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.

Next steps:

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.