18/04/2017

New Technology VR/AR/360 Degree Video

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New Technology VR/AR/360 Degree Video

With the recent re-introduction of consumer VR (Virtual Reality), expectations and hype have been high. Now that we are celebrating the first anniversary of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive Virtual reality headset, it is a good time to review their impact and share some of our own experience with this new technology. Before we do, it is prudent to differentiate between VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and 360 degree video.

VR-Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality, as its name suggests, immerses the participant in a computer generated world. The participant wears a headset containing a single LCD display e.g a smartphone or two built in displays such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Most VR experiences are interactive using the supplied controller and are better suited to the Vive or Rift technology, however the Google Daydream Platform does offer wire free VR and interactivity using its supplied controller, boasting a touchpad, two buttons and orientation settings similar to a Wii remote.

Device Screen Technology Control Method
Google Cardboard Smartphone N/A
Google Daydream Android Smartphones Custom Google Controller
Samsung Gear VR Galaxy Smartphone Headset Touchpad
Oculus Rift Dual Amoled Screens Gamepad or Oculus Touch
HTC Vive Dual Amoled Screens HTC Vive Controllers

Most of the smartphone powered devices are generally used for viewing 360 degree video and are the most convenient and cost effective of the VR/360 degree video systems due to their use of existing smartphone technology. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are the more expensive of the systems and rely on a very powerful PC as a host. A complete setup based around a Rift/Vive and suitable PC would start at around £1500.00.

360 Degree Video

360 degree video is the most accessible of all the technology mentioned in this article as it can be experienced without any third party devices. To view 360 degree material, this can be done using popular services such as YouTube or Vimeo. The user can rotate around the 360 degree world by simply dragging their mouse cursor over the video or moving their mobile device to look around their virtual world. The user can opt to use their VR headset to view the 360 degree video if they wish, which takes advantage of the device’s motion sensors.

Motion Sensors

For VR to be a truly immersive experience, when using the head worn devices mentioned above (e.g when you move your head to the right, the virtual environment moves to the right) the system is required to use motion tracking - this is achieved by using the following methods:

Smartphone Based System

Smartphone powered devices use the smartphone’s internal sensors, including accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers.

Oculus Rift

This system uses an infrared transmitter in conjunction with the built in accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. The infrared sensors in the headset are tracked by relaying the timing differences of the received infrared light. Oculus recommend the system is used for seated use

HTC Vive

Very similar technology to the Oculus Rift, including the accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometer, however instead of using an infrared system for tracking, HTC use two lighthouses; these lighthouses fire low power lasers across the room which are received by more than 70 sensors contained in the headset and Vive controllers. This method enables the Vive to be used either seated or standing which they refer to as room scale.

Augmented Reality

This technology merges the real world with computer generated content; a simple implementation of this would be Google Glass which Google announced in April 2012 at the Foundation Fighting Blindness event. It consisted of an ultra small computer, touchpad, camera, microphone, bone transducer for audio, 9 axis sensor, accelerometer, battery and projector mounted in the frame of the glasses - it really is an engineering marvel. The glasses connect to the user’s smartphone and the built-in projector displays the content directly onto the surface of the glass i.e. a user could run Google Maps for turn by turn directions in a city whilst receiving emails at the same time and still having a clear view of their surroundings.

Microsoft Hololens

Microsoft unveiled Hololens at the start of 2015 as its foray into the world of augmented reality; the system is very advanced and cable free. The headset not only projects an image onto the glass as Google Glass did, but also the Hololens is aware of your environment. In light of this, the system can create three dimensional models (holograms) which interact with your real world i.e. an augmented chess board would appear to be placed on your coffee table. This combination of the virtual and real world is often referred to as mixed reality.

The Hololens system is fully self contained, comprising of a powerful holographic computer, battery, HPU (Holographic Processing Unit), multiple sensors to map the world around you in real time, transparent high definition holographic lenses and spatial sound. The applications for this type of device are practically limitless from simple communication to environmentally aware gaming, design and training. Imagine having to repair a complex device such as a gearbox and having the power to overlay exploded diagrams and machine cutaways, whilst still having the full use of your hands.

Thoughts and Conclusions

I was recently very kindly invited to a VR educational event hosted at Putney High School by Andy Perryer, their Head of digital learning and innovation. The event had guest speakers and VR/AR product venders in attendance including ourselves. It was interesting to see the delegates integrate with the technology and discuss potential uses in the classroom. I believe that the technology has a little more development required to make it a viable classroom tool. In particular, from a physical and convenience perspective, due to the fact that smartphone based solutions require particular models of phone, and of course, all the users need to follow configuration instructions. The high end VR equipment, whilst offering a very immersive virtual experience, is at the moment required to be tethered to a powerful computer and needs the motion sensors to fully exploit the technology. With regard to the latter point, I believe this would be cost prohibitive in an educational setting currently.

I also have concerns regarding the psychological effects of the devices and how this technology affects, for instance, users with epilepsy. I have personally tested the HTC Vive over the last couple of months and, although the experience is very immersive and I have never felt sickness, if you wear the headset for prolonged periods of time it takes a little adjustment back to reality when removed. I briefly searched the internet for any tests regarding the aforementioned concerns and, as expected, this information was pretty thin on the ground as it is probably too soon to collate meaningful data. In conclusion, though I believe this is very exciting technology, we are just at the beginning of understanding its potential. In particular the Augmented Reality (mixed reality) devices offer a self contained experience which of course has the added benefit of the user having awareness of the world around them.

The Future

As a matter of course, issues such as size, cables, cost and the requirement of high end computers will be eliminated over time. The experiences will grow in realism, but one of the most human senses is of course touch. Although systems like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer vibration as part of their controllers, this is where I expect to see huge inroads over the next decade. This technology is referred to as Haptic Feedback.

Haptic Feedback

The most rudimentary and common use of Haptic Feedback is the tiny Vibramotor which is part of virtually all smartphones.It is generally activated when you use your keyboard and, when using the keyboard, the tiny motor vibrates providing haptic feedback. In a virtual or augmented world, new technologies will enable the user to feel their virtual objects using technology such as Disney Research’s Aireal system. This system works by emitting small rings of air to simulate touch and movement. The University of Bristol has developed a solution called Ultrahaptics, which uses a series of ultrasonic transducers emitting high frequency sound waves which collide (Tactile Focal Points) and create sensations on the skin.
It is not difficult to see that in the not too distant future, VR and AR technology could be as commonplace as our mobile phones with true interaction with our virtual objects, allowing us to differentiate simply by touch, the difference between steel and fur.

Andrew Milburn
Product Development Director