Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Virtual Reality Is Now For Real

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A still-functional View-Master bought sometime in the 1950s rests among other memorabilia in the showcase at my uncle’s house. A third generation of kids still enjoys fixing the image reels, now old and porous, to have a look at national monuments or wildlife scenes. The first taste of virtual reality (VR) continues to excite them!

VR has a very long history, according to Harshit Lalpura, founder of Hash Media. He points out that some of the nineteenth-century panoramic paintings or 360-degree murals, which fill the viewers’ entire field-of-vision and make them feel present at some historical event or scene, are early examples of VR.

Then came stereoscopic photo viewers, where viewing two side-by-side stereoscopic images or photos through a stereoscope gave the users a sense of depth and immersion. “The View-Master stereoscope (1939) is still in use and very popular. The design principles of the stereoscope are used today for the popular Google Cardboard and low-budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones,” says Lalpura.

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Oculus Rift, the next-generation VR

I wonder how the kids would react when they see the View-Master as it is today—a sleek and trendy VR viewer that works with your mobile phone to let you explore a large library of augmented reality (AR) and VR content on everything from wildernesses and underwater wonders to outer space! The experience is a bit different now, but for those who liked the old-world charm, Mattel has also kept open the option of viewing image reels.

Indeed, affordable and comfortable VR headsets with mobile hardware access, along with a widening spectrum of applications, are all set to change the VR game! We will soon see VR improving several aspects of our life, from shopping and playing to learning, too.

Mobile-powered VR

“Over the last few years, mobile hardware access has enabled widespread adoption of VR products. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) have been in the market for decades but mobile-enabled HMDs have arrived only in the past two years,” says Hemanth Satyanarayana, founder and CEO, Imaginate Software Labs Pvt Ltd.

“Low-cost headsets inspired by Google Cardboard, which are likely to metamorphose even further, will certainly make VR affordable to everybody. Similarly, access of gyroscope and compass in every smartphone will make VR further accessible,” he adds.

Google Cardboard is a brilliant VR platform developed by Google engineers. It has brought VRbox 1 within the reach of millions since its launch in 2014. On Google’s website you can find the designs required to make a Google Cardboard viewer yourself using simple, low-cost items that will be lying around any do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiast’s work area. For the adventurous, this is the perfect way to enter the world of VR. For others, there are kits and readymade Cardboard viewers sold by Google as well as third-party manufacturers. You should be able to get yourself one for less than US$ 20. In India, there are options priced less than ` 200.

Once your viewer is ready, install the required app on your smartphone (there are lots of options on Google Play) and slide it into the back of the viewer. The app does a bit of magic, splitting the smartphone’s display into two, one for each eye. A little more work goes into countering the distortion caused by the viewer’s lenses, and ultimately what you get is a beautiful stereoscopic, three-dimensional (3D) image with a wide field-of-view (FOV)!

Makes a lot of sense, does it not? When your mobile phone has everything you need including the processor and the sensors, why not use it with an appropriate accessory for VR, too? It is this logic that has brought VR to the masses today.

Indeed, Google Cardboard is fast growing into a popular VR platform, including options for developing apps as well as creating 360-degree video content. Third-party products are also being made Cardboard-compatible, so that users can benefit from the exciting apps available on Google Play. In March, Google improved accessibility by adding iOS support to Cardboard. They also announced that they will be making a VR viewer that can work independently without a smartphone or a computer. This is expected to be a sturdier, plastic-encased viewer.

Asked about the effectiveness of low-cost Cardboard based viewers, Lalpura says, “In some aspects, these are as good as the pure-bred VR solutions. But, obviously, if you are going to compare, say, Google Cardboard with Samsung Gear VR, then you can see the difference. The quality of the headset body and lenses (for example, FOV) also matters. But for basic users, Google Cardboard can definitely do the job.”

If you want something sturdier than the current Cardboard, you can go for some of the Cardboard-inspired and Cardboard-compatible products like Goggle Tech’s Go4D C1-Glass and Homido Mini.

Mattel’s View-Master is also Cardboard-compatible. There are other options like Powis ViewR 2.0 that are slightly costlier (around US$ 30) but include substantial features to justify the cost.

ViewR 2.0, for example, has lenses that adjust independently to correct several vision problems like far-sightedness and astigmatism. It works with 10.2cm to 16.5cm (4-inch to 6.5-inch) Android, iPhone and Windows phones.

Homido VR Headset, which works with most smartphones, is another interesting headset with a 100-degree FOV. It too has adjustable lenses and different modes for different types of sight.

FreelyVR steps up the FOV to 120 degrees. It also has a Bluetooth remote and head-tracking technology built into it. However, it does not have adjustable lenses, so it is not for those with vision problems.

Samsung Gear VR is acclaimed as another fabulous option in the sub-US$ 100 range, but it, unfortunately, works only with Samsung phones.

If you loosen the purse strings a bit more, you can go for options like Zeiss VR One, a VR headset made by a company known for its expertise in optics. Priced around US$ 130, it works with iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S4, S5, S6, Nexus 5 and LG-G3 smartphones, and is positioned as a premium product in terms of style and comfort.

Full-fledged but still within reach

The real VR viewers are also thriving, with innumerable tech advancements and new products being launched. Affordability is a trend in this segment, too. Gone are the days when you had to shell out US$ 2000 or more to get a proper VR experience. Priced between US$ 500 and US$ 1000, the latest generation of gadgets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift offer amazing value for money with mind-blowing features.

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Microsoft HoloLens, the first fully-untethered holographic computer, enables users to interact with high-definition holograms

Three of the most talked about VR launches of this year are Valve’s HTC Vive, Sony’s PlayStation VR and Facebook’s Oculus Rift. Overall, this generation features a 100+ FOV, 360-degree motion tracking, high resolution and an average refresh rate of around 90Hz, which apparently helps reduce nausea. Most of these products also include handheld controllers with motion-tracking capabilities and haptic feedback, so that users can lift, move and manipulate objects in their virtual environment.

Products like Vive and Rift also attempt to turn your room into a 3D space, so that you can move around your virtual world. While Valve’s position tracking system is called SteamVR and uses two base stations, Oculus’ tech is called Constellation and uses a single table-top sensor. Basically these base stations keep scanning the room with light—laser and infrared in the case of SteamVR; infrared and light-emitting diode (LED) in the case of Constellation.

A series of infrared diodes are also studded on the headset and handheld controller. Time and other position-tracking parameters are used to calculate the position of these objects relative to the known position of the base station. This, in turn, enables the user to walk around and move objects in their virtual world.

Sony’s PlayStation VR, which is expected to be launched later this year, will also be packed with lots of technology like an organic LED (OLED) display, improved position tracking with nine LEDs and a refresh rate of 120Hz.

Fove VR, another headset expected to start shipping later this year, also packs in some interesting technology such as eye-tracking. Like Oculus, Fove is another Kickstarter success story. It is partly funded by Samsung Ventures. Fove VR can track subtle eye movements. This makes it possible to make eye contact with virtual characters, to change your view by simply shifting your eyes, and to aim better and shoot in games like archery. The view in front of you also blurs or sharpens depending on how you focus, making your virtual experience more natural. Sometimes, unnatural and frequent movement of the head to change your view of the virtual environment tends to cause vertigo and nausea. Eye-tracking allows you to change views more naturally, thereby overcoming these problems, too.

Microsoft’s VR cum AR offering, HoloLens, is way beyond this price range. With development editions shipping now, the price estimates are around US$ 3000. However, it is a different genre in itself as it populates your virtual world with high-definition holograms. The environment is more immersive, the characters are claimed to be almost life-like, and you can move about and interact with them. HoloLens is not tethered to a PC or a mobile phone, as a complete Windows 10 system is built into the battery-powered headset. Developers can build holographic apps for HoloLens using the Universal Windows Platform.

An open source ecosystem for VR

When you think of taking a technology to more people, it is not really possible without an open source ecosystem. Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) is an open source ecosystem that aims to unify VR and AR technologies, so that headsets, accessories and apps can be used across platforms. The OSVR software platform drives this kind of end-to-end compatibility through a single VR ecosystem. It hopes to overcome the problems that developers face due to hardware and platform fragmentation. It aims to create the perfect scenario wherein developers can focus on their work without worrying about hardware or content support. OSVR is backed by big names like Leap Motion, Intel and Gearbox Software.

Razer recently launched an OSVR Hacker Development Kit, which includes the complete designs and schematics required to build your own VR headset. The design is completely open and can be expanded, modified or upgraded. You can, for example, upgrade the faceplate or add a position tracker later to improve on the equipment as and when you wish. This serves all the purposes of sustainability and accessibility by enabling reuse of components and cross-platform compatibility.

Of what use is an affordable headset

However affordable it may be, a headset is worthless if enough VR content is not made available to the masses. It will not be wrong to say that the real VR revolution has been on the content side. In the recent past, there has been a splurge in the number of VR apps available on Google Play and Apple App Store, as well as the number of 3D video channels on YouTube. The most pleasant surprise, however, is the VR content uploaded by The New York Times. In their words, they put you in the centre of the stories only they can tell!

All this is possible thanks to the VR development platforms and 360-degree cameras available today for VR content development. Google’s Jump, for example, is an entire ecosystem for VR content development. It consists of a camera rig, software that assembles the footage seamlessly together and a player.

Google, in association with GoPro, has designed and developed a 360-degree, 16-camera rig for this purpose. However, it is not necessary that only the GoPro camera will work with the Jump ecosystem. Theoretically, you can use any camera. Or, you can build your own camera rig using Google’s specifications, which cover everything from the size and shape of the rig to the placement of cameras and their FOV.

As the next step, the back-end software converts the 16 raw video feeds from the cameras into VR video in stereoscopic 3D by combining computational photography and computer vision. Basically, it recreates the scene by seamlessly combining the camera footage with thousands of computer-generated, intermediate viewpoints. As for the player, Google simply added VR content as an option on YouTube. What better way for it to reach millions of people every day!

Facebook has also designed a high-end video capture system called Surround 360, the reference designs of which will soon be released as an open source project. Surround 360 comprises a 17-camera array, with 14 wide-angle cameras fixed on the flying-saucer-shaped surface of the camera, one fish-eye camera on top and two more on the bottom. This allows the device to capture the surroundings without being disturbed by the pole that holds it up.
Another innovation, according to the company, is that, cameras use a global shutter instead of a rolling one, which ensures the resulting footage does not display artefacts from the closing of individual shutters. The system also includes Web based software that captures and renders the images automatically.

There are several other premium 360-degree cameras such as Nokia’s Ozo and Jaunt’s Jaunt ONE. Cost-effective options are also available from companies like Nikon and GoPro.

If you want to take a really cheap shot at VR content, try something like Poppy, which is a purely optical device priced at around US$ 30, which works with iPhones. Poppy uses mirrors to capture two stereographic images using your iPhone’s camera. When you look through the viewfinder, Poppy lenses stitch the two images together into a single 3D view.

Closer home, Imaginate is building Lenz, a platform that enables building and experiencing VR content without writing a single line of code. “Lenz enables 3D artists and 360 video makers to host their content and offer the experiences to the general public,” says Satyanarayana. The Lenz platform is ready for internal evaluation and they are testing it with some of the top-tier corporations. With Lenz as the core platform, they are also developing different products for different use-cases by customising and changing the user experience as required.

Of course, the use of content is still low, unless it can be shared. Industry giants are focusing on that, too. With existing VR platforms, it is quite easy for developers to create experiences, apps, games, etc using VR content and sell these through the relevant app stores. Videos can be shared through YouTube or Facebook.

In March, Google introduced VR View, which lets developers to easily embed 360-degree VR photos and videos on Android, iOS and the Web.

According to a blog post by Nathan Martz, product manager, Google, “For native apps, you can embed a VR view by grabbing the latest Cardboard SDK for Android or iOS and adding a few lines of code. On the Web, embedding a VR view is as simple as adding an iframe on your site. We are open-sourcing the HTML and JavaScript for Web developers on GitHub, so you can self-host and modify it to match your needs.”

More to it than entertainment

When Facebook bought Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face, just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Yes, it is these kinds of real applications that are going to make VR a part of everybody’s life, not simply gaming or entertainment. The trend has already begun, in a big way, not just globally but in India, too.

At Facebook’s annual developer conference, Zuckerberg spoke about many of their VR plans. In the future, people will be able to interact with things and places without actually buying the objects or travelling to the places. A US$ 1 app, for example, could do the job of an expensive television!

Google is trying to take students places with their new Expeditions Pioneer Program. Schools, when selected for the programme, will be provided with Google Cardboard viewers, materials and related training, so that they can take virtual educational tours. Google has developed over 100 exciting journeys, from outer space to museums and the world under the ocean. Once a school decides on a schedule for the virtual expeditions, Google volunteers will arrive at the venue to help the teachers and ensure that children have a smooth and enjoyable experience without any glitches.

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Google Jump assembles 360 videos that allow users to experience a scene in every direction

We are seeing several innovative applications closer home, too. Common Floor, a real-estate company, has developed a VR app available on Google Play, which lets users visit properties virtually without moving out of their home. Common Floor also sells a Cardboard based headgear called Retina. The views are as if you are at the venue itself, but save you the hassle of travelling here and there to view multiple properties.

Imaginate is developing VR content and intends to be a repository for educational content. “I am personally excited about using VR as a virtual training or experiential medium for several use cases, such as training—be it in manufacturing, automobile, psychiatry, physiotherapy, education of all sorts, etc,” says Satyanarayana. There is a growing market for VR in India, and Imaginate has been developing cutting-edge solutions for several B2B enterprises in fields like marketing, engineering, automation, training and defence.

Way back in 2004, Satyanarayana developed an AR based liver surgery apparatus using a device called LitEye (like Google Glass), which enabled a surgeon performing open-liver surgeries to see through a liver and identify the tumours hidden inside.

In 2012, he was lauded as one of the Innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review for an AR-enabled virtual trial room called TrialAR, now rechristened as Dressy.

Dressy is a plug-and-play fitting room for offline and online ecommerce stores and mobile apps. It helps buyers to instantly try out apparel as well as accessories, and share their shopping experience with friends and family members located elsewhere. Its digital catalogue and analytics engine serve dual purposes of helping customers find what they want and helping retailers understand customer preferences better.

Hash Media has also recently developed a similar solution called Virtual Mirror, which uses a smartphone or computer’s camera to help users try out stuff before they buy and to share the images with friends on social media to seek their suggestions. Virtual Mirror can be used by individuals or installed as kiosks in shops and public places.

Hash Media also has a VR solution that lets manufacturing companies and civil engineering companies to construct a plant or building virtually for training and maintenance purposes. “We are also developing a virtual shopping mall, where you enjoy an experience like an actual shopping mall. You can roam in the mall and purchase products, which will be delivered to your home. You just need VR glasses,” says Lalpura.

Another very interesting product from Hash Media helps people overcome stage fright and improve their public speaking skills. Using the VR tool, users can give speeches in front of a virtual crowd. They can rehearse as many times as they want, till they get the speech right. The crowd is even programmed to ask certain pre -determined questions, providing a more realistic experience.

Exciting times

We are living in an exciting time for VR. Whether it is a basic low-cost headgear you seek to start dappling with VR or an advanced one for a completely immersive experience, you are sure to get what you seek, with the added benefit of being able to turn your room into a 3D space!

Even more exciting is the extensive content available today, as well as the platforms to make your own. So there is no doubt that the near future is going to be very exciting.

But how would VR be, well into the future? Would it be possible to create immersive environments without using glasses? Imagine a school practice session where multiple kids can engage in the same virtual environment, practicing with others, hopefully without glasses. Perhaps, that too will be real one day.

“VR will revolutionise the way we live, play and learn. I will say that the technology is still in a child state. Today’s VR glasses and other hardware are just foot soldiers. In the coming years, you will see a big paradigm shift, even in the way we compute using the smartphone.
“Hologram technology is also a front-runner. Now, we are able to create holograms in air using lasers. So in the future we would not need a headgear to display graphics for VR. It will be created directly in air like we have seen in science fiction films like Star Wars,” signs off Lalpura.

Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai


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