Magnify VR/AR: Hooked into the machine

Techweek! Demos, prototypes, presentations, discussions, and keynotes, all radiant with the reflected glow of futurist optimism. Tof Eklund got steeped in digital dreams last week, spending Sunday afternoon at the Magnify VR/AR Expo, and the next day at the subsequent Business Summit.

The atmosphere at the Expo was carnivalesque, as techies, gamers, entire families, and packs of pre-teens wandered around in a small space that opened up Tardis-like into a number of small virtual spaces. It was a profusion of delusions: people attempting to catch virtual fish barehanded, pretending to ride a minecart and actually falling, finding themselves in a house on fire, racing cars, shooting guns, and imagining what it would be like to walk around with pipes and underground power lines superimposed on one’s field of vision.

It probably says something deeply disappointing about me that I found Augview, the “look before you dig” AR app, to be the most exciting thing in the Expo, even though it was the only thing not actually being demonstrated. I read the standee carefully and stood on the “cutaway view of the water main under your lawn” applique, staring down at printed pipes in sheer wonder. In my defence, you never know what you’ll find if you dig deeply and greedily enough. I’ve tried and failed to play Dwarf Fortress, I know what’s up, er, down.

That’s not to say that the other exhibits were lacking. I tried the VR minecart ride and chose to stand rather than take the proffered seat. With the headset on, I experienced G-forces that were not there, and instinctively leaned into the curves. Sure enough, I almost fell forward onto my face. Score: virtual reality one, inner ear zero.

I had a more, ahem, pacific experience with Dr. Taehyun Rhee’s video/CG hybrid scuba diving simulator. This “mixed reality” experience inserted interactive CG fish into a 360 degree video of an actual dive off of a coral reef. It was an impressive proof of concept based on software that matches the lighting of the virtual fishies to that of the reef, so they look like plausible elements of the scene rather than stickers pasted to a window.

Shortly before falling over. ‘In cyberspace, no one see you look like a dweeb’. Image: Tof Eklund.

If the most exciting thing at the expo for me was Augview, the most impressive thing was Escape My House, a fire safety VR experience that you should have heard of by now. Leaving behind the thousand dollar-plus headsets, I played the Fire Service’s game on a smartphone in a cardboard frame. Backed by only a fraction of the processing power, Escape My House never “fooled” me into falling on my keister, but it did provide a compelling vision of what being in a house as it is actually burning down could be like, and succeeded brilliantly in its primary goal of getting me to see the value of developing an escape plan before leaving my clothes to dry next to a roaring fire.

The excellent use the Fire Service made of VR, and the focus on accessibility that makes Escape My House available to nearly everyone – that’s how you know that VR matters. Much like Augview actually using AR to do something worthwhile that we couldn’t do before, it’s all about what you can do with the technology, not the tech itself, at least in my book.

I didn’t carve out time to play the VR arcade games at ten dollars a pop, and that may have been a shame, as the one place where we know exactly how to use computationally-demanding VR to good effect is with short-form videogames, where focused game design and the brevity of the experience minimize the risk of VR sickness. I’ll get my chance, though, as the commercially-produced arcade machines were from Virtual Reality New Zealand, and they just opened up shop in Newmarket.

There were far fewer children at Monday’s Business Summit, and much more speculation. I wouldn’t call it overheated, but it should come as no surprise that the speakers were bullish on the potential of next-generation technologies. Hollywood entertainment types predominated among the keynotes, but there were some significant Kiwi creators and futurists as well.

I was left slack-jawed by Barry Sandrew, formerly of Legend Film, when he drew a hard distinction between storytelling and video games, and said that games weren’t for “the mass audience”. To be fair, he wasn’t there to talk about games, and it’s petty of me to hold his involvement with computer-aided colorisation of black and white films against him… seriously, though, leave the classics alone. George Lucas, I’m looking at you: I want the original cuts of the original Star Wars movies back, now.

Sandrew made some very valid points about how to make good use of technology, as when he discussed Ridley Scott’s reaction to a scene from his Robin Hood converted into 3D. Scott’s take was that it ruined the composition of the scene, not because 3D is a bad idea, but because the film was shot for traditional projection.

This play back and forth between excitement and restraint characterized many of the talks: speaking about the future of VR/ HP’s Madhu Athreya spoke hopefully about Moore’s law making VR more affordable, but also about plans to expand resolution and viewing angle in VR dramatically beyond the projected increase in processor power. Entirely new technologies will be required to make those leaps at any price, let alone affordably for the average person.

The most ambitious and, in my personal opinion, impractical pitch came from Richard Taylor II. Eymerce is a 360 degree wraparound cinema that will only require 3D movie polarized glasses, not a VR headset, to created a virtual environment. He envisions this as a new way to watch feature-length movies and interactive features with groups of friends, first in Eymerce theatres and then in a home theatre format.

The problem is that even the prototype they’re working on will require a 14 foot (4.27 meter) high curved LED screen that created a complete cylinder around a space 20 feet (6.1 meters) across. I assume part of the cylinder swings away so you can get in and out without a crane, but a 27” LED computer monitor will run you at least $300 at Harvey Norman (on sale), and this “small” Eyemerce is over 400 times that size, plus the much greater cost of creating a curved screen, plus the amount of space taken up for a theatre that can only accommodate relatively small audiences and the challenges posed by getting in and out of a cylinder… yeah, I’m not getting one for my two-bedroom apartment.

Geo AR Games is doing something ambitious but more practical: they’re putting dinosaurs in your neighborhood park. Magical Park is a mobile AR app that adds virtual creatures and events to your local playground or what have you. The content is tailored to each participating public space, so it will work with the existing landscape, and not send junior running headfirst into a tree or out into the street. The app’s free with no ads or upsell because they’re pitching Magical Park to your local council as a public good that adds value to parks and encourages children to play outside. I rather like this idea, but I’m a bit leery of letting my six-year-old run around while holding a iPad in front of his face.

Craig Pearce from the Fire Service spoke about how they actually burned down a house to create their VR game, about the importance of making the game as accessible as possible, and how it’s been a big hit with the generally skeptical secondary school set. NZME is looking into VR and AR content, Staples VR is a developing new cameras to meet demand for 360 video production, and Peter Busch of Image Metrics made the astute observation that you know you’ve successfully crossed the uncanny valley when no-one says anything about how real your work looks.

At the end of the day, I caught up with PikPok Games’ Mario Wynands and the conversation turned to the limitations of VR. The extreme immediacy that is VR’s greatest strength is also its greatest flaw, in his opinion. People with vertigo get dizzy when exposed to VR heights, and he shared with me his own experience of being viscerally uncomfortable around a dog-like pet dragon in a VR game, when no other game has ever triggered his fear of dogs.

There’s also the inner ear problem: VR sickness has a lot to do with the disjunction between getting a compelling audio-visual impression of movement while the inner ear keeps insisting “but we’re not moving”. Free motion in a virtual space (using a controller) is especially nausea-inducing, thus the minecart ride and auto racing VR games. It seemed to me that this was the elephant in the room at Magnify – that we need to be able to fool the inner ear to reach virtual reality’s full potential, but no-one’s even willing to spitball about what that might look like.

For my part, after all these excursions to pocket-sized virtual worlds and intrusions of virtual constructs into my world, I was happy to return to working on a flat screen for now, where nothing is going to come flying at me from the corner of my vision, even if it means that I can’t see the aging sewer system under my feet. The virtual and augmented future is here, it’s bright, but is it now? I expect to see a deluge of virtual, augmented, and mixed-reality content on all platforms over the next few years, much of it god-awful (try searching Steam for VR games right now, you’ll see what I mean). However, some of it – the things that have a need for this emerging tech, and that have the sense to stay at least a hairsbreadth back from the cutting edge – will be incredible.


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