The HTC Vive in a smaller space

Granted, there are plenty of videos showing how the Vive works in large, open environments but few of them deal with the real-world scenarios faced by many when it comes to introducing virtual reality to their living rooms. Much like how the Nintendo Wii needed a similar amount of space in order to allow the user to swing their arms around as they participated in sword fights, golf and bowling, the Vive needs even more to do it justice.

Having said that, it seems to work incredibly well, even in something of a cramped space. I don’t doubt that, as the prevalence of VR continues to grow, we may undergo a radical culture shift involving how we set up our home environments. With that in mind, please enjoy the quick 60 second video I’ve put together below.

As seen in the video, you can still have an incredibly immersive experience even while remaining in the same spot, just be sure to move your tea mugs out of arms reach as it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ you knock them over.

The demos shown are just a few of those available through the Steam store on the PC. They’re a hint at what’s to come in the future and the promise offered by applications like ‘Big Screen‘ are likely to impact everything from individual to collaborative working environments. Although I only show it from a single user perspective, you can have multi-user sessions over the internet and have people join remotely to share a virtual space, all whilst sharing their individual screens (security risks need to be considered in that respect).

I’m hoping to create a few more videos in the future as they’re able to convey things far more eloquently than with words alone.

HTC Vive Commercial Release – First Impressions

Shortly after receiving our HTC Vive, I rushed to set everything up in a bid to sample the delights of the virtual reality applications available through Steam. For those of you unfamiliar with Steam, it’s an online content distribution service, initially set up for gaming but has since diversified its offerings in a bid to reach out to wider audiences. We’re hoping to improve the student experience by creating engaging visual content for use in our concept classrooms and the promise of virtual reality in this area is quite something.

Unboxing the headset and its accompanying assortment of wires made me wonder how portable a solution the Vive could be. Much of what we do involves showing others what can be done in the classroom and it’s clear that, at the moment, working with a head-mounted display is something which is best kept to dedicated spaces. That is unless you have a dedicated team of technical support staff on hand. As a University with a “Learning and Teaching Innovation Centre“, we’re quite fortunate in that regard.

Initially, the headset wouldn’t connect to my laptop, which only had VGA and display port inputs. The HTC Vive comes just with an HDMI cable (despite also having a mini display port) and so I had to purchase a “mini display to display port” wire separately. Upon arrival, everything worked beautifully and I invited everyone in to have a go with some of the “the lab” demos on Steam along with “theBlu“, a marine life experience wherein the user is surrounded by schools of fish and underwater flora, all of which are interactive and react to being touched by the controllers.

People were ducking down in order to crawl through some of the underwater arches and flinching as a whale got a little bit too close for comfort, before which its giant, reflective eye gave a knowing wink. All of this took place both on the headset and on the laptop display, allowing others to see what the user was experiencing. The emotional bandwidth of these experiences is nothing short of amazing and I say that after having used the Oculus Rift Devkit 2 extensively. The affordance of the Vive is that, as described, it allows you to physically walk around and interact with an environment using your body whereas with the Oculus you are required to use a joypad at the moment. This will no doubt change in the future but, as of writing this, the HTC Vive is where we are likely to be focusing our virtual reality development.

It’s worth mentioning that the laptop we used ran the 3D experiences poorly – around 25 frames per second – (despite being an i7-4290MQ with 32GB ram) due to an under performing graphics chip (Quadro FX). It just goes to show that you can have a machine which is incredibly fast for video and high resolution image editing yet, without a proper game-based GPU, it will not perform well. There are a number of 3D benchmarks you can consult to see if your hardware is up to scratch and I opted to use a laptop if only because it provided for a much simpler setup. I will be bringing out the big guns for future demonstrations.

I’ll be posting more as we continue to experiment with things. At the moment, we’re brainstorming some usage scenarios involving role-play exercises.

Mixed Reality with the Oculus DK2

The irony of virtual reality is that, despite being a visual medium, it remains incredibly difficult to convey in a faithful manner. It’s not just about the visual impact of an experience but also the immersion factor.

I made a post a few months ago in which I filmed myself using the Oculus Rift at a desk. In that video, I cross-faded the perspectives of a bystander and user in an attempt to communicate how people can interact with a 3D environment using a headset.

Virtual Reality represents something of a growth industry right now but it will take time to convince people of its promise as a means for channelling emotional bandwidth. In the right hands, it could become a powerful educational tool. As always, the issues around how to establish best practice will take time to address and, because of this, it’s a great time for both experimentation and innovation.

In the video below, I’m using a green screen to chroma key the output of Oculus, thereby creating the effect of allowing people to see as I do during the session. This is far less complicated (and looks very 1980s) than the method used by Valve, which you can see here.

It does mean having to restrict movement in some ways, no facing the camera, not looking straight down etc… These tend to create confusing visual effects.

I’ll be posting more in the future as I continue to experiment with things. We’re at the beginning of something which promises to revolutionise the human computer interface and contribute to the human condition in ways we’ve yet to envisage.

What do artificial intelligence, virtual reality and gene editing have in common?

I’m something of a transhumanist and in possession of a woefully optimistic view of where technology can take the human race in the next hundred years. A lot has happened in recent times, we have a surge in the public interest of VR, new genetic therapies which are starting to offer treatments for everything from HIV to cancer and the early stages of artificial neural networks which hold the potential to both dwarf and augment our collective intelligence.

Advances in these mediums have been made possible thanks to hardware improvements in GPUs (simple graphics cards). Thanks to their efficiency and number crunching abilities, they’re able to do more than simply create breathtaking visuals. NVidia are starting to invest more funding in chips dedicated to more efficient machine learning and pretty much all biochemistry in the digital medium ends up as physics-based simulations. The driving force for much technology tends to come from competition between various manufacturers but now we are starting to see the convergence of different areas of application, the results of which are incredibly exciting.


Don Quixote

The visual fidelity of real-time 3D simulations is starting to surpass pre-rendered 3D movies, giving content creators far more control over the creative process. Escapism is going to be a big thing over the next few years as people seek more and more media-rich content. The psychological impact of this is something we haven’t even started to consider, we could potentially treat phobias, rehabilitate people with neurodegenerative diseases or turn ourselves into drooling junkies forever held in the confines of a psychosis like that portrayed in Don Quixote.

The onus falls to all of us to steer things in a responsible direction and focus on how we can improve the human condition. It’s something to be excited about, never in the history of our race have so many technological breakthroughs occurred in such a short space of time – and the rate at which it’s occurring doesn’t seem to be letting up.