The Logistics of Virtual Reality and Thunderbolt 3

The end game for many technologies involves integrating seamlessly with our being, turning us into space-dwelling cyborgs. The problem is that while the process of miniaturization is always in motion, there will always be a suite of technologies on the fringe which have yet to undergo such optimization and start out in something of a clunky state. Virtual Reality headsets are such things, they are new, large and cumbersome.

While the phone-based experiences made popular by the Gear VR hold promise (in that it is a lightweight solution without wires) it remains expensive. Upgrading to a new phone is also problematic. When all one needs is a faster GPU, the only option is to purchase an entirely new phone (a general purpose device) which happens to have a faster graphics chip. This is an incredibly inefficient economy.

Perhaps it’s not as much of a concern for a single user but for a large organisation looking to invest in such technologies, it presents something of a challenge. Do universities invest in VR laboratories or do they come up with something more flexible?

I don’t doubt that the future of VR involves the use of specialist equipment and spaces. To that end, a dedicated lab might present itself as a viable investment.

Valve's Lighthouse Tracking System

A team demonstrating Valve’s Lighthouse Tracking System – I have no affiliation with the people involved

In the meantime however, during this period of innovation and testing, there are ways to make life easier. When giving demonstrations of VR within our institution, we either get people to come to our offices or we attempt to set up a small stand for the duration of a conference. The issue is that we always have to lug around a giant desktop computer inside which is the equivalent in weight of three potato sacks worth of hardware.

You might think “why not use a laptop?” – the answer is because the integrated GPUs on these devices are not upgradeable. We would need to spend thousands on a machine fast enough to run a VR experience only to have it become redundant overnight. The answer lies in the thunderbolt 3 port, best described as USB 3 on steroids.

With such a port, you can directly connect an external GPU to any compatible device, no matter how small. This means you could invest in a NUC device with thunderbolt 3 connectivity and have a graphical powerhouse which occupies a tiny amount of desk space.

Whilst some newer laptops are sporting these connectors, it’s worth waiting until the method through which external GPUs interact is confirmed. The beauty of the solution is also that (due its massive bandwidth) rather than having three to five wires connecting the headset, in the future, there can be just just one. Wireless connectivity is also catching up, with wireless video now proving itself usable for gaming.

To sum it up, it’s worth waiting before investing in a long-term VR solution unless you have an application which has already proven itself to be robust and workable on current generation technologies. If you want to be an early adopter (due to personal interest or for reasons of experimention), there is already plenty of choice. – Just be aware that until the prevalence of VR really comes into its own, we are just witnessing the tip of the iceberg.

The Weston Auditorium at the University of Hertfordshire in Virtual Reality

Much has changed these last few years in the gaming industry. Until recently, real-time/interactive 3D has had something of a stigma associated with it when it came to education. Happily, in the spirit of inquiry, research has continued to verify its potency for creating memorable and engaging experiences.

Click here to view the search trend data on Google

We’ve been in possession of an Oculus Rift (development kit 2) for a while now and it’s provided us with some exciting opportunities to do with Learning & Teaching Innovation. We’re currently working with Psychology staff to create virtual environments for use in research and have been awarded funding to pursue some other ideas with measurable outcomes. We’re trying to establish best practice in this new medium and need to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Trying to force the use of VR in a non-complimentary medium would be a massive waste of time and could end up as redundant work.

It’s not so easy to identify the areas of use however as some of the most text-heavy subjects (Land Law as an example) stand to benefit greatly from the offerings of VR. Imagine being able to walk around a virtual village and identify disputes over property boundaries or the potential VR has to create dynamic data visualizations. If you thought 2D infographics were informative, imagine where it could go with something more immersive and with a real sense of scale.

The obvious choices for VR would be things like paramedic science, subjects involving roleplay scenarios. Potentially we could have partner institutions interacting with one another overseas in ways which were previously impossible. Multi-user VR environments hold a lot of promise in this regard and I’m hoping to be able to explore those ideas further.

More recently, I’ve completed some work with the Oculus Rift, it’s a virtual representation of our largest presentation space (sometimes used as a lecture theatre), the Weston Auditorium at the University of Hertfordshire. See the video below for a demonstration!



This is based on work I did some time ago, I’ve just made it work with the Oculus Rift. It’s taken a long time but I’ve optimised my workflow substantially since the old days.

Click here to read about the creation of this environment

Instructor Training via the British Aikido Association

We all need a hobby, I’ve been doing Aikido for about seven years now, it’s something I was introduced to by a colleague. Since that day, I’ve trained in a number of different dojos and environments, some of which were inside, outside, on mats that were soft and mats that were hard, even on ice. Whether it be in a school, a sports centre or the elements themselves, despite their differences the pursuit is always in the name of self-mastery. Taking people who may lack physical intelligence and cultivating it, or providing an opportunity to those blessed with an abundance of talent and receiving the direction needed to overcome conceit.

When you move so far outside of your comfort zone, everything else seems easy by comparison.

Alternative approaches

It was by choice and remains as one of the most powerful transformational periods of my life. That fine line between obsession and discipline is often quite hard to discern, especially if you don’t get a glimpse of the wider context. A good teacher always provides the opportunity for reflection via access to different perspectives.

Years passed and I joined a new dojo. The martial art was the same but the approach was different. The instructor was female for a start, which is something that I’ve come to appreciate in my career and extra-curricular activities. Advancement through the ranking system was, again, regulated, and followed a syllabus which was adhered to internationally by various affiliates. We’d go abroad and train with people from different countries, gleaning insight into how the same pursuit could be approached in so many different ways. Standardisation is notoriously difficult to achieve when conflicting interests begin to emerge. On one hand, the traditional art must be kept alive and, on the other, it needs to change with the times and advance in accordance with the findings of modern research. If not, it becomes an adherence to ceremony rather than the pursuit of a dynamic art.

I visited Belgium and Poland this year for competition and training seminars.

I visited Belgium and Poland this year for competition and training seminars.

Herein lies the problem, and also a solution. I was recently invited to attend an instructor training course in Nottingham with a view to starting down the path of qualifying for greater responsibility on the mats. All sorts of things were coming to light in terms of health and safety, social management of members, the delivery, in a pedagogical context, of techniques and how, in general, to improve the student experience. It’s a world apart from what I’m used to in the lecture theatre and the insights it has provided are nothing short of earth shattering.

Taking care of juniors

For starters, in younger people (I’m 32), the growth plates in the skeleton do not set until around the age of 25. For that reason alone, locks should not be done on juniors, or rather they should not be attempting to perform locks on each other. There is the potential for damage which doesn’t become manifest until much later in life, during when it could appear as compromised growth in an arm/elbow/knee etc… – The focus should be on the experience and cultivating abilities such as hand/eye coordination, adherence to form and having fun. The concept of a junior blackbelt is frowned upon in many circles as it’s scientifically impossible for someone of a younger age to have full awareness, in terms of proprioception, of how their body moves. Growth spurts ensure that skeletal symmetry is rarely consistent and that, due to the lack of high impact adult training, exposure to what the art offers at a more accomplished end of the spectrum remains out of reach.

I’m looking forward to what the future holds as the art continues to evolve and, happily, for what seems to be a rare occurence for me, I’m in the right place at the right time. I realise this isn’t in keeping with most of the content on my blog but it remains as an important part of my identitfy/life at this time. Virtual Reality and martial arts seem a world apart but they’re both exciting, interesting and complicated states of affair.

See you soon.

Getting serious with virtual and augmented reality at the VRTGO conference

Last week I attended the VRTGO conference in Newcastle, a day of talks from various industry representatives describing how they were using Virtual and Augmented Reality in their businesses. Happily, not all of it was gaming-related, something which has been difficult to exclude from these events as, understandably, the gaming sector is what is driving the VR agenda at this time. Having said that, one of the representatives from Crossrail (a London-based project to link various underground railway networks) was able to answer my question of whether there was still any stigma surrounding the term ‘gaming technology’, responding that most people with any interest in the medium already had prior exposure to gaming and that, as a generational phenomenon, it was starting to become acceptable.

Outside of Gaming

Much of the non-educational work was centered around heritage, mainly architectural visualisations with added features such as the ability to see a site as it exists in its current, ruinous, state compared to how it might have been in its prime, complete with depictions of how people of the era dressed and interacted. Much of the development work involved the use of photogrammetry and, where available, the expensive LIDAR scanning of sites with historical significance. All in all, it was inspiring to see people getting creative and innovating with technology at the forefront of its respective medium. Of note were two companies, ‘DigitalVR‘ and ‘ChroniclesVR‘, based in the UK, who have been doing some work with photogrammetry. There’s a lot to establish by way of conveying narratives but these two groups seem to be in the right place at the right time when it comes to the learning process.

Referring back to Crossrail, the presentation started with a drone flying through tunnels designed to accomodate London’s bulging underground railway system. There was talk of using augmented reality to allow workers to focus on items at fault, report them via photo, and being able to call up servicing instructions through video feedback. Things were somewhat vague and theoretical in this regard but the idea is sound and is indeed what we’re expecting to see with the advent of Microsoft’s Hololens. There was no statement of intent with respect to committing to one type of interface device and things are very much in the innovation stage. Given that the companies associated with the building work are so vast and the project so logistically intensive, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to change the way they work overnight. It does, however, present a prime opportunity for data gathering and workflow optimisation.

Tackling Navigation in VR

One of the highlights for me involved a company called ‘nDreams‘. They exist solely for the purpose of creating VR experiences, which while at this moment in time sounds like a risky venture, is something which is likely to become a growth industry. It was a wonderful surprise to see this team examining how users engage with various interface devices and head-mounted displays. They were examining everything from rotational head movement speed to navigating 3D environments using a stare and click method. The data they had sourced from hours of research and experimentation was phenomenal and will surely be of use when it comes to establishing standard control interfaces for console and PC-based titles. This is the sort of work that excites me the most, rather than stabbing in the dark and doing something which seems ‘cool’, this group of people have brought their brains to bear on this problem with a view to creating a better user experience. It was as much of an academic pursuit as a games authoring workflow.

Interestingly, Samsung also sent a representative, the head of the UK division for the development and promotion of the Gear Headsets we’ve read so much about in the news. I quizzed him on when we’d see mobile GPUs catching up to high-end desktop configurations but the focus seemed to be more on providing novel VR experiences which, rather than being graphically compelling, focussed on the strengths of mobile VR to provide unique experiences. That’s understandable, especially given that one of the benefits of the Google cardboard-based approach is the exclusion of wires. It just made me wonder how long before we see phones with thunderbolt 3 ports through which an external GPU can be added (and put in the users pocket) in order to boost the graphical fidelity of the experience, alas no comment on that. Using Gear headsets would certainly cheapen the cost of our games nights at the University of Hertfordshire.

Browser-Based Virtual Reality

Of note was the work by a company called ‘PlayCanvas‘. They’re focusing on a browser-based approach to 3D and have developed a beautiful suite of tools designed to assist in getting real-time 3D content working through WebGL and HTML5. It should be worth noting that one of the main reasons I adopted Unity 3D so many years ago was due to its ability to render 3D content online, in the browser, by simply going to a web address and downloading a plugin. Sadly, Unity’s browser-based solution is lacking at present (due to most browsers having disabled the use of such plugins) though promises great things as they’re also looking at similar solutions. Interestingly, the PlayCanvas engine comes to around 125KB, which is a fantastic achievement when it comes to optimisation and efficiency. PlayCanvas are also looking at interfacing directly with VR headsets from within the web browser window, which would increase the accessibility by an order of magnitude.

Final Thoughts

There’s so much to talk about and take in when attending these conferences but yet another curiousity was to do with interface devices, or more specifically, seats with feedback mechanisms. The representatives of a kickstarter project called VRGo were on scene showcasing their product, a seat through which you are able to navigate a virtual environment by leaning in different directions. It’s certainly the right way to go about things when considering the implications for health and safety as, once someone stands up, virtual reality has proven to be quite unsafe (many people end up losing their balance due to conflicting brain signals regarding spatial awareness).

I regret arriving a bit late and missing the Sony VR presentation but, all in all, it was a great day out and well worth the 6 hour journey there and back (on the same day) to see what people were doing. I remain very excited at having seen the work nDreams are doing and hope to factor it into my PhD studies. It’s a great time to be in this industry as an entirely new frontier unfolds right in front of us. There are questions not just of usability and engagement but also ethics and how to develop content in a responsible manner so as not to contribute to the problems of escapism through gaming and internet addiction, which we are starting to see more of. I truly believe that the VR experience has the potential to improve the human condition and contribute to our collective mental evolution. Let’s see how much we can get right at the start and set a precedent for a tradition of excellence.