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VR & AR at VRTGO 2016

Shaun Allan14/11/2016Immersive Technologiesalt

For those who think VR, AR and MR are only applicable to gaming, think again; as the annual VRTGO conference more than demonstrated this year, such technologies also have a key role to play in 'serious' applications. VRTGO - pronounced 'vertigo' - is Europe's leading event of its kind in the sector, which I had the privilege of attending with colleagues Eduards Denisjonoks, Andy Kelly, Craig Tweedy and Owen Wright. Having taken valuable feedback from Eduards and Andy on board, I'd now like to share my thoughts on some of the most fascinating uses of this fast-developing hardware. 



HoloLens, which was known under development as Project Baraboo, consists of mixed reality smartglasses developed and manufactured by Microsoft. The technology has been credited as the world's first fully self-contained head-mounted holographic computer, distinguishing itself with a unique feature that means, even though a screen is projected onto the visor, the experience isn't entirely immersive; one can still walk around unimpeded.

Currently, NASA is exploring a number of uses for the innovation, which could aid the next astronauts to visit Mars. The plan is to stitch together images taken from Curiosity Rover, before augmenting the result and showing it in a 'Google St. View-Style' that enables better understanding of the planet's surface.

NASA is also using HoloLens to provide a mixed reality experience at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and, in fact, for building spacecraft, since it saves time, aids collaboration and helps prevent costly accidents. PSVR and Oculus will likewise be used by its scientists and engineers to reduce the risk of incidents like the toppling of the NOAA-19 satellite, which cost the agency several hundred million dollars.

At VRTGO, we were given a glimpse of the technology in action. However, it's likely NASA's use of it will go well beyond what was shown in the demo. 

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A startup that offers 'close up' encounters with artists via virtual reality, Melody VR has built proprietary codecs that mean content can be streamed to devices without performance issues. The company has the world's largest VR library, with over 3000 hours of content contributed by more than 500 artists. It has also created its own hardware, including cameras, to capture high quality video from the stage, tour buses etc. As service users watch this, a mere move of the head allows them to experience sound coming from the 'actual' direction of the performer. 

It is expected that the service will be released through an ‘iTunes style’ sales format, with pay-per-track or pay-per-gig options available. At least one 'real world' ticket vendor is planning to offer unlimited 'VR tickets' the instant live performances sell out. 



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 Having tried both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, I'd say the latter was the better of the two. On a general level, it's also worth noting that, when it comes to VR games, there's still some way to go in defining controls across the platforms.  

To put what I mean in context, think about the Xbox and PlayStation. Both consoles have four main buttons, two joysticks and a directional pad; and, as any committed gamer will tell you, the 'X' on an Xbox controller translates (generally) to the Playstation's square symbol. 

With VR, though, each game has to define its own controls; on trying both Syren and Robo Recall, for example, I discovered the games used fundamentally different methods for changing player direction. 

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Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to have a go on the Playstation VR demo. Eduards, however, was able to try out "EVE: Valkyrie" on it and found the VR set comfortable, even with the glasses on. Image quality was also good and, while it was difficult to get a complete sense of tracking quality within a short demo, Eduards considered it satisfactory.

Over the years, it seems, Sony has been putting in solid groundwork for moving into the high level VR space, going from the Sony Glastron ( a primitive version of PVSR introduced in 1996) to the Knect. In its VRTGO presentation, the company focused on how its latest tech had the power to make VR more accessible to consumers. PSVR, it likewise claimed, could create a true social experience, despite the seemingly isolating nature of donning a VR headset. 

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What we can confirm is that, while PSVR is not the most powerful headset available, it is the only one that is remotely affordable to the general public when associated costs are considered. The Oculus and Vive, for example, can only run on powerful gaming PCs, whereas PSVR can run on PS4, meaning a solid immersive experience can be yours for less than £500. By comparison, HoloLens costs £2.7k for the dev version and £4.5k for the commercial iteration.