Exploring the Future of Holodeck in a Headset
VRgineers Inc. is a virtual reality engineering company that designs and manufactures state-of-the-art VR gear for professionals who use them in an enterprise setting. The company is headquartered in Prague and has an American office in Los Angeles.
But its CEO also travels around the world regularly to show off the tech at events and expos, like the upcoming Augmented World World Expo in Munich, Germany. I met with Marek Polčák, a co-founder and CEO of VRgineers in August when he was in New York City for a few days to demo the headset on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side at a VR arcade called Jump Into the Light.
The headsets provided for the games in the arcade are typically of the Oculus variety with a price tag in the hundreds; in contrast, the XTAL headset I got to try out is priced at $5800. Obviously, at that price range, it is beyond the budget of the average gamer, though there are a few who do invest that much for the best viewing experience possible on the market.
But generally, VRgineers finds the market for its high-resolution VR headset platform in a more professional capacity. The various enterprises that have found it useful include automotive, architecture, industrial design, and military training.
The back story
I asked Polčák how he came to develop this form of technology. He explained that it actually began with a failure.
Drawing on his background in electrical engineering, he was given the job of providing a 360-degree drone view of the city for tourists to Prague without the expense of a helicopter tour. It was meant to be an immersive, VR experience.
As it turned out, though, there were two problematic issues with the VR setup there: quality and reliability. One: the quality of the visuals was so low that no one liked the picture. Two: the devices would constantly break down, as they were retail devices that were not built for hours of use.
They did try using different headsets, he explained. But none of them worked because at the time there was “nothing suitable” that provided the “quality that people expected.”
The gap between expectations and reality
At that point, VR hype was actually ahead of the tech. “A lot of popular media over-hyped the VR,” he said.
Of course, that’s what marketing people do. They frequently don’t even understand what goes into the tech that they present as bringing science fiction dreams of holodecks and the like to our own living rooms.
Star Trek fans, especially might have been thinking of the experience envisioned for the original pilot of The Original Series, "The Cage,” which ends with the now decrepit and immobilized admiral being able to experience moving freely through idealized landscapes with an idealized female companion in a completely immersive fantasy that he experienced as a young captain.
But like the Star Trek episode itself, there was no real substance to the vision.
In contrast, Polčák observed, “Technicians like us did not” exaggerate the technological capabilities because they stick to the actual facts. He stretched his arms apart as he said, “ So expectations were here and the tech here, and the gap was too big.”
Building the most immersive headset on the market
After some time, he said, he worked on “a lot of different types of projects for different companies,” which enhanced his “knowledge of building hardware and software solutions.” He then formed a team of VR engineers who worked on developing the most immersive headset.
He explained that the market for XTAL is distinct from the one for more popularly priced VR devices like Oculus. “They are focused on the general market, so they need to spread the devices to as many people as possible with very cheap parts.”
Their niche is professionals who are willing to pay the premium price for a device that delivers top-notch image quality and a truly immersive experience. That includes those who use it in “automotive design and aerospace training for human to machine interaction and pilot simulations,” he said.
Adding AR capability to the VR headset
Polčák said that their latest headset design includes an “add-on front-facing combination camera that allows you to combine AR and VR.” That makes the XTAL capable of not just AR and VR but the combination knowns as MR (mixed reality).
He explained that this enterprise-grade MR system capable of total immersion was “developed due to demand of pilots.” For pilot training, they wanted to be able to combine the actual cockpit with a virtual environment, so they would be situated in a “real cockpit with real switches.”
Obviously, doing a practice flight in a real plane to get that real, physical experience entails much greater risk than doing so virtually. So the challenge was achieving that real and virtual combination, which is why the addition of AR was necessary.
XTAL’s capability enabled LEAP Motion tracking that allows for gesture control and hand tracking in VR applications. VRgineers’ new module expands that feature to mixed reality applications by combining elements of the physical and virtual world into an immersive, natural experience. With VRgineers’ new AR module, XTAL users will be able to experience natural hands-on interaction with real-world things, like fighter jet cockpits or vehicle dashboard prototypes, while surrounded by a realistic virtual world.
You can see the setup for that kind of flight simulation above. I tried it out, and it really does create the sky views, including what you’d see when looking out the side (like the wings of the plane you’re flying). It is not so easy to manipulate. But at least when you crash here, you can emerge from the cockpit unscathed and without having damaged an expensive plane.
One of the demonstrations he offered was of entering a car, changing the colors of the interior, exterior, and the wheel design. Another was entering a beach house and moving around through different rooms that could have different finishes and colors applied to the walls, floors, etc.
You can see that inside-outside tracking effect in the video achieved in the new AR-enabled headset below.
He explained, “The idea is to show potential customers how it would look and enable them to make adjustments before it is actually built.” Being immersed within the virtual space gives a more accurate “feeling for the place” and allows the person to better judge if they’d want “the ceiling higher or lower and which materials they want to use.”
Those who use it for designs or training within their business are their typical customers rather than those in the entertainment industry, though they do reach out to some who fall into that category “that want to deliver something special.” Their headsets are compatible with all kinds of software, including different niche segments of the market, so they work with any game, as well.
The future of AR, VR, and MR
Polčák anticipates in the future such combination solutions may even be used for practice driving, as it currently is already adapted for Formula One race car drivers to practice on. “You start with the most expensive use cases,” he explained.
Right now, a practice flight can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour. “When the technology is more advanced and easier, the cost will go down,” he predicts, and then we will see it applied to more basic forms of training, like teens learning to drive.
He regards what he offers as “a kind of preview of what will trickle down at the consumer level.” It could take a few years or as long as a decade, but he predicts that what is strikingly high tech and specialized now will “be transformed into what normal people buy.”
He sees this progress as inevitable in light of the established pattern of technological “process and transition.” The “first-generation advanced from paper to computers, another one from computer to mobile phone, and this is the next stage.”
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