CES 2016 was rife with VR-related tech -- some exceptional, some not so much -- but one company we encountered is making a full-body motion tracking camera that’s designed to work with low-cost, mobile HMDs like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard devices.
I spoke with Dmitry Morozov, VicoVR’s Business Development Director, about the VicoVR Sensor, and he answered my questions and gave me a chance to try it out.
Under The Hood
My first thought was that the VicoVR looked like a Kinect, and it does, but this device has VicoVR’s own secret sauce inside. Morozov told me that although VicoVR is fundamentally a software company, it’s begun pushing into hardware. A year ago, they began experimenting with a prototype using off-the-shelf parts, and they’ve since customized from there.
The VicoVR team made their own board, and they used a Samsung Exynos chip to power it. It’s a self-contained unit; all the sensing and processing is done on board and is then sent to a device (your mobile HMD) via Bluetooth. The module uses a USB port for power.
They’ve employed ORBBEC’s Astra 3D module for depth sensing over other options, such as Intel’s RealSense, because they wanted to remain hardware agnostic. Morozov also told me that RealSense can’t do full-body motion sensing, and besides, it has too many OS restrictions. Primesense was a no-go because Apple snapped it up a couple of years ago.
The module has an optimal range of 1-5 meters. I immediately stepped back as far as I could, and the module picked me up beyond 5 meters, but Morozov said that the experience wouldn’t be as strong from that distance.
How It Works
The VicoVR Sensor “looks” at multiple skeletal points to create its image of a person. The camera can “see” in VGA at 30 fps (that’s how it tracks, not how it displays). As the sensor tracks your movements, it places those actions inside of an interactive game that you’re playing inside a mobile VR HMD.
It can actually see two people with one sensor, so you can enjoy some experiences with a partner, provided you’re both wearing HMDs.
As it’s hardware agnostic, VicoVR wants its sensor to essentially be platform agnostic, as well. That’s easier said than done. The company does have an Android SDK -- Morozov told me that dev kits were already in the mail -- but developing an Apple SDK is a longer cycle. (He didn’t mention anything about Windows Phone.)
Punching Through The Demo
The demo that Morozov and his assistant showed me was simple but effective.
I played the same boxing demo seen in the video embedded in this article, and as you can see, there’s a small amount of lag. Morozov said that the only real lag is from the Bluetooth connection, which he noted is down to 10ms.
Once in the demo, I was faced with a head-and-torso dummy. When areas of the dummy lit up, I had to punch them. This took some getting used to; the sensor seemed to pick up my arm movements reasonably well, but the 3D effect didn’t quite match what I was seeing. I thought I was hitting the target, but I actually had to step forward and around and then punch to connect to the right spot.
After I satisfied the game’s accuracy test, I had a certain amount of time -- a couple of minutes, as I recall -- to sufficiently batter the dummy, which I gleefully did.
Like other motion peripherals, the VicoVR couldn’t track and translate my actions nearly as fast as I could move in real life, and there’s a lack of tactile satisfaction when you punch something in-game but physically connect only with air. It reminded me quite a bit of Wii boxing, actually, except of course the VicoVR was tracking my whole body and placing those movements into a 3D environment, whereas the Wii just tracks the nunchakus in your hands.
I would not describe the experience as immersion, by any stretch, but it was fun. I can imagine a game where I would have to fight off a gang of meanies coming at me from all sides, requiring me to whip around 360 degrees and defend myself. More to the point, I can imagine my kids discovering all sorts of games and experiences with this gear.
As I mentioned above, VicoVR supports Google Cardboard and Gear VR, and Morozov said that they’re hoping to add Nvidia’s Shield, Android TV, Apple TV and more. Acquiring that level of ubiquity, and on those types of devices, is a wise goal. After playing the demo, the VicoVR Sensor seems ideal for more casual games -- not unlike the sort of games you play with your kids on the Wii or the Kinect. The difference here is that you’d be in a VR environment.
Because Google Cardboard is so inexpensive (for that matter, Gear VR isn’t all that pricey at just $99), and because ideally there would be multiple smartphones in the house two players could use simultaneously, VicoVR is pushing into the world of fun, family-friendly living room entertainment.
It’s not going to be cheap -- Morozov said that the retail version of the module will likely cost in the area of $270 (although via an upcoming crowdfunding campaign, you’ll be able to reserve one for $200), but again, this is a device that does it own heavy lifting. You don’t need an expensive console nor a PC; it processes and feeds the sensor data to your smartphone and HMD.
Many of the VR experiences we’ve seen rock your world, but as the market grows, many VR experiences will simply be enchanting and enjoyable -- and inexpensive. VicoVR appears to be making a product that sits in the latter camp.
Update, 1/21/16, 5:35am PT: Fixed typo.