In a grand but mostly-empty casino hallway at CES 2017, Bertrand Nepveu showed me one of the most impressive demos of VR or AR I’ve ever seen.
Nepveu, CEO and founder of Vrvana, wasn’t planning to show off his company’s Totem HMD at the show but graciously agreed to give us a private demo. The hallway was chosen because we both happened to be at the Wynn at the same time (a little CES magic), and we needed an outlet to plug in the gaming laptop from which he was running the HMD.
The Totem is an XR device that relies on a camera passthrough to give you a view into the real world despite the fact that it’s a fully occluded HMD. It features inside-out 6DOF tracking, and it can alternate between AR and VR applications with ease. Our own Kevin Carbotte caught the Totem demos at Immersed 2016, and he wrote a detailed account of the experience and a breakdown of the technology Vrvana used on the device.
We enjoyed the same demos--the QR code-based AR Delorean (and light saber and Pikachu and so on) and the helicopter that you can control (with a gamepad) as an AR object in the real world or within a VR environment--but Nepveu had a new one to show us called “Matrix Mode.”
A more apt description might be “Geordi La Forge Mode,” because it’s reminiscent of what the blind TNG officer’s special visor allowed him to see. Thanks to edge detection, I could see the forms, shapes, and movements of the real world, but instead of seeing it all in full color via the camera passthrough, it looks not unlike a heat map--painted in yellows, oranges, reds, greens, and blues.
Then, using the connected laptop, Nepveu fired up Showdown, a familiar VR demo. But I couldn’t see it in the headset--I was still in Matrix Mode. He told me to reach for the dial on the side of the Totem. I turned it, and Matrix Mode faded, giving way to Showdown. In an instant, instead of looking at my (yellow/orange/red/green/blue) colleagues in front of me, I was dodging cars and bullets in slow-mo. I turned the dial back, and Matrix Mode returned.
The transition between these realities was as smooth as any standard video fade effect. Because we try to “beat” every XR demo and device we see, I started turning the dial back and forth as quickly as possible. The device had no issues; the visuals were completely smooth and stable.
But the surprise is that Matrix Mode was running not on the laptop, but on the Totem HMD itself. Specifically, it was the work of the custom FPGA, IMU, and camera on the headset; Matrix Mode does not require the laptop’s resources, which leaves the PC free to handle the VR demo’s demands. And somehow, you can instantaneously fade between them.
A Pilot, Then Mass Production
Although the Totem demos we’ve seen were on a 3D-printed prototype, Vrvana has 50 production-level units ready to ship for a pilot program. Then, the company will enter mass production sometime in the second half of 2017. At that time, the Totem will still be an expensive (about $5,000) device aimed at B2B applications, but soon enough there will be a consumer version, optimized for cost and landing in the several-hundred-dollar range.
That is, unless a bigger company acquires Nepveu, his team, and their superb mixed reality technology first and accelerates the whole process.