Hardware: Cutting-Edge Immmersive Technologoies At UOIT
As an immersive technology enthusiast, the university visit was a great opportunity to examine some bleeding edge commercial and industrial products in the field:
The Oculus Rift Developer Kit
We've seen the Oculus Rift before, in January of this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The kits have been shipping for some time, and this trip was a great opportunity to see what the progressive company is delivering to developers and enthusiasts.
The first time we saw the Rift in action, we were blown away. Unfortunately, our time with the demo was short and we had spent a lot of it asking questions instead of experiencing the product.
In less of a rush, and given actual games to play (Skyrim and Left 4 Dead, thanks to the Vireio Perception drivers), we got a much better look at what the Rift development kit can and cannot do. It was a lot easier to be objective about the product's shortcomings this time around. Yes, the head tracking is still fantastic, and the field of vision is great. Having said that, ghosting issues remain a concern, especially in brightly-lit games with high contrast. It's much less of a problem in the dimly lit environments of Left 4 Dead.
We were also more aware of the relatively low resolution (1280x720 total, with each eye limited to 640x720) this time around. At this point, a 1080p display would be the minimum we'd want to see in a final consumer product. The good news is that Oculus has made it clear that the commercial release will support this. I was able to corner John Carmack at a recent event, and he said that Oculus is planning to release a Rift Dev Kit 2.0 with a 1080p screen and positional tracking, a feature the original model doesn't offer. The commercial version may have even better specifications.
Epson Moverio BT-100 Augmented Reality Glasses
If you listen to mainstream media, you might think that Google's Glass is the only augmented reality eyewear in development. Not so: Epson has been working on its Moverio BT-100 for years now. It's a very different product, though.
Instead of Google's comparatively inconspicuous offering with a single, tiny HUD over the user's right eye, Epson's solution provides two HUDs, each covering most of the area in front of the wearer's eyes. The Moverio takes the middle ground between the Oculus Rift and Google Glass. This makes virtual stereoscopic projection possible, and the potential applications are much more robust.
For example, the following demo video showcases how the Moverio could help a technician disassemble machinery he's not familiar with:
That demo is a very impressive proof of concept system put together by Scope, an augmented reality company. But it's important to note that some specialized hardware and software is required, and not included with the Moverio, such as a head-mounted stereo camera.
Out of the box, Epson's solution is fairly limited. It runs on Android and can play video on what the user perceives as an 80-inch screen, with 480x540 pixel resolution per eye. At this point, the Moverio is more of a test mule for possible applications, and Epson is the first to admit that it's too bulky for the consumer market. But we applaud the company's dedication to R&D and hope a mainstream product will follow, someday.
The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE):
CAVE stands for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. It's a room that combines stereoscopic rendering technologies and motion tracking to deliver a seamless virtual 3D space. Short-throw projectors create images on two walls and a floor in a 6'x8' room with multiple cameras that observe the user. The projectors throw active 3D images rendered by the server, which uses Nvidia Quadro cards with genlock daugherboards. As the computer tracks your movement, the projection system adapts and changes the location and field of view. It's hard to describe, but the video below should give you a much better idea of its capabilities:
The university uses the CAVE for research, and the faculty claims that it's very good for Human-Machine Interaction work, or for working with a lot of data simultaneously. The commercial applications for a CAVE usually involve prototyping and architecture. Instead of imagining what things will look like from a blueprint, the CAVE allows engineers to digitally create the building, walk through it, and spot flaws or potential improvements before laying bricks and mortar.
While it's true that HMDs like the Oculus Rift can also help with this sort of task, a CAVE is uniquely able to deliver real-time perspectives based on the human head position in 3D space. Mind you, CAVEs are also a lot more expensive, which is why there are only a handful in Ontario. The CAVE is a great research and teaching tool, and it's wonderful to see students getting an opportunity to come up with new ways to use it.