Touting three-dimensional gaming, stunning 360-degree photography, and sound that literally encircles the user, virtual reality (VR) has—for the last few years—been heralded as the next big leap for mainstream technology. Various use-cases have been imagined, from experiencing sports games from the athletes’ perspectives to creating practice forums for surgery, exploring houses in real estate markets, and joining fitness classes that monitor movement.
Now, after a huge surge in development around the world, VR’s ground-breaking capabilities are finally becoming available to consumers.
Last weekend’s CVR convention showcased how the technology will revolutionize everything from the gaming industry to search-and-rescue missions. Dubbed “Vancouver’s coming-out party for virtual and augmented reality” by Dan Burgar, director of business development and partnerships at VR powerhouse Archiact, the three-day event saw representatives from more than 55 companies offer their unique take on the up-and-coming media.
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot to marvel at.
VR enthusiasts were greeted on entry by Fire-Point Games: a company that has anchored its gameplay in users’ physical movements. Demoing his creation Tooth and Claw, Fire-Point CEO Joe Bonar stood in front of two people in HTC Vive headsets, frantically flailing their arms as a crowd of around 50 looked on and laughed.
“VR lets people engage with their surroundings in a way that’s very real,” he told the Straight. “So we thought fighting other players hand-to-hand would be a good idea, and we figured it would be even more fun to be animals. We settled on tigers—and, more specifically, saber-toothed tigers. That dials it up to 11.
“We were mucking around with the eternal problem of how to move in virtual reality. We tried using a controller, and we tried using the touchpad to accelerate, and it wasn’t great. And then we settled on actually running like a tiger. People interpret the movement in their own way, but you can actually creep very carefully and slowly, or leap and jump, and the headset and cameras will show that in real-time.
“The faster you move, the more noise you make,” Bonar continues. “When you have the headphones on there’s 3D sound, so if someone is attacking one of the beasts, they will howl and scream and you will also make a lot of noise—so it’s easy for your opponent to track you down. The aim of the game is to get your adversary down to zero hit points.
“Right now, this is in the alpha stage,” he says. “It’s a good, solid, and fun proof of concept, which is not making people throw up. We’re going to be building on it, and the final game is due out in September on HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.”
With action-packed titles like Raw Data and Space Pirate Trainers already on the market, the gaming industry has a strong foothold in virtual reality. But while entertainment is an obvious area for developers to invest their talents, the technology has a unique capacity to solve real-world problems.
Leading the charge is Archiact, CVR’s event organizers and one of Vancouver’s premier virtual and augmented reality designers. Housing a number of new creations, the company’s several-foot-high booth took a fresh look at combatting business and safety issues. Demoing a crawling robot that resembles an overgrown spider, Markus Von Der Heyde, lead of research and development at the company, was keen to show how new hardware can extend virtual reality’s capabilities.
“This is a prototype for a search-and-rescue application,” he told the Straight. “Often there are dangerous places that humans might not want to go, and that’s when we send in a machine. The robot is controlled remotely, and it takes pictures. From those pictures, we immediately construct a VR scene. You can look around that image, and search for survivors. We’re working closely with the Vancouver firefighters to make an application that fits their needs.
“There is a 360-degree camera on the top. It takes photos in time-lapse, and you can jump into the photos by walking up to a dot in your vision. That picture then becomes a full virtual reality scene. It’s very similar to something like Google Street View in its idea, but because it’s in VR, you combine the motion of the body with the view that you get.
“The best thing about this approach is that people don’t get motion sickness,” he continues. “A lot of people are feeling ill when travelling in VR, and that doesn’t happen to anyone in our application because you’re always controlling what you see. That’s the key feature here. I see tons of application for it, because not making people nauseous in VR is a really big deal.”
As well as resolving problems in virtual reality, Archiact has a number of developers working with its close relative, augmented reality (AR). A technology popularized in its rudimentary form by Pokémon Go, AR overlays digital images onto the real world. In its more advanced configuration, headsets like Meta and Microsoft’s HoloLens allow designers to build holograms that appear before the wearer’s eyes, which can be physically manipulated by the user. Able to work together with VR to offer a different view inside the same structure, augmented reality is set to transform a number of businesses—a fact that hasn’t been wasted on Archiact.
“This is our first product in the serious solutions division of the company,” a rep tells the Straight. “It looks at architecture, and the premise is for early-stage building design. Imagine we’re at the very beginning of the process where the client and architect are collaborating together. They don’t know what the structure will look like yet, and this is where this tool comes in. They can create a building in both augmented reality and virtual reality in minutes. They can understand the space and literally be in it together, and talk about it together, even if they’re not in the same physical location. Normally it would involve a lot of back-and-forth file-sending, and lots of repetitiveness, so we cut that time down drastically.
“The VR and AR components complement each other”, she continues. “The augmented reality headset shows a hologram of the building. The client could be in a boardroom looking at this blueprint on a table, while the architect is inside the building in virtual reality on a different headset, running around and making changes.
“Right now, we’re pre-alpha, and we’ll be in public alpha in a few months,” she says. “We’re working with Stantec and HCMA, which are architecture firms that have offices in Vancouver, just to make sure we have all the features that they need before we do a full launch.”
Home to a number of first-class developers and early adopters that are already changing the digital landscape, Vancouver is—as CVR proves—a hub for virtual reality. And, with numerous hardware and software designs displayed in various stages of completion, consumers can rest assured that the majority of products demoed at the convention will be hitting the market very soon.
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