The future of virtual reality: want to conquer vertigo or have a go at surgery?
Now you can with the next level of 3D technology ? which defies gravity and lets you come squeamishly close to death
Ever wondered what it would be like to tightrope walk above the city, dissect a human heart, and jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet ? all in one afternoon? These are just some of the experiences on offer in a basement in east London, as part of the Digital Shoreditch festival next week, where the latest developments in immersive visualisation will be on show.
Stepping into the subterranean test space of 3D technology companyInition, it feels like you have entered the gadget-strewn lair of James Bond’s Q branch. Its bright white walls are lined with cameras and screens, egg-shaped experience pods and glowing motion-capture units. A 3D-printed brain stands to one side, while across the room a holographic image of a watch spins in front of a monitor. Violent grinding noises erupt from behind a door in the corner ? it wouldn’t be surprising if a velociraptor leapt out of the cupboard.
In this den of discovery, the company has been investigating the potential of real-time 3D-graphics for the last 12 years. Remember that glimpse of the future that never happened, watching Dominik Diamond and Patrick Moore fumbling around with virtual reality helmets and gloves on Gamesmaster? Maybe you even had a go with one at the Trocadero? Well that retro-futurist technology might just be making a comeback.
“VR never really took off in the way we all imagined,” says Andy Millns, co-founder of Inition. The technology, which allows you to look around and walk through computer-simulated environments, has long been used in medical and military applications ? training surgeons and treating troops with post-traumatic stress disorder ? but the prohibitive price of headsets (around ?50,000) always prevented it from reaching a mass audience.
That is set to change with the arrival of the Oculus Rift, a headset aimed at the gaming market, which has already raised $2.4m from a Kickstarter campaign, and is likely to retail for between ?150?250 when it’s released next year. Inition have received one of the development models, and they couldn’t be more excited. “It’s going to be huge,” says Jonathan Tustain, who works at Inition and runs the 3D Focus blog. “Not only for gaming, but for other applications like architectural simulation. It completely transforms how you look at the world.”
Strapping on the visor feels like wrapping an Imax screen around your head ? you enter an endless field of vision that responds continuously to your every move. For now, the proof-of-concept demos are somewhat basic and low resolution, but they still give a thrill. Step through a doorway and a vertiginous cityscape unfolds before your eyes, with a short wooden plank outstretched, along which you must inch your way before falling to your doom. Shock and horror seem to be the order of the day: the most popular demo released in the US simulates the last moments beneath the guillotine, complete with head-rolling visuals once the blade has plummeted.
While VR headsets have always been accompanied by a controller to direct movement, whether joystick, glove or steering wheel, a new development allows you to literally walk through these digital environments. The Wizdish is an “omni-directional treadmill” that takes the form of a polished dish of receptors that track your movement as you slide your feet to and fro across its surface. Wearing the space-age white studded shoes feels like a high-tech workout, as you shimmy around the virtual Tuscan landscape like a moonwalking Michael Jackson.
Virtual reality might still require a lot of kit, but Inition have also been making leaps in the world of augmented reality, which allows interactive graphics to be overlaid on real-time views, on the screens of smartphones and tablets.
“So far it’s only really been used as a marketing gimmick,” says Millns, “to make things pop out of a tin of beans, or hover in front of cereal boxes.”
Much of Inition’s work has also come out of marketing commissions ? from full-scale virtual cars for Jaguar, to interactive models of luxury riverside flats ? but they have recently been working with architects and engineers to push the functional potentials of the technology beyond the novelty wow factor.
Millns holds an iPad in front of a 3D-printed model of Zaha Hadid’s new art gallery in Michigan that stands inert on a nearby plinth. With a swipe of the screen, the static model comes to life: the sun comes out, showing where shadows will be cast across the site; trees sprout from the pavement and moving cars show how the building will be accessed. Another swipe and wind flow-lines pulsate across the roof. Swipe again, and a network of hidden pipes and ductwork is exposed, revealing the building’s servicing strategy. Move the iPad closer and you even start to hear the sounds of the surrounding streets.
“Architects hate sitting around a screen in front of clients,” says Millns. “This way they can show the project in a much more intuitive way, and everyone can really understand it in three dimensions. Having all these digital layers also allows changes to be made quickly, without remaking the entire model each time.”
Beyond the architect selling their project to the client, or the developer dazzling potential buyers with interactive cutaway facades, augmented reality could prove an extremely useful tool in the planning system. In Switzerland, proposed developments must first be erected in ghost form as a “baugespann”, with a full-size wiry frame marking out the volume of the building, so everyone can see quite how dominant it will be before it is given the go-ahead.
In the UK, for now, the planners decide based on abstract drawings of plans and elevations, while the public have to make do with hoardings and billboards. But if planning officers and public alike could visit a site and see, real-time on their phones and tablets, just what the cumulative impact of development will be, perhaps a few more carbuncles could be avoided.
Original article on The Guardian UK