18 January 2016

New Year, New Name - FieldscapesVR


One of the first tasks of Phase 2 of the InnovateUK funded Virtual Field Trips as a Service project that we started at the end of last year was to come up with a slightly snappier title for it. After much deliberation we've gone for Fieldscapes, AND FieldscapesVR. Whilst the core service will be called Fieldscapes, FieldscapesVR will also be used to refer to the VR capability, and for the domain name (since fieldscapes.com had gone!). 

As part of the "rebranding" we've taken the opportunity to:

In terms of overall progress the project is going well. In application terms we now have a User Story wall (at top) for our agile development methodology. We'll be posting weekly updates onto Facebook, and may even do a timelapse video at the end! Next week we've got a day accompanying a school on a physical fieldtrip in the Long Mynd, and then we head back to the office to start replicating all the tasks in Fieldscapes.

Next, we need a logo......

11 January 2016

HTC Vive - A Different Take on VR

Hard on the heels of the Oculus Rift release announcement HTC has also now announced the pre-order date for its Vive VR headset - 29 Feb. No price, but with Oculus on the hide side of what many expected, and rumours that Playstation VR will have a similar price, the chances are that the Vive won't be far off.

In terms of what Vive does there are a couple of things that separate it out from the Oculus:

- It has two spatial sensors, rather than Oculus' one, and they are designed to be placed in the corners of the room, rather than on the desktop as with Oculus. The upshot of this is that when wearing the Vive you can actually walk around the room and have your viewpoint move with you in the VR space. So if you were in a model of say the Tardis could you walk all the way around the console and up to the door and back, with no need to use a hand controller or other method (stare at feet, walk) to move around. All highly natural. Of course it means you need a room big enough (and uncluttered enough) to do this in, and what if the VR space you are in is miles bigger than your room space - can you slide or jump the mapping of real to VR space? It's still not a perfect solution to the "how do you move in VR" problem, but its an interesting avenue to explore.

- It has a front mounted camera, which can not only be used for things like hand tracking but can also provide a video feed of the real space in front of that can be faded in and out of the VR view. One use for this is apparently to crank up the real view as you get close to a physical real wall whilst wandering around in your VR space, but there must also be some interesting AR type uses, as well as more hygene things like quickly flipping back into reality to see what is going on around you (and maybe tell your friends off for laughing at you whilst you've got the VR headset on).

The Vive controllers look a lot chunkier than the Oculus ones, and also apparently the Vive has lower rez graphics, but possibly a wider field of view. 

One final point is that HTC has partnered with Steam, the on-line gaming provider, which will give them a very direct route to market, so who wins in the game wars (if anyone, looks like it's just be the same platforms+VR combinations (Playstation, Steam, Android/Google - interesting so where does that leave Oculus and Xbox?) will be interesting.

We haven't had the chance to try one out yet, so this is all second hand based on YouTube CES reports (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otz5rAUOaqk), but we'll certainly be looking to get our hands on one later in the year.

7 January 2016

Oculus Rift CV1 - It's the dates not the price which worry


So we put in our order for the Oculus Rift CV1 yesterday. Balked a bit at the UK price (£529, inc shipping), but VR is our business so we really need to have one. But the price alone, and the widespread internet reaction to it (forcing an apology from Palmer Luckey over misleading fans by still talking about an around a $350 price tag just days ago) shows that in consumer terms this going to be more of gamer/geek/gearhead bit of kit rather than something for everyone. Of course for business users and B2C marketing it's still way cheap when you consider what some of the alternatives (physical training, travel etc) are, or what the potential payback is (£££ in sales).

Slightly more worrying from our point of view is the delivery date, or should that be dates? When we logged in at 4pm (GMT) yesterday as orders opens the delivery date was March. By the time we'd actually managed to get through the order process it was April. Just minutes after that we saw people on Twitter reporting May, and today we're seeing posts talking about June. So we assume that this must all be linked to production rates, there isn't a warehouse of tens, hundreds of thousands of these things ready to ship, there's a production line, and its probably only building 1k-10k a month. Yes that could no doubt be ramped up, but it means that CV1 is likely to be in short supply until well into the summer, possibly the autumn - so that really limits businesses, and our, ability to make use of it in education, training, data visualisation and marketing.

So for the foreseeable future it still looks like the Google Cardboard route is the best one for widespread VR adoption, and it will be interesting to see if the Samsung VR Gear falls on the Cardboard or CV1 side of the fence. I also think it will be interesting long term to see if Oculus' future is in the hardware (where they will always be behind mobile phones in cost and screen resolution, if not performance), or in software (as they are doing with Samsung, use their smarts with other people's hardware). We all know that in tech consumers tend to prefer price/convenience over performance, so if Oculus sticks with its own sophisticated hardware we could be entering another VHS vs Betamax competition, and we all know how that panned out.

5 January 2016

Data in VR - What Mark Zuckerberg is after?

Mark Zuckerberg has announced that in 2016 he's going to build a "simple" AI to help him around the house and to help him run his business, "You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man", he says. Even more interestingly for us is that he also says that it will "help me visualize data in VR to help me build better services and lead my organizations more effectively." The Guardian, commenting on the story then adds that "he’ll have work to do. Virtual reality systems are new enough that there isn’t much out there that uses them, and most of what has been created to date is firmly focused on entertainment. Even building a good data-visualisation system for virtual reality would involve striding out ahead of the pack."

Guess what we've had running ever since Oculus DK1 came out - 3D virtual reality data visualisation using our Datascape immersive visual analytics application.


That's me looking at NSA Cyber Defence Exercise data using DK1 with Datascape 1 about 18 months ago.

Mark's announcement, and hence this post, is also a reason for us to start talking a bit more about what we've been doing since we did that work. There will be more details to come, but for the last 18 months we've been working on a second generation Datascape applications. Datascape1 was written in Unity3D and let you visualise and interact with up to around 64,000 data points. Datascape 2 (in its XL version) has been written in DirectX with our own 3D engine and lets you visualise and interact with over 10 million data points (we've had it running up to around 15 million). And we have it running on Oculus Rift DK2, and our pre-order for the consumer edition goes in tomorrow. We plan to have a closed beta of Datascape2 available in February, with the product launch set for some time in 2Q16.

And take a look at what we've been able to do so far with Datascape1 - and all available in VR.

So if you'd like to see what Mark may be after, and experience data visualisation in VR, then get in touch.

4 January 2016

2016 - The Year of Virtual Reality?

The start of a new year always heralds a host of "looking back/looking forward" pieces in the media. In just the last 24 hours I've heard virtual reality crop up on a couple of big media "What's Big in 2016" articles, one on BBC News and another in the Guardian. Just a quick Google search yields:

So 70% of the lists have VR as one of their tech items to watch. Of course the build up of the hype around Oculus Rift (and by extension "modern" VR) has been quite something, and the release of Google Cardboard and its clones, whilst making VR actually more accessible, has almost been sidelined in the wait for the holy grail of the Oculus Rift. With the latest reports still suggesting a Q1 launch (but without a firm date, and probably without the controllers),  and a price tag that is drifting up not down ($500/£500?), you get no sense that 2016 will see a tidal wave of VR adoption. Yes more people will get to try it, some (tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands?) gamers may actually buy it, but this is still a long, long way from mainstream. The biggest challenge is that using a VR headset for an extended length of time is still not something that most people will be happy with. Its great for that 2-3 minute "oh wow this is amazing" experience - so great for marketeers or to build engagement in education, but to spend an hour or so in there is not just a mental challenge, but a real physical risk from wrapped cables and bumping into things and even falling over- it's hardly surprising that most real world use cases of people using VR for any length of time also appear to have a support crew on stand-by!

To get really widespread adoption this need not only to be simple and cheap (so more Cardboard than Rift - I can see shades of VHS/Betamax), but to have killer content that people want (which always seems to lag technology by a few years), and above all a use case (from duration or environment) that is safe.

We're firm believers in VR, but we see the current technology crop as just one more (positive) step forward on the path to Caprica's Holobands...