VRGeeks are set to democratise Immersive Virtual Reality

Jul 19, 2012
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If you’re into innovative and/or futuristic hardware (color holograms, the Leap, hackable devices, etc.) and can’t wait for consumer-grade product releases to try out the latest technology, you might have heard of the Oculus “Rift”, especially if you’re one of the lucky fellows who were at E3 in June. The Rift is a Head Mounted Display created by Palmer Luckey which can be particularly useful for Virtual Reality (VR) applications. Oculus will launch a Kickstarter project in a couple of days, to help them fund their developments. Here is how they are teasing the Rift:

Imagine an HMD with a massive field of view and more pixels than 1080p per eye, wireless PC link, built in absolute head and hand/weapon/wand positioning, and native integration with some (if not all) of the major game engines, all for less than $1,000 USD. That can happen in 2013!

Luckey is actually not the only one working towards making VR more accessible, and we have good people in France actively pursuing similar goals.

What exactly is VR?

Allow me to quote the definition found on the VRgeeks website before I properly introduce them:

Immersive Virtual Reality (iVR) is the science and technology required for a user to feel present, via perceptive, cognitive and functional immersion and interaction, in a generated environment. […] VR is the experience, it’s what happens in your head. The hardware is one part, the software is another part, and you have to have both (and both right) to create the experience !

When I read this I think of games and entertainment, but there are some really useful usages of VR in many industries:

  • marketing research: simulate walking around in a supermarket, and study the influence of product placement (as done at Carrefour)
  • design & prototyping, of cars for instance (as done at PSA Peugeot Citroën)
  • training: medical, piloting planes, controlling nuclear power plants, or any situation where lives are at stake…
  • behaviour research: study how people behave in particular, programmed situations (as in the OpenViBE project presented by Clarté at Futur en Seine).
Cavemen…

Research shows that vision is the sense we rely on most when apprehending the world. Therefore, in a typical VR setting, immersion starts with your visual senses: you wear an HMD or you are placed in a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment — basically it’s a square room where every wall is a projection surface). Graphics are generated by a 3D engine on the computer, but instead of seeing them on your computer screen, you are immersed in the virtual world and see it all around you. Instead of interacting with mouse and keyboard, you manipulate objects in the virtual world with gestures in three dimensions using a haptic glove with force feedback. VR enables people to experience imaginary things as if they were real and to get new insights into the computer-modeled environment and/or the objects within.

On the hardware side of things, there is much more to add, for instance there are systems like the omni-directional treadmill that allow you to move all around the virtual world by making the action of walking, while always keeping you at the same place in the real world. If you missed the Intro to VR last month at La Cantine, I recommend you check out these slides and the photos and demo videos within in order to get an idea of how cool the technology involved in VR is.

Meet the VRGeeks

VRGeeks are a non profit association of Immersive Virtual Reality enthusiasts, founded in 2011. They are based in France but there are members everywhere in the world (US, Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Switzerland, etc.) and they communicate through a mailing list where events are announced and international experts discuss new technology and research in related fields.

Sébastien Kuntz and Nicolas Conil (in the background) modelling for VRGeeks

Initially, the VRGeeks were a group of Paris-based experts working in the industry, who would meet for drinks, talk about testing the latest hardware, discuss presence in virtual reality on a philosophical level… but most of all, they wanted to have fun with VR, to share their passion, and to allow people to enjoy VR at home. Indeed, even though VR had been present in research labs for many years, they felt it was just about to become mainstream.

I have met two of the members, Nicolas Conil and Sébastien Kuntz, president, who have filled me in on the association’s activities. The VRGeeks have recently participated in Laval Virtual, the Web3D conference, and Intel’s Geek so In, among other conferences/conventions/exhibitions. They received quite a bit of press coverage in France when they participated in the 2011 edition of the Global Game Jam (it’s like a Startup Weekend where programmers and graphic+sound+game designers come together to create games, not startups). They created VR Escape, one out of 5 immersive games they have committed so far, whose pitch is dead simple: you are trapped in a horrific lab and you have to escape — check out the demo videos!

“He’s wired in.” Seb trying to escape from a horrific lab in a test of VR Escape while the rest of the team is coding the game. The laptop shows what Seb is seeing directly in front of him.

One very cool thing also is the VR kits they propose — and they’ll probably include a Rift in one of them as soon as it is out! At a price tag of under 500€, they make VR accessible to many. Here’s an example of what’s included (it can get more experimental…):

The Geeks don’t actually sell the kits but give you full specifications so you can assemble them yourself (and they can also help you out if you run into any problem!). One of their kits, the VR wall, has inspired people at the INSA Rennes engineering school to build a similar system for their own needs, the microRV.

 It’s only the beginning

We’ve touched on hardware, but one remaining challenge in order to democratise VR is to connect the software (based on 3D engines) to input and display peripherals. This is precisely what I’m in VR is doing — stay tuned for a startup profile soon!

With VR becoming more accessible and not being reserved to large companies anymore, do you see a market for VR for small-medium companies? Are you going to get hold of one of the VRGeeks kits yourself?