(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )
With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!
Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.
Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.
In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.
One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.
The presentation above is a recorded version of the same one delivered at the 2018 VR Voice ‘VR in Healthcare Symposium’ held at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.
Please follow the link below to access a PDF version of the full paper from the above presentation, including the results of the survey conducted on the experiences and awareness of VR and AR within the veterinary profession.
Click link below to access paper
What a great day checking out the VR/AR Association startup zone at #IOTX in Dubai. Great ideas, great products, great people, such as Shujat Mirza (VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter President) & Clyde DeSouza (VR Filmmaker) – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
AWE (Augmented World Expo)
- Seeing how much bigger the event has become, even over the last three years. One could really get a sense of VR and AR starting to be embraced by the mainstream and the energy during the event certainly felt like it had been etched up a notch from the previous year.
- Getting to speak. I was one of several speakers who took to the stage on the Life track and thoroughly enjoyed being able to deliver my vision of where I see VR in Veterinary currently standing and where I see it going in the future. I believe I am correct when I say that I might have been the first veterinary surgeon to speak at the event so representing the veterinary profession in such an exciting and rapidly advancing industry was truly an honour.
- Checking out Lllama Zoo’s HoloLens dissection experience. Charles and Kevin from the company had made the journey down from Canada and both my friend, Deborah, and I were privileged enough to be given a live demo of their augmented reality canine dissection tool, using the Microsoft HoloLens. With each of us wearing a headset, we were both able to see a high resolution holographic image of a set of lungs and heart floating in midair and move around it viewing it from different angles, remove layers and learn about the specific anatomy of this part of the body. The image quality was superb and I was not aware of there being any flicker or issues with the hologram staying fixed in position. A very compelling demonstration and a real glimpse at the future of anatomy teaching in vet and medical schools.
VR in Healthcare Symposium (VR Voice)
With the hardware set-up and the software installed it was finally time to don the HTC Vive headset and enter my own VR for the first time. I am pleased to report that it was as awesome as I had imagined.
A little like scuba diving, which similarly requires the wearing of rather bulky, somewhat cumbersome equipment but whose experience is instantly transformed once in the medium for which it was designed, VR, as it currently stands, is much the same. The headset, whilst attractively and elegantly designed, is undeniably bulky and has some noticeable weight to it. It also looks pretty dorky if truth be told. No-one, I would posit, looks anything other than intensely nerdy wearing a VR headset. Still, as soon as the headset is placed on the head and the eyes drink in the rich graphics being streamed through the displays then, well, all that other stuff becomes instantly irrelevant. Like entering the water as a scuba diver, entering VR is met with the same perceived change of physical state. The weight of the headset is forgotten. The fact I looked like a dork was forgotten. I was, however, in a new world. Sure, I knew I was physically still in my room but then again I wasn’t. I was somewhere else entirely. That is the magic of VR.
The first experience of VR that any new owner of an HTC Vive will have is almost certain to be the tutorial. This takes place in a large white dome-like space, much like the O2 arena in London back when it was the Millenium Dome, complete with an echoey acoustic that one would imagine such a cavernous and empty space to possess. Whilst I was having an initial look around this new space I heard a voice from behind and turned to see a robotic sphere, complete with a central ‘eye,’ somewhat reminiscent of HAL in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 but friendlier. It was this levitating robotic head that was talking and it quickly became apparent that he was to be my tutor.
What followed was a systematic yet thoroughly entertaining introduction to the basic fundamentals of VR, from the principles of the play-area boundaries and the various functions of the controller handset buttons, neatly demonstrated by means of balloons, fireworks and laser beams emanating from the ends in response to each button being pushed. The balloons were especially fun as it quickly dawns on anyone going through the tutorial that one can interact with them, for example, by batting them away as one would do so at, say, a music festival. One of my friends, whilst undergoing the tutorial for the first time, released a swathe of balloons that floated gently towards the roof of the dome before quickly switching his controller over to serve as a laser beam and proceeded to shoot the balloons in a digital, VR version of clay pigeon shooting! Classic!
With the basics of the Vive explained in what I can honestly say is the most engaging, memorable, fun and effective computer setup tutorial I have ever undertaken, one of the key values of VR, and indeed spatial computing, as a medium was apparent: being immersive and interactive, including physically, serves to massively reinforce learning in a way that standard, screen-based tutorials just cannot. Can you imagine how much more engaged and willing to listen to the helpful Microsoft Office paperclip you would have been were you able to feel as though he was there in the room with you? If a simple start-up tutorial could have people grinning and feeling engaged then one can only begin to imagine the potential value of spatial computing for wider education. I have always believed that this technology will revolutionise learning and having now been able to experience it first-hand I am as convinced as ever. Going to school in the next five years is going to be awesome if the classroom experience is going to embrace the power of this tech – almost makes me want to regress back!
The kit has arrived and you are one step – physical that is – closer to taking that first virtual foray into an exciting, immersive new world. It’s just a case of opening the box and getting going, right? Not quite.
It took me about a week to finally get in to VR for real after taking delivery of my Vive, partly due to the fact that I moved house but also on account of one needing to put aside a reasonable chunk of time to dedicate to actually setting up the system. I’ll run through the steps I took in a moment but first it would be useful just to recap what I actually needed to have in place before being able to enter VR:
VR Headset, Trackers & Controllers – I opted for the HTC Vive and ordered it online from the US via Amazon. In the box was everything I needed to get going, other than the powerful PC to run it all.
PC – VR is processing hungry and requires a top-of-the-line graphics card in order to render everything properly. More and more ‘VR-compatible’ packages are coming onto the market with each passing day but, in essence, I knew that I needed to get a gaming PC as this was certain to have the grunt power necessary to fulfill my VR aspirations. In the end I opted for an Alienware 13″ laptop – it was a brand I was aware of, even as a non-gamer, and a laptop offered the portability that I wanted to be able to take my VR set-up to other locations in order to demonstrate it; not something that would be as easy with a chunky desktop.
The actual process for getting set-up and into VR involved:
Setting up the Lighthouses – in order to be able to do room scale VR at present, it is necessary to have a minimum of two scanning sensors, positioned roughly opposite one another, in order for the computer to be able to track the headset and controllers and define a virtual “play space.” It is this process that ultimately took the longest to achieve, principally for practical/ DIY reasons rather than technical ones. The sensors that come with the Vive are known as Lighthouses and were significantly bigger, and heavier, than I first imagined they would be. I’d figured that I would be able to easily hang them from the wall using a picture hook, a pretty quick and simple task to install. When I examined them, however, I discovered that they weighed a fairly decent amount and had no hole or the like from which to hang via a hook. Besides, realising how important they were to the entire virtual experience the idea of hanging them loosely on the wall lost it’s appeal.
Each had two spiral sockets to allow them to be screwed onto a camera mount, like the one that you would use to mount an SLR camera onto a tripod. With one on the back and one on the base, there were two options for how I might mount mine. Included in the box were two pivoted brackets that were intended to be screwed to the wall, a step that would necessitate drilling holes in the wall of my room. In spite of my landlord initially saying it would be fine to do so he seemed a little less keen when I broached the subject again at a later date, and the fact was that I didn’t readily have access to the necessary tools to facilitate the mounting. That and the concern about drilling into walls where I had no idea about the location of power lines – receiving an electric shock would not be a great introductory step to VR! I also wasn’t certain about the optimal location for the two Lighthouses and felt that getting that figured out might be a smart move before committing to making holes in the wall. I also wanted to retain the option of moving the system easily, for example by taking it into work to demonstrate VR to my colleagues, and so a more temporary yet similarly stable solution was preferable. This set me off on a research effort.
Various options were considered and promptly scored off the list. These included mounting the boxes via heavy duty velcro attachments (not reliable enough); setting up tall camera tripods (too much of a wide footprint to be practical in a limited space); using GoPro handlebar mounts to attach the Lighthouses to curtain rails (I did, ultimately, do this for one of them), etc. One option that seemed to be getting a lot of attention online was that of using adjustable support beams (see an example here), which have the advantage of being easy to position, set-up and move again if necessary, as well as being secure. Coupled with pole grips like the aforementioned handlebar mounts for cameras this idea certainly appealed. The issue, however, was in trying to source said poles. Nowhere I looked in Dubai seemed to have what I was after and once again I looked to the internet. They had what I thought I wanted on Amazon but being fairly expensive (about $50 each) and pretty bulky I wasn’t sure if I could even get them delivered.
Desperate to actually get going I even looked into whether it was essential to mount them in the first place. According to one video blog on the topic it seemed as though the Lighthouses could scan and track adequately even whilst placed on the floor. This, I realised, was not a practical medium to long-term option and getting them at the suggested ‘above head height’ was still preferable. In the end I actioned what I intend to be a temporary solution: one I attached via a GoPro handlebar mount to the end of one of the curtain poles in my room – thankfully the power cable just extended enough to permit this – and the other I positioned on top of a tabletop mirror that thankfully happened to be as wide as the Lighthouse itself. In a bid to reassure myself that it was moderately secure I did enlist the use of some sticky tack to try and plant the base onto the surface a little more securely than it might otherwise have been. I wasn’t entirely certain if this positioning would work as this second station was sitting not angled down towards the floor but rather horizontally. I wondered whether this would adversely impact it’s ability to scan and therefore track me correctly in VR. I needn’t have worried.
With the Lighthouses positioned, powered and synched with one another (wirelessly and automatically) it was now time to fire up the headset and controllers.
Connecting the Headset to the PC – whilst there are now systems available to allow for un-tethered headset connection, the vast majority of VR newbies will, like me, have their first experience via a fully tethered system, meaning that the headset is directly attached to their computer, via a long cable. With the Vive this cable has three components, all of which connect to the PC via an intermediary little box (included with the Vive). One of the cables plugs into an HDMI port, the second into one of the USB ports, and the third, a power cable that plugs into a power outlet. One of the cables and ports at the back of the headset is there to allow a set of headphones, or ear buds, to be plugged in – sound is a pivotal component of the immersive experience of VR – and the Vive comes with a simple set of ear buds included. I, like most however, have ultimately opted to spend some more and get a decent pair of headphones.
Switch on the PC and Set-Up – setting up the Alienware laptop itself was simple enough. These days computers pretty much come out of the box ready to rock and roll so I have skipped a description of that stage. With the headset plugged in it was now time to download the Vive software, via the Vive.com website. This very intuitively guided me through the set-up process, including checking that the Lighthouses were scanning correctly – they were 🙂 – and that both the headset and controllers were being tracked – they too were working well.
Once the system had established that they could see both the headset and controllers I was walked – literally – through the process of setting up the ‘play area,’ the term for the space in which I could safely immerse myself in VR without tumbling into and over furniture and the like. Unbeknownst to me until now my previous room was simply not big enough to meet the minimum floor space requirement for a play area, a fact that would have severely pissed me off had I discovered the hard way. As I say, I had thankfully just moved house and it turned out that my bigger room had just the right amount of ‘spare’ floor to permit a VR play area. Phew! In terms of defining this area, I was prompted to take one of the Vive controllers and sketch out, in mid-air, my area. That is I actually walked around the area in question whilst pressing the trigger of the controller to, in effect, draw an invisible chalk-line around the perimeter of my VR area. I had to repeat this process a couple of times as I was, initially, just shy of the minimum area requirement, but once it was done I could see on the computer screen a digital rendering of the outline of my safe VR play space.
Download SteamVR – a platform through which VR experiences, games and the like are available, I needed to download and install Steam in order to use my system. Again, much like installing the Vive software, it was a painless process to get Steam installed. Once it was and I had created an account and was logged in it was time to finally don the mask and enter my very own VR for the first time…..
Mixed Reality & Virtual Reality
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to be at one of the conference parties where someone happened to have two Microsoft HoloLens headsets and was demonstrating them to the small crowd of curious nerds that had gathered around him. Well, I was one of those nerds and before long had the pleasure of donning one of the sets and so was introduced to the wonders of true mixed reality.
Much like a small welding mask, in both look and feel, the HoloLens is essentially a set of transparent screens that sit in one’s field of view by means of the headstraps that keep the device in place. Whilst not especially comfortable and certainly not something anyone is going to ever be in a rush to wear out in public on account of looking, frankly, ridiculous, the experience that it delivered was compelling. With the use of a simple gesture, specifically an upward ‘throwing’ movement, a menu popped into view suspended perfectly in mid-air and crystal clear as if it were right there in the real world in plain sight of everyone around me. Of course it wasn’t and the only person able to see this hologram was me. Selecting from the menu was as simple as reaching out and ‘touching’ the desired option and within seconds a holographic representation of the Earth was spinning languidly before me. I could ‘pick up’, ‘move’ and otherwise manipulate the item in front of me as though it were a physical object, and if I did move it, for example off to the right, out of my field of view, that is precisely where it remained and where I found it again when I turned back round. The human body application was similarly cool, as I was able to explore the various layers of anatomy through interaction with a highly rendered hologram. Whilst comical for onlookers not wearing a HoloLens, as I appeared to apparently be pawing away at thin air like someone suffering a particularly lucid acid hallucination, the thrill of what I was actually seeing and engaging with myself allowed me to ignore my daft appearance.
What are the medical education applications for such mixed reality technology? Whilst holographic visual representations of anatomy are, at first, a magical phenomemon to experience and a pretty cool party piece, it is the fact that mixed reality sees realistic holograms merged, or so it appears to the user, onto the real world, in contrast to virtual reality, which replaces the real world experience with an entirely digital one, that lends itself to unique educational applications. Anatomy instruction by being able to accurately overlay and track in real-time deeper layers onto a real-world physical specimen, enabling students to understand the wider context in which various anatomical structures sit is a far more compelling and useful application of MR than a simple floating graphic. Similarly, surgical training involving holographic overlays onto a real-world, physical object or combined with haptic technology to elicit tactile feedback, offers the potential to deliver programmable, repeatable, easily accessible practical training with minimal expense and zero waste on account of there being no need to have physical biological specimens.
Imagine: a fully-functional and resourced dissection and surgical training lab right there in your clinic or home and all at the press of a digital button. Imagine how confident you would become at that new, nerve-wracking surgical procedure if you had the ability to practice again and again and again, physically making the required cuts and placing the necessary implant, being able to make the inevitable mistakes that come with learning anything new but at zero risk to your patient. Being able to step up to the surgical plate for real and carry out that same procedure that you have rehearsed and developed refined muscle memory for, feeling the confidence that a board-certified specialist with years of experience has, and all without having had to put a single animal at risk – that’s powerful. That’s true action-based education at it’s most compelling and it is a future that both VR and MR promises.
I predict that the wide adoption of graphically rich, immersive and realistic digital CPD programmes, through both VR and MR, will result in a renewed engagement of professionals with CPD training and ultimately lead to more confident, skilled, professionally satisfied and happier clinicians. I, for one, know that were I able to complete practical CPD by simply donning a headset and loading up a Vive or HoloLens experience from the comfort and convenience of my clinic or home, all whilst still being able to interact in real-time with colleagues both physically present and remote, my CPD record would be bursting at the seams. That has to be a great thing for the profession, our clients and society in general.
After learning as much as possible about all things VR over the past couple of years I finally took the plunge and invested the significant sum required to become ‘VR Enabled.’ This involved purchasing both a high-end VR system, requiring the decision to be made between two competing devices: the HTC Vive, which sits on the SteamVR platform in terms of content provision, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, the original poster child for VR and with its own online VR content store. I had visited Upload VR in San Francisco back in June 2016 fully thinking that the Oculus Rift was the device I wanted but was totally won over by the Vive, especially once it became clear that the Vive was able to do room-scale VR whilst the Oculus was only offering a seated experience and had not yet launched the Touch controllers.
The three experiences I enjoyed with the Vive (Google Tiltbrush, Universe Sandbox, and WeVR’s The Blu) had me grinning from ear to ear the moment I donned the headset and I spent hours crouching, circumnavigating, exploring and generally loving the immersive world into which VR had placed me. It was easy to forget that I was still stood in a room next to a PC and not in each of the magical playgrounds that I sequentially jumped into. You can read about my experience at UploadVR here.
I would’ve rushed out immediately and got myself set up with a VR set were it not for the considerable outlay of mullah that doing so requires and so I did what any good procrastinator does when it comes to making big decisions: I procrastinated and analysed the shit out of it!
So what made me finally decide to make the investment and jump into VR? A number of contacts I have made in the VR community over the past two years have all said the same thing: to truly understand VR and it’s potential it is important to actually experience it and become familiar with it. One VR expert pretty much told me to get a headset and spend 100 hours minimum in it! Like anything in life, whether it be language learning or training for a big sporting goal, full immersion is usually the best way to learn, grow and generally get good at whatever activity it is. Coupled with reading an advance copy of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book, The Fourth Transformation, which focuses on the rapidly growing sectors of virtual, augmented and mixed reality, this collective advice made me realise that if I truly wanted to understand VR there was only one thing I could do.
Ordering…… then Waiting
Decision made. Credit card in hand. Where and how to get hold of my own VR set up? As much as the Oculus Rift has come on leaps and bounds, especially since the launch of the Touch Controllers, which are, according to the reports, much better than the Vive’s, the fact that the HTC Vive comes as a complete package and does room-scale VR straight of the box, in addition to knowing about some of the applications available for it, I headed to the Vive site and attempted to place an order. Unfortunately there was no way to order easily from Dubai and the only way to order directly from Vive was to have a US credit card. So no go there unless I could persuade a US friend to do me a huge favour. Amazon, however, saved the day as I was easily able to order via their international site using my UAE credit card, and arranged to have the order delivered to me via the Aramex Shop & Ship courier service. One concern I had after placing the order was whether or not I had inadvertently been duped and perhaps purchased a convincingly presented fake. I had visions of taking delivery of a cheap, knock-off and the headaches of having to then get my money back. Thankfully I need not have worried as the genuine article duly arrived about a week later. Stage 1 complete and about $800 plus delivery of $160 in expense. Now all I needed was a computer capable to powering the device and I would be on my way.
Sadly neither of my Apple computers are even close to being up to the task of powering a high-end VR system, so I knew that I was going to need to fork out for a PC with a powerful graphics card. I had already looked around the stores in Dubai and found some pretty impressive machines on offer, all with equally impressive price tags. Convinced that I would be able to find a similar offering online, albeit significantly cheaper, I began doing some research. This is where I found the difficulty in being able to make a decision: what do I go for that would enable me to experience VR and that would be relatively future-proof without going insane and spending many thousands? I am not a gamer and so have no real experience or knowledge of what makes for a decent gaming PC. What I did know, however, was that Alienware was a brand that I had heard of and knew were big in the gaming world. I soon discovered via their website that they are part of Dell and so set to exploring the models on offer.
One of the first questions to answer for myself was whether I wanted to opt for a laptop versus desktop. I knew that I wanted the portability of a laptop so that I would be able to take the system into work, or to friends’ houses, but knew that desktops offered a much easier time of it in terms of expansion in the future, in addition to generally being cheaper to purchase. After much thought I did eventually opt for a laptop, going for the compact yet graphically very powerful Alienware 13” R3, with an Intel i7-6700 Core processor (a very powerful one I was informed) and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card. With added anti-virus software and UK VAT (I ordered via the UK site after clarifying with online customer support that I could a) use a UAE credit card and b) have the order sent to me via a UK routing address, Shop & Ship again), the total cost was about $2180. Unfortunately I was also liable to pay UAE Customs when the laptop arrived (eventually) from Dell. I did question whether with all the extra costs it might have just been better to buy a similar machine here in Dubai but came to the conclusion that it was still more cost effective to tread the path I did.
One note of caution for anyone looking to order overseas and have their computer delivered to them is to bare in mind that there might be unexpected issues. In my case the issue was that in spite of clarifying at the order stage that I was able to order using a non-UK card and to have it sent to me via a courier routing service, I received an email shortly after confirming — and paying for – the order from someone in accounts urging me to contact them within the next 24 hours as I had to confirm this, that or the other. This is where Dell fell down badly as trying to get in touch with the person in question, in spite of the urgency of their message, was impossible. I did eventually manage a stuttered email exchange, with the message being delivered to me being that my order was not able to be finalised as I could not verify the delivery address. I politely but pointedly highlighted the fact that I had asked right at the outset whether any of the specifics of ordering from out of country were going to be problematic and was assured that they would not. Now I was being told they were. How to frustrate and piss off a customer! Long story short I tried to get further clarification on the matter, advising Dell that if it was an issue then they simply had to refund my payment, cancel the order entirely and I would either find another option for ordering from them or buy said computer locally. Thankfully I was able to get some kind of clarity via a very nice customer service rep who chased up my case and eventually confirmed that my order could, after all, proceed. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had confirmation that my order had left China, where it was being built – ?! why then was I a) paying UK VAT, and b) having to have the item delivered to me via the UK when it more than likely touched down in Dubai on route to the UK anyway?!
Still, I was now, finally, in possession of the necessary tools to enable me to enter VR.
What is the Upload Collective?
Why Did I Visit?
I am deeply fascinated by VR, and indeed spatial computing in all of it’s forms, seeing it as the next, logical step in our move towards ever more immersive digital interactions and intuitive computing that promises to change every facet of how we create and interact with content. From healthcare to learning to entertainment, spatial computing is, and will continue to do so at an ever greater rate, change how we work, learn and play. I was aware of Upload VR from my time at AWE (Augmented World Expo) in 2015, where I volunteered in a bid to connect with and learn more about both augmented and virtual reality. Hooked in an instant, I have continued to follow UploadVR as a source of industry news and decided that during my next trip to the Bay Area I wanted to visit and see first-hand what they were doing in the city. A LinkedIn email to Taylor Freeman, co-founder of UploadVR, later and a date was set for me to head on over and talk all things VR. In addition to being able to meet the people involved and see for myself what was going on at the collective I also really, really wanted to physically experience high-resolution VR myself. I had been able to try out a few VR experiences at AWE last year but since then both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive had been commercially released, along with a plethora of incredible experiences to accompany them. I was still trying to decide on which system to consider investing in and the only way to really know for sure is to try and garner the opinion on industry leaders, right?!
What Did I See & Who Did I Meet?
After having to rearrange the meeting on account of the Memorial Day holiday in the US, I headed round the corner from where I was staying in San Francisco to the Upload Collective’s space on Mission for my early meeting with Taylor. Walking in to their first floor space the first thing that struck me was how light and airy the place felt, with all of the casual cool that one naturally associates with a technology start-up. Comprising a large central co-working space, with a well-equipped kitchen at one end and comfortable sofas and the obligatory bean bag, this area was fringed with a number of separate rooms, containing various computers, whiteboards and all the other stuff one might need to create the future of immersive technology. One room, much bigger than the rest, contained a whole load of studio equipment and green screens, used for creating VR showcases in which people not wearing a headset can still feel immersed in what it is the user is experiencing. This is still one of the biggest hurdles for VR to overcome: how can you get people truly excited about the technology and experience without, well, actually physically donning a headset. It is the biggest marketing issue that VR has and whilst efforts by Google, and third parties such as the New York Times who gave away millions of Google Cardboard headsets to readers, to introduce people to the wonder of VR, it remains so that in order to really “get VR” it is vital to “try VR,” especially the high-end devices and experiences. Work being conducted at Upload Collective is aiming to tackle this very challenge.
Other rooms, and the ones I instantly had my attention drawn towards, were the VR rooms themselves. Devoid of furniture, blacked out and foam-lined, with a powerful gaming PC and various pieces of VR equipment sitting on hooks at one end, these are where the magic happens, or rather where it is experienced.
Given the fact that it was a) early and b) the day after the holiday weekend, there were not very many people in when I visited and so I daresay that I didn’t quite get the full impression of the energy that would normally coarse through the space in a usual day.
I met Taylor, who promptly offered me my first caffeine hit of the day courtesy of the shared espresso machine, and we sat down to talk about how UploadVR came about, Taylor’s own background and path into the space and plans for Upload Collective, including their collaboration with Make School, situated just next door, on a course for budding VR developers. You can read a little more about UploadVR here.
The second person I met was Avi Horowitz, Intern at Large at Upload, who was kind enough to get me set up on one of the Collective’s HTC Vive headsets and launched me into the first of several incredible VR experiences, Google’s amazing 3D art program, Tiltbrush.
What Did I Do?
As soon as I donned the headset I found myself standing in a blank, flat landscape, fringed with stars on the horizon and a beautiful night sky. Avi, with a simple selection from the menu, changed this setting such that I now found myself standing in the middle of space, surrounded on all sides by stars. Magical! However, this was nothing compared to what was to come next. Using the two controllers supplied with the Vive, I had all the tools of a master artist, with my left serving as a rotating smorgasbord of art options and my right as the main tool. With a simple ‘laser light’ tool selected I started drawing in the void in front of me. Yes! Drawing right there in space! This simple action may not have been that impressive on a 2D surface, such as a graphics tablet, but the fact that I was laying down graphics in 3D, such that I was able to walk towards, through, and around it made the entire experience a revelation. Much as I can imagine how Michelangelo would have felt at discovering the power and potential of sculpting clay as a medium for artistic expression, I felt the same thrill and joy at the potential for just what was now possible using this medium. A childish grin the size of the Cheshire Cat’s instantly spread across my face as I quickly learn’t how to select different tools, colours, effects and with all the enthusiastic urgency of a toddler at play set to creating my ‘masterpiece.’ The fact that what I was drawing/ building/ creating was nothing more than formless nonsense was immaterial. What was important was just how addictive, immersive and unique the experience was. I can not even imagine a child not becoming deeply fascinated in art and the process of design and creation using such a powerful yet intuitive tool as VR. As a medium for limitless artistic expression it is un-rivalled and for anyone professionally involved in design, from architects to product designers, being able to walk around, through and view your creations from any and all angles it surely renders the lowly drawing board redundant. It is testament to how incredibly fun this one VR experience is that I spent about an hour playfully immersed in it and the fact that I was then able to record what I had created and thus take it away with me provided the cherry on the big VR cake.
Other experiences were just as powerful, from Universe Sandbox that enables users to literally ‘play God’ by creating their own galaxies and the like, with celestial bodies even adhering to the laws of physics, to WeVR’s incredible experiences, theBlu that saw me standing on the bow of a sunken ship surrounded by incredible reef life and a whale that slowly swam out of the depths, passing me within touching distance, allowing me to look the beautifully rendered animal in the eye, and it into mine, the scope for becoming utterly and entirely lost in VR was limitless. This latter experience really helped solidify my view of VR as an incredibly powerful empathy generator, with evidence backing up the idea that immersion drives empathy and empathy really drives understanding and action. Can you think of a more powerful framework for effecting real educational outcomes? I can’t. VR enables users to experience, first-hand, albeit in a digitally-rendered simulation, the experiences of others and to put people in situations that they would otherwise not be able to experience either easily or at all. Want to understand what it is like to live in a Syrian refugee camp? Within’s ‘Clouds over Sidra’ achieved this very same thing. What about experiencing life on the streets? Upload created such a VR experience, ‘A Day in the Streets’, to help educate through empathy on the plight of San Francisco’s homeless population. I can imagine how the same approach could be applied to creating a similar experience to simulate the life of a stray dog or cat, or perhaps show what a journey from being owned to abandoned might ‘feel like’ in order to drive empathy and make people think twice about taking on a pet when they are not truly committed to providing a home for life. The potential is limitless and the effect of VR truly impactful. Just ask anyone who has donned a headset themselves.
This most recent trip was principally in order to attend the same conference on spatial computing that I both volunteered at and attended in 2015: AWE (Augmented World Expo), albeit with some additional time tacked on for some R&R and additional nerdy activity in San Francisco itself. This included checking out Make School, one of many ‘coding schools’ (although they do some hardware stuff as well) present in the city, and spent time with Adam Braus chatting about the school, coding, start-ups and virtual reality (VR).
Talking of VR I was fortunate enough to be able to also visit the Upload Collective and speak with Co-Founder, Taylor Freeman about the excitement surrounding a technology that does finally feel as though it is meeting previously un-met expectations. One of the real highlights of my visit was getting to experience VR myself – not my first, mind, but certainly the most extensive and impressive experience of the technology that I had had to date – jumping in to several incredible HTC Vive experiences, including Google’s Tiltbrush and WeVR’s theBlu, an absolute must for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about “this VR thing.” I look forward to elaborating on a number of these experiences in separate posts, including sharing what I actually created in Tiltbrush!