Seattle was the center of the VR universe this week, with IMMERSE and Steam Dev Days taking place back to back. The AxonVR team joined thousands of leaders, developers, and enthusiasts – some of whom traveled internationally – to dive into immersive technologies, and discuss the future of our industry.
Bob Berry of Envelop VR kicked off IMMERSE by celebrating our community. In terms of our population, Seattle is punching well above its weight in its impact on VR. “As a region well-used to disruptive technologies, we are the people actually creating this multi-billion-dollar industry,” said Berry.
Keynotes at both IMMERSE and Steam Dev Days referenced forecasts of VR's rapid growth, citing figures such as 170 million active users and a $5 billion hardware market by 2018, but neither conference dwelled on the numbers. Instead they focused attention to the nitty gritty details of how our industry will achieve this growth. While these conferences had too much information for one person to consume everything, I noticed three overarching trends that will influence our industry's development:
- Expanding immersive technology in the workplace
- Enhancing experiences with haptic feedback
- Making input more intuitive
Immersive technology in the workplace
IMMERSE featured presentations from business leaders who spoke to practical applications of VR beyond gaming and entertainment. A highlight for me was Elizabeth Baron’s talk about how Ford uses VR in design and manufacturing with Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE). Five is a realistic VR system that addresses challenges involved in designing and engineering vehicles.
Through a mix of VR and physical objects, FiVE recreates vehicle prototypes with a high level of realism, enabling teams from around the world to assess vehicles. This brings multiple disciplines into the process: engineers, designers, artists, and executives.
Ford has deeply integrated FiVE into their product design process. Today, every vehicle Ford produces goes through an immersive review. “You have to do a FiVE review to pass muster, to go on to the next level,” explained Baron.
At AxonVR, we’re big believers in enterprise applications for immersive technologies like VR, AR, and haptics. It’s great to see leaders from world-class companies who share the same belief.
Local companies like Studio 216 and Envelop VR showcased impressive experiences of B2B VR solutions in architecture and productivity, respectively. We heard Dr. Lorrie Sivich of Boeing describe how the aviation giant uses VR and AR in training, and seeks to bring these technologies to the factory floor. Steve Biegun of Pulse Design Group discussed how VR can save lives with immersive surgery training, and improve lives with rehabilitation. In each of these use cases, haptics is an essential ingredient to making the experience more immersive and more useful.
Enhancing VR with haptic feedback
Not long ago, I had to explain what “haptics” is and why it’s so important to the VR experience. I rarely need to do this anymore.
Based on the sentiment at IMMERSE and Steam Dev Days, there appears to be a broad industry consensus that realistic haptics is crucial to VR's future.
Haptic feedback technology played a prominent role in the opening keynotes. In Bob Berry’s opening comments, he placed haptics alongside artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and big data as one of the driving forces of the future of technology. Among the VR community, it’s a fact that haptics is integral to the industry.
Tactical Haptics demoed a HTC Vive controller reconfigured with haptic feedback hardware featuring a shear reactive grip. This gives a sliding force sensation when I grip the controller between my palm and fingertips. I played NVIDIA’s Funhouse, a game in which I swung swords to pop balloons, and shot revolvers at flying ceramic dishes. Tactical Haptics’ sliding controller gave me more realistic feedback than the vibrations of the Vive’s standard controller, proving that even a small amount of haptic feedback goes a long way to improving the overall VR experience.
Nullspace VR showcased their vibrating haptic suit with pads over my chest, abs, and arms. When I slipped on my headset, I was in a desert landscape being attacked by venom-slinging scorpions. The pads rumbled each time they hit me. This was particularly compelling when a giant scorpion emerged from beneath the earth. The vibration gave the sense of tremors shaking the earth, heightening the experience.
Making input more intuitive
The most exciting VR news of the week came from day one of Steam Dev Days, where Valve unveiled new Steam VR controllers for the HTC Vive. Our software team, Ed Foley and Johnathan Baird, attended Dev Days and told us all about the event and the new hardware.
Valve’s new controllers feature a design that’s radically different from the Vive’s current wand controllers. Users who tried it at the conference say they can “let go” while the controller is in use. It enables open hand and gripped hand states, aligning the user’s real and virtual hands more naturally.
The announcement comes two days after Valve’s rival Oculus opened pre-orders for its new Touch controller. The excitement around input devices show that VR is expanding beyond headsets and to the rest of the body.
Our software lead, Ed, sees this as part of a greater trend towards more natural interactivity in technology. It’s no longer limited to us interacting with game environments. Games interact with us. Here's how Ed describes the phenomenon:
For so long, we've been the ones interacting with games – pressing buttons to make Pac-Man move or Mario jump – but we've always been separated by a controller interface and/or crude, abstract graphics. What we're seeing now is a major step toward games interacting with us. We're shifting toward making our environments engage our natural senses, transporting our consciousness and perception in new worlds. We still interact with these environments, of course, but now there's a big demand for the environment to act back, by arresting our perceived motion when we hit a wall, by vibrating a controller when we're threatened, by playing realistic 3D audio based on our position, and so forth. It really seems like realistic touch is the next step in pushing this trend further.
The ultimate goal of VR is for virtual experiences to be as realistic, as natural, and as meaningful as the experiences we have in the real world. Every update we see from these conferences inches our ecosystem closer to that vision. We’re eager to see how real and virtual worlds will continue to blend together.