Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Oculus Rift and Swimming Pools


"If I were working in Oculus's marketing department, I'd be looking into these issues and likely staying up long into the night drinking coffee and pacing nervously."

You may have heard that during Oculus connect last September, there was a funny bit of incongruity on display.  All of the speakers who took the stage made a real point of identifying the Oculus Rift as a "seated experience" and we were told that "Swivel Chairs" were to be an integral part what we had to look forward to while using the Rift.


Yet, it was widely noted that when it came time for the private Crescent Bay demos, these were all setup as standing experiences.  In fact chairs of any kind weren't available in the demo booths.

Huh.


The common thinking is that Oculus has a team of lawyers that have put the brakes to any kind of standing experience for reasons of liability.  Oculus clearly knows that a standing experience is superior in terms of immersion, but presently can't acknowledge or market the device this way.

I might suggest however that this is an indication of a larger problem.  Something that Oculus will need to wrestle with and overcome as they attempt to bring the rift to market.

"I believe that VR won't play nice with our existing entertainment, it is a ravenous platform that will consume and utterly replace huge chunks of our current media and technology."

To illustrate some of the issues they face, I recently came across this post by a user in r/oculus on the topic of a recent article about Magic Leap.

"As much as I'm looking forward to rift cv1 I can't help but think that augmented reality headsets like this and microsofts will be the more socially acceptable and quicker to be adopted by the General public. In the same way the wii was popular as it was marketed as a family/group activity, theses augmented headsets will no doubt be advertised as something which can be used as a family where you can all play games on your coffee table and see what the other can see. I could see some parents preferring their kids to still being able to view them and their surroundings whilst the headset is on and being able to join in with them. It does feel like cv1 of the rift is more a solitary device that would temporarily close you off from friends and family (might not be such a bad thing in some cases....) and that might ultimately split the devices into two distinct markets and affect profits and the way the media view them.
On top of this there's also the entry cost. If both devices are similar in price ~£300-400, the rift is going to need a fast expensive PC whereas the magic leap type device will likely have its own processor is its rendering far less. Not sure how many regular families can afford both the new pc and the rift, maybe buy 2 or 3 magic leap sets for the same price or cheaper so that most of the family can join in.
Personally, I'll probably get both as I love what both are offering but I think the rift might be stuck in the 'hardcore gamer/enthusiast' retail market for a while longer than many hope if these augmented reality headsets deliver."

- Plainchipbeep via r/oculus 


I picked out this quote among many because it touches on a number commonly echoed concerns that the Oculus Rift is:


  • An expensive device that will require expensive computer hardware to run.
  • A device that shares the social awkwardness common to all technology that is "face mounted".
  • Suffers from the perception that it isolates the user and cuts them off from friends and family.

"To pull off consumer VR's introduction properly will require a really open minded, audacious company"

If I were working in Oculus's marketing department, I'd be looking into these issues and likely staying up long into the night drinking coffee and pacing nervously.

One of the issues here, is that this technology is poised to operate on a disruptive scale that we don't very often see. We've gotten used to a new device coming along and having it neatly take its place alongside the many other devices that we have in our world.  Something that sits nicely on the shelf between the PlayStation and slightly below the Chromecast.  We want to pigeonhole VR and are rapidly discovering that it simply will not gently slide into our current framework.

I believe that VR won't play nice with our existing entertainment, it is a ravenous platform that will consume and utterly replace huge chunks of our current media and technology.

To pull off consumer VR's introduction properly will require a really open minded, audacious company that fully embrace the magnitude of what lies ahead and properly position themselves in the market for it.

---
"How can I try this at home???"

So here's a theory for this evening:

As a consumer product, Oculus might not be selling the next game console, Oculus might actually be selling the next swimming pool.

Let's imagine for a moment that swimming pools simply were "not a thing" and you had the job to bring them to market and sell them worldwide.  You might setup a booth at an expo somewhere and let people try out your "swimming pool".  This would be very awkward at first because one of the first things you'd need to do is get these people strip out of their clothes. (this makes the bother of selling face mounted hardware seem positively tame in comparison.)


They would try your "pool" and likely be amazed.  It would be unlike any dry land fun they'd ever had, and despite being half naked among strangers, they would think that swimming is absolutely mind blowing. Quickly they would want to tell their friends and family about this experience.

"I went to GDC and tried "Pool", it was unbelievably immersive! You gotta try it!"

Very soon they would be asking "How can I try this at home???"

Well....

More bad news for the marketing department...

You see.... swimming pools make rather large, outrageous demands on the consumer.

For starters, you are required to both have a nice large property and also be willing to dig a giant hole smack in the middle of it for your new hobby.  How much does this cost?  Expect to pay somewhere around $25,000 for a modest in-ground pool and very easily much higher.

 "Psst... we want to sell a billion of these things."

So, imagine that you get over the space requirements and the cost requirements and have your client sold on this "pool" concept.  Before you closed the deal you might feel morally compelled to mention that, um, well... pools claim the lives of around 400 people a year in North America, most of them young kids.

So let's run down the problems with marketing swimming pools:


  • Very expensive.
  • Requires permanent giant hole in property.
  • Sometimes kill people.


At this point, someone from Facebook's financial department leans over and reminds us that "Psst... we want to sell a billion of these things."

Well... that's understandable.  But let's push the comparison dangerously a bit further and take a look at a pool that:


  • Does not cost much.
  • Does not need much space.
  • Is safe.


Here's what you get:



Mr. Turtle Pool isn't going to set the world on fire.  Mr. Turtle pool is going to get forgotten and fill up with leaves and dead bugs.  Trust me, I know.

Oculus doesn't want to be a Mr. Turtle pool.

This and more is what Oculus wants to bring to market:




I know, I know, I'm long belaboring the analogy at this point, but let's just paddle a bit longer.

If you want a nice pool in the comfort of your own home you will need to:

  • dedicate some space for it.
  • pay good money to install it


There is simply no way around these two points.  No shortcuts.  None.

A pool is a luxury product and demands certain investments and you don't hear anyone complaining about it, it is simply taken as fact.

All of this is trying to make a point, and here it comes:  Oculus is offering up humanity a true wonder of our time.  Genuine, pure, uncut wonder: on tap.  Something far more profound than an over-sized splishy, splash puddle in your backyard.  So why don't we stop apologizing for what it does best and instead embrace it for what it is?

"To get the most out of VR, we are simply going to need to make some real world considerations and preparations for the experience."

This is a device that aims to completely replace your sensory input with heavy streams of simulacra and simulation.  The better it does its job, the more removed you will be from your present reality. Therefore - To get the most out of VR, we are simply going to need to make some real world considerations and preparations for the experience.

Rejoice, these are great problems to have!

When Valve developed its original inside out tracking solution, almost immediately I overheard someone say "of course a solution must be found that avoids having to place QR code-like images around your room." and I remember thinking:

"Why? Why is this the priority?"

Here is a technology that offers to transport you to new worlds and let you experience things beyond what your mortal life is likely serve up, yet we begrudge the need to tape up a few pieces of paper on our walls?




If I want to play pool (.. no, the other kind of pool, the one with the green felt and a cue ball) in my house, I would need to be prepared to give up at least a 13 x 16 foot space.  Pool tables are heavy bloody things, so this is a profound and permanent commitment to hitting colored spheres with sticks.  Everyone who visits my home from that point forward could not miss the fact that I have a pool table, it quickly becomes the defining feature of almost any room its placed in.



Is VR unworthy of the same kind of treatment? Do we place it below these traditional parlor games in terms of its importance?  Is VR something we put on when we are alone and hunch awkwardly over our laptops, hoping we won't knock anything over?

Is this the ideal setting for VR?  Really?
Is this the next generation of excitement and exploration?


Let's run with a scenario and see where it takes us.

"Let's close our eyes for a moment and imagine that VR might actually be more important than swimming pools."

Having been fortunate enough to have tried Crescent Bay a couple of times now, I can most assuredly assure you that something tremendous is coming our way.  The world is standing on the shores of a great sea teeming with change.  Let's close our eyes for a moment and imagine that VR might actually be more important than swimming pools and try to think what that might mean for our homes.  If we carved out a 16 X 16 foot space and dedicated it to VR, what might our goal be?

"Real care and protection for our bodies while our minds are occupied beyond ourselves."

What if I said that the purpose of this space might be to provide dedicated care for the VR user? I use the word "care" here, because I suspect that the immersive road we are on will take us to the point where we really do need just that: Real care and protection for our bodies while our minds are occupied beyond ourselves.

Basic User care, Part I:

The Crescent Bay demos have so far been held in small rooms, and place the user on a central, raised mat.  This simple mat was a very clever idea, if the user could feel the mat under their feet it was a communicated to them that they were no where near the walls and would not strike them by accident.  It also meant that if they happened to fall while on the mat they were in a clear, safe space with nothing to fear but the floor and maybe an inattentive Oculus employee.


There is a lot to be said in favor of this simple human mouse pad approach.  It would be easy enough to provide some texturing to the mat to give the user real world orientation as to their current direction.  A subtle stucco texture on a single quarter might do wonders for orientation.

---
"There's a rather talented group that have been working on the problem for hundreds of years."

If you want to learn about how to deal with the human form in conjunction with technology - there's a rather talented group that have been working on the problem for hundreds of years: surgeons.

I believe we could learn a great deal about setting up a dedicated VR space from study of the layout of a modern operating theater:


These are spaces where computers and implements need to be on hand but at the same time they must never get in the way or trip up the operator.  No cables or sharp edges, nothing that won't gracefully move away or towards you with some subtle force.



Current consumer monitors and keyboards can be adapted to pneumatic arms to fit the needs of the VR user until better solutions can be found.



HMD cables can descend from above to prevent the user from becoming tangled.  Some users are already experimenting with these suspended solutions.

via https://forums.oculus.com/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=1243

I would go further and insist that any object that a user brings into the VR space (this includes keyboards, chairs and coffee mugs) should be tracked and modeled in the virtual space.

I can envision a day when you can come home with a new chair and can print out a corresponding VR tracking marker sticker set. After fastening them to your new purchase the virtual system pick them up on camera and download the correct chair model and represent your chair accurately within your space.


We may find that we end up operating on a mix of three levels:

  1. The real world space.
  2. The virtual representation of real world space.
  3. The running target VR simulation with access to overlays to levels one and two, depending on preference and immediate need.
The first tenet of VR user care is that we are responsible for allocating a safe, padded space for VR and make allowances within the simulation for ALL real world objects that we bring with us. Humans taking basic care and helping to keep things simple for the machine.


Basic User care, Part II:

"What if a VR user was not cut off from the outside world at all, but actually had an enhanced awareness of the real world while in VR?"

The second part of user care involves monitoring both the user and the VR space.  What if a VR user was not cut off from the outside world at all, but actually had an enhanced awareness of the real world while in VR? They could choose to look through a pass through camera mounted on the HMD as well as flit between externally mounted room cameras that would allow them to view their surroundings, possibly their entire home.  These cameras could also be set strategically positioned on room entrances and respond to motion, alerting the user if anyone was approaching.

"There must always be an extendable bridge between the virtual world and the real"

While a user was in VR, they might converse with the real world via their currently donned avatar, displayed nearby display panel.  Think of it as a Skype session from the virtual world to the real world.  Social etiquette won't allow us to maintain conversations while wearing HMD gear, we need to see each other's eyes. If eye tracking becomes a reality, these type of conversations might be strikingly engaging.  By displaying a window into the virtual world a visitor could interact with the VR user and and peek into the simulation without breaking the narrative of the VR experience.  There must always be an extendable bridge between the virtual world and the real that can be accessed by non HMD wearing visitors.  This will make all the difference in how rapidly this technology is accepted within a home or office.

It is critical that we need the ability to fluidly interact with the real world without feeling the need to remove the HMD to perform basic tasks.

The second tenet of VR user care is that the machine provides an over watch for a VR user to the best of its ability in the form of alerts and extending sensory perception.  This is a responsibility that I expect to see grow immensely in the years to come and become an end unto itself.

So here are a few tentative guidelines for what might be involved in the creation of a dedicated VR area in ones home:


  • A designated floor space that gives the user feedback in terms of both their boundaries and orientation.
  • Sufficient clearance around the VR space that precludes the user from striking a wall or object.
  • Ideally, all hardware is ceiling mounted for cable management and safety.
  • The VR user should NOT feel cut off from the outside world, they should have the ability to comfortably view their surroundings from within the VR experience.  Heightened awareness,
  • The VR user should always be made aware if another human is present.
  • The VR user should be able to fluidly interact with the real world without feeling the need to decouple from it the HMD at every turn.
  • Any object or furniture that enters the VR area needs to also have a simulated counterpart in the virtual world.


Give me a shout at @ID_R_McGregor on twitter, or send me an email at id.r.mcgregor@gmail.com.

21 comments:

  1. Great read. Good to see you blogging again!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really good read. I see it going in the way of "The VR Room" as well, but not for quite a while, and not until one of these headsets, has mainstream success.

    Using the very interesting swimming pool analogy, people grow up swimming, so their interest in a personal pool was based on experience, and a lot of emotional attachment. No one has tried VR, so any public interest is speculative. People will not make such large outlays on speculation. Taking it further, the pool is a smaller, crappier version of something not practically accessible. Basically, a compromise. "I'd love to go swimming in the lake of my youth's summer camp, but it's 100 miles away, so I guess i'll install this pool in my backyard." This can also be said of the TV, which has a room devoted to it in many homes. "I'd prefer a theater, but this TV will do." For VR to go as far as many are predicting, the reverse would need to happen. We'd start with inferior half measures like the Oculus, and love it so much that we'd bolt on and upgrade and supplement until we've taken up an entire room. Very possible, but Oculus will need to be great.

    I wish VR could be introduced in its purest, best form, but it doesn't seem practical. Buy up all the Radio Shacks, and sell VR by the hour?

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