VRy Merry Christmas

A few days ago I got to attend another VRTGO Labs event, VRy Merry Christmas. Hosted by Carri Cunliffe from Secret Sauce, this free event was a chance for the clusters associates to meetup and look at the future events and activities coming up in 2017, as well as hear from a guest speaker while wearing their best Christmas jumper and enjoying mulled wine and mince pies.


Carri started the afternoon by discussing some of the key events they were planning for the new year. Each month they are looking to host an event would focus on a particular sector or industry, including:

  • January – VR in Education and Training
  • February – VR in Architectural Visualisat@vrtgolabsion and Design
  • March – VR Developer Conference; plus, VR Film and Audio at Tyneside Cinema
  • May – VR and Games
  • June – VR in Manufacturing (e.g. Automotive, Process Industry)

She went on to explain how VRTGO Labs will also be developing their online presence and network connections, through having their own FaceBook page (separate to VRTGO, the conference) and reaching out to other virtual, augmented and mixed reality networks (e.g. Immerse UK, Digital Catapult) to share data, knowledge and funding opportunities; to further bolster the strength of the UK developer community.

I am particularly interested in the January and May events, after developing a service around VR in Education while developing my own VR game.


Next up was guest speaker and Developer Evangelist, Mike Taulty. Mike works in the developer group at Microsoft UK where he has spent the past decade helping developers to understand and get the best from the Microsoft platform.

His presentation, Developing with HoloLens: The Path to Mixed Reality, was an interesting but brief exploration of Microsoft’s exciting hybrid reality product, that lets users see and interact with ‘holograms‘ in their environment. Though, as mentioned on his blog, Mike is not privy to any other information on the Hololens than what is available to the public. However, his knowledge and insights proved quite informative and useful to a less experienced developer like myself, all the same.

Mike gave us a rundown of the tech being used, dispelling any misconceptions we had about the device. He explained that the device is a portable PC, with an array of advanced sensors that record depth, light, inertia (6DoF) and a video feed. All of this information is handled by a holographic processing unit (HPU), which is a performant, low latency x86 device. The processed information is rapidly combined in real-time, to be available to the universal windows apps that run on the devices Windows 10 platform.

Included in the package are a pair of spatial sound speakers, located above the ears, as well as wi-fi and a battery which gives around 3 hours of useage. Most impressively the unit uses custom built transparent holographic lenses, which use waveguides to project the image into your eyes. Mike stressed that the lenses themselves are often mistaken as a form of LCD, which isn’t true. This aspect of the display can be confusing, so if you’re interested I suggest reading the article by James Ashley, over on his blog, The Imaginative Universal.

What does all this mean for developers? It means you can do some pretty cool things that you can’t on VR headsets.

The headset utilises inside-out tracking and the use of transparent lenses mean users vision is not completely occluded. So, for example, you could develop a 2D projection of your app and then let the user control it with voice commands, gesture controls or even their gaze.  Alternatively, you could build a holographic app that harnesses the full power of the sensor array. 3D avatars can walk around the room and sitting on your living room couch. All this because the software can use the real-time information from the sensors to recognise obstacles and boundaries or flat surfaces of a certain height.

Developers can use this environment scanning ability to map a room and then share it with their colleagues. They could then take this data into Unity or the Hololens emulator and start programming an app using C#, C++, DirectX or VB.net. Mike confirmed that the device is constantly scanning, updating it’s model of the environment to get an up-to-date representation. However, at this point the system cannot recognise people or animals specifically.

Earlier in the day of our event (8th December) Microsoft also held their annual WinHEC keynote, where they announced that Windows holographic would extend to other devices, beyond the HoloLens. This means that Windows holographic devices would be available in many different form-factors at multiple price points, all with inside-out tracking capabilities. I definitely feel like an interesting future for mixed reality lies ahead.


For the final talk of the day we had Marissa Brindley, Technology Sector Specialist from Gateshead Council. She was there to discuss the Northern Centre for Emerging Tech. A working title for a new development which will comprise of office accommodation, a research and development testing facility and access to specialist emerging technologies equipment.

The centre is going to combine the existing Open University building located in the Baltic Business Quarter, with a new construction in the parking lot that would act as a research and development facility.

Renovation of the existing structure will allow businesses to access to office, startup and move-on spaces from September 2017. Open access to the RnD building with its specialist equipment and modular is planned to be completed by the end of 2017. Eight million pound of European Regional Development Funding, as well as private investor funding has been secured in order to allow the council to build and support the centre for the next fifteen years.

Marissa, along with an as of yet unappointed Business Engagement Officer, would be working with cluster to develop and maintain strategic relationships with businesses in the region. She was also able to show us some of the development plans for the building and was looking for input on the types of equipment and facilities companies would need to help them succeed.


The event was smaller than other VRTGO events I had attended, but I felt it was relevant to my future in building an emerging technology business in the area. I liked the mix of news, technical talk and business, which kept my interest and introduced a lot of new opportunities that I can explore going forward.

VR & Games in Education

A fortnight ago I got to spend time teaching two groups at Gateshead College. I had arranged with the staff an opportunity to present a lesson on computer and video games, VR and how they relate, which included activities and talks with their Level 2 Games students. The key objective behind the session was to provide the students with insights and perspectives on an emerging technology and how that relates to their current studies and future career options.

I arrived at the idea, of providing a service to education institutions, after noticing that there is a significant difference in the current usage and direction of VR development against the expectations and experience of the general public. It seems as though the enthusiasm and excitement of VR among developers – those in the realm of video and computer games specifically – is off kilter with the reality that most people in the street have experienced or imagined. This was no more evident to myself than when I held a public VR demo last month. During that time I interacted with a lot of people, some of whom had a very jaded or fanciful impressions of what the new wave of VR tech was capable of, before trying an experience for themselves on a high-end Oculus Rift setup.

So how is educating students on games courses going to help? Surely they are already in the know, right?

Not exactly as you may expect. Being a student myself I simply looked to my peers, who have been watching VR, have even tried it, own it or even develop for it themselves. It was slightly surprising to find that even the future developers of VR content sometimes have little familiarity with the applications, possibilities and limitations of the tech, beyond the idea of it replacing traditional displays as an output device.


Since I had gained knowledge of – and experience developing for – VR, I decided to give the students a non-technical crash course in the subject. Something that wasn’t going to be patronisingly basic, but also something that was technically and verbally orientated to their level of comprehension. My aim was to get them to start thinking more broadly about the potential of what is essentially a new medium through which to experience, learn and play. I want to try and use this approach to begin bridging the gap of expectation and reality that I had witnessed. After all, the students are making their first steps at crossing that bridge, between the public and industry.

I arrived early to setup and test my equipment, which proved crucial as I had to work with the staff to overcome some technical difficulties that would have ruined the presentation I had planned. These moments of worry were trivial however, as by arriving early and coming prepared I even had time for some speaking exercises after working around the issues.

I kept the talk dynamic and alive by constantly asking the students to explain what they know about the different aspects of VR, then challenging their expectations and explaining away any misconceptions around where the tech is currently at. It was great to have a snappy and literate conversation and I found that as the students became more comfortable and interested, that they would frequently ask questions and start exploring their own ideas. This was a great outcome, as the students started explaining things to each other, reinforcing their own knowledge while expanding that of their peers.

I hadn’t any formal training in teaching to a class, so I had prepared for the event by seeking advice from experienced tutors I knew as well as reading around the matter. For instance, to keep the students tuned in I followed some advice on varying the activities every 7-10 minutes, encouraging the students to stay active with group activities that aided the transition between segments of my presentation. This worked really well and I noticed that I managed to keep most of the class engaged at almost every point. However, getting a class to shout out suggestions didn’t work quite as well when the vibe in the room was more conservative or there was a single dominant voice. This is something I look to address in my approach in future but overall was acceptable in this first attempt.

The most successful activity I felt, was the inclusion of the Marshmallow Challenge, created by Tom Wujec. I decided to try and inspire the students to improve their attitude towards their study of games and VR, by adopting a leaner, iterative approach towards the development of their personal and academic projects. My reasoning behind this was to show the students that they should not be afraid to fail, that they should test their assumptions early and be ready to adapt their plan to overcome any difficulties they face. At the same time I wanted them to experience working together in unfamiliar teams, to a tight deadline with shifting expectations and sometimes less than optimal tools. This would hopefully show them that failure is not the end but simply a stepping stone on the route to a true and worthwhile success.

I tied the presentation up by reflecting on how I went from where they are now to where I am today. I made sure to provide the students with a step-by-step approach on how to progress and backed it up with inspiring examples of success, stories of dedicated people such as Yang Bing. An open Q&A to round off the lesson was a chance for me to clear up any burning questions and became the chance for me to really enthuse students with that can-do feeling that we all need to keep us moving forward in life.


Feedback on the day was positive, from the students and the staff. I feel I have learned just as much as the students and it was great to see a younger generation that can be just as, if not more, effervescent and imaginative as those I see working in the VR industry today.

Gateshead College games department have invited me back for more sessions with their students, as well as involving me with the deployment of a live brief that includes feedback and ongoing support for their higher education level students.

This is an exciting time and I am looking at how I can expand this service into more institutions across the region. I have created a page dedicated to promoting this service, which I call VR for Education.

Public VR Demo

Recently I seized the opportunity to hold a public VR demonstration at my local Grainger Games store.

publicvrdemo5

This was a chance for me to test the viability of a business idea I had arrived at, while exploring the possible VR services I could provide to businesses, using my current knowledge of the industry and the business model canvas.


I had spent the week before preparing for the event by check-listing all of the tasks I would need to complete, such as: costing the equipment and consumables I would need; planning all of the processes I would need to follow; creating notices, posters and flyers; promoting the event on social media channels, etc. I also reached out to all of the hardware and software vendors, asking for any support or guidance they could provide for the event but unfortunately I did not hear back from any of them. However, I knew I had all of the equipment, knowledge, experience and even a small budget from my personal finances which I was able to utilise. I used this to purchase the extra equipment, software and consumables (e.g. treats and refreshments) for the event, making sure that the items I chose could be useful again in some manner, even if the event was not repeated.

publicvrdemo1

I want to make special thanks Suzanne Leibrick who posted a helpful article which I used to inform my health and safety approach and which I also adapted into safety notices for the event. I also followed the advice of Geoffrey James and Robert Falcone, who both gave excellent pointers on performing a successful product demo; as this is something I hadn’t done for the general public before.

The only significant problem I had was the acquisition of hygienic face masks that could be used with the Oculus Rift. I did purchase some online which – while very expensive for what they were – stated they were compatible with the Rift. When they arrived I found that they were simply the wrong shape and size. Even after some fiddling it was apparent that I would have to have them fit uncomfortably across the person’s mouth, which exposed the foam seal and effectively made them unhygienic. Alternatively I could fit them across the nose which meant they would either slide up into the mask and obscure the person’s vision, or tilt upwards causing air expired from the nose to fog the lenses. This could have killed my ability to demo effectively to a large audience so I decided to get a little creative with some non-porous tape.

publicvrdemo2

After some time and patience I had created a very effective seal that was comfortable, unobtrusive and could easily be cleaned, without compromising the function of the foam. I tested this the night before the event with a couple of people who hadn’t tried VR before and the feedback I got was reassuringly positive. I will remember next time to test all of my critical equipment sooner, as this problem nearly grounded my efforts just a day before the main event.


The day went smoothly though, thanks in part to my planning but mostly through the helpful efforts of my partner, who acted as my cheerful assistant and promotional cheer-leading champion. We had setup, tested the setup and had breakfast before the event began, which gave us a confident start that continued throughout the day.

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Running this event was a great way for me to see first hand how VR sampled across a wide audience. It was interesting to talk to people and see what they thought about VR going in, as almost everyone I approached had not tried any kind of VR before, while those that had experienced it had only used smartphone VR platforms, such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR.

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For the first hour people were a bit wary of us at first and I found that I had to pro-actively approach people to get them to agree to a demo. However, after the first hour we had a large swell of people of all ages crowding round, their attention fixed on the demo’s in progress. I knew going in that forming a queue would be difficult and maybe off-putting if the demo was a success, so between myself and my partner we tried our best to get as many people through at least one demo as efficiently as possible. The hours started falling off the clock before we knew it and interest remained high throughout the day, with some customers travelling from the opposite sides of the region to get their first taste.

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The day was filled with many awesome interactions which challenged my expectations, as the – in my mind – most unlikely people embraced the technology on display, and sprung to life in childlike curiosity and awe. Though there were some exceptions. One person didn’t like the feeling of being inside the headset, while another couldn’t get a clear image with or without his glasses, then one further still had to stop as a sudden motion had caused him to feel simulation sickness creeping in. Despite these unfortunate experiences there were generally positive vibes and the moments of amazement and reverence not only made it worthwhile but also managed to get my client a significant boost in orders for VR equipment.


In reflection the day was an outstanding success, which I attribute to the preparation activities as well as the quality of the technology that is now available. I also think I should thank my first customer, who was very patient with me and that helped a lot.

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By providing this service I also learnt a lot for myself, as people gave lots of useful feedback on the games and experiences they were shown and this in turn revealed a lot about how different aspects of VR can be perceived, both positively and negatively. I will next be looking at improving upon and extending this service to local retailers in the future, with a view to take my knowledge of VR and it’s audience to a deeper level of comprehension.

I have created a page for this service, which I’m calling VR for Retail.

VRTGO Meet the Experts

VRTGO provided another great event for developers, in the form of it’s Meet the VR/AR Experts day, hosted in the Northumbria University conference rooms at the Northern Design Centre.


During the event I got to see some of the most talked about VR demos in action. One of which was Epic Games Bullet Train experience, which utilised the Oculus Touch controllers.

The demo itself seemed to encapsulate the true possibilities of an interactive game experience in ways that didn’t seem just novel but practical, exciting and fun to play. The control scheme showed the strength of the Touch controllers, in that they felt comfortable to hold and were intuitive to use, thanks to the button placement matching where fingers rested naturally. The attendant also confirmed the second camera sensor being used for the demo could in future be expanded upon by adding additional sensors behind the player. However, during the time spent with this demo there were no occlusion issues, even though it is likely that these units weren’t the final version.

In comparison, the HTC Vive wand controllers which were used in other demos weren’t as comfortable or immersive as the Touch controllers. They were easy enough to pick up and hold, even after the headset was on, and their tracking didn’t miss a beat. Nonetheless, Neutron demonstrated their interior visualisations using the Vive, in which you could use the wands to look at a virtual wrist display and then swiping the trackpad to navigate it’s options.

vrtgocollage

The familiar motion of looking at your forearm by twisting your wrist is an example of excellent design, but there was a disconnect when the need arose to fiddle with a (seemingly non-cooperative) trackpad. The veil was lifted for a second as my attention moved to correctly positioning my thumb. A small gripe, which may be down to design more than hardware, but it’s noteworthy when the complete extent of the interactivity in your experience hinges on it.

Which makes me wish I had have been able to spend some hands-on time with the NVIDIA Funhouse experience. This one I was looking forward to, as it showcases the impressive physics capable in VR with the latest GPU technology.

Time was tight and the queue was long. No fun house today. Though, this may just be the best excuse to budget for a Vive and a GTX 1000 series GPU. If I couldn’t convince my partner perhaps Mr. Wolff from Epic Games can?


Doug Wolff is Partner Technology Manager at Epic Games, the first of two speakers at the event. Doug’s enthusiasm was apparent in his speech as he championed the designers and content developers as key to the success of VR in a number of different digital industries. He spoke at length about how his team can provide a range of support to developers through their integration with leading technology teams, as well as some of the projects he wanted to highlight as stand out uses of Unreal engine in the virtual and augmented reality spaces. NVIDIA Funhouse was up there, along with the outstandly thrilling and magnificently innovative Field Trip to Mars, winner of 19 lions at this years Cannes Lions Festival.

Second speaker for the day was Humphrey Hardwicke of Digital VR, who I talked to briefly at the VRTGO Labs launch event. Humphrey ran us through how his company, the Luminous Group, found applications for VR across their existing sectors of digital surveys and architecture and what this meant to them and their clients. He provided a range of examples and gave lots of good advice on how you can approach potential clients in order to win work providing AR or VR products/services.


The event was again flawlessly hosted by the ebullient Carri Cunliffe of Secret Sauce. She took the opportunity to promote both the upcoming ARM Optimised Mobile Rendering Techniques Workshop, which is free to attend on 8th September at Gateshead College, as well as the annual VRTGO Conference & Expo at the BALTIC, November 9th.

For this outing I was accompanied by my partner, who endured the technical barrage of information and gave me useful perspective on the day’s events from an outsider’s point of view. I would recommend doing so if possible, as it’s quite easy to adopt an insular mindset and get caught up in the hype, especially with new technologies you’re invested in.

Altogether, I walked away from yet another VRTGO event filled with ideas and inspiration.

VRTGO Labs Launch Event

VRTGO Labs held its launch event on Wednesday evening, in the suitably impressive venue of St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead. VRTGO Labs aims to be Europe’s first industry-led virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) centre of excellence. While I was unable to attend for long, there were some very interesting things going on inside.

Among the exhibitors was Humphrey Hardwicke, Creative Director at Luminous Group, purveyors of digital architecture, surveys and VR. He explained to me how his company were making use of Unreal Engine 4 to demonstrate interior design visualisations using VR. What grabbed my attention initially however, was that they were using the hand tracking capabilities of LeapMotion paired with a standard Xbox One controller, to allow rich interactivity in their Oculus Rift experience. The improved accuracy of the latest version of the Leap Motion software was exploited well by the Luminous group, and I was able to stylise the room and interact with its objects in a much more intuitive way than I had expected.

HammerheadVR made a brief speech on their AbeVR and Feel Wimbledon experiences. Just two of their projects they felt were successful based on the positive feedback they had gotten, something which may pave the way for even more interactive and emotionally engaging experiences from the studio.

A week earlier I had sampled AbeVR, which places you in the body of a woman from the 2013 psychological horror short by director Rob McLellan. Their Feel Wimbledon experience, made for Jaguar and starring Andy Murray, lets people see what it is like to make the winning strike as a professional tennis player during an intense game. HammerheadVR’s portfolio includes encouragingly varied and noteworthy works with big names like Star Wars, Lexus, Whirlpool and more.

Animmersion had brought along one of their Dreamoc hologram displays, which are gesture manipulable display cabinets that render vivid, animated 3D objects. The clarity and vibrancy of this was immediately impressive, as I had only ever seen very dim holograms in darker environments before. This display was of much higher quality, even though it was being showcased in a church hall flooded with natural lighting.

Other exhibitors at the event included talented work from local studios CCP, Coatsink, Spearhead InteractiveVector76 and Wolf and Wood, who released their highly praised A Chair In A Room, which I am looking forward trying.

Carri Cunliffe, manager of Secret Sauce, welcomed us to the event and explained VRTGO Labs as a mix of office and co-working space, situated at Baltimore House in Gateshead. She made clear how facilities such as a their VR demo room and GTI open source fibre – a high-capacity, high-speed open access fibre optical network – would provide exciting opportunities for local business to co-operate in making the region a hotbed for their VR and AR cluster development programme. Carri then went on to introduce the Mayor of Gateshead, Allison Ilderton-Thompson, who expressed her amazement at the experiences she’d had, and exhuded a positive outlook on the role the council will play in supporting and encouraging technological and artistic innovation in the area.

Despite being only able to attend for a short time, I felt the event further reinforced my hopes that a starting up a VR business could prove to have long term viability. I experienced and learnt about some new tech and opportunities that could be invaluable to me as a startup developer. I eagerly await the next conference and learning from all of these very talented and inspiring people.

VRTGO VR Developer Day 2016

Attending the VRTGO virtual reality (VR) developer day was a great experience, which helped me understand some of the issues and potential solutions that VR developers are working with today, and how that will have an impact my own designs. While some of the talks got very technical I felt I could keep up and took away some valuable insights which I can use in my future projects.


I felt the most technical talk was by Roberto Lopez Mendez, Senior Software Engineer at ARM. He took time to explain the challenges faced in porting an experience made in Unity – their Ice Cave demo – to the GearVR platform. Since GearVR makes use of relatively lower power mobile hardware, Mendez also detailed how they optimise different aspects of the experience, such as; lighting, reflections, refractions, etc. and how we can adapt what they learnt for use in our own projects.

The result of their work is a rather impressive demo, which I got to try for myself. By using the techniques they outlined in their presentation, they were able to create a vivid interior environment, which had beautifully rendered effects that really made the scene feel realistic and believable. All of this was running on a Samsung S6 smartphone, which uses the Mali-T760 graphics processor. This is very inspiring, when I consider what this could mean for my personal projects. If you’re a VR or mobile developer I highly recommend their Mali Developer microsite, which contains lots of useful resources.

Attending the event were some of my previous tutors from Gateshead College, who were showcasing their Level 3 Games Design students’ work. A VR environment modelled off of places I frequented while studying there. It was interesting to find out that the students were able to reproduce the environments convincingly in only seven weeks! Hopefully I’ll get another chance to see what the students and staff have been up to in the future!


Other talks on design and programming tips for VR included:

Patrick Connor, Principle Engineer at PlayStation VR - discussed the importance of reprojection and how asynchronous reprojection is used in PlayStation VR
Oliver Kibblewhite, Head of Special Projects at Rewind Studios - explained the spectrum of applications for VR, as well as tools and techniques to improve our workflows.
Eddie Beardsmore, Project Manager at Coatsink - discussed the journey they took while working towards their latest title, Esper 2
Paul Colls, Creative Director at Fierce Kaiju - similarly explained the lessons his team learnt when evaluating their game, Viral
Rachel Derbyshire, Co-founder & Creative Director at Chronicles VR - did a more experience focussed talk focussing on considerations for the first time user and the importance of understanding your audience's ability level
Dan Gilmore, Head of UI & UX at Atomhawk - talked through designing user interfaces for VR and how their work affected the high profile VR title EVE Valkerie


Each developer talked a bit about their history and the unique challenges they faced in producing VR content for a range of different clients, as well as tips on how to avoid making the same design mistakes they had. I found all of the topics interesting and respect that the speakers and the event staff took time to put this together for us, as the event was an invaluable source of inspiration and advice for me. Too much information, in fact, for me to write in detail about here. However, one thing I’d like to point out was the mention of VR Together, an organisation with a mission to encourage people to produce meaningful VR experiences that will improve human lives. This is something I gravitate towards, because I feel that VR needs to be approached as a new medium in itself and that we should use this opportunity to create content that has a positive impact on us as the audience.

VR Together
Oh look, another infinity symbol!

The day ended with a final round of questions for the attending speakers. Most interestingly, some good discussion took place around the subject of how we could rate and label virtual experiences, with some developers feeling that the current classification and rating systems (i.e. PEGI) may be insufficient in dealing with virtual experiences. Kibblewhite argued that due to their unique form of immersion and presence, virtual experiences, unlike other mediums, do not need creators to push visual and auditory elements to extremes in order to elicit a strong emotional response from a person: and I agree. Though you could argue that some of the most touching moments you’ve had with games, film or literature can be triggered by their nuances or subtle juxtapositions and I would also agree.

I think this is an interesting take-away, because if we really are going to view this as a new medium we should probably also build up a new lexicon with which to discuss and describe the experience from a consumer standpoint too. Without these considerations – and even with – I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before we see the headline ‘Child kills sibling playing VR murder simulator, Minecraft VR’.


I felt this space needed a picture and found I had none. So here’s one Freddi Jeffries took at the event.

While walking home this got me thinking about my HND dissertation, where I looked at how game design choices can have reaching consequences and the importance of those consequences to society. That’s when it hit me. I had learnt so much at the developer day that all of the things I had learnt since writing my dissertation were now fitting together. Older ideas I had were being discarded or overwritten and pieces of knowledge which were only loosely connected before felt reinforced and crystallised.