Virtual Reality is gaining momentum with the advent of more accessibility to hardware. So I splurged and bought a headset. I am interested in personally exploring the intersection of these technologies with ecommerce, but frankly it is also just a good bit of fun … for the kids of course!
Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality
Augmented reality refers to technologies like Google Glass, Microsoft Hololens, and now of course Pokemon Go! (In ecommerce, Wayfair and others have Augmented reality apps in production usage.) You see computer generated images overlaid on top of the real world. I think Augmented Reality has got a big future. Imagine walking into a clothing store and seeing personalized annotations above clothing racks showing where clothes in your size are. Or link it up to your shopping list so you can navigate the store to the product you were looking for faster. Looking at a product? View the bar code and get a warning if the price is higher than other nearby stores. The physical technology is not there yet, but I think there is a lot of potential.
Virtual Reality is an immersive experience where you put on a headset and all your see is computer generated imagery. The computer tracks which way you are looking and updates the screen appropriately. The trick here is to get the screen updates fast enough and the tracking accurate enough. Without this, the user feels nauseous very quickly from motion sickness. (I will never do a roller-coaster demo on a VR headset again!)
Why the HTC Vive?
There are a few headsets around. I am not a VR expert – the HTC Vive sounded newer with better hardware, so that is why I purchased it. There is also the Oculus Rift which has been around longer and Playstation VR is on pre-order. More and more comparison reviews are available online – just be prepared that anything you buy will probably be obsolete in a year until the industry settles down.
I will note the other reason I finally purchased is the GTX 1080 card came out recently, a big step up in graphics processing power. This helps with generating good quality imagery without lag. I had been holding out knowing the new graphics cards were “out soon”.
So what was my experience in setting up new VR gear? Not as smooth as I wanted, but it’s all fine now. But I will share my frustrations in case useful to anyone else doing similar.
I got a new computer to run this from, the CYBERPOWERPC Gamer Panzer PVP3000LQ. It seemed beefy enough to last a while without being too overly priced. My first location for the setup was not easy to get a Ethernet cable to, so I got a little USB Wi-Fi dongle. Then I hit annoyance #1 – the computer did not have a CD drive, so I had to cart it off to another room, install the driver over a wired connection, then cart it back into the other room. Not really a problem, just annoying as I impatiently wanted to get into VR, not mess with hardware setup.
Then I got all the HTC Vive hardware installed. The HTC Vive tracks your position in the room using two “lighthouse” sensors. They recommend these be 7 feet up in the air at two corners of your “play area”. Rather than drill holes in walls for mounting brackets, I got a pair of photography lighting stands. Takes up a bit more floor space, but makes the system much more easily portable. (I was grateful for this later!) The lighting stands were good because they could go up very tall with a fairly small footprint – camera stands tended to need more floor space. Just make sure you can adjust the tilt.
So there it was, all plugged in, set up, and ready to roll! There were a few apps included for free, including Tilt-Brush by Google, a 3D paint program. Very cool – until the jitters started. Shortly after, the controllers (you see a computer generated image of them) started flying out of my virtual hands. Then the world would suddenly tilt over to one side. Not being one into real-world roller coasters, I very quickly I discovered how nauseating VR equipment could be. My youngest having a go had to take the headset off – it was just too uncomfortable.
Doing some web searches I found threads talking about the HTC Vive and the motherboard I just purchased not working well together. (And this was for a “VR Ready” computer.) Something about USB Bus problems. Sounded a little strange, but for $30 you could add a new USB card. It was Saturday, one-day shipping was available, so I ordered and went about my other boring domestic jobs I had to get done. The card arrived, but it did not help. I waited until night, the tried with the lights turned off. Again, no joy.
So off to a new room with the equipment. The first room I was in had a slightly shiny wooden floor. My best guess is the reflections off the floor were confusing the sensors. I moved the equipment to a smaller room with carpet and everything started working well.
So, if you are planning to get the HTC Vive, I would think hard first about where you are going to put the equipment. Do you have a Plan B location? I was lucky enough to have a second option, otherwise the equipment would have had to gone back as unusable. Not sure the other headsets have had the same problem, but I expect more and more reports like this of equipment not working well. Ugly problem as a VR vendor to resolve.
The HTC Vive talks about two modes – basically sitting on your couch and looking around, and having a physical area you can move around in. The latter is much more fun – Space Pirates had me ducking and weaving incoming shots, my boys are loving “job simulator” where they get to make a big mess without having to clean up afterwards, the archery game in The Lab was fun leaning over the balcony to shoot at the people getting too close. I wish I had taken a picture of my youngest crawling under a VR car he was “repairing”.
I had read a bit on UI interaction patterns before buying the hardware. There is a “teleport” mode that many games are now using to avoid motion sickness. The screen fades black then fades in at new location. You need this to get around a large location. Works fine.
The HTC Vive controllers are quite good – buttons, touchpad, etc. But I saw some reference to gloves. I think that will be a big step up – tracking your individual fingers will add a lot to the usability. The controllers are only slightly better than interacting with your world with a clenched fist.
But it was pretty natural to reach out and pick things up, throw them around the room, etc. The rendering engines are pretty good – you can drop things and the land on top of each other, tumble down in piles, all the physics felt completely natural. The precision of the controllers here becomes important – pulling a draw handle requires getting your hand in just the right place.
This post was to get some of the initial setup out of the way. Apart from having fun, I am curious to see how these new technologies will work with ecommerce.
Augmented reality and Virtual reality are very different experiences, although both involve 3D computer imagery. Virtual reality seems a bigger challenge in that you need 3D assets to explore if you want to show off products. Did you think getting a nice photo was hard in the past? Just wait until you need a 3D model, or want to flow of dress fabric! Modelling the real world in a computer is hard! Augmented reality does not need to mimic the real world – just add annotations to it. That feels like a much easier programming task. The challenge seems to be more hardware related – you want accurate positioning data to really do a good job of AR.
So I suspect VR hardware is going to be here first, but AR hardware is going to be more impactful for ecommerce.
But it is pretty clear that building simple demos for VR is a lot harder than my previous Alexa voice integration work using a voice SDK. We shall see how I go…