Virtual Reality, Coming to a Location Near You
Virtual Reality's (VR) goal is to immerse a user in a virtual world by providing artificial sight, sound, and haptic inputs. Unfortunately, the high cost of the complete systems effectively denies most consumers the opportunity to experience the technology. IMAX used existing technology and content from HTC, Valve, StarVR, and Starbreeze Studios to provide individuals and groups 15-minute Virtual Reality gaming experience to consumers for $10.
The flagship location is at 157 South Fairfax, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
AllAboutCircuits got early access on 02/13/2017. The rest of the media will be shown the technology on 02/14/2017 and grand opening will follow in the next several weeks.
Multiplayer pod at the Image VR Centre
Consumers play virtual reality games in large cubical pods. Image from IMAX.
The IMAX VR Centre is a large flat warehouse space that separates an entry and waiting area from the gamespace. Players must digitally sign an indemnity waiver before they are allowed into the VR area. Tickets can be reserved online or in person, and most games are designed for individual players. Multiplayer games must be played while seated to avoid real-world collisions.
This game arena has fourteen pods that use HTC Vive technology and Valve games, and two pods that use StarVR technology and Starbreeze Studio games.
Inside the HTC Vive headset are two lenses that focus a player's vision onto a single screen with two slightly offset images. The greater the offset, the closer the object appears to be. This design makes the headset light, but the small screen translates into a limited field of view.
Additional hardware includes headphones, a haptic feedback vest, and a controller. The entire system is wired to the helmet and strung from the ceiling to limit tangling. Player and handset positions are tracked on the devices the player wears by means of lasers and photosensors.
Center: The HTC Vive headset. Top-left & top-right: HTC Vive Lighthouse Tracking Sensors. Bottom-left & bottom-right: HTC Vive controllers. Image courtesy of HTC Vive.
The HTC Vive uses LightHouse boxes and photosensors to track players head and handset movement. Image courtesy of HTC Vive.
Two boxes at the corner of the room emit infrared light flashes and alternating infrared line-laser sweeps. Photosensors on the device deduce their position in the room by first detecting a flash of infrared light and then recording the time it takes for the vertical and horizontal sweeps to hit the sensor. This allows each photosensor to determine their vertical and horizontal distance from each Lighthouse unit, and also allows software to create a three-dimensional map of the objects.
Screens inside the pod show friends and family the view inside the headset.
StarVR has a headset that houses two screens—one for each eye. This provides users with an expanded field of view and a more optically immersive experience. Additionally, StarVR chose to include haptic feedback inside the headphones rather than use a vest like HTC. Currently, at the IMAX Centre, StarVR's only accessory available is a gun for use in games. Like the HTC Vive, there is a wire harness that hangs from the ceiling above.
This technology appears to function through single or multi-camera tracking of reference LEDs on the user's headset and accessories.
The StarVR is able to provide a wider field-of-view through the use of clever optics and two screens. Image courtesy of StarVR.
A fellow tester plays "John Wick" by Starbreeze Studios on a StarVR system.
I found the staff to be exceptionally helpful throughout the entire visit. It is possible that it is as much fun watching others experience virtual reality as it is to experience it and IMAX seems to have realized this by providing viewing areas for friends and family.
While the visual display is not perfect, I found the experience fun and immersive. I chose a game that immersed me in the Star Wars universe, fixing the Millenium Falcon and fighting stormtroopers with a lightsaber. Near the end of the game, I had unknowingly moved into a corner of the pod and was landing decisive and convincing blows with my "lightsaber" controller—only to find out later that the very convincing "realism" that had been imparted by the controller was caused by me hitting the pod's wall fiercely and frequently with my controller—for which I apologized to the IMAX staff profusely.
The haptic feedback vest was used to augment the sound system to provide the feeling of earth-shaking vibrations from the Millenium Falcon. It was further used throughout the game to provide negative feedback during blaster hits.
The SUBPAC haptic feedback vest.
Conversations with the staff showed a strong preference for the StarVR headsets with the expanded field of view. The limited number of games and lack of accessories are its primary drawbacks—a problem that will be solved over time.
The HTC Vive system has a wide variety of games available and a thoroughly pleasant experience. The screen will have to increase in size and provide a higher resolution to increase its performance.
Check out this video below to see me playing the Star Wars game (regrettably, we didn't catch the epic fight with the wall on film):
While this is still an emerging technology, the electrical engineering that went into the design and implementation of both of these systems is truly remarkable. A "holodeck"-like experience is not the goal of these systems. Rather, they are designed to allow a player to suspend disbelief and enter a virtual world that allows them to walk, run, hit, shoot, and believe to a large extent that they are inside the world.
You can join in the fun by designing games and real-life systems that use the Lighthouse tracking technology by going to SteamGames and signing up as a developer. StarVR technology does not appear to be available at the consumer or developer level yet.