(This semester, I’m teaching an Honors course all about ICAT. We spend each class period in a different ICAT studio or on a different ICAT project. This is the third in a series of guest blogs from my students. Stay tuned for more. Enjoy! ~Phyllis)
From guest blogger Clark Cucinell:
The friendly robot stared at me for a moment, then offered me a floppy disk which had imprinted on it the image of a rocket. Using the controllers, I grabbed the floppy disk and inserted it into the printer on my left. As the rockets printed, I scanned the room. It was small, around the size of the interior of a typical RV. The space looked like the home of a graduate student preparing for their thesis presentation. Papers and cans were scattered everywhere, the desk in front of me was cluttered. Directly next tome were numerous screens and buttons, which I either could not interact with or did not know how to work. The rockets had finished printing, all four a stereotypical rocket shape with an orange body and light red cone top. I picked one up, pulled back the string dangling from the base, and let go. The rocket propelled itself through the air in random directions, leaving a trail of sparks as it flew around the room.
This is one of the many demos offered by the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset that immerses the user in a simulated, interactive environment. The headset hijacks the visual and auditory senses, while the controllers provide haptic feedback depending on which object you’re touching. The Performing Arts studio, part of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), in the Moss Arts Center provided this experience for the ICAT introductory class. We, the students, took turns using the two headsets available; one providing the experience of the previous example and the other introducing the combination of a Virtual Reality headset with Leap Motion, a sensor specializing in tracking hand movement.Using this hybrid headset, the user could manipulate furniture in the area around them by using hand gestures recognized by the LeapMotion sensor. Few of us had used this technology before, which quickly became apparent by the childlike enthusiasm in the room.
Virtual Reality technology is still in its infancy regarding everyday consumer participation. Only recently did these headsets reach price ranges of $600-800, and even then,there aren’t many applications for them yet. Furthermore, the headsets need to be adjusted in order to fit each user. Attempting to wear glasses with the headsets failed, and was very uncomfortable, so I wore it without my glasses. Though not as prominent, I still experienced blurred vision similar to how I would see the world without glasses. This is apparently easy to fix but takes time, so fine-tuning the headsets for each person in a large group wouldn’t be practical.
Another major issue currently being resolved, in some very creative ways, is the dilemma of how to travel in the virtual world. It’s possible to physically walk and have the movement transfer to the virtual space, but this limits your traveling capabilities to the confinements of the room. The device used in the Perform Studio, and one I was allowed to experience, was the Virtuix Omni, a multidirectional movement simulation treadmill made specifically for virtual reality transportation. It looked like a tripod highchair with a concave base. I wore shoes with sensors on the top, used to track the movement, and plastic on the bottom that created a seemingly frictionless surface interaction with the base. A harness is used to ensure you don’t fall over,though it can be quite uncomfortable. After strapping in, the graduate students handed me the headset and controllers and gave me instructions on how to properly move on the treadmill. Before I knew it, I was running around in a room akin to a basketball court, but with slopes and walkways. I shot robots and defended a gigantic cube, which the robots would shoot, until my inevitable defeat.
Despite these obstacles, virtual reality technology has the potential to transform multiple aspects of society. Training for jobs, gaming and other entertainment experiences, and “visiting” out of reach locations are just some of the ways virtual reality can enhance our lives. Though the impact of this technology is limited until we manage to create consumer grade devices for most niches of society, we can still enjoy the demos and experiences that give us a taste of what is to come.
Clark Cucinell is a junior undergraduate researcher at Virginia Tech, where he is majoring in Computer Science and Chemistry. When he’s not studying or working, Clark can be found at Crimpers rock climbing gym or practicing guitar at his apartment.