VRgineers invited Virtual Perceptions to their office in Prague, to try out some VR experiences that they provide the tech for, as well as their top of the line XTAL headset. The company also presented their views of the future and their plans for further innovation.
The trip was insightful, as the company granted us a look into their present and future projects.
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Marek Polčák’s vision for the company
But first, meeting with Marek, the co-founder of VRGineers, was a fantastic opportunity to discuss the company itself, the future of VR, and to tour their lab and offices. Just 20 minutes outside of Prague’s tourist centre, the VRgineers labs are tucked away in neat and inconspicuous office buildings which are at complete odds with the high-tech developments the labs contain.
Marek first got involved with VR during a project called FlyPrague. A touristic experience that allowed members of the public to explore the city via VR. However, this used Oculus DK 1, and the quality just wasn’t there for what the company wanted to achieve.
Marek’s goal with VRgineers is to continually be at the cutting edge of tech, to be growing the company, and to be continually improving. I want to take this moment to thank Marek and the whole team of amazing people who made this visit possible!
The XTAL Headset itself
Now, onto the VR headset itself. XTAL has high-density OLED displays with 5K resolution, paired with its patented non-Fresnel lens. This type of glass means that every part of the image is in focus, whereas with the Fresnel lens, the ‘peripherals’ are blurry, which creates a significant break in the experience. A 180-degree field of view provides a range of vision which is more extensive than humans can see – which means that there is a buffer already in place when you turn your head. This type of world immersion, elimination of peripheral blur, and smooth software mean that VR motion sickness is almost eliminated in the XTAL.
The headset is quite big, but it is genuinely light. I wore the headset for a reasonably long time – 2 sessions of around 30 minutes, and then about 45 minutes straight – and the only issue I had was that my glasses steamed up. The fog is mitigated for the majority of the bespectacled population because the headset allows you to adjust focus to match your prescription. I was able to use most of the simulations ideally well without my glasses, but for the flight simulation, the in-headset focus was a smidge lacking for looking at precise dials with my terrible eyesight (-5.00).
With Leap Motion sensors embedded directly into the headset, there is no need for gloves or handheld controllers – your hands in VR look like your hands in real life. Which I admit freaked me out the first time I noticed that.
The headset has a microphone built-in and can be paired with voice recognition technology, which enables the user to control their environment with voice commands.
Wider gaming applications of the VR headset
VRgineers provides tech for the forefront of gaming VR. In Prague, at the famous Hamleys Toy Shop, you can venture down a few levels from the street and experience some of the best applications of virtual reality gaming available to the public.
The VR system here is more usable than you would expect, you slip on a backpack battery pack – which lasts for the whole experience – and they fit you with the headset. I have a bad back, I can’t walk more than half a mile without pain, but this backpack was so light I barely noticed it – even after running through both the experiences.
Taking a look at Golem VR and Arachnoid
The first experience is Golem VR. The more kid-friendly experience on offer, it is an excellent introduction to VR gaming for someone like me who hasn’t experienced fully immersive VR on this level before. Travelling back in time, players explore the fairy-tale of the golem and its creation – but not without chasing a few chickens first.
Arachnoid is the other experience available on VRgineers tech at Hamleys, and this one is definitely for those who are a bit braver. If you are claustrophobic or spiders aren’t your thing, maybe skip the next paragraph.
Arachnoid sends you deep beneath the earth to discover the lost lab, find cassettes to unravel what happened to the last people who went down there. Don’t forget to look up because wherever you turn there is most likely a giant spider ready to jump out at you. You have to find your way through a series of ever more oppressive tunnels and spiderwebs to complete the given tasks.
The beauty of virtual reality experience gaming is that you can have multiple experiences running at the same time, on the same physical layout. From a business point of view, this means that you can run what is essentially a multi-game arcade while only having to maintain one physical location – something rising in popularity.
What impressed me in these experiences, and would continue to impress me during the commercial experiences at VRgineers labs, was the quality of the gesture recognition. Using built-in cameras on the headset, you don’t need gloves or handheld receivers to interact with the surroundings.
The commercial applications of the headset
While visiting the labs, I was able to test drive a few of the business uses of the XTAL – the ones not covered by NDA’s that is – in their greenroom. One example is in the automotive sector.
While automotive VR might immediately conjure racing and simulation games – which you can also do with XTAL – VRgineers role is in modelling and design review.
Putting the headset on, in front of you appears a shiny new sports car. Not only can you walk around the car and look inside, but also you can use voice-activated “map” to jump around key viewing points of the vehicle. This mapping functionality is a combination of voice commands and gesture control. You use voice commands to open a menu, you then use your finger to choose the viewpoint you want to see – the front, back, or sides. Another fun addition is the ability to jump into the driver’s seat, reach out and turn the steering wheel! In addition to voice-controlled menus, the voice recognition capabilities mean that you can speak aloud “change colour” or “change wheels” to see the options built into the design.
Currently, the manufacturers who use VRgineers tech to demonstrate their models design their vehicles independently and then process that design for viewing in VR. This is hugely beneficial for these companies – it makes both fiscal and environmental sense. When you can experience the look and feel of a car in VR, there is no need to build countless models to test new things. While the VR tech is currently used to review designs somewhat passively, Marek believes that within the next 1 – 3 years the software will be developed so that active design can take place within the VR space.
Designing homes and commercial buildings in VR
One of the applications of VR in the commercial space where I can see exponential growth in is design.
The application I experienced was a kind of show house, putting the headset on I was transported to the inside of a modern home where I had control over my position and surroundings through gesture recognition.
The house itself was well designed. I would be happy living there; I know this because I’ve walked around the kitchen island, and I’ve stood in the immaculately designed bathroom. The gesture recognition meant that I was able to move around the whole house despite being in a singular bedroom-sized greenroom. By raising my left hand, a virtual menu appeared, and I could choose from a range of options. The option to teleport around the house was through a movable arc with a landing spot; you put the place where you want to go and pinch your thumb and finger together, and you’re teleported to that spot.
Sorting wallpapers and flooring in a VR headset
The other, really cool, thing you can do within this simulation is altering design aspects of the house like the floor and wallpaper. The designing has applications in active design – planning a company space remotely – or for an interior designer to see their vision in a virtual space before forking out the money to apply it to a real one.
The real estate application of this is phenomenal, both commercially and privately. There exists a job in this world where a person is paid to video call a prospective buyer and silently walk around a house. This service is generally used by the ultra-rich, those who are buying a home from overseas, or the ultra-rich purchasing a home from abroad. However, there are fantastic applications for those who are unable to make a journey for a ‘maybe’. Whether that is due to work, mobility restrictions, or simply living too far away for it to be practicable, commercially, you can see new office space in whatever country you’re opening offices, and approve it yourself without having to visit in person.
Potentially the most apparent way VR can be used is also the most complicated. Training simulation is a massive business worldwide. Just take pilot training. It vary from program to program, but some require hundreds of simulated hours to qualify. These simulations are often completed on old machines with the limited graphic representation of successful landing and take-off. Regardless of how life accurate the physical controls of these simulators are, it merely isn’t the same as flying.
Unless you set up those life-accurate controls on a gyroscopic plate and fit the XTAL up to spec.
It’s still not the same, but it’s spectacularly close. According to Marek, a few of the private XTAL owners in Europe are professional pilots and race car drivers who use the system to keep in shape. I used the system without the gyroscopic platform and honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to take off if I had been contending with the physical feeling of movement as well.
What about AR?
Though commonly put head to head as opposing things to choose between, Marek feels that they’re two complementary aspects of the same overall tech. Some of the applications and hardware that VRgineers is developing a show that there is a considerable role for AR to be developed alongside and within the VR world.
The advent of Google Glass is a testament to this. While Google Glass didn’t take over the consumer world and two years of opposing cries of “groundbreaking” and “glassholes” isn’t exactly a glowing report card for integrated AR wearable tech. The fact is that there have been considerable strides in wearable tech since 2015, the year Glass was retired for consumers. That was the year the Apple Watch was first released and has gone on to sell over 46 million watches. With the benefit of hindsight, wearable tech doesn’t seem so stupid now. Additionally, the Glass lives on in the commercial sphere.
Using AR for gaming
More and more games are integrating AR to their repertoire. While there are plenty of applications like Night Sky and games like Zombies Run which utilised AR tech that preceded it, it’s Pokemon Go that the masses point to as the kick-off of the AR revolution in mobile gaming. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is the latest high budget mobile game to get players up and out to play, though significantly less popular. Though Lego is crossing the line of a mere mobile application by combining it with their physical toys with Lego Hidden Side.
When high-end applications of technology become more common, lower-budget versions are sure to emerge, and eventually, the two converge in quality. The Bubble Witch 3 Saga is your run of the mill bubble popping game, but even this has added an AR battle side quest.
The same is true of hardware. With mobile phone screens becoming higher and higher quality, “3D” photos popping up in the Facebook timeline, and YouTube offering videos in VR mode using the Google Cardboard holder – VR is more accessible than ever.
VRgineers and XTAL compared to other headsets
Being a physically small team in Prague comes with its innate pros and cons. China is a mass producer while the US is a centre for entrepreneurship – Prague is neither of those things. However, they can quickly gather people from over 50 countries to work with them. Marek also believes that Europe has higher expectations and standards for production.
The main difference between the XTAL and the other leaders in VR like HTC and Oculus at the highest end is the quality and resolution of the picture and the field of view. XTAL’s 180-degree field of vision is more full than the human peripheral vision, which acts as a buffer when you turn your head as opposed to the blacked-out border that occurs in other VR headsets.
While the barrier to entry is higher with XTAL – 4,900 euros high, the experience is correspondingly high. There are dozens of enthusiasts all over the world who have set themselves up with XTAL, from gamers to jet fighter pilots and professional race car drivers.
The future of VRgineers
The future of VRgineers is at the forefront of this tech, Marek will make sure of that. He is a genuinely passionate person who combines that vision with the mental acumen and business drive required to keep VRgineers growing.
VRgineers will mostly be pursuing the commercial end of their business because that is where the most high-end development is. The client demands are going to be the main driver in where the company thematically goes. There are a lot of NDA’d clients who want to engage XTAL for design, learning and training in VR and with AR tech, mindfulness and relaxation applications, as well as telecontrol.
Telecontrol has incredible applications in the environment and environmental clean-up, for example, at Fukushima or clearing the ocean of pollution. VRgineers themselves do not consider themselves to be a “green” company but are always happy when they can help or provide a better solution. The most significant way they help to reduce carbon impact is in their application. For example, a German company that is working with VRgineers who manufacture astronomical optical instruments which are extremely precise, challenging to assemble, and travel with. This would previously have required select flights to transport their units which would have cost tens of thousands of euros to do, but with VR they can demonstrate without the carbon footprint and massive bill.
Setting goals for the company after 2019
The immediate technological goal for VRgineers and Marek is to perfect the in-headset picture with non-invasive systems, to improve the convenience, and then minimise the physical size.
With minimising the size of the headset and increasing the convenience level, Marek believes that the public will accept VR more and more – especially with the normalisation of AR games.
Marek said to me that his end goal for VRgineers is for it to become entirely immersive, for those using the headsets to experience total belief in the virtual world they’re participating in. I can honestly say that they are CLOSE. During the Arachnoid VR experience at Hamleys, I involuntarily ducked under beams that were not there, felt the whoosh of an elevator that was not there, and panicked over the spiders crawling up my legs that were NOT there. During the commercial applications I wanted to lean on the door of the car I was checking out, and I while using the teleport option in the virtual house I often “bumped” into door frames … that were not there.
In all, VRgineers convinced me. Not just of the consumer applications of their tech, but the future of VR. Before this trip, I only really saw the applications in gaming and flight simulation, and even in these areas, I wasn’t that impressed with what I had seen previously. Experiencing these incredible bits of tech first hand absolutely impressed me. While I can’t wait to try out my next VR gaming rig, I’m sure that the most significant leaps forward for VRgineers will be based in much more practical adventures – telecontrol, training, and design.
Samantha is a writer at Carry On Or Bust, travelling and typing up her experiences.