By George Sells
What is the next big step in the emerging field of virtual reality? Where is it likely to be taken? The answers to these questions involve design businesses, collaborative work, and, in what you may find surprising, St. Louis, Missouri.
It’s in that midwestern city, not in the heart of Silicon Valley, where well known video card producer NVIDIA houses the team that is developing its next generation virtual reality content. And what does that content look like? It’s no game.
“This is for engineers, architects, people who want to look over designs and make decisions on their designs,” NVIDIA’s Dane Johnston says. “So we let architects bringing their buildings at scale, or at small scale because in VR you can do whatever you want, right? You can pick up a building, toss it and shake it.”
What he’s describing is called Holodeck. It’s a concept inspired by the science fiction TV show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” On the program, crew members walked onto a deck on the ship, and were transported into a pre-programmed scene. It could be anything they want from a jungle hike to 1930’s nightclub.
NVIDIA’s reimagining of this entails a collaborative space where designers in virtual reality headsets can be in offices on opposite sides of the world, but get together and work on the same design together. They have avatars of themselves, and can talk to one another, and do hands on work together with the same design, no matter where each person is.
“Every day I interact with people in Seattle, Santa Clara, Texas, New York, Zurich, Moscow, Shanghai, sometimes the UK, and a lot of times we’re in the application with them,” Holodeck Lead engineer Lou Rohan said.
The Star Trek inspiration for the Holodeck is just the beginning. Science fiction is a big player in a lot of the team’s ideas for moving VR forward. Designer and developer Adam Shaw says it’s a logical place to look.
“A lot of the things you saw on Star Trek or Star Wars decades ago are starting to become real possibilities now.”
A scene from the movie “Black Panther” recently played out in real life on a Silicon Valley stage as NVIDIA showed off another of Holodeck’s mind-bending possibilities. There, a man wearing a VR headset sat, using the Holodeck program to remotely control a real car outside the building. The audience watched in amazement on video split screens as the vehicle was maneuvered by its remote driver.
“You can see, that’s his view and this is the real car and that’s him driving on stage,” Rohan said as he showed off the video. “He’s on stage. And yeah, he was driving a real car. The issue is you have to have a huge parking lot and there are some serious safety concerns when you are testing these things.”
These are just some of the things that are charging toward real world application in the virtual reality space. Holodeck is already in test phase with some automotive and architectural firms.
The designers in the St. Louis office say the next step in making virtual reality something difficult to distinguish from the “real world” involves subtleties.
“Using an application by yourself is one thing,” Rohan said. You can really feel like you’re there. But if you’re there at the same time as someone else is there, they’re talking to you through the application, and you can see the hands and arms moving.”
That looks more like the real thing. Then you add in a crisper and crisper picture. That’s something that NVIDIA’s advancements in video card technology is powering. The company makes some of the fastest processers in the world.
“I imagine at some point we’ll take the glasses off. We’ll be like, is that on my glasses or is that in real life?” Rohan said with a laugh.
Shaw believes that, combined with eliminating the tethering of cables and big computers will allow for a “freer” feel.
“I think as soon as we drop that restraint, if we can, where you can move around with a bit more freedom, I think the possibilities are endless. And that may be some kind of marriage between VR and AR, augmented reality.”
Some look at the headsets and immersiveness of virtual reality and fear that it’s too isolating. The movie “Ready Player One,” recently offered what might be considered a cautionary tale about the dangers of that. But Johnston has a much different view.
“What matters is we’re in this virtual space together and hanging out and it’s much more immersive than a phone call. They’re there as a virtual representation of themselves and something we’ve worked on in Holodeck pretty heavily is getting, just from those three inputs, your hands and your head, getting the rest of your body language to transfer through.
“My biggest thing with virtual reality is you have to try it,” he continues. “It just can’t be explained. You put the headset on and suddenly you’re in a different world.