It is a strange room. No windows on the dark gray walls, and there are two park benches and a golden coin on a pedestal in the middle. The only way out is an orange door that leads to a yellow corridor. From there you go straight ahead, around two corners, and then you come to a new room with orange walls and two colored doors. You feel like you just walked through half a house. But the "player" has actually never left a predefined space of just a few square meters.
The reason for this is a clever software solution for virtual reality environments from the Technical University of Vienna. Virtual reality goggles and a tracking solution that captures a person`s movements have made it possible to explore virtual worlds for some time already. The problem is that all virtual reality solutions up until now have only been able to use the real space being portrayed. The illusion was over as soon as the user ran into a wall.
Holo-Deck 1.0, which was developed in collaboration with the Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, is designed to solve this problem in an elegant manner. While the user walks through the virtual 3D world, the location of the next room is calculated automatically – and in a way that fits within the physical space that is available. The next room is generated and overlaps the existing room without the user knowing it. When the user selects a door, he is led to the "new room" through a corridor.
According to Hannes Kaufmann, the project director, the test candidate does not notice this overlapping, because he has to walk down a long corridor with multiple turns to get to the next room. "When we are concentrating on objects, we do not notice small changes that take place outside our field of view in the room," Kaufmann explained. By playing with perception in this way, the user can be led through an endless labyrinth of different rooms. According to Kaufmann, the potential uses are nearly limitless and range from virtual museum visits all the way to exploring varied virtual worlds in the video games of the future.
Kaufmann`s team uses the Oculus Rift, VR goggles from a US manufacturer, for Holo-Deck 1.0. They generated a great deal of interest in the media last year, as they offer a considerably larger field of view than other goggles and prevent the user from seeing anything other than the simulation. Many were also attracted by the low price of USD 300 for the developer version. The finished Oculus Rift is to cost even less, and will have corrected some of its teething problems like the relatively low resolution (1280 x 800 pixels, 640 x 800 for each eye).
However, the Oculus Rift can only detect head movements. The movements of the body are tracked with multiple cameras. And this is still a bottleneck of sorts. As the cameras only record images at a rate of 50 or 60 images a second, there is a slight delay between the actual movement and its depiction in the simulation. This can rapidly cause nausea or eye pain, as some tests have shown. Hannes Kaufmann`s team is working on improving the method, however.
The rudimentary scenario will soon be expanded. In addition to doors, there will also be an elevator. The user will step onto a platform that simulates the typical noise and movements of an elevator, and a small fan will provide the "wind" from the movement. This will add an additional dimension and another game element to the world. Many things that would help the user orient himself are missing, in part on purpose. According to Khrystyna Vasylevska, a member of the research team, it would make little difference for the majority of users if windows were included, for example.
Outdoor landscapes are also planned for the future. Here, however, there could be cues in the form of clouds or the sun that could reveal the impossible geometric structures used by the developers. But they are not worried about that. "That`s the nice thing about simulations. You can hide such cues," Vasylevska said, laughing.
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