Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Top: photo; Bottom: Physically-Based Rendering

Top: photo; Bottom: Physically-Based Rendering

Well, our goal is to make the fantastic look as real as possible. In the picture above, the top is a photo, and the bottom is a rendering.

To produce the realistic rendering, we used a different lighting and material process called "physically-based rendering," or "PBR" for short. The video game industry has been using PBR, and the concept is making its way to architectural visualization. The online magazine CGArchitect.com recently published an article detailing the concept and its workflow. It's highly recommended if you're interested in the details of PBR.

A static rendering, however, requires less technical considerations than if the scene were to be "navigable," video game-style, which would require "real-time PBR." More difficult still is the ability to run the scene on mobile phones, which are much less powerful than a PC. The team at uForis has been experimenting with real-time PBR in our proprietary engine, and the scene we have been using is pictured in black-and-white below. 

Black-and-white version of PBR experimental scene

Black-and-white version of PBR experimental scene

To make this scene run smoothly once it is fully decked out with materials and lit properly, many optimizations need to be done. The more complicated a scene is, the harder it is for a phone to run. The uForis team is optimizing the materials and the engine, so users have a smooth experience that's representative of what it's like to be in the space.

Just like in real life.

What Student Housing Taught Us about VR User Experience

At the end of June, we launched a "2D catalog" view of our student housing Cardboard Apps on Android and iPhone! It's a complete overhaul of how a leasing agent would show VR tours of their properties to students, making search and navigation of the App much more intuitive and quick.

Incorporating VR into the Leasing Process

When we first launched the Cardboard versions of the leasing Apps, the App starts with the "VR-view" right away - the "split screen" look that indicates it is time to slot the phone into a Cardboard viewer. A "Dashboard" of properties, sometimes classified under a geographical location, appears.

"VR-view": meant to be seen through a VR headset like the Google Cardboard. Here showing a Dashboard for navigation.

"VR-view": meant to be seen through a VR headset like the Google Cardboard. Here showing a Dashboard for navigation.

Many of our customers thought that going through this layer of navigation, especially when the leasing agent needs to line up a few unit tours, to be immersive but time-consuming. Sometimes, if the student prefers to navigate him/herself, but is unfamiliar with VR, it could become frustrating.

Breaking down the student housing process that precedes the signing of a lease, we found that it consists of three parts: search (for the units that fit the students' criteria), selection (of the units to view), and navigation (between selected units). Our goal was to make the search, selection, and navigation process more pleasant and to speed it up.

We considered designing an interface where it is possible to input a series of search criteria. However, there is currently no keyboard equivalent in virtual reality, so it is cumbersome to "type" any text. We also needed an easy way to "save" the unit tours that are of interest and flip between them. But as mentioned previously, going through layers of the Dashboard to switch between one tour to another could be tedious. We concluded that it would be much easier if the process were in 2D, familiar to everyone who uses a smartphone, instead of VR, and only switch to VR for the tours. 

    

Search

Search

Instead of going through the VR Dashboard to arrive at a tour, the App will load into a 2D list of properties (or geographical locations if applicable). From there, an agent can select the tour they want to view.

Picks.png

Selection

Sometimes a student is interested in viewing multiple units that fit his/her criteria. Once the agent arrives at one unit, they can tap the star on the left-hand side to "save" it to the "Picks" section, then continue to the next unit of interest.

 
Navigation.PNG

Navigation

To start the tour, click on one of the units and the App will load into the VR view. From there, navigate as usual through hotspots. With the addition of "Picks," however, there are now "Next" and "Previous" buttons near the bottom that will help you move from one Pick to the next.

To get back to the list of Picks, simply take the phone out of the Cardboard viewer, and rotate it back to portrait mode.

As much as we wanted to stay completely immersive, it was much more important to ensure that VR complements the student housing leasing process. Introducing a 2D view in a VR App was the pragmatic choice for delivering a smooth and effortless experience. 

Looking ahead

Our team is hard at work on future updates to the app as well. Samsung has released a new version of the Gear VR that has a controller, so we are looking into making the Gear VR versions of our App compatible with it. No more fishing around the touchpad on the side!

We're also very excited about introducing Augmented Reality and physically-based rendering ("PBR") to pre-built projects in the near future. Check out the prototype: 

Augmented Reality

Realistic-looking 3D models that pop up is coming to a phone near you!

Student Housing VR Case Study

uForis' virtual reality app for Domus Student Housing has been a hit for Domus since it was rolled out: students have been reported to come by just to try the VR experience. The excitement has led to a 20% increase in year­-over-­year monthly number of units rented!

We've published the full case study here. Find out how the app also increased leasing agents' job satisfaction, and how it's future-proof: the app will grow readily along Domus' expansion.

The unlikely star of virtual reality: real-world panoramas

First, a confession: When I was asked to see a 360-degree, fully spherical panoramic picture of The Colosseum in virtual reality, I thought, "meh, what's so special about a picture?" I finished some work, perhaps made a cup of coffee or two, before I made my way over. Well, I was wrong. I've never been to The Colosseum, but I was blown away by how much it managed to make me feel like I was there. Those who have been there assured me that it looked exactly as advertised in the goggles. So do others share this enthusiasm for panoramas? Who's doing something about it? And when can I travel the world on my couch?

The excitement

Panoramas can be static pictures or videos, but they all share one goal: to immerse you in a real-world location. The Colosseum panorama mentioned above is a still, and although being blown away by it doesn't mean I won't ever pony up for a ticket to Rome, we found that donning a headset and seeing a location for the first time is heady. When next I saw panoramic videos, I thought "this is something special."

I didn't know how special it'd be until we brought a demo of our technology, which could play panoramic videos by then, to meetups. Word of our demo would spread, and a lineup would form throughout the night. If the attendees didn't start out seeking the panoramas, they came away pleasantly surprised. Many of them told us that they saw the possibilities of VR clearly through these experiences.

Panoramas' virtues are extolled by none other than the CTO of Oculus VR, John Carmack:

@ntheweird the hard core gaming crowd just does not understand how important pano photos and videos are going to be for VR

— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) December 20, 2014

It is not uncommon to see VR community discussions about panoramas branch into how they will help mainstream adaptation of VR, such as this thread on reddit. It also comes up from time to time as VR enthusiasts tweet about their favourite 360 experiences.

So are people capturing their wing suit adventures? And how are they doing it?

Capturing the real world

At its most basic level, creating a panorama means capturing a scene at multiple angles - front, back, left, right, as well as top and bottom if you want a full spherical look - then stitching them together. The panorama sharing site 360Cities has a basic tutorial on how to create panoramic photos, and recommendations of stitching software such as PTGui.

360-degree spherical panorama of The Colosseum, in Cubic format. (By "Humus", CC BY 3.0, http://www.humus.name/index.php?page=Textures&ID=109)
360-degree spherical panorama of The Colosseum, in Cubic format. (By "Humus", CC BY 3.0, http://www.humus.name/index.php?page=Textures&ID=109)

Video panoramas are much the same. Since you have to record every angle of the scene simultaneously though, a mount that holds multiple cameras - such as those by 360Heroes or Freedom360 - is needed. A stitching software capable of processing videos, such as Kolor or VideoStitch, is also needed.

For those of us who are looking for 1-click solutions (or close to it anyway), there are consumer-grade 360-degree cameras that are available for purchase or preorder:

Samsung is going to come out with Project Beyond, which is capable of capturing stereoscopic spherical panoramas. This means the footage it captures will have depth, so the viewer feels as if s/he is in the same 3-dimensional space as the location on video.

So this is all fine and good, but how do I see these videos in a VR headset? And how do I share my tour of The Louvre in its full spherical glory?

The cat videos are due in VR

Popular panorama viewers for VR include: LiveViewRift, MaxVR, and VRPlayer. They are standalone applications you can download to view a panorama that exists locally on your computer.

Some panorama sites, such as airpano.com, has support for the Oculus Rift, which means you can plug the headset in and view the site's panoramas straight from the browser. 360Cities, mentioned above, has Google Cardboard support for their panoramas. Overall, it is currently up to the individual panorama sites to implement VR support.

If you'd like to share a panorama, Samsung's "Milk VR" service allows you to upload videos for view on the Gear VR headset, provided you are allowed to do so by Samsung. There are also a couple companies, vcemo and vyuu, who are trying to build the "YouTube of VR".

Or, there is YouTube itself. Google announced that YouTube will support 360-degree videos "soon". In fact, 360-degree camera manufacturer Giroptic has confirmed that YouTube will be compatible with their camera upon launch, in the first quarter of 2015.

What panoramas would you like to see in VR? Would cats be the stars of VR videos as well?

Feature Image Credit: The Colosseum, Rome, Italy, ca. 1896 6782 P.Z. Roma, esterno del Coloseo. Photochrom print by Photoglob Zürich, between 1890 and 1900. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trialsanderrors/4827330638/

Well, virtual reality sure accelerated in 2014

2014 saw the arrival of perhaps the biggest catalyst for virtual reality: Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR at the end of March. Confidence in VR's business viability was amplified overnight. It was not the only notable event, however. Both Sony and Samsung announced their own VR offerings, and the diversity of VR content in the works was more evident than ever. As we ring in 2015, let's take a look at this nascent industry's journey through 2014, from the days when VR was mostly the domain of enthusiasts, to the Facebook deal, to the launch of Gear VR and influx of capital - albeit small compared to other tech sectors - near the end of this year.

"You're early"

The Oculus Rift had a very successful KickStarter campaign that ended in 2012, where it raised almost ten times more than its goal. Awareness surged when John Carmack - creator of the Doom and Quake video game series - became VR's most high-profile advocate at E3 2012. Although interest in VR was still mostly confined to video gaming by the end of 2013, TV viewers got a glimpse of the technology when Virtuix Omni went on Shark Tank. The Sharks did not invest at the time.

Virtuix's experience was echoed by the founder of Tactical Haptics, William Provancher. As he mentioned on a Voices of VR podcast, investors believed that VR was still "too early". Despite these sentiments, VR enthusiasts have been around for a few years: respected news outlets such as Road to VR has been in circulation for three years as of November 2014, before Oculus' KickStarter campaign.

In March 2014, Sony announced their own VR headset, "Project Morpheus". However, it is not as openly available to developers as the Rift. Only a limited number of developers has a development kit for it. We know that it is going to be used for the PS4, but it is not clear whether Sony will focus on games, or allow other types of apps on the Morpheus.

The Facebook Deal

When Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion dollars, it came as an unwelcome surprise to many in the core community. Reactions and speculations ran from Minecraft creator Notch's very negative, to measured approval.

Despite the negative sentiment, VR development accelerated. Developers started coming out of the woodwork, revealing their long-incubated or brand-new projects. Among them are critically-acclaimed work such as Elite: Dangerous by Frontier, Studio Ghibli experiences from Fire Panda's Nick Pittom, Technolust from Iris VR's Blair Renaud, Radial-G from Tammeka Games, among many others.

Facebook made it clear in their statement that they see applications for VR beyond gaming:

After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home.

The community agrees, and non-gaming VR applications from both before and after the deal have been gaining visibility: 360-degree films by Jaunt VR, paint tool Tiltbrush, design visualization firm IrisVR (not related to Iris VR, of Technolust fame) , horror film 11:57, documentary Zero Point, and many more. There are also journalistic efforts such as Nonny de la Pena's "Immersive Journalism", and medically-related projects such as Diplopia, a game for helping people with lazy eye. Even among games, there are titles seeking to provide different experiences than traditional genres: Eden River from Unello Design's Aaron Lemke, and Guided Meditation from Cubicle Ninjas seek to provide a soothing experience instead of adrenaline rushes.

Even investors seem to be looking at VR twice. Tactical Haptics' Provancher mentioned later in the Voices of VR podcast that the same investors began to see his product's potential after the Facebook deal. Although they told him to stay in touch "in case somebody else is really interested" in them.

What's in store for 2015?

Samsung's Gear VR goggles, which uses the Galaxy Note 4, was announced in September 2014 and launched in early December. It has a store through which developers can charge for their apps, starting some time 2015. It is the first platform from which VR developers can earn revenue directly, although it is still very much in Beta stage and not ready for mainstream consumers yet. It is still marketed towards VR developers.

The Gear isn't the only mobile headset in town. The Google Cardboard has, according to reports, shipped 500,000 units as of early December. Google is reportedly hiring for the Cardboard as well. Count on there being more apps for this headset. In fact, it is safe to say that more content in general - games or not - will appear regularly in 2015.

There has been an increase in investment activity in the last few months of 2014 as well. An investor challenge for VR startups took place in early December, and Rothenburg Ventures recently announced "River", a VR accelerator that provides a shared office and $100,000 to ten VR startups.

Last but not least, although there is still no official launch date for a consumer version of Oculus Rift, it is "months away", albeit "many months". Whether we will see the consumer version in 2015 or not, it is safe to say that we will see some news on its progress. The same can probably also be said for Sony's Project Morpheus, which Sony has steadfastly refused to divulge a release date.

Here's to a 2015 lived in virtual worlds! What are you looking forward to?

Teleportation is your friend

When we click or tap away on our gadgets these days, it's hard to imagine any other way to navigate. For VR however, no universal way of navigation has been established yet. Much experimentation is still needed, and here is what we found so far.

Let's take a stroll

When we first started working on the browser, you have to "walk" everywhere: start in the "landing room", then walk to other "rooms" that contain different types of content, such as "panorama" rooms and "YouTube video" rooms. While this had the feeling of inhabiting another world, it soon became tedious and disorienting when we added more rooms. Test users did not know where to begin, where they are in the "world", nor which room they've visited. In addition, our test audience at meetups, who tend to come from a variety of age groups, are not familiar with the XBox controller. For some, using the keyboard - "WASD" - to navigate is a challenge as well.

Starting with a virtual space in which you can walk around was the natural starting point for us because of the long-held view - and hope - that to be in VR is to physically inhabit a new world. Our first thought, and many other VR developers', is to place ourselves in a fantastic landscape, Metaverse- or OASIS-style. It came as a surprise that it could be tedious.

Show me the content!

Current Dashboard
Current Dashboard

So if walking through portal after portal of content is tedious, what would be easier? One alternative is to show all that's available up front, so users can choose the experience they're most interested in. Hence the idea of a "Dashboard".

The Dashboard would show all available content in a centralized "grid" that users can select by pressing "A" on the XBox controller. The user is teleported into the experience, and need only press "B" to return to the Dashboard.

The result is less disorientation, and less tedium as you are seamlessly transported from one experience to another. There is no need to physically navigate from one space to another. We are defying the laws of physics - and why not? This is virtual reality, after all.

Testing the boundaries

But just because we are able to defy the laws of physics, does that mean we always want to? Even in the Metaverse imagined by Neal Stephenson:

You can't just materialize anywhere in the Metaverse, like Captain Kirk beaming down from on high. This would be confusing and irritating to the people around you. It would break the metaphor.

Stephenson explains that avatars - representation of people in the Metaverse - would materialize in a Port. From there, they would commute to their destinations.

But it's a waste to limit ourselves to teleportation when you are in a fantastic world. We can finally walk through alien worlds, after all. The key should be options: teleport if the experience demands it, and walk otherwise.

So we at uForis are making sure that viewers can teleport from one creator's world to another creator's easily. Creators of each world can lay out rooms that are best experienced in a walking tour - connected through physical portals - or otherwise.

Early reactions at meetups have been very positive. The variety breaks up the rhythm of simply hopping from one experience to another. The challenge now is to enable creators to do the same easily.

We can foresee that as the amount of content grows, the Dashboard can become unruly. Organizing them intelligibly is a UX challenge. In fact, UX is a field ripe for innovation in VR. How would you interact without the constraint of a monitor? We are busy tackling these at uForis, and other VR developers are doing the same with their creations.

How are you making a walk in virtual reality easier?

A new phase of experiments

The uForis team traveled to "Oculus Connect", Oculus' inaugural conference, in sunny California last month. Aside from reuniting with our friends and colleagues in the space, we met many, many more passionate people who are determined to shape the future of virtual reality. And at this conference, we have indeed seen the future of virtual reality. We returned to rainy Vancouver, British Columbia, and had numerous discussions about what we have seen. This field is wide-open and there is much to be discovered, from the best input mechanism to experiences that truly invoke "presence", the ultimate goal of virtual reality. We have some ideas, and one thing we know for sure is that we are more committed than ever to find the best experiences this new platform has to offer.

Crescent Bay

The biggest news that came out of Oculus Connect was the announcement of "Crescent Bay", a new prototype of the consumer-grade headset currently in development at Oculus. It vastly improved upon all the categories that need to be perfectly calibrated for true presence: tracking, latency, persistence, resolution, and optics.

Oculus did not confirm the exact specifications of Crescent Bay. We know that it runs at 90Hz, has a higher resolution and FOV, and 360-degree tracking. However, none of this mattered as we stepped into the booth to take it for a spin ourselves.

The future of virtual reality

To say that Crescent Bay transformed our view of virtual reality is accurate, but does not capture the emotional response we had. As enthusiasts, we've been believers since the first time we put on a headset. However, for those of us who are also fans of Snow Crash, Ready Player One, Star Trek, and many science fiction works, we harboured expectations of what virtual reality should look like, and continued to be aware of what fell short. Crescent Bay convinced us that virtual reality is here to stay. Many attendees we spoke to were similarly affected by the experience - people with tears in their eyes, people trying to get a second glimpse, etc. - and told anyone who would listen about their time with it.

As Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash said at his keynote, however, one needs to experience it first-hand in order to understand. At uForis, we found that this is true for virtual reality in general. As we speak about virtual reality at various occasions, attempts to convey our enthusiasm and belief in virtual reality are inadequate until we bring out the headset - Google Cardboard works for this too! - and show our audience what's in store. What comes after they take off the headset is the best part of what we do: they thank us, then proceed to tell us with great ebullience what they're looking forward to.

What's next for uForis

As for what the uForis team is looking forward to, there're a few irons in the fire. We're drawing upon our experience developing games to create small interactive experiments, and we're going to see if we can apply our "browser" technology - the ability to view different multimedia content - to industries not related to gaming.

While virtual reality is driven by gaming at the moment, other sectors can benefit from it as well. Imagine seeing the Pyramids of Giza from the comfort of your home. Imagine starting your search for a new home in a new city, and only paying for a ticket when you've narrowed down your search. Imagine doctors and first responders receiving training to save lives.

The phrase "transporting you to another world" remained elusive for VR since its inception. The chance to rectify that has come, although many experiments are needed to find out what a great experience looks like. Thomas Edison said: “When I have finally decided that a result is worth getting, I go ahead on it and make trial after trial until it comes.” The time to experiment is now, and we are very excited at the opportunities to do so that are afforded by our technology, network, and community.

Meetups here, meetups there, meetups everywhere!

Thank you to everyone who stopped by and tried uForis at Monday's VanVR meetup, held at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. We got some great feedback, and the panoramas still seem to be the star attraction! If you're interested in checking out uForis and other great VR demos, please join the VanVR group here, and you'll never miss a meetup!

Last week, the world's premier computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH was here in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. The VR community held a "Global VR" meetup during the conference, with presentations from industry leaders and a variety of demos. Check it out below - two of uForis' own also made an appearance!

Global VR meetup at SIGGRAPH Vancouver 2014 from Video Carl White on Vimeo.

All the presentations and the panel after are available as well:

The uForis team is now focused on releasing our tech so the VR community beyond Vancouver could give it a try and help us improve it. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!