This is the first installment in a series of posts I'm gonna write about things I'm learning in Alli School. What is Alli School you ask? It is a school that I made up specifically for people named Alli who want to learn new things.
The school offers 5 classes: Bots & Conversational UI; Machine Learning and AI; 3D modeling with Blender; Virtual Reality; and Golf.
Let's talk about Virtual Reality. My interest in the subject was rekindled recently when a colleague invited me to meet a friend and try out a bunch of VR tech at a VC firm called Rothenberg Ventures. It's a short walk away in SOMA, so we were able to head there after work and test out a lot of hardware in a brief period of time. This is what I remember:
- Samsung Gear VR: my impression is that it was little bit low resolution (the screen door effect, etc) because you drop in a phone to use it. Nice build quality and comfy.
- HTC Vive: this seems like the Cadillac of VR and you need some kind of crazy gaming computer for the best experience. Got to try out Tilt Brush, the Google 3D painting app, and also played a game called Autoshield where notes from a song come rushing out and you deflect them with "shields" that come out of your controllers. Haptic feedback. Refused to try a zombie shooting game because it seemed scary. Overall very cool.
- Oculus Rift: gorgeous, seems like you have to use it sitting down? Played a Mario-like game with a fox called Lucky's Tale and almost tossed my cookies as soon as I used the controller.
- Google Cardboard: this is the one that I actually own - it's basic and low-res. Cardboard hurts the bridge of my nose. I'm going to put some kind of padding on it. The demo app is delightful and makes me want to build worlds in 3D and explore them in my spare time.
- It feels weird attaching something to your face when there are other people around you with nothing attached to their faces.
- You can't see other people, or your surroundings in the real world. When you add headphones on it's even more isolating and immersive.
- The headsets get a little ... sweaty. Makes sharing a bit gross.
- It's easy to tangle yourself up in wires.
- You can't see your body or your hands and feet in the space. It's as if you're wearing an invisibility cloak or like you're a floating disembodied spirit.
- Controllers bring the feeling of having hands back into the experience, which makes it more fun.
- Time dilation is a thing - you can't tell how much time has passed when you spend a long time with a VR headset. I wonder if something like Apple Night Shift could help with this?
- The risk of motion sickness is real. Standing up helps, but it's really really real.
Not long after that quick intro to the state of the art, I went to an event at the Yelp building hosted by a group called Designers and Geeks. I got there a little late but was able to catch talks by Allan Steiner and Timoni West.
Allan gave a talk about fast and affordable media capture for mobile VR; in other words, how to use your phone to take photos and videos that you can view with Cardboard. Inspired to give it a try, I went ahead and assembled the kit.
Here's what the setup looks like:
And here's the photo I took:
The next step is to download an app that will let you view the photo using Cardboard. I went ahead and downloaded Mobile VR Station. The app seems powerful and it is extremely confusing.
First, pair the app with your Cardboard viewer using a QR code so that it can configure itself properly. Once you've done that, tap "Player" to enter the VR space. You navigate by casting your gaze at menu items and using Cardboard's built in button to select. Look for Photos or Movies and select your super fisheye shots.
I tried a bunch of content viewing settings and found that videos look best in Panorama mode and the photos seemed nicest in 2D 180 Dome view.
I'm excited to get out and shoot some video in the wild. I guess the next logical move is to duct tape my phone + super fisheye lens to the bottom of some kind of a drone?
VR UX Design
Timoni West is working on tools for designing VR experiences WITH VR at Unity Labs. It's madness. My favorite part of her talk "Let's Go Cyberspace" is when she describes a battle scene from Star Wars in terms of select and multi-select with "Force OS."
Throughout the talk, she discusses the basic set of UX challenges that VR presents: selecting objects, selecting at a distance, telekinesis, locomotion, basic commands. I love this phase where standards are being worked out. It reminds me of the days when we were trying to understand the interaction patterns for Mobile and we just downloaded tons of new apps just to see what people were trying.
This talk, and another one by Mike Alger that I stumbled across in my travels around the interwebs, also helped me see how VR might be used for more than just an escape - it may be the way we work one day.
I'm brushing off my rusty 3D modeling skills and learning Blender (it's free and open source). I'll write about that soon. My hope is to build an environment that I can view and explore with my Cardboard viewer but I might need to also learn a bit of Unity... so we shall see. I'm thinking of somehow crudely rendering an interpretation of the castle grounds described in The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit.
Send me interesting links to add to this collection of VR resources and musings: alli [at] badyewex [dot] com