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Losing my VRginity to: Simulation!

There are many different views on the potential uses of virtual reality (VR). It’s rebirth as a modern experience lead by in-home entertainment is just one opportunity, but there are many more that have had a great deal of exposition already. The out-of-home experience, including that of the traditional arcade format, is an area which has made strides in bringing VR technology to a mainstream audience that would otherwise have been impossible, and KWP’s Kevin Williams has been instrumental in this process.

Keen to enthuse about the possibilities of VR away from your couch, Williams’ experience proves that, while Oculus VR may be the central reference point for many, they are far from being the only player in the field. And this experience is a matter of poignancy at present, as many wonder exactly who will claim the throne if the fears resulting from the recently announced Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR prove to be true. Williams discusses the vision Oculus VR has created and his own personal journey, in his own words, here at VRFocus:

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For the new audience, embracing the emergence of VR their first experience within the synthetic (virtual) environment will be shaped by the Oculus Development Kits, and its drive towards the first consumer game applications – there is however another group of individuals that had their VRginity plucked by the military and commercial roots of VR.

It was 1992 and I was in a precarious position – amongst the vast Hughes Rediffusion military and commercial simulator corporation, I was the only lowly employee that had been employed not because of my skill at modelling graphics for Boeing 747 commercial flight simulation, not for my skills at F16 fighter-jet simulation development, or for my skills at dismounted infantry Rapier missile launcher simulation training – no, I was hired because I was a specialist in the video amusement industry!

What would continue to be a lifelong passion – I was headhunted to work in synthetic simulation, seeing the use of model boards and television cameras superseded by the deployment of early real-time Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) for flight simulation.

At this point, the Cold War that had funded the explosion in development was coming to an end, and with that corporations like the newly conjoined Hughes Rediffusion were looking to benefit from the out-break of peace; to literally beat “Swords to ploughshares.” Entertainment seen as a non-military utilization of this expensive  technology; building on the success of developing a full flight simulator into a moving theatre for a theme park, going on to become the success that was Disney’s Star Tours… but that is another story.

I was directed to work with a new Rediffusion team that hoped to re-task the simulation experience into theme park and amusement application – we were working on the first two person interactive motion simulator for the amusement industry (the Commander), while at the same time working hard on defining the opportunities for immersive entertainment into the traditional attraction and amusement industries.

While working hard on these new developments – I also snuck out for some fun of my own – ‘borrowing’ full-flight 747 commercial flight simulators being commissioned in the company’s high-bay, during my lunch-break. Living the ultimate fantasy of both an airline pilot and hero, trying to land these simulated mighty air-frames against all the odds, within atrocious training missions – loading engine fires, catastrophic mechanical failure and appalling weather conditions towards still being able to land the commercial airliner on the runway. My first exposure to true “total immersion” – a multi-million dollar commercial training tools hijacked by me to become hugely expensive videogames!

It was within this environment that I was hijacked myself – corporate executives of Hughes invited fellow simulation specialists CAE (Canadian Aviation Electronics) to present their new and controversial ‘technology demonstrator’ to the various R&D teams of Hughes in the UK – showing technology they perceived as the future of simulation. As my new position was classified still as R&D (as most of the executives could not get their minds round amusement), I was invited to attend the demonstration.

Taking over one of the board rooms of the UK corporate facility in 1992 – CAE technicians installed their prototype CAE-Electronics FO HMD. The FO standing for fiber-optics that resided in a fighter pilots helmet, achieving a rudimentary head mounted display. It has to be understood at this time VR was not a term in popular usage – though Jaron Lanier and his VPL Research company’ had been going since 1985, the term VR was only in limited circulation.

But even before we could cross the threshold into the impromptu demonstration environment those of us to be granted to step into a synthetic environment still had to pass a final sentinel – what greeted each of use that attended the demonstration was a eight page ‘waver’ document that we had to sign – combining a non-disclosure agreement and also a waving of all liability to CAE if their ‘technology’ caused any injury! For a twenty year-old, the idea of a piece of simulation tech that could cause ‘blindness’, ‘retinal scaring’ or ‘intense nausea’ was more an encouragement to try than a dissuasion.

After signing (in triplicate) the waver we were admitted individually in groups of three – now some twenty years later – I was struck how my state of anticipation and expectation mirrored my same sense of expectation when I crossed the threshold and was presented by the Valve Corporation VR demonstration in Seattle during SteamDev Days back in January 2014. However for me the CAE FO HMD system offered a visually compelling environment – saddled by the poor CGI technology of the 1990’s (even though its resolution performance is better than current HMD’s). Where normally Rediffusion’s F16 jet fighter simulators used convoluted multiple projector arrays, the CAE HMD recreated the visual depth through the fiber-optic displays on the users’ helmet, tracking positional awareness.

Not known by me at the time, the CAE prototype was based on the work that Ivan Sutherland had commenced in the 1960’s – hoping to create a synthetic environment to create a seminal virtual viewing infrastructure (“ultimate computer display”) for the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA). Ivan would go on to establish the formative military and commercial CGI simulation corporation Evans & Sutherland, and would usher in the first steps of VR (Phase One).

The vast expense of projector based simulators hoping to be negated by the use of this revolutionary but highly controversial HMD approach. For me personally it was a revolution, my ‘cherry’ was ruptured and I would become an advocate of VR, but sadly in 1992 the technological limitations, vast expense of the CGI, and just general temperamental nature of the hardware proved prohibitive for it to succeed at that point. VPL Research and other failing to gain traction even after the declassification of technology such as the CAE system (Phase Two).

For those lucky enough to experience the idealistic VR demonstration approach at Valve Corporation (either at their offices or during SteamDev) I hope they know they are experiencing the same “shock and awe” that we back in the 1990’s first experience in a crowded boardroom owned by a flight simulators corporation – a flame ignited that has driven my love of immersive entertainment to this day; and now shapes my adoption of this latest adoption of Virtual Reality instilled on the consumer by Palmer Luckey, (Phase Four)!

Kevin Williams has an extensive background in the development and sales of the latest amusement and attraction applications and technologies.  The UK born specialist in the pay-to-play scene; is well-known through his consultancy KWP; and as a prolific writer and presenter (along with his own news service The Stinger Report), covering the emergence of the new entertainment market. Kevin has co-authored a book covering the sector called ‘The Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier’ (published by Gower).  And is the founding chairman of DNA Association, focuses on the digital Out-of Home interactive entertainment sector.  Kevin can be reached at – kwp@thestingerreport.com  – http://www.thestingerreport.com.