It’s a distant future to say the least, but virtual reality (VR) could one day mean the end of the office in the physical sense. Current technology is scratching the surface of what’s possible on a social side with head-mounted displays (HMDs) and, once those layers have been peeled back there will be entirely different paths to follow when it comes to social occasions, events and work. One company that’s been exploring the latter side for a long time now is MiddleVR. The group is now preparing the third iteration of its virtual collaborative office software, Improov3, and VRFocus spoke with the team about what to expect.
In the interview below MiddleVR President and CEO Sebastien ‘Cb’ Kuntz talks about what to expect from the new version of the software and its upcoming Beta, set to roll out in March. He also talks about the future of the tech and how it could expand to incorporate a wider range of job types and other services.
VRFocus: What makes VR tech a good fit for a productivity platform?
Sebastien Kuntz (SK): VR has been used by professionals for the last 15 years because it saves a lot of time and money. For example Renault, the French car manufacturer, saves 2M€ per year and reduces its conception time by 30%. The first advantage is that VR is much more natural to use than a typical 3D simulation on a computer. No complex keyboard shortcut or mouse interactions to move around, if you want to look under an object, simply bend yourself in real life!
The second advantage is that you can see 3D models at real scale, which is impossible on a regular computer or complex and costly with a regular physical mockup. Imagine a real scale factory mock-up!
It is also a natural communication tool, much more than traditional plans and blueprints! Everybody can understand a virtual representation of a product or a building, which leads to better understanding of the project and better interactions between all members of a team, like engineers, marketing and sales.
Among many other advantages, being able to work with distant users as if they were in the same physical space is really disruptive. This reduces the need for travel, thus improving productivity and reducing the impact on the environment. I started my career working for the French railways nearly 15 years ago, creating VR applications to train operators on maintenance operations. Most of the time VR applications were running on huge VR systems called CAVEs which could cost up to millions of euros. Even with those kind of costs, the ROI of VR is clearly established. Jaguar Land Rover had a return on its 3M€ VR investment in 5 weeks.
Now with the arrival of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, we can finally dream of having one HMD on the desk of every engineer and architect and bring those tools to more professionals!
For more information about VR for professionals, I invite your readers to watch my conference at Oculus Connect 2014: http://www.middlevr.com/resources/why-is-vr-useful/
VRFocus: You have a beta rolling out in March. What will this include?
SK: Improov 3.0 will allow you to visualise and interact with your 3D models and share the virtual environment with distant users for DMU (Digital Mock-up) reviews. You will be able to load most common 3D file formats as well as native CAD formats
(CATIA, Solidworks, Siemens NX, …) You will be able to do so in HMDs but also other professional VR systems such as CAVEs, power walls, 3D-TVs etc. Interaction tools include access to the full hierarchy of the 3D models, manipulation of objects, cutting planes, annotations and more.
VRFocus: You mention expanding the software to apply to other businesses. Would you consider handing development tools out to others so that they can create experiences ideal for their jobs?
SK: Maybe in the future Improov could offer a SDK so that others can create plugins, but this is not currently planned.
If you need to adapt your own 3D application to VR, like Maya, we offer our MiddleVR SDK which brings all the VR capabilities to your application: it manages 3D trackers, stereoscopy, HMDs, clustering, high-level interactions (like navigations, grabbing etc), menus, web page display, multi-user support etc. Thanks to our extended VR systems support, one user could be in the Oculus Rift, another one in the HTC Vive, and a third one in a CAVE!
For those who want to easily create shared VR experiences we also recommend our Unity plugin, MiddleVR for Unity. It offers the same benefits as the MiddleVR SDK but in an easyto-use package for Unity developers.
VRFocus: How else is the platform going to evolve over time?
SK: Improov is really a generic professional collaboration platform which can address a lot of markets.
We will add industry specific features, like:
– physics, haptics & collision detections,
– architectural visit and conception reviews,
– training capabilities,
– ergonomic assessment of work environment using a virtual manikin (already included in Improov 2),
– visualize fluid simulations (CFD).
We have many more ideas but we already know our users have even more ideas!
VRFocus: There are some powerful social tools included here; could you see Improov being used just for interactions outside of business?
SK: It could but we are currently focused on the professional market, which requires specific features such as specific tools, rendering speed, security etc.
VRFocus: PC-based HMDs are listed as supported, but what about mobile kits like Gear VR and console devices like PlayStation VR? Is there room for this type of app on these platforms?
SK: Currently PlaystationVR is targeted at gaming experiences, we don’t see professionals buying it for productivity. We are testing adapting parts of Improov on the GearVR, but I don’t think it will have enough graphics power to display typical 3D models used in the industry. But of course we have ideas to achieve this, which may come later.
VRFocus: You’ve already got some competition in the form of other apps like Envelop VR. How does Improov stack up next to these?
SK: Improov has been commercially available for nearly 10 years, so the question should be how those new apps stack up against it.
Improov 3.0 is based on 15 years of experience of working day to day with professionals, actually working in VR. The first versions of Improov have been used by big industrial companies to design industrial work stations, vehicles, war ships and submarines!
I don’t think Envelop VR has really the same scope. They seem to want to replace the monitors from your desktop for all day tasks for everybody. Improov is about productivity for specific tasks like visualising, working and meeting around a 3D model. VR has lots of benefits, but we don’t know yet if replacing the computer’s desktop is a good idea in practice. It could be, and of course we love what EnvelopVR is doing. There have been many attempts at virtual desktops in the past.
The thing to watch out for is that VR is not a magical solution that works or is useful for everything. It has drawbacks, which must be counterbalanced by benefits.
“We don’t yet know the effects of long VR sessions on our vision, perception and overall health, so it could be wise to limit the time of work in an HMD to short sessions rather than spending the whole day everyday.”
We also believe that, as with games, adapting existing applications to VR is hazardous. We think that creating new applications that focus on the benefits of VR, with specific usage, tools and interactions will result in better usage. For all those reasons we currently focus on specific tools which address a proven usage and ROI, with (for now) short VR work sessions.
As stated above, VR is useful to work more easily on 3D data, possibly at real scale, and for collaboration because we never work in isolation.