The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP): Swiss Researchers Release New Software to Explore the Universe in VR, Using a Massive Astronomy Dataset

Explore the universe in a new software program! (photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)

There’s a new way to explore the universe in VR! A news report from the Phys.org website today, by Jamey Keaton, states:

Researchers at one of Switzerland’s top universities are releasing open-source beta software on Tuesday that allows for virtual visits through the cosmos including up to the International Space Station, past the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, over galaxies and well beyond.

The program—called Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP—pulls together what the researchers call the largest data set of the universe to create three-dimensional, panoramic visualizations of space.

Software engineers, astrophysicists and experimental museology experts at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, or EPFL, have come together to concoct the virtual map that can be viewed through individual VR gear, immersion systems like panoramic cinema with 3D glasses, planetarium-like dome screens, or just on a PC for two-dimensional viewing.

“The novelty of this project was putting all the data set available into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales—nearby us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the Milky Way level, to see through the universe and time up to the beginning—what we call the Big Bang,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, director of EPFL’s astrophysics lab.

According to the official website for the VIRUP project:

Science communication is key for sharing research discoveries to a wide audience. The goal of this project is to provide the most modern dynamical view of our Universe through one of the most modern communication techniques : Virtual Reality (VR).

For this purpose, we are developing a new multi-platform VR environment called VIRUP which allows users to travel through space and time, ranging from the solar system and the outer confines of the Universe, to the nearby stars, the Milky Way disk and the Local Group…

VIRUP is specifically designed to display outputs of cosmological simulations with up to several billion particles, while ensuring a high frame rate per second, essential for a comfortable VR experience.

In addition to standard VR systems, VIRUP is also compatible with specific immersion systems like the ones provided by the Experimental Museology Laboratory (EM+):  the panorama, the half-cave or the dome.

VIRUP is a C++/OpenGL/Qt flexible Free Software built on top of a custom-designed graphics engine. The code can be downloaded directly from GitLab.

What seems to set this project apart from previous attempts (and apps) to explore the universe in virtual reality is the size and scope of the data involved. Jamey Keaton says:

Downloading the software and content might seem onerous for the least-skilled computer users, and space—on a computer—will count. The broader-public version of the content is a reduced-size version that can be quantified in gigabytes, a sort of best-of highlights. Astronomy buffs with more PC memory might choose to download more.

The project assembles information from eight databases that count at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of space objects in all, and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the Milky Way alone…

To be sure, VR games and representations already exist: Cosmos-gazing apps on tablets allow for mapping of the night sky, with zoom-in close-ups of heavenly bodies; software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers universe visuals; NASA has done some smaller VR scopes of space.

But the EPFL team says VIRUP goes much farther and wider: Data pulled from sources like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the United States, and European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to map the Milky Way and its Planck mission to observe the first light of the universe, all brought together in a one-stop-shop for the most extensive data sets yet around.

So, if you’re geekily inclined, you might want to start here to learn more about the VIRUP software, and how to get started. The GitLab for the software is here.

The Andromeda galaxy (photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash)

Viveport Verse: A Brief Introduction

There’s been a lot of buzz about a new, standalone VR headset which Vive is going to announce on October 14th, 2021, called the Vive Flow. Scott Hayden of Road to VR reports:

HTC is serial-teasing its next VR headset again, this time hyping the reveal of Vive Flow, which is reportedly a slim and light 6DOF standalone focused on media consumption, casual gaming, and VR experiences.

New information reported by Protocol ahead of its October 14th reveal holds that HTC will be likely targeting consumers with the new lightweight Vive Flow headset, something that is said to contain a chipset less powerful than the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 found in Quest 2 and Vive Focus 3.

Reportedly developed under the code name “Hue,” Protocol maintains it will also ship without motion controllers, instead relying primarily on its built-in hand-tracking to control apps and casual VR games.

But what really caught my eye was this piece of news buried at the very end of Scott’s report:

HTC may also be banking on integration with a rumored social VR service called ‘Viveport Verse’, which sounds like the company’s own stab at building out its own metaverse platform.

So, I did a little Internet sleuthing, and found this UploadVR article by David Heaney, just published a few hours ago:

HTC is working on a customized version of Mozilla Hubs with a persistent social layer, Protocol reports.

HTC already has a business-focused social VR platform called Vive Sync, but the report says it’s now working on a consumer platform called Viveport Verse…

Rather than starting its metaverse ambitions from scratch, HTC is apparently building on Mozilla’s open source Hubs platform. Hubs runs on WebXR, so users can access it on any platform and don’t need to install or update an app.

now-deleted unlisted HTC webpage pitched Viveport Verse as letting users “meet people around the world” and “explore a variety of events, from virtual tourism and exhibitions to sports events and festivals”. It also listed potential future features including NFT integration and user generated content.

The report says HTC is working with open-source distributed social network Mastodon to experiment with adding “a persistent social layer” to Verse, but notes it’s unclear how exactly that would work.

It sounds like Viveport Verse is still early in development, but it could be designed to take on Facebook’s Horizon Worlds. 

In fact, Viveport Verse is so new that I can’t even find any pictures of it (yet), aside from this image used in David’s UploadVR report (also used in the original Protocol news report):

The Protocol article by Janko Roettgers, which first broke the Vive Flow news, adds a few more details to the little that is currently known about Viveport Verse:

The service is designed to be accessible via VR headsets as well as mobile devices and desktop computers, and will feature some sort of NFT tie-in. It will also allow people to create their own content, as well as upload 3D objects from services like Sketchfab. Verse is “an open space for users to generate rooms and 3D objects – create your own spaces with friends or an entire world,” according to the staging site.

So, stay tuned…it looks like we might see a new social VR platform launched soon! I will duly add Viveport Verse to my comprehensive listing of social VR and virtual worlds.

Editorial: How Global Supply Chain Disruptions Are Going to Impact Social VR Platforms and the Building of the Metaverse

It’s not just apples that are unavailable lately—it’s just about everything!

You probably have noticed it when you were shopping, either online or in a bricks-and-mortar store: some items are completely unavailable, and when they are available, they are more expensive. What’s going on?

The global coronavirus pandemic has hit manufacturing supply chains hard, and experts are saying it could take as long as two years for the mess to sort itself out. The New York Times reports (here’s an archived version if you get stopped by a paywall):

The challenges…are a testament to the breadth and persistence of the chaos roiling the global economy, as manufacturers and the shipping industry contend with an unrelenting pandemic.

Delays, product shortages and rising costs continue to bedevil businesses large and small. And consumers are confronted with an experience once rare in modern times: no stock available, and no idea when it will come in.

In the face of an enduring shortage of computer chips, Toyota announced this month that it would slash its global production of cars by 40 percent. Factories around the world are limiting operations — despite powerful demand for their wares — because they cannot buy metal parts, plastics and raw materials. Construction companies are paying more for paint, lumber and hardware, while waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive what they need…

The Great Supply Chain Disruption is a central element of the extraordinary uncertainty that continues to frame economic prospects worldwide. If the shortages persist well into next year, that could advance rising prices on a range of commodities. 

Consumers are getting a painful lesson in the intricate interconnectedness of markets, where shortages and delays in some products have made it impossible to manufacture others, causing cascading failures in the global supply chain:

A giant ship that became lodged in the Suez Canal this year, halting traffic on a vital waterway linking Europe to Asia for a week, added to the mayhem on the seas. So did a series of temporary coronavirus-related closures of key ports in China.

The world has gained a painful lesson in how interconnected economies are across vast distances, with delay and shortages in any one place rippling out nearly everywhere.

A shipping container that cannot be unloaded in Los Angeles because too many dockworkers are in quarantine is a container that cannot be loaded with soybeans in Iowa, leaving buyers in Indonesia waiting, and potentially triggering a shortage of animal feed in Southeast Asia.

(I’d encourage you to go over and read the entire NYT article; it’s a great read.)

So, what does the Great Supply Chain Disruption mean for the metaverse? Well, it’s been getting harder and harder for some companies to reliably source computer chips and other components for devices such as VR and AR headsets. It’s also been difficult to get CPUs and GPUs for higher-end gaming computers needed to power PCVR; the rising demand for these chips by cryptocurrency miners around the world has only exacerbated the shortage, and driven up prices.

I know that I have been dismayed at the relative lack of products as I seek to replace my now four-and-a-half year old desktop computer. And the worst part is this: nobody can predict when this situation will improve, and it might even get worse before it gets better! If I were you, I’d be doing my Christmas shopping NOW, and drawing up a Plan B should the gifts you want to buy are unavailable.

Steel yourself that we will be continuing to go through a period of uncertainty and unpredictability when it comes to metaverse products, both hardware and software. Expect timelines for the development of many social VR platforms to be impacted (even if it’s something as simple as being unable to obtain computer equipment for the developers to properly test things).

Kickstarter has a page of advice on how to handle the disruptions. Here’s a summary:

  1. If you haven’t launched yet, build shipping delays into your plans.
  2. If your campaign is live or you’re currently working to fulfill your project, over-communicate.
  3. If you’re a backer [of a Kickstarter project], extend your support.

Be patient! We will get through this. Remember: it’s not a struggle, it’s a wiggle 😉

UPDATED! We Met in Virtual Reality: A New, Feature-Length Documentary Filmed in VRChat During the Pandemic Lockdown

A still from Joe Hunting’s new documentary (image source)

Joe Hunting is a documentary filmmaker whose passion is to create movies in and about VRChat (I wrote about him in August of 2019 when he released his mini-documentary A Wider Screen). He is now working on a new project, a feature documentary called We Met in Virtual Reality.

Here’s an overview of the film, from his IndieGogo page:

We Met in Virtual Reality is an enchanting portrait of social Virtual Reality (VR) app VRChat, composed of intimate and hilarious moments inside global VR communities. The film presents an emotive impression on this new virtual landscape through a poetic collage of stories, exploring how VR is affecting the way we socialise, work, love and express ourselves; told authentically by the users of VRChat through a warm heartfelt lens. 

The overall narrative is made up of three distinct protagonists each presenting unique stories of discovering a romantic relationship through VRChat, and using VR to cope with poor mental health. These core narratives flow between each other in a linear fashion through Winter 2020 to Summer 2021, delivering a compelling journey amidst the more observational moments in other VR communities.

Filmed entirely inside VRChat using cinematic virtual cameras during the Covid lockdown crisis, this film captures a precious time in an underground cultural movement that will soon shape the world we live in; additionally highlighting contemporary subjects such as of coping with poor mental health, modern forms of sign language, non-binary gender expression and finding love beyond physical interaction. Everyone appearing in the film will be addressed by their virtual usernames without any real life imagery, immersing audiences into a new cinematic documentary experience.

The trailer for Joe’s documentary dropped yesterday on YouTube, and I must say, it’s looking really good!

Joe is running a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo to cover the costs of the post-production work on his documentary before it is released. If the trailer piqued your interest (as it did mine), then why not throw a donation Joe’s way? I’m sure he would appreciate it! I donated £15 to the project, just for the thrill of seeing my name in the thank-you credits… 😉

Joe explains the need for funding:

I have a beautiful rough cut of We Met in Virtual Reality already finished, but it is nothing without your support to get it polished and released! I am raising £10,000 to cover all the music licensing, which is necessary for the films release. Any additional funds will go towards subtitling and captioning, which is an absolute necessity as well, plus submission fees for film festivals eg. Sundance, SXSW, Hot Docs, Tribeca, Sheffield Doc Fest… and LGBTQ+, deaf and hard of hearing focused festivals. These festival screenings will help tremendously is securing the film on accessible streaming platforms for public release in the fall of 2022.

Your contribution can get you a number of special perks, including getting your name and VRChat avatar in the credits, tickets to exclusive screenings and producer credits! If I do not reach my goal, any funds received will still be put towards what is mentioned above, and I will seek further investment elsewhere.

I am quite looking forward to watching this full-length feature documentary when it is released. You can watch Joe’s earlier work, A Wider Screen, below:

UPDATE Oct. 10th, 2021: Joe Hunting sent me the following thank-you card for my donation, featuring an image from the documentary: