I was delighted to receive the following report from Dale Glass, who attended the VR Days Europe 2019 conference and exhibition held in Amsterdam from Nov. 13th to 15th, 2019. Here is Dale’s report in full:
VR Days is a VR convention and exhibition that took place in Amsterdam in November 13-15. I only had an exhibition ticket (full tickets are very expensive), so I can’t say anything about the talks.
First, a disclaimer: I didn’t go to VR Days intending to write a report on it, so it’s very possible that I got something wrong somewhere. I only started taking notes once I had enough thoughts brewing in my head that I realized I might as well write them on paper. I didn’t visit every single stand, though I did visit most of them, so it’s very much possible that I missed something very cool. Also, I’m not a reporter, nor an expert in all things VR.
With that out of the way, here’s my one word description of what I saw at VR Days: “Underwhelming”. I think now I am starting to see what John Carmack meant when he said he was “not satisfied with the pace of progress”. While I saw a fair amount of things that were interesting to me personally, there wasn’t a lot that made me really excited about the future. A fair amount of the exhibition seemed to be showing things from years ago, proofs of concept that may not go anywhere, and products in search of a market. There also were some very well done things for very specific corporate purposes that will likely take a long time to percolate into the consumer realm.
The exhibition wasn’t very lage and was rather lightly attended, apparently mostly by people working in the same industry. Most booths weren’t very busy, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in line. Attendance by enthusiasts without a business plan appeared to be very scarce. I managed to disappoint a record amount of people in two days. Conversations usually followed this formula:
Booth staffer: …and that’s our product made for corporate audiences that we sell for a lot of money. By the way, which company do you work for?
Me: We don’t do anything VR related, this is just a hobby for me.
Booth staffer: (disappointed) Oh.
An odd thing was the lack of polish. It seems the hardware manufacturers need to hire better software people, because the graphics tended towards being extremely basic, and in one case there was no sound where there were lots of reasons to have it. That’s not a huge deal overall, but if you’re going to battle hordes of zombies, being able to hear them behind your back would add a lot to the immersion. I’m not asking for AAA games here, but it’s odd that one of the best looking and most polished things was the app for VR meetings.
The more concerning issue is the lack of much for a consumer to look forward to. Judging by what was going on at this conference, VR appears to have retreated back into corporate space, and most good demos had a premise of “suppose you have a factory”, “suppose you have a technician in the field”, or “here’s a very expensive lens or laser scanner”.
The bits most appealing to a consumer were the arcade games, Pimax (which are releasing an updated version of the “8K” headset), and the amount of hand and eye tracking demos which suggest there’s a lot of work being done in the area and that something is going to percolate down eventually, but it’ll probably take a while. Hand tracking was done either through specialized headsets with a lot of cameras, or special gloves. Eye tracking was very focused on medical and research applications.
Then, it just might not be a conference with the right focus to interest consumers in the first place. I’ve not attended any other VR focused conferences, so I can’t say how it compares. Even if I say it’s a tad underwhelming it was still very enjoyable. I got to meet online friends, to talk to interesting people, to play with some very expensive hardware, and to see what the industry is working on. Overall, my time and money was very well spent.
They make eye tracking hardware and focus on things like consumer research, for telling where people look while walking through a supermarket, for instance. Not all their work is VR related, they have transparent glasses that just have an iris tracker as one of the options for example.
VR for rehab
They use VR and a vest with arm trackers to assist in rehabilitation. Not being a doctor, I can’t say how useful this is, but VR in combination with the right tracking would seem to have good potential in helping people learn what movements they need to make, making as many corrections as needed, and tracking everything in great detail, while the patient is in the comfort of their own home.
I tried a demo that was supposed to be a psychosis simulator. This failed to work. To be fair, it wasn’t part of their plan to showcase it (I noticed it on a pamphlet and asked about it). We did have an interesting conversation, though. I wondered why see-through AR glasses like Magic Leap are nowhere to be seen at VR Days, even at booths that have “AR” in the description. The answer I got is that they’re too expensive, don’t work in bright light, and that devices like the Quest probably made them much less relevant.
You sit in a sound-dampening booth wearing a headset, and watch a 360 video, while heaters and a scent releasing system provide some ambiance to simulate the wonders of Mother Nature. According to the rep, “it has many purposes” and “it’s a medium”. I personally think it’s a solution in search of a problem. There can’t be that much of a market for this kind of thing. It might find a home in a few spas, though.
They had prototypes of simple arcade games – submarine periscope simulator, pinball simulator, and so on. The pinball’s VR part was very good (might have been Pinball FX2 VR). The physical prop worked mostly fine though sometimes it seemed to miss key presses. The periscope prop and associated VR game was very much a proof of concept and reminescent of 80s soviet arcade machines due to the extreme simplicity of the gameplay. Overall, not bad and it has potential, but need a lot of polish still.
They had a 3D printed helicopter cabin, and optical hand tracking that’s precise enough that it can tell what you’re pressing without needing any functional hardware in the cockpit. That is very impressive and I think has a lot of potential – it means anybody with access to a 3D printer could easily make their own props for whatever function happens to be needed, and then interact with a physical object while in VR. The switches I pressed were clicky though, so they could have been connected to something, but the hand tracking looked good nevertheless.
They offer courses in VR content creation. Hard to say much about that without trying it myself.
Something related to photogrammetry, optical hand tracking and eye tracking. The booth looked very popular, but unfortunately I didn’t make it in.
Virtual museum builder. You build some walls, put paintings on them, and people can walk around. It’s so boring that I wouldn’t download such a thing even if it was free. It also doesn’t appear to offer anything over something like Sansar or High Fidelity. It might have something of a market at schools or museums, but there’s little excitement here for a consumer.
A huge booth was dedicated to a VR arena in Moscow. They say the installation can’t be replicated at a convention so all it’s doing there is to tell you there’s a very cool thing in Russia, and that they’re planning to expand.
Glove based hand tracking. Quite good performance. They have a demo where you have to assemble an engine by picking up parts and placing them in the right spots. Not consumer level tech, but it seems very promising. I enjoyed the experience and can’t wait for this kind of thing to make it into the consumer realm.
They have an EEG integrated into a headset as well as wearable watches to gather the heartbeat rate. They mentioned a possible applicability to children, but the current EEG consists of a bunch of hard and rather pointy electrodes I doubt children would be very happy to wear. They also said there’s nothing that can be easily bought at present.
They were having trouble with performing a demo because making Bluetooth connections was difficult with all the interference at the convention, but I got to test their EEG headset after a bit of trying. I measured a 0.75 in “valence” and -0.81 in “arousal”, which if I understood their descriptive text correctly means that I was enjoying myself a lot, but struggling to stay awake. I would definitely disagree with the later, since I got plenty of sleep, had some coffee, and it was just about noon at that point.
Another headset with an EEG, this time a far more comfortable looking one. This one has only flat contact electrodes, so it likely has more trouble making good contact. No demo, unfortunately.
Besides the EEG, they also have an eye tracker and use a custom Daydream headset. Given that Daydream was just discontinued by Google, it would seem they will need to retool a bit.
Virtual world that feels rather similar to Second Life in that it’s a single world subdivided into parcels of land and overall functions in a similar manner. They have an external editor, an experimental Quest client that worked with a good framerate and used the same content with a lower level of detail, and insist the blockchain is very important to the whole deal. Figuring out how good it is in practice and the pros and cons would take a lot longer than a short test at a convention, but it seems functional, promising and well thought out.
They have single eye head mounted displays, as in a tiny monitor in front of one eye that covers part of your vision. This is a 100% commercial type project, where the glasses have a forward pointed camera that can transmit video and images to the home base, and they can assist in accomplishing some task, like fixing or replacing something. Seems useful for some applications, but there’s no VR at all, all the tech was available well before the Oculus Rift, and there’s nothing interesting to consumers.
Birdly VR – The Ultimate Dream of Flying from Giant Screen Films on Vimeo.
A flying/swimming simulator where you have to lie on a mechanical contraption and move your arms to control the movement. It reminded me a bit of the racing segment of the Lawnmower Man movie. Quite fun, but very narrow purpose. It could work very nicely in an arcade, but the current incarnation isn’t the most comfortable. Also apparently this has been around for a few years.
Steinberg Media Technologies
Cubase + VR. You build a virtual environment then place sounds in it. Intended to assist in the production of movies and games. I’m no audio expert so I can’t tell how good this is, but it seemed cool and useful to me. If one is going to work on spatial audio, doing it in a 3D VR space seems to make a lot of sense, and probably makes the process a lot easier.
Optical hand tracking. It worked so-so (they complained of interference from other stands), but I would say it’s an excellent start. The demo was a VR house where you can pick up some of the objects and move them around.
This one was quite the experience. The device being shown was the Cyberith Virtualizer Elite 2. It is made of a tilted, slippery platform and a ring to restrain the body. It’s used with slippery shoe covers, or one could just use the device wearing only socks. Climbing into the device has to be done very carefully, as it’s very slippery. The inclination is adjusted for each person. My personal impression once I was inside is that it feels like walking uphill while dragging along a bag tied with a rope to your waist. It didn’t feel very natural and turning in it was a bit odd. Then, this is definitely the sort of thing that you have to adjust just right and get used to, so it’s very possible that with more adjustment and practice I could have had better results.
The demo was a kind of safety demonstration where you are alone in a warehouse where something catches on fire, and need to put it out or just to get out in time. The graphics were very basic, but the scenario demonstrated the intended usage pretty well. Certainly, if you can escape a danger while having to drag a considerable weight around, doing it for real afterwards will be a breeze.
One significant upside is that it’s recognized as a controller by Steam, so supporting it should be quite easy. Unfortunately they didn’t have Skyrim at the expo to see how and if it works out of the box. That is really a pity, as although I understand it’s not a consumer oriented device I’ve long wanted to try an open world game with a VR treadmill.
Overall it’s very much an enterprise type of thing. The device is big, expensive, and takes getting used to. It probably gets better with time, but it doesn’t really feel natural at all, so it’s clear VR locomotion still has a very long way to go. It could have some use for arcade setups, but based on my experience environments where one can walk freely are far more comfortable even if the space where one can move is limited.
Vicon VR Arcade
One of the highlights of the convention. Definitely not a home type of installation, as it relied on dozens of cameras, a large space and wearing a backpack computer. But it tracks multiple people very well, they have prop weapons, and overall it works great. First I tried a demo where you just walk around and try different weapons and avatars. Moving in it feels a bit off, but isn’t bad at all.The props work great.
Then I tried the zombie game, where a team of 3 people fights against hordes of zombies. This was great, except the game wasn’t really polished and for some reason had no sound. But fortunately the software isn’t really important here. The big deal here is that they seem to have the hardware figured out very well. The tracking is pretty much flawless, and the gear is easy and quick to put on. Just pair it with a better game, and it’s going to be awesome!
The Pimax booth was a very popular one. I got to try a headset early on, but unfortunately it seems to have been the old “8K” model, and I didn’t get to try the newer version, as by that time they started giving people scheduled demos, and the list had grown to many hours long.
Regadless, I’m very glad that they’re around and still pushing forward. IMO headset resolution still needs improving, and Pimax appear to be at the forefront of that effort.
Source control for artists and VR. As far as I could gather the “VR” part is just that it’s made with game development in mind.
They have a vest. “What does it do?,” I asked. “It vibrates” was the rather frank answer. The demo simulates a rain effect and there’s also a demo of burning alive in a broken elevator. While the demo itself was very underwhelming, the hardware itself does seem to have different areas that can be triggered, so it’s possible it could have been made much better use of. This could have a good future in arcade games. The Vicon people could probably make very good use of it.
This is a VR relaxation app. In the demo I tried you sit in the middle of a virtual meadow, watch the environment and shoot butterflies from your hands while soothing music plays. You can’t move, the water is completely static, and the butterflies oddly always overlap the world even when they should disappear when they go underground. They say this is because research indicated things like moving water would be distracting. I argued that when one sits by a river, the water flows and that’s part of the attraction. They seemed unconvinced.
The intended market is Human Resources departments. Personally, I’d rather HR give me some time off, or organize a trip somewhere nice.
TNO and VR Together
They had booths next to each other, both apparently used the same hardware, and both did the same thing. Weird.
They do a 3D capture of your body and insert it onto a VR environment. It looks like a very early proof of concept. You see yourself in huge voxels. Other people are seen as a very unrefined, full of holes mesh, because the system only sees you from one angle. Sometimes people look barely human.
VR Together first takes an image of the part of your face that will be covered by the headset, TNO doesn’t. VR Together had to align me manually with my 3D image, TNO had tape markings on the floor to ensure the chair was in the right place.
Overall, a barely working proof of concept so far and nowhere near being any good yet.
Wow. I never thought I would be impressed by this kind of thing, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. This is software for VR meetings. That’s all it is, but it’s surprisingly good at what it does.
Recapping a bit, I’ve been in High Fidelity for some time, and I was there when it decided to shift focus towards virtual meetings. One of my reactions was “Virtual meetings? Come on, who needs that?”.
Bear in mind, I’m a long time fan of VR. I own the Oculus DK1 (contributed to the kickstarter), DK2, CV1 and Quest, so I have put a fair amount of time and money into it. Even then I recognize that VR doesn’t necessarily have to do everything. I work from home every week, participate in daily remote meetings, and never once I had thought “This would be much better in VR”. We use the webcam and screen sharing sometimes, and that seems perfectly adequate. VR would only seem to complicate the entire thing for no gain. Then I unexpectedly changed my mind.
MeetinVR is a seated experience. There’s a room with chairs in it and you can move from one place to another. The graphics are attractive, the avatars are customizable, and the sound works well. There’s a pen you can use to draw in the air or on a surface, it’s possible to share images, and there’s a web browser. Objects can be easily moved and resized with natural hand gestures. If you don’t need something anymore, you just throw it away, and it vanishes. Nothing particularly amazing, except that it’s just executed very well. The major hurdle is typing text in VR, for which if I remember right there’s voice recognition, besides a VR keyboard.
They say they spoke to many companies to figure out what they wanted, and I think it shows: the result is very polished, very easy to use and has a few very well thought-out touches like being able to put a “can you hear me?” banner over your head that’s oddly missing from quite a few programs with a similar purpose. Everything seemed well designed, and to work as intended.
The new HiFi is going to face some tough competition here, because I didn’t see anything that was obviously lacking, and the current experience is already a good one. I’m still not sure VR meetings will catch on, but at the very least this managed to change my mind in that I no longer believe VR meetings are a stupid idea. In fact I would say that MeetinVR is not worse than doing them the usual way in most cases, and that there definitely are advantages to it. Placing objects in a 3D space, pointing at things, and drawing comes very naturally. I would say drawing in VR works much better than doing it with a mouse. For the bosses, the fact that VR effectively captures people’s attentions helps with ensuring people don’t tune out.
Overall, it doesn’t cure cancer, it doesn’t do anything amazing, but what it does, it does very well.
Thank you, Dale!