Coming Soon: Explore the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Virtual Reality

This is a blog devoted to social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, so I usually don’t cover non-social VR experiences (i.e. those you visit alone). But I’m going to make an exception for an experience showcased at the SIGGRAPH 2019 conference in Los Angeles.

VentureBeat reports:

There’s no shortage of sophisticated mixed reality hardware at Siggraph, but I was most impressed by a piece of software that really demonstrated VR’s educational and experiential potential. Christopher Evans, Paul Huston, Wes Bunn, and Elijah Dixson exhibited Il Divino: Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling in VR, an app that recreates the world-famous Sistine Chapel within the Unreal Engine, then lets you experience all of its artwork in ways that are impossible for tourists at the real site.

Il Divino: Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling in VR is described by its creators as follows:

The demo was created exclusively for the SIGGRAPH 2019 Immersive Pavilion, by the team behind the previous SIGGRAPH 2017 VR piece: Il Gigante: Michelangelo’s David in VR. Debuting at SIGGRAPH on Valve’s INDEX headset, Il Divino delivers an experience of the highest fidelity –you can see individual cracks and brush strokes in the plaster!

Attendees can step onto Michelangelo’s own scaffold to learn about how he painted the ceiling, or enter a Vatican conservator’s mobile aerial platform to see the ceiling up close, and learn about the controversial cleaning. In all, there are over 100 clickable elements connected to an hour of commentary talking about Michelangelo’s monumental work.

Later this year, it will be released to all as a freely downloadable experience, and it will continue to be added to and improved in the future.

This reminds me of a virtual recreation of the Sistine Chapel in Second Life, which I visited sometime in 2007 or 2008 (unfortunately, it is no longer available to visit):

My angel avatar visit the Sistine Chapel in Second Life (circa 2007)

If you are curious about how this VR experience was constructed, here is more information on the techniques used. There’s even some suggestions as to how you can help improve the project.

Here’s a video of the experience:

And here’s an interview with one of the creators, Chris Evans.

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Facebook Demos Highly Realistic Avatar Facial Animation

My Twitter feed keeps delivering news nuggets this week! This is an update to a blogpost I had written earlier this year on this technology.

Facebook Reality Labs has published a research article in the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics, which shows cutting-edge avatar facial animation using multiple cameras attached to a VR headset, and a new multiview image processing technique. (The full paper is free to download from the link above.) The researchers also gave a presentation at the SIGGRAPH 2019 computer graphics conference in Los Angeles.

The results are impressive, giving an avatar human-driven, lifelike animations not only of the lower face but also the upper face, which of course if covered by the VR headset:

This is light years ahead of current avatar facial animation technology, such as the avatar facial driver in Sinespace, which operates using your webcam. Imagine being able to conduct a conversation in VR where you can convey the full gamut of facial expressions while you are talking! This is a potential gamechanger for sure. It’s not clear when we can expect to see this technology actually applied to Oculus VR hardware, however. It might still be many years away. But it is exciting!

Is the Metaverse Going to Look Like Fortnite? Kent Bye Reports on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH Talk

Bugha and his trophy at the Fortnite World Cup (image from the Guardian)

My Twitter stream has been throwing up all kinds of blogworthy stories lately! The lastest is a series of tweets from Kent Bye, the host of the long-running Voices of VR podcast, who is attending SIGGRAPH 2019, the big annual computer graphics conference, in Los Angeles.

Kent attended a presentation today by Tim Sweeney, the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of the phenomenally successful battle royale game Fortnite. Launched in 2017, Fortnite now has 250 million registered users worldwide, and made US$2.4 billion dollars in revenue in the last year. (Yes, that’s Billion, with a “B”.)

You may have read in the news that the recently-concluded Fortnite World Cup (the biggest computer game tournament in history) was held in New York City, where the company handed out US$30 million in prize money, including a top prize of US$3 million dollars to 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf (a.k.a. Bugha). In other words, Fortnite is MASSIVE, a cultural phenomenon.

Picture from Kent Bye’s Twitter Feed

The title of Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk was “Foundational Principles and Technologies for the Metaverse”, which is perhaps a surprising presentation topic for a game developer. Kent Bye tweeted his notes on Tim’s talk at length:

The future of [a] shared entertainment medium is to have meaningful experiences that people interact with and become a part of the larger world with open world compatibility and open interfaces. The Marshmello concert in Fortnite is one indicator of where it’s going. The metaverse is going to evolve from individual creators creating experiences that interoperate with other experiences.

Need virtual worlds to scale beyond a 200 players on a shard. Need 1 shared world w EVERYONE. Needs a programming environment to scale to unlimited sized. Not single thread C++. Large-scale concurrency w safe transactions that are consistent, durable, isolated.

A viable Metaverse is going to need a successful economy so that creators can make a living, which is absolutely essential. We need a rich set of different economic models. The app store with microtransactions is merely one model. Ad models are dysfunctional.

Kent concluded his series of tweets by saying:

I’m super impressed with Tim Sweeney’s vision of the open metaverse. It’s a breath of fresh air relative to other major players who are trying to own virtual worlds through walled gardens and app store ecosystems. A viable metaverse needs to be open and interoperable.

Wagner James Au, of the long-running blog New World Notes, is less impressed:

Who really needs this? Who actually wants this? I’ve yet to see a succinct, compelling answer to either question beyond the implicit one: Because it’ll be really cool. I’m certainly in that camp, but then again, I’m a gamer/science fiction fan. So yes, I’ve loved the idea of a unified 3D Internet where gaming is significant and meaningful for decades. But I’ve become convinced that metaverse advocates are mistaking their personal preference for a market need — a desire to institutionalize gaming culture as the fundamental, universal culture of the Internet.

In response to skeptical questioning from Wagner on Twitter, Kent Bye responded:

The metaverse was first conceived in science fiction before the modern explosion of 3D gaming and immersive and interactive environments. It was an active feedback loop between game dev architects, but the metaverse today is going to be more of a blend of Fortnite and the open web.

So, what do I think about all this? I must confess that, like Wagner, I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

I do agree with Tim Sweeney that open standards are critical to create a functioning metaverse, and I also agree with Kent Bye that walled gardens and app store ecosystems are going to hinder, rather than help, usher in a metaverse for everybody.

Tim Sweeney appears to subscribe to the strict definition of the term metaverse espoused by Will Burns: one huge virtual universe instead of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of separate experiences. I’m not 100% convinced that that’s how it is going to play out, either. I think it’s much more likely that we are going to have portals between numerous virtual worlds.

It sounds like it was a very interesting presentation, and I thank Kent Bye for reporting on it!