In this, the latest in the semi-regular feature, Kevin Williams explores the wider aspect of the re-emergence of virtual reality development. In this article, he explores a resilient segment of the VR industry, Visuals and Simulations.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is often a misrepresentation that after the collapse in the interest for VR in 1996 that the technology stagnated, totally abandoned, until the USC School of Cinematic Arts & USC Institute for Creative Technologies paper on the ‘A Design for a Smartphone-Based Head Mounted Display’, and the PR2-prototypes demoed by John Carmack at E3 2012 rekindled interest in this discredited technology and started this latest phase for the whole drive towards consumer based virtual reality head mounts.
But in reality, VR was dropped by the media and fell off the radar – but was not abandoned.
A number of display technology dependent industries continued to invest in the core elements of VR, but their developments were either shrouded in secrecy or were removed from interesting the more hyperbolic media-bases. One such exponent of the technology has been part of the defence sector – commonly referred to as the Vis-Sim (Visuals & Simulation) sector representing military and governmental (law enforcement, rescue, medical) investment.
Research funding has been at the heart of many of those that have taken their ideas to the consumer sector in this field, most notably the 2010 USC School of Cinematic Arts & USC Institute for Creative Technologies research and subsequent paper on ‘Smartphone-Based Head Mounted Display’ was funded in part by the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command (RDECOM). Seen by many as a highly secretive sector and impossible to penetrate, it has become fashionable to ignore developments in the military sector – but it is an industry that is on the cutting-edge of the application of VR and AR.
Having worked personally in the Vis-Sim sector regarding what I like to call the approach of ‘beating swords into ploughshares’, (seeing military simulation companies turned their million Dollar technology into entertainment systems), most notably seen with the repurposing in 1987 of a 747-flight simulator into a Walt Disney theme park attraction (Star Tours). As part of my work in consultancy for the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment (DOE) sector, I still continue to “cross the divide” between the entertainment industry and the defence sector. Many of the latest technology being applied originating from being case-hardened from military and security utilization in the field.
But for the first time not all the technology is coming out of the defence industry – some of the new thinking from the entertainment and consumer workbench are making waves into this sector! It was with this in mind that I attended the bi-annual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2015 exhibition, in the heart of London’s Docklands – one of the Globe’s largest defence shows gathering the latest in land, naval, air, security, unmanned and medical technology.
The reason why I am reporting this here is the appearance of VR & AR components directly into the military mix, and also the latest technology seen here that is also about to once again cross the divide and make itself felt in the consumer sector.
Regarding home grown technology from the defence industry (that we are able to talk about publicly), the big buzz at the show was the Striker II. Developed by BAE Systems, and called by the company most advanced fighter pilot helmet, to evaluate its digital night vision capability and target awareness. This space age Head-Mounted Display (HMD) (the defence sector coining the phrase originally) utilizes cutting-edge tracking system that ensures the pilot’s exact head position and the aircraft computer system are continuously in syn. While the digital night vision is projected into the pilot’s view, along with representations of target and aircraft instrumental data.
The system was being shown to the trade and defence media having just completed night flight trials and was on its way to be applied to the next-generation of fighter aircraft. The system was drawing comparisons with the helmet system deployed in the latest Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – a cockpit simulation of the F-35 was on display at DSEI’15, with the ability for the attendees to take to the joystick of this next-gen fighter, with a simulation of how the current systems HMD supplied pilot information.
During the press briefing for the ‘Striker II’ the subject of AR applications were touched upon and it was revealed that there was a constant program of upgrades underway that included new 4K displays and the deployment of augmented display technology. When looking at the actual helmet on display you were greeted with the familiar camera based tracking technology that we had seen ‘borrowed’ and applied in the current range of prototype HMD’s from the consumer sector, though this advance system takes head tracking to an all-new level, and obviously something that will be appearing (once declassified) on the wish list of many of those consumer companies R&D wish-lists.
But also in the air-zone portion of the vast exhibition and consumer VR made a tentative appearance.
On the Airbus Defence and Space booth they showcased cutting-edge products, technologies and services using virtual reality in a first for a major defence show. Special swivel chair pods were equipped with Oculus VR DK2’s, a unique hand controller, and mounted audio system in order to transport them into three unique experiences crafted especially for the exhibition. The first comprised a virtual air show presenting a virtual line-up of the latest in Airbus’ fleet of aircraft ranging from the giant ‘A380’ super airliner to the mighty ‘A400M’ military cargo plane, and an appearance by the new ‘TANAN’ UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle).
The second experience saw the companies combined fleet of military systems deployed in a rescue mission – the virtual user navigated through a small town in a country ravaged by an earthquake, and how the transport and surveillance equipment such as UAV play a pivotal part utilized in an aid situation.
Reflecting the last part of the company’s name, guests were then transported on to Mars, and was able to navigate from their space capsule to the surface of the Red Planet. Viewing the wonders of the surface, and then coming to grips with the features of the ‘ExoMars’ rover vehicle, showing it manoeuvring across the planet conducting experiments. This last demonstration a tour de force of the immersive arts, drawing the user into believing they were wearing a spacesuit on the surface of the planet.
Airbus using the VR technology and a means to promote their wide fleet of services and products – without the need of being the bigger pieces to the show floor – but also offered a compelling and immersive marketing experience that prompted the company in a new and compelling way. VR has found a strong home in the armoury of the marketing and promotional sector – and was used to great effect here.
Virtual Reality was only visible (publicly) on one other booth at the defense show, with a demonstration of a Sensics HMD being deployed in a multi-role combat simulator allowing information from aerial assets to be combined in a combat mission. Sensics famously involved with Razor in development of a n open source, consumer HMD (the OSVR HDK) building on their considerable experience in the professional VR displays long before this current phase of interest. And proving the Vis-Sim sectors influence in driving tech, it was revealed during DSEI’15 that there would soon be a brand new HMD offering from an undisclosed manufacturer that would hope to break the 4K per-eye ceiling of clarity; though aimed at the pockets of the defence industries it will surely spark interest outside of the commercial sector.
The use of VR as a promotional tool has been seen outside the defence, deployed in automotive events and in a number of retail chain promotions. Most recently while presenting at Immersed-Europe, in Spain – one of the largest gatherings of virtual reality technologists and platforms outside of the States, along with the appearance of the HTC Vive and CastAR, visitors were treated to an experience created by InMediaStudio in partnership with Paramount Pictures and MEC Global, stepping into the shoes of Tom Cruise and hand from the side of the very same Airbus A400M, in a VR recreation of the memorable stunt sequence from the latest Mission Impossible film.
From this point we see the race to establish VR as a credible platform intensify from numerous directions – along with the early awaited launches of Sony, HTC and Oculus VR platforms across Q4 2015 to Q1 2016 – we in the commercial entertainment sector will be seeing major launches of actual VR based attractions and rides.
To be held in October the Californian Digital Hollywood event will see the chief executives of a number of launched VR park concepts such as The VOID and reelXperience take to the stage for the first time in some revealing discussions – while in November, the industry rushes to Florida for the momentous International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), the world’s largest gathering for the sector, and an event that will lift the lid on a number of secret VR attraction developments – watch this space for more revelations in coming months.