Making It (Virtually) Real
Roopinder Tara posted on April 12, 2016 |
 Swimming with a blue whale in the HTC Vive VR demo. (Image courtesy of Video Games Uncovered and YouTube.)
Swimming with a blue whale in the HTC Vive VR demo. (Image courtesy of Video Games Uncovered and YouTube.)
Reality is so overrated. I have summited Everest. I didn’t have to spend $25,000 for an expedition and hire a dozen Sherpas. I never had to kiss my wife goodbye and consider it my last time. I only had to get in HP’s booth at NVIDIA’s recent GPU Technology Conference (GTC) and put on an HTC headset to have the virtual-reality (VR) experience. After Everest, I went into the ocean, where a blue whale brushed its barnacle-encrusted flippers against me as it swam by and cast a baleful eye in my direction. Then off into deep space to look at the dark side of the moon with nothing but stars below me. I took off the headset, and I was back on the trade show floor. Can I go back? I was having a really good time.


It’s All About the Hardware

The promise of the better—I mean virtual—world has always been in the offing, but recent advances in hardware, in particular, parallel processing, are making this world drift into being.

NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsun Huang takes Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to Mars via VR on Mars at GTC 2016. (Image courtesy of NVIDIA.)
NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsun Huang takes Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to Mars via VR on Mars at GTC 2016. (Image courtesy of NVIDIA.)
At GTC, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang could barely contain his excitement. Talk about being at the right place at the right time: NVIDIA is the foremost producer of graphics processing units, used for massive parallel processing, which is the exact hardware solution needed to make VR actually work—without throwing up. More on that later. Now that some of the biggest tech companies have thrust VR devices into the public spotlight (Facebook with the Oculus Rift, HTC with the Vive, Microsoft with the HoloLens, Samsung with the Gear), CEOs of workstation companies have not stopped smiling. Dell, HP and Lenovo have all configured beefier workstations needed for VR production.
Dell recommended minimum system hardware configurations to support the VR experience for professional users in a recent press release. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)
Dell recommended minimum system hardware configurations to support the VR experience for professional users in a recent press release. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)

What About Needing Barf Bags?

The concept of VR is hardly new, but technology—and physiology—have prevented rapid adoption. Experiencing VR for any extended amount of time was curiously unsettling. Being in a VR environment was not for the faint of stomach.

The immediate reaction after donning a VR headset might be “whoa!”—but the long-term reaction has been the unpleasantness of vertigo and nausea and a general unease and discomfort. Users end up feeling at odds with the virtual world that surrounded them. According to HP and NVIDIA, this was due to latency and, more precisely, a frame rate that is unable to keep up with a brain-eye combo, which is used to working much faster. It’s a disconnect that may be similar to motion sickness.

It’s amazing how well 90 fps (frames per second)  can assure you that all is well in this world. At 90 fps, the virtual world is . . . nothing different, so natural. You can dive deep into the ocean and wonder why you are not wet, and not be continually reminded that you are playing make-believe with a computer. VR on 90 fps is being transported, leaving your physical being and coexisting with your heroes—those who have seen the depths of the oceans and the peaks on top of the world—and even launching yourself where few or none have ever gone before.


The Market

By the look of things, VR is where we are heading. Our trajectory toward realism would seem to demand VR. Think of our beginnings with caveman paintings and skip far forward to 2D—with 3D models not long thereafter-- but still trapped on a flat screen. Similarly, we went from black-and-white photos to full-color photography and silent, black-and-white films to sound and color movies. Now we mildly tolerate goofy 3D glasses to see select blockbusters in theaters. It’s a long way from a $12 movie ticket to a bleeding-edge, million-dollar CAVE installation, where you can actually immerse yourself in a virtual world.

Enter a slew of VR headsets. Things may never look the same again.

According to Goldman Sachs, VR is estimated to be a $180 billion dollar market by 2025—a figure that dwarfs even video gaming.


Good for Games, More Serious Apps to Follow

But the potential of VR is not lost on visionaries in the serious businesses of architecture and product design.

If you haven’t already purchased a VR headset like an HTC Vive, it may be time. You can bet your competition already has. If there is any reason to procrastinate further, it may be that not everyone is sure about what to do with it.

Looking at 3D versus being in it seems to where we are at right now. While it’s almost a forgone conclusion, the world we will be seeing will be 3D and surround us instead of being abstracted on a flat screen as it is now. The when and how is not quite as certain. VR is currently confined to the few, the bleeding edge and the trade shows where people line up for the novelty of it. 3D content as it is now being produced is not immediately translatable into files that VR applications and hardware need to see. It must be converted.

To help you convert your data to VR, a rag-tag community of service providers and hastily made applications have sprung up. The fact that our trusted software vendors have not been able to produce a path to VR may be one of the biggest roadblocks to widespread adoption of VR. Big CAD companies may be oblivious to interest and demand for VR by its users, as well as the masses.


Converting Models to VR

Most of the design community already creates 3D content. However, to be displayed in a VR environment, whether it be a headset, a CAVE or anything in between, takes a conversion of data.

In order to see your designs in VR, you start with a 3D model. The 3D model has to be converted in a VR format, which can then be seen using a VR headset. Your model would probably need to be in one of the more popular 3D formats, such as SOLIDWORKS or Revit.

A 100-MB 3D SketchUp model can be converted into VR in 40 seconds, said Shane Scranton of Iris VR, an 11-person startup in New York City that has stepped up to fill the gap between the abundant 3D AEC content and the need for a client to be able to walk around the frame of a building for which ground has not yet been broken.

Software vendors will eventually require push-button output for VR, but none have this capability at the present time. A lack of a single VR data format may be a hindrance for 3D software vendors. Right now, VR translators must be written for each brand of VR headset.


HP Steps Up for VR

HP is one company, besides NVIDIA, that means to make VR a reality to 3D content producers. It launched three workstation configurations specific to VR.

Not every workstation can handle VR, said HP’s distinguished technologist Paul Martin at GTC. There is a huge demand for graphical processing. The HP VR workstations have NVIDIA graphic cards, solid-state drives and fast buses—so the 90 frames per second are achievable.


Which VR Headset to Buy?

Of the two VR headsets, it was the HTC Vive that seemed to be the most popular for professional use. The Rift may already have established a reputation for games. The Vive does require more setup, however. You just about have to dedicate a room to VR, mounting sensors in its corners. The benefit is that you are free to walk around, something the Rift does not seem adaptable to. The ability to walk around would seem tailor made for architectural application of VR, which seems to be catching on more quickly than product design application. The Vive system also comes with a pair of pistol-grip controllers that, to most engineers and architects, will seem more natural than the game controller used by Rift.

Be prepared to pay $300 more for the Vive, but as HP’s Jim Christensen pointed out, after you spend over $4,000 for a workstation capable of producing VR content, what’s a couple of hundred bucks?

For a more complete analysis of the Vive versus the Rift, see Andrew Wheeler’s recent post.


What’s to Come?

With VR now poised to be the next big thing, look for engineering and AEC apps to jump on board with easier VR creation methods. A simple VR output would be nice!

Hardware needs to also progress. Headsets will no doubt become less expensive and lighter. The Microsoft HoloLens is the current state of the art in lightness and simplicity of design—though still bulkier than a visual device such as Google Glass.

Also, look for wireless communications from the headset to the processor. A thick bundle of wires from the back of your head to a desktop workstation are a VR buzz kill. Wires may still be necessary at the moment due to the fact that wireless technology is unable to keep up with the massive graphic data transfer that has to occur between the headset and processor, especially at 90 frames per second.

A perfect outcome for VR devices would be light, compact design untethered to a desktop unit.

And while current state-of-the-art virtual displays, especially those at 90 frames per second, are stunning, they still don’t achieve the resolution found in nature. Human retinal resolution is said to be 16K. Contrast that to the current standard bearer in 2D display, which is 4K. The resolution of VR is a paltry 1K.

Clearly, VR has a way to go. However, the recent announcements about new hardware products that support VR help make this technology look real enough for companies to start looking into, if they haven’t already.

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