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VRX 2016: The Frontier of AR/VR

NeoSpeech was at the VRX 2016 show

Arrival

On the morning of December 8th, a good number of cutting-edge VR companies gathered for the second and final day of the VRX 2016 conference, and we were there to witness it. Though a relatively small expo, it was jam packed, each booth offering unique VR experiences to test out.  

VRX 2016 showcases everything in VR from hardware to software, consumer applications to enterprise applications, all in one space. With over 30 companies in attendance, it is one of the best ways to understand the breadth and trend of current VR technology and meet with top people in the industry. We went into it to try and understand the place text to speech has in this unique and growing industry.

Gaming: the First Born

Our first stop was at the gaming booths to experience one of the first industries to embrace VR. We stopped by Radeon first, the allure of VR gaming proved too strong to do anything else, and talked to Joshua Muetz, the resident gaming expert and gleeful facilitator of Radeon- powered gaming experiences.  

We were greeted by a rather gruesome example of why the horror genre of gaming has taken to VR like a kid with candy: a woman, goggles on, earbuds in, controller in hand, was the midst of what appeared to be a carnival ride, a carnival ride with twitching, screaming pig heads, waterfalls of blood, and killer clowns running at you. The willing victim, Christina Engel, Marketing Manager at Concept Art House, flushed but alive after her ordeal, was gracious enough to let us interview her about the game.

Virtual Reality at VRX 2016

She attributed the most unsetting part of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood to the “second axis of movement” it included. When the cart you are riding on in game is just traveling forward on the virtual track it is simple enough reconcile, but once that second axis is added, let’s say forward and up, things get dicey. For a veteran in the VR world, cyber sickness is still somewhat of a challenge for her though it seems like things are improving increasingly from when she began in the industry 4 years ago. 

A possible cause of this continued wrinkle, as observed by Muetz, is the fact that the content of the games is jumping too far ahead of what the current hardware can easily provide. Developers are given a huge sandbox to play around with, and the commendable desire to push the boundaries of experience sometimes overlooks the needs of the users and the capabilities of the engines.  

Where Radeon provided the best look at how expansive VR gaming already is, Midas Touch Games taught us that sometimes the devil is in the details. We explored the section of the expo that housed a startup fronted by Ethan Einhorn, Director of Marketing and Publishing, giving us a chance to look at the other side of VR gaming. 

Midas Touch Games focuses on creating the most realistic physics possible. They were showcasing two of their games, one a classic rock-‘em-sock-‘em affair where you fight giant robots with real life physics, and a deceptively simple-looking pet simulator, where the dog you are interacting with is not a programmed object but a physics engine responding in real time to how you interact with it.

Virtual reality offers a fully immersive experience

Their focus is on small but genuine interactions in VR to build a rewarding emotional experience for the user. Einhorn’s favorite story to tell revolves around a woman who used their physics simulator and exclaimed, upon petting the dog, that his fur was “so soft.” Though, of course, she was not actually petting a physical dog, “her brain completed the experience for her,” he explains.

They essentially want to get past the uncanny valley, where things feel disconcerting and unnatural, and move into a place where people have real and emotionally engaging in-game interactions. And it didn’t feel good to watch the dog get his tail pulled and legs knocked out from under him, perhaps because he reacted so realistically.

Gaming has always utilized text to speech technology for a myriad of in-game and out-of-game applications, from providing background NPC voices to announcing players at a tournament, we’ve worked with companies like Super League to do just that. And with audio considerations becoming more complex within a VR environment, more and more developers turn to more interactive, engaging, and user-friendly ways to enhance immersion.

Commercial Applications Part I: the VR feat. AR Mash-up

Now this is where the full breadth of applications for AR/VR comes to the forefront. To say the least, gaming is simply the largest and most dovetailing application of the VR.

Panacast is leading one of those areas by leaps and bounds, and Aurangzeb Khan, President, CEO, and Co-Founder, was more than happy to explain to us some of VR’s more unique applications. Panacast produces an array of three cameras that provide real-time 180˚ stitching of photos and videos. The goal is to do away with the distortion inherent in fisheye lenses and provide clear and effective 3D video. The main applications Khan points out are in education, virtual tours, and cinematic experiences.

Though he says one of the biggest challenges is that there is yet to be an established ecosystem of VR products, they are taking small steps, working towards integrating their cameras with drones to provide safer and more comprehensive ways for workers to survey land and buildings.

Simplygon, my next stop, has been rooted in VR for a long time. Richard Andemark, GM for the Americas, proudly reported their software is used in over 80% of 3D videogames. But with such a foothold in the industry they’ve moved on to more interesting challenges like automakers wanting to streamline their product modeling process through the use of AR. 

Through a completely automated system, they can translated 2D CAD diagrams into fully rendered 3D objects, viewable through AR goggles and tied to certain points in a physical space. There are still some limitations, it’s a very new application, and there are clear hurdles when translating information like that. But Andemark sees this technology becoming increasingly cost effective. Especially since, in his personal opinion, AR will become more popular than VR because it requires less commitment into immersion and generally less intrusive into people’s lives.

Particularly in cases like this, text to speech technology can be an effective tool to enhance and enrich the user experience of VR/AR technology. Having a computer read out stats to you as you view 3D models or in the case of something like a virtual tour provide customized but human sounding information could simply augment user experience. As AR grows bigger as an industry there is little doubt that text to speech technology will become an integral part of it.

Another company at the expo whose approach to VR focuses on accessibility to users is Igloo Vision. Determined to take “VR out of the headset,” they provide well, igloos, with a 360˚ video screen. Their purpose is to be user friendly, make VR an inclusive experience with applications ranging from art installations to video conferences and more.

Augmented reality can be used for training purposes

I spoke to Jesse Rowland, Business Development and Project Manager, who described Igloo’s goal to provide VR experiences not just limited to one person. They have a range of different installations and can support up to 900 people and instant collaboration, though their product is fully compatible with the VR headsets we see more commonly today. The limitations within this space are mostly its inaccessibility to your average consumer. As it stands now, the Igloo could be utilized for museums, businesses, and people who have the cash and the need for large scale VR technology. They are also limited by the almost self-imposed industry standard of 4k. Many of the companies we talked to said that they had the ability to provide far better resolution, but just didn’t see a greater trend towards anything higher just yet.

Commercial Applications Part II:  Time to get Educated

The newest area of opportunity in VR lies within education and training simulations. What could be viewed as an extension of VR gaming but with a much more practical focus, are encompassed by two companies we talked to, Intervoke and Upknowledge.

At Intervoke’s booth I spoke to Tyler Woods, Co-Founder and Managing Creative Director, about exactly what their VR experience tackles. Essentially they provide a custom responsive, encapsulating, and beautiful 3D model of scientifically accurate human anatomy. It can be utilized for a range of purposes though specifically he walked us through how it can be used as a training tool, with the ability to work at your own pace, peel back layers of the model, and see how the body interacts on almost every conceivable level. Negating the inconvenience of expensive cadaver labs or to augment passages in a medical textbook, “your imagination becomes the only limitation.”

He sees the industry only growing, with more and more schools, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors needing in depth and workable virtual models. And with the technology advancing every day, we aren’t too far off from readily available, easy to use, pre-rendered and exquisite educational VR.

Our last stop of the day was with UpKnowledge, a Helsinki based company that provides fully immersive VR experiences for learning and training purposes. Their CTO Timo Lindqvist gave me an idea of how useful virtual training can be: imagine a company has developed a new product, it releases at a certain date but all the sales people need to be trained on it now because they need to be experts from day one of its release. Using VR technology a virtual version of the product can be tested, played with, and demoed long before the physical product is on the market.

That’s not all their service provides. They do safer forms of training, where operating virtual equipment doesn’t end in expensive repairs due to inexperience or physical injury and a computer and objectively assesses if someone has learned what they need to safely do their job in the real world. As Lindquist succinctly puts it, they “expedite the experience gaining process.” Though he also more playfully describes it as like the Matrix, where computers can be used, not to download Kung Fu into our brains (unfortunately), but to facilitate meaningful learning. 

These kinds of applications are where we see text to speech technology being applied most readily. E-learning has always been a staple industry for cost effective and easily customizable synthesized voices. Take our partner Pleco Software for instance, and VR provides no exception as the industry has found a growth engine in the eLearning space. We know that with the growth of e-learning and training VR, the need naturally sounding TTS voices will grow more than ever before.

Wrap Up

As it stands VR is just on the cusp of being fully realized. The rules have yet to be fully laid out and agreed upon, and there is no established and comprehensive ecosystem. Though impressive in its current iterations, there is so much more that people will be able to do as the technology advances and the building blocks to true VR get fleshed out. As VR grows, text-to-speech applications will grow with it, especially since they provide customizable and most importantly accessible audio information. But don’t let its fledgling status be a deterrent, it is an exciting time to be in VR for that very reason, lucrative niches have yet to be claimed, there is no monopoly to overcome, and yet undefined rules mean limitless potential. 

What do you think?

Where do you see VR going in the next five years? What applications of VR technology excite you the most?

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