After 25 Years, We’ve Decided to Explore the Virtual World

BY Chris Lee

The year was 1991. Anthony Hopkins created a new wine pairing with liver and fava beans. Paul Reubens was caught being inappropriate. The cool kids were listening to Nirvana. Tim Berners-Lee came up with something about “links.” And, the first mass-produced, networked, VR entertainment system, Virtuality, debuted. Oh and in slightly lesser known news, a small digital design studio was born on a front porch during an October afternoon.

One of my favorite questions that we receive when meeting a new client, partner, or soon-to-be friend is “how long have you been in business?” The answer often surprises people. Twenty-five years is a huge accomplishment for a creative studio of our size.

A big part of our success is that we are always exploring new ways to engage audiences through technology. When it comes to investing in and learning new technology, we try to be on the “leading edge,” but not the “bleeding edge” of innovations.

Twenty-five years ago, the Virtuality gaming platform was on the “bleeding edge” of entertainment experiences. High-rolling arcades would pay a reported $73,000 for a multi-player pod that featured VR headsets (with two 276×372 LCD screens in each) and exoskeleton gloves that yielded one of the first “immersive” VR experiences. Being the first person to spend $73,000 on a VR experience is the definition of “bleeding edge”–the point in time where huge investments are required to produce experiences that still have to be explained to most people. (Just for your reference, I sacrificed $10 and my lunch hour to conduct a little field research at our local Dave & Buster’s establishment. Even the biggest, flashiest games on the floor fall in the $20,000 range for two-player stations–none of which are manufactured by Virtuality.)

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Photo by Dr. Jonathan D. Waldern/Virtuality Group via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 2016, virtual reality headsets are now within the realm of most budgets, but the standards, applications, and best practices are still being tested. This combination is what we consider the “leading edge” of technology adoption, and the Anode team is ready to move in.

Before we could embark on our virtual reality journey, we needed to determine what sort of VR platform could provide the types of experiences we envision for clients and their end users. The contenders were, the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.

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In round one, the Samsung Gear VR was eliminated almost instantly as it required a separate mobile phone to be installed and used as the goggle’s display device. While this is not a bad thing if you’re playing with your friends in the living room, professionally, we did not want to rely on a mobile device to unveil our ultimate VR experience. Both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have built-in OLED displays, which offer 1,080 x 1,200-pixel resolution for each eye.

In round two, the Oculus Rift was eliminated for its lack of room-scale tracking. Oculus can only track movements of the user’s head, therefore allowing the user to explore only the virtual space by looking around (vs. moving around). Without the ability to move around a larger space, we haven’t moved too far past the original 1991 Virtuality experience. (Cheaper? Yes. Smaller headset? Yes. Demonstrably different activity? Not so much.)

Therefore, a clear winner emerged.

The HTC Vive incorporates room-scale tracking meaning the wearer can physically walk around and explore the virtual environment within a 16’ x 16’ space. The physical space is determined using two base stations mounted at opposing corners of the room. Since we want to produce fully immersive environments and “active” experiences, the ability to use room-scale tracking was a crucial factor in our decision.

As if the ability to walk around the virtual space wasn’t enough, the Vive also includes two of its own controllers (the Oculus was limited to the use of Xbox One controllers at the time we were considering it). Combining the sensor-laden goggles and bespoke controllers, the Vive enables the wearer to move around the space and reach out to interact with objects in the virtual environment.

All in all, it became very clear that the HTC Vive was a perfect fit for the types of virtual reality experiences we envision creating. So, we warmed up the company AMEX and ordered our first HTC Vive headset, a mid-level Windows PC, and a big honking video card to drive content. We cleared space in our Lab, and waited patiently by the door each day until the Vive arrived.

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As you can see from the photos and our social media accounts (be sure to follow us 🙂 ) we now have the HTC Vive in our office. Over the next few blog posts, we’ll take you behind the scenes as we test the equipment, learn some new programming skills, and begin developing our first VR experience.

With any luck, we will have a VR experience ready as we kick-off Anode’s 25th year in business.

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