Part Two of our AWE 2019 conference write-up, Auganix’ Managing Editor, Sam Sprigg, covers the ‘AWE Playground’ at the event, and discusses some of the incredible technology that was on display and that we were fortunate enough to experience firsthand. For the Part One write-up, click here.
A month on from the 2019 Augmented World Expo (AWE), and the talks have just been released on YouTube. If there was anything you missed at the conference, then you can listen and re-watch hundreds of talks from the event on the AWE YouTube channel. For us, whilst it was great to be there and to listen to several of these talks on where the future of AR and VR is heading, it was another thing to experience advancements in the tech firsthand. This was what the Playground at AWE was all about. We had a few things in mind that we wanted to see, but for the most part, the objective was to try out anything that looked interesting, and hopefully discover a few hidden gems that maybe didn’t quite receive the fanfare of headlines that some of the other big announcements received, but were still worthy of attention nonetheless.
One of the first booths (well… this was technically a trailer) that stood out, was by North – a company that has created, what is in our opinion, the first ‘normal’ looking pair of AR glasses available to consumers. At first glance, you would have been forgiven for mistaking North’s booth simply for a standard optician’s – that’s how convincing the form factor is that North offers on its Focals. The queue was understandably enormous as a result but we persevered and managed to receive a demo and fitting for a pair of the augmented reality Focals.
First thoughts were mainly how comfortable the glasses were to wear. Granted, we only tried them out for maybe ten minutes, but they fit on your head just as a regular pair of reading glasses would, with no straps, and nothing else holding them in place. With the arms of the Focals being where the computing and battery power is situated, there was no feeling of a front-heavy design. Furthermore, we were trying on a demo pair. This is even more encouraging, as North actually 3D scans the wearers head, so that a custom pair of fitted glasses can be made for them.
Video credit: Auganix
In terms of display, North Focals project a 2D image into the wearer’s right eye-line using an LED micro-projector. The image was actually very clear, and fills an area in the wearer’s right lens that appeared to be around 2 x 2 inches – large enough to read from anyway. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d want to be watching YouTube videos or streaming Netflix on, but that is not the point with these glasses.
North’s Focals are well suited for displaying notifications. They pair with a user’s smartphone, and notifications from the device ping into the wearer’s field of view. Starting at USD $599 for a non-prescription pair of Focals, they seem like a rather expensive way to simply save yourself the hassle of taking your phone out of your pocket to check it. We even had this thought at first – but after talking with the North team and playing around with the UI, it is clear that these glasses are about much more than that, and they offer much more functionality than simply showing what is already on your phone screen.
With an in-built microphone, Focals are capable of accepting voice commands to carry out some tasks, as well as make voice notes that can be transcribed to text and emailed to the wearer. The demo we had even ran a simple game. These glasses are effectively the first step people can take towards overlaying their digital lives on to the physical world that they experience every day – something that we see as an inevitable evolution in how the masses will interact with technology and their data. Furthermore, they can take this step today, without getting any strange looks, thanks to the Focals’ subtle design.
North’s offering seems like it is an important industry milestone in a journey towards an entirely hands free interaction with the augmented and digital world for consumers. Granted, not entirely hands free, as North Focals are controlled with a “Loop” – a small ring-sized controller with a thumbstick that wraps around the user’s finger – with which the wearer navigates their way through the UI. The more products that come out like North’s though, the faster mass adoption of AR technology is going to pick up.
After demoing North, we headed over the Startup area of the Playground, which was filled with smaller booths showcasing a wide variety of companies demonstrating their unique use cases for both AR and VR, ranging from games, to social applications, as well as educational uses of the tech. One company that caught our eye was VictoryXR, which offers augmented and virtual reality educational solutions. What stood out was the life-sized torso on display at VictoryXR’s booth. Aptly named ‘Victor’, the torso allowed a viewer to examine the inner workings of the human cardiovascular system through an iOS or Android AR-enabled smartphone or tablet.
Video credit: VictoryXR/YouTube
The smart thing about Victor is that it has a clear use case for further engaging students in the classroom. With most students in the developed world likely now owning some form of smartphone, Victor allows entire classes to experience the same augmented reality session, all from the comfort of a personal device. This solves the problem of educational institutions having to equip biology labs with enough tech to go around an entire class-worth of students, which can be extremely costly. In fact, one Victor torso only costs USD $299.
That being said, for institutions that do have room in their budgets for a fully equipped immersive educational solution, VictoryXR also offers enterprise packages for the Pico Goblin, Pico G2, Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, and Vive Focus headsets. Each package comes with VictoryXR’s own content library, which offers 24 unique VR titles. The company’s library consists of curriculums for middle school and high school, which cover earth & space science, engineering design, life sciences, physical science, as well as virtual reality dissections of six specimens guided by a holographic teacher.
We caught up with VictoryXR’s CEO, Steve Grubbs, who had this to say: “As 5G and lightweight AR glasses become a natural part of the landscape, spatial learning – like AR & VR – will become a natural part of the learning process. Schools will use it to give students hands-on experiences that cannot be gained through a textbook or tablet.”
Another great product that VictoryXR makes is its augmented reality card decks. As you may have read in our last post about AWE 2019, unlocking an augmented experience through something as simple as a business card is a topic that we find really interesting. As a result, we found VictoryXR’s card decks to be an amazing example of how AR can be used to enhance a 2-dimensional card and turn it into an interactive 3D augmented experience, effectively making what is already an interesting use of the tech even more engaging thanks to the graphics and data that can be unlocked from each card. The demo we saw showed a space shuttle next to a launch tower, with the theme of this particular deck being ‘Space and Planets’.
Video credit: VictoryXR/YouTube
The decks come with 54 cards, each of which features a commentary from a science teacher in order to help students learn about space. As with the Victor torso, the AR card decks are compatible with iPhone and Android AR-enabled smartphones, and are sold for USD $24.99. Both the decks and the Victor torso are available on VictoryXR’s online store.
When asked on future plans for the company, Grubbs added: “We are rolling out a Netflix-style VR & AR platform this fall to be used by schools, location-based VR facilities and home school families. The initial plan is to roll it out at $10 per headset per month.” Furthermore, he stated that, in conjunction with Best Buy, the company is rolling out its dinosaur product the week of June 23rd. Initially, this will consist of three floor mats that – when triggered with AR – blow up into life size dinosaurs. Students will be able to use phones or tablets to explore the dinosaurs initially, but will eventually be able to see them through AR glasses, according to Grubbs.
Moving on from the Startup area, we ventured back further into Playground space, seeking out one of the companies that we had been excited to see from the beginning – Tactical Haptics. Haptic technology utilizes hardware in order to stimulate the sense of touch and motion, in order to reproduce the sensation that would be felt if the user was actually holding an object, or feeling pressure on their body due to an interaction with a virtual object. Needless to say, we were absolutely blown away with this experience. Tactical haptics make controllers that use the forces of friction in order to create the sensation of resistance, and effectively simulate a feeling of weight and drag within VR. Sliding plates are positioned in the surface of the handle of the controllers, which move up and down in order to create the sensation, and it really works.
Due to the fact that you are immersed in a VR simulation, your visual and auditory senses are already sending certain messages to your brain. Couple this with the physical feeling from the controllers, the company’s tech is great at tricking your brain, which processes this additional sense of touch and matches that with what you are seeing and hearing. It was quite phenomenal just how real the experience felt.
The company has created a demo mode to show off the different sensations that can be experienced, which include resistance when stretching and squeezing objects, varying degrees of weight when interacting with virtual objects, the sensation of an object dragging across the floor (this was a particular favourite), as well as resistance when thrusting and slashing virtual weapons.
Video credit: Tactical Haptics/YouTube
At the moment, only developer kit pre-orders are currently available, with a price tag of USD $1,200 for a dual reactive grip kit, and half that for a single controller. The controllers are currently compatible with major PC VR platforms, and Tactical Haptics has tracker brackets for the Vive Tracker, which allow the dev kit to be used in combination with the Valve Index, HTC Vive, or other Steam VR headsets (e.g., Pimax, StarVR). The company also has a tracker bracket that allows Oculus Touch controllers to slide securely into a controller mount to provide tracking when the dev kit is used with the Oculus Rift. So far, only out-side-in Oculus tracker brackets have been designed and tested, but the company has stated that it also plans to offer tracker brackets for inside-out tracking using newer Touch controllers (e.g., for use with the Rift S).
Another company offering an interesting option for the haptics market was Teslasuit, who have made a full body jumpsuit designed to be worn whilst experiencing VR. Think of the suits that they wear in ‘Ready Player One’, and that is basically what this is. TeslaSuit’s product was the only offering of its kind that we saw at AWE this year.
Although we were unable to try on a suit (there was an extreme wait list, to the point where reservations had to be made to try one out), according to the company, the suit is made of a smart textile that transfers sensations from VR to the user through tiny electrical impulses. The haptic feedback system in the suit modulates a range of sensations, including soft touch, heavy and light impact, as well as even rain or wind blowing, thanks to the suit’s advanced climate control system.
Other features of the suit include:
- Touch and force haptic feedback built into the suit;
- Integrated biometric system that gathers real-time date from users;
- Integrated skeletal and 3D kinematic motion capture for full body tracking;
- Made from ‘smart fabric’ that is stretchable, breathable, durable, and even washable;
- Wireless (Bluetooth or Wi-Fi);
- 16-64 channels (32-128 electrodes);
- Rechargeable long-life battery
- Available in sizes XS – XXXL, as well as tailor made.
As a result of just how much the suit is capable of doing, it comes with a price tag of GBP £1,199 for the lower-cost ‘Pioneer’ option, and a whopping GBP £2,099 for the ‘Prodigy’ option. This will be one that we will be keeping a close eye on, as fully immersive VR experiences that provide a physical sensation to the entire body are a really exciting area of the tech, and will likely open up an entirely new paradigm of content creation and experiences to be had within VR.
In a similar vein to Teslasuit (but nowhere near as expensive), was WalkOVR which offers a smart option for full body tracking for consumers on more of a budget. WalkOVR’s solution involves the user strapping a set of five motion nodes to their knees, ankles, and torso, which continuously track the user’s lower body movement in 3D space. The solution offers a greater degree of tracking of the lower body, and helps to remove the disconnect that can be felt in VR as a result of full body movements being singularly controlled only by a user’s hands. The nodes can determine a user’s stance (for example leaning back or crouching down), and this can in turn be used to trigger movement in a VR environment – users can even jog on the spot to move forwards whilst wearing WalkOVR.
With a cost of just USD $199 on Kickstarter, the solution is great for those who require more enhanced tracking on a budget. The hardware is compatible with HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Windows MR, Pimax VR, PlayStation VR, Samsung GearVR, and Oculus Go. Furthermore, the software is plug and play, and WalkOVR has tested its product with several VR gaming titles, with more upcoming games to be added to the list.
Commenting on the product, the company’s Founder and CEO, Tuğra Şahiner, said:”WalkOVR is a mocap [motion capture] product – we built it with that manner but it was not an easy task. Therefore in its development stages, we positioned it as a locomotion device for VR. In the near future, the same current five node system will evolve into a modular mocap system for many people (e.g. developers and gamers). We will then be extending it to full body by considering wireless options. Our R&D is in Europe and we are working closely with universities, specifically on biomechanics and motion capture.”
Currently, the product is limited to planned motion capture features, however, Şahiner added that WalkOVR is working towards wireless full body mocap functionality, for use in industries other than gaming. “Wherever you think that human movement is necessary in Virtual Reality, WalkOVR may be used there. We already provide it as a gaming peripheral, but we work with companies to help them train their employees as well. We provide fitness experience to some of our clients in Europe. We are also digging in Education and Healthcare with some follow up projects”, said Şahiner.
Video credit: WalkOVR/YouTube
Next stop for us was a roller-coaster of an experience – quite literally. Yaw‘s offering to the VR industry is a sort-of bucket seat that you sit in, which moves in response to a VR experience. In this instance, Yaw was running a virtual roller-coaster ride. We tried it out, and jumped in the seat with a headset on. If you get motion sickness easily in VR, this could go either way for you. It could be that the physical movement actually helps with the motion sickness, because your brain has some physical movement to which it can match what it is processing visually – or, it might just make you throw up, as it was pretty much just like being on a real roller-coaster.
The demo was thoroughly impressive though, and short of having wind rushing through your hair, it felt very realistic. On the inclines, it felt as if we were leaning very far back, however, when chatting with the Yaw team, we were told that for the roller-coaster simulation, the seat only reclined to about 30% of its full capability, which means you can likely expect some sort of Rocket launch simulator in the future.
The product is available to consumers for a price of USD $1,490 for the standard edition, $1,690 for the special edition, and $1,990 for the Pro edition. You will need a fair amount of floor space in order feel comfortable swinging around in it without knocking anything off of your coffee table though. In reality, the setup doesn’t take up that much space, with a diameter of 29 inches, and weighing only 44 lbs, it would easily fit into a gaming space as long as a sensible amount of room was left around to account for the user’s feet extending out. Furthermore, the whole setup disassembles relatively easily for storage, and to us it seems it would take up no more space than a Swiss exercise ball – probably less.
Yaw is currently compatible SimTools software and more than 80 simulator apps, including Microsoft Flight Simulator, and several racing titles. The company is also working on making its hardware compatible with other non-PC platforms, such as Oculus Go, Samsung Gear VR and PlayStation VR. In addition Yaw is open source, so users can develop their own software for completely new use cases.
The potential for Yaw with VR experiences such as pilot or driver training, to racing games, is a no-brainer for the use of the tech. Imagine the level of immersion that would be possible when combining Yaw with the Tactical Haptics controllers for use in, say, a helicopter sim – with resistance in the flight stick, and the sensation of tilting forward as you accelerate. Exciting stuff!
Video credit: Auganix
It wouldn’t be a Playground without some games, and that is what we went to try out next. The largest booth in the AWE Playground area was VR gaming company, Chicken Waffle, who had a huge booth, from which they were demoing several of their multiplayer VR games.
We decided to check out Baby Hands, which was some sort of multiplayer baby dueling arena ‘deathmatch’ game. Players navigate the battlefield (if they haven’t named this the ‘rattle-field’ then we claim the rights!) by ‘crawling’ around using their VR controllers. The objective is to basically take out the other babies in the arena, through the use of various weapons – our favourite of which was the bow and arrow as you could achieve some pretty epic long ranged baby-takedowns with this.
Another really fun VR game we tried was one called Bizarre Barber, made by Synesthetic Echo. The company’s booth wasn’t actually situated in the Playground, but was back over in the Startup area. In this game, the player is stood on a creepy subway platform in between passing carriages on either side. Leaning out the windows are almost tiki-style heads with various strange haircuts. The objective is to give each head a haircut using the controllers, racking up combos and special scissor modes along the way. Bizarre Barber was a great game, and oddly satisfying when you got a cut that was super-short. The game is currently available on Oculus Rift.
Video credit: Auganix
Overall, this year’s AWE conference was a huge success in our opinion. There were plenty of great examples on display that showed just why AR and VR tech is going to take the world by storm in the coming years. It seems that for now, quite a lot of the hardware (particularly for AR at least), is very much geared towards the enterprise-side of things. However, this is where the money is at the moment. Businesses are finding more uses and increased benefits from using AR than consumers are at present, and a big part of this is likely due to the price point of AR devices.
As mentioned in Part One of our AWE 2019 write up, one thing that will likely help with consumer adoption of augmented reality technology is going to be 5G, which is expected to greatly help improve the infrastructure on which AR experiences can be built. It would be reasonable to expect though, that with growing consumer adoption will come more AR hardware geared towards everyday consumer use.
Virtual reality has a significant enterprise user base as well, with several medical and educational demonstrations on display at AWE this year. However, the gaming side of the market is seemingly just as strong, with several announcements for new games being made across many VR games stores each week.
All in all, we’re excited to see how the companies we’ve mentioned progress within the space, and we will be keeping an eye on their growth within the AR and VR sector over the coming year. By which point, we’ll be ready for next-year’s stand out group at AWE 2020.