Superconference Interview: Alan Yates

In 2015, virtual reality was the future, which means we should all have it right now. One of the most technologically impressive VR sets is the HTC Vive, an amazing piece of kit that’s jam-packed with sensors and has some really cool tech going on inside it.

One of the developers of the HTC Vive and the ever-important ‘Lighthouse’ position sensors is [Alan Yates]. He’s of Valve and gave a talk at last year’s Superconference on Why the Lighthouse Can’t Work. Being able to determine the absolute position of the Valve’s headset is hard, but absolutely necessary for VR. Anything else would be an incomplete VR experience at best, and give you nausea at worst.

We sat down with [Alan] after his talk last year, and now that interview is up. You can check that out below.

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Vive Tracker Brings Easier VR Hacking

CES 2017 is over and there were VR gadgets and announcements aplenty, but here’s an item that’s worth an extra mention because it reflects a positive direction we can’t wait to see more of. HTC announced the Vive Tracker, to be released within the next few months.

The Tracker looks a bit like a cross between a hockey puck and a crown. It is a self-contained, VR trackable device with a hardware port and built-in power supply. It can be used on its own or attached to any physical object to make that object trackable and interactive in VR. No need to roll your own hardware to interface with the Vive’s Lighthouse tracking system.

Valve have been remarkably open about the technical aspects of their hardware and tracking system, and have stated they want to help people develop their own projects using the system. We’ve seen very frank and open communication on the finer points of what it took to make the Lighthouse system work. Efforts at reverse-engineering the protocol used by the controller even got friendly advice. For all the companies making headway into VR, Valve continues to be an interesting one from a hacking perspective.

[Image source for bottom of Tracker: RoadToVR]

 

Alan Yates: Why Valve’s Lighthouse Can’t Work

[Alan Yates] is a hacker’s engineer. His job at Valve has been to help them figure out the hardware that makes virtual reality (VR) a real reality. And he invented a device that’s clever enough that it really should work, but difficult enough that it wasn’t straightforward how to make it work.

In his presentation at the Hackaday Supercon 2016, he walked us through all of the design and engineering challenges that were eventually conquered in getting the Lighthouse to market. We’re still a bit overwhelmed by the conceptual elegance of the device, so it’s nice to have the behind-the-scenes details as well.

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Lighthouse Locates Drone; Achieves Autonomous Battery Swap

The HTC Vive’s Lighthouse localization system is one of the cleverest things we’ve seen in a while. It uses a synchronization flash followed by a swept beam to tell any device that can see the lights exactly where it is in space. Of course, the device has to understand the signals to figure it out.

[Alex Shtuchkin] built a very well documented device that can use these signals to localize itself in your room. For now, the Lighthouse stations are still fairly expensive, but the per-device hardware requirements are quite reasonable. [Alex] has the costs down around ten dollars plus the cost of a microcontroller if your project doesn’t already include one. Indeed, his proof-of-concept is basically a breadboard, three photodiodes, op-amps, and some code.

His demo is awesome! Check it out in the video below. He uses it to teach a quadcopter to land itself back on a charging platform, and it’s able to get there with what looks like a few centimeters of play in any direction — more than good enough to land in the 3D-printed plastic landing thingy. That fixture has a rotating drum that swaps out the battery automatically, readying the drone for another flight.

If this is just the tip of the iceberg of upcoming Lighthouse hacks, we can’t wait!

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Using The Vive’s Lighthouse With DIY Electronics

The HTC Vive is the clear winner of the oncoming VR war, and is ready to enter the hallowed halls of beloved consumer electronics behind the Apple Watch, Smart Home devices, the 3Com Audrey, and Microsoft’s MSN TV. This means there’s going to be a lot of Vives on the secondhand market very soon, opening the doors to some interesting repurposing of some very cool hardware.

[Trammell Hudson] has been messing around with the Vive’s Lighthouse – the IR emitting cube that gives the Vive its sense of direction. There’s nothing really special about this simple box, and it can indeed be used to give any microcontroller project an orientation sensor.

The Vive’s Lighthouse is an exceptionally cool piece of tech that uses multiple scanning IR laser diodes and a bank of LEDs that allows the Vive to sense its own orientation. It does this by alternately blinking and scanning lasers from left to right and top to bottom. The relevant measurements that can be determined from two Lighthouses are the horizontal angle from the first lighthouse, the vertical angle from the first lighthouse, and the horizontal angle from the second lighthouse. That’s all you need to orient the Vive in 3D space.

To get a simple microcontroller to do the same trick, [Trammell] is using a fast phototransistor with a 120° field of view. This setup only works out to about a meter away from the Lighthouses, but that’s enough for testing.

[Trammell] is working on a Lighthouse library for the Arduino and ESP8266, and so far, everything works. He’s able to get the angle of a breadboard to a Lighthouse with just a little bit of code. This is a great enabling build that is going to allow a lot of people to build some very cool stuff, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.

LED lighthouse simulator

This Christmas [Bill Porter] decided to show his parents that those college dollars were well spent. He upgraded the custom lighthouse light which he originally designed in high school for their garden fountain. He even went so far as to craft some retail-worthy packaging for the gift.

We think it’s a wonderful design, on a custom PCB and based around an ATtiny85. A real lighthouse has a spinning lens to aim the beam of light. When the lens sweeps across your viewpoint there is a sudden flash and he’s recreated that effect using PWM. Take a look at the video after the break and you’ll see what we mean.

Also, during development he was plagued by a startup glitch which we got majorly sidetracked reading aboutContinue reading “LED lighthouse simulator”