Teardown: RADICA I-Racer

Long before the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive came along, some of the biggest names in gaming tried to develop practical stereoscopic displays. These early attempts at virtual reality (VR) were hindered by the technical limitations of their time, and most never progressed beyond the prototype stage. Of the ones that did make it to retail shelves, none managed to stick around for very long. The best known example is Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, which ended up being a financial disaster upon its release in 1995 and some regard as the gaming giant’s greatest blunder.

Despite these public failures, Radica still felt compelled to throw their hat into the ring. Best known for their line of relatively simplistic LCD handheld games, the company produced several rudimentary stereoscopic stand-alone titles in the late 1990s to try and cash in on the VR fad. Among the later entries in this series was 1999’s NASCAR i-Racer, which at least externally, looks quite a bit like modern VR headset.

Featuring a head-mounted stereoscopic display, a handheld controller, force feedback, and integrated headphones, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking the i-Racer was ahead of its time. But its reliance on the primitive LCD technology that put Radica on the map, combined with the need to keep the game as cheap as possible, keeps the experience planted firmly in the 1990s. But perhaps there’s something we can do about that.

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Commodore 64 Emulator In VR Delivers A Full 80s Experience

The simulated color CRT monitor looks surprisingly convincing in VR.

One way to play with vintage hardware without owning the hardware is to use an emulator, but [omni_shaNker] announced taking it to the next level by using VR to deliver a complete Commodore 64 system, in its full glory, complete with a native 80s habitat playset! This is a pretty interesting angle for simulating vintage hardware, especially since the emulator is paired with what looks like a pretty convincing CRT monitor effect in VR, not to mention a virtual 5.25″ floppy drive that makes compellingly authentic sounds.

The project is hosted on GitHub and supports a variety of VR hardware, but for owners of Oculus headsets, the application is also available on SideQuest for maximum convenience. SideQuest is essentially an off-the-books app store for managing software that is neither approved nor distributed by Facebook. Oculus is owned by Facebook, and Facebook is keen to keep a tight grip on their hardware.

As functional as the application is, there are still improvements and optimizations to be made. To address this, [omni_shaNker] put out a call for beta testers on Reddit, so if that’s up your alley be sure to get in touch. A video demonstration and overview that is chock-full of technical details is also embedded below; be sure to give it a watch to see what the project is all about.

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Virtual Reality Experiment Tricks Your Feet Into Walking While Sitting Down

The whole idea behind virtual reality is that you don’t really know what’s going on in the world around you. You only know what your senses tell you is there. If you can fake out your vision, for example, then your brain won’t realize you are floating in a tank providing power for the robot hordes. However, scientists in Japan think that you can even fool your feet into thinking they are walking when they aren’t. In a recent paper, they describe a test they did that combined audio cues with buzzing on different parts of the feet to simulate the feel of walking.

The trick only requires four transducers, two on each foot. They tested several different configurations of what the effect looked like in the participant’s virtual reality headgear. Tests were performed in third person didn’t cause test subjects to associate the foot vibrations with walking. But the first-person perspective caused sensations of walking, with a full-body avatar working the best, compared to showing just hands and feet or no avatar at all.

Making people think they are walking in VR can be tricky but it does explain how they fit all that stuff in a little holodeck. Of course, it is nice if you can also sense walking and use it to move your avatar, but that’s another problem.

Google Calls It Quits With VR, But Cardboard Lives On

Google giving up on one of their projects and leaving its established userbase twisting in the wind hardly counts as news anymore. In fact, it’s become something of a meme. The search giant is notorious for tossing out ideas just to see what sticks, and while that’s occasionally earned them some huge successes, it’s also lead to plenty of heartache for anyone unlucky enough to still be using one of the stragglers when the axe falls.

So when the search giant acknowledged in early March that they would no longer be selling their Cardboard virtual reality viewer, it wasn’t exactly a shock. The exceptionally low-cost VR googles, literally made from folded cardboard, were a massive hit when they were unveiled back in 2014. But despite Google’s best efforts to introduce premium Cardboard-compatible hardware with their Daydream View headset two years later, it failed to evolve into a profitable business.

Google Cardboard

Of course if you knew where to look, the writing had been on the wall for some time. While the Daydream hardware got a second revision in 2017, and Google even introduced a certification program to ensure phones would work properly with the $100 USD headset, the device was discontinued in 2019. On the software side, Android 7 “Nougat” got baked-in VR support in 2016, but it was quietly removed by the time Android 11 was released in the fall of 2020.

With Cardboard no longer available for purchase, Google has simply made official what was already abundantly clear: they are no longer interested in phone-based virtual reality. Under normal circumstances, anyone still using the service would be forced to give it up. Just ask those who were still active on Google+ or Allo before the plug was pulled.

But this time, things are a little different. Between Google’s decision to spin it off into an open source project and the legions of third party viewers on the market, Cardboard isn’t going down without a fight. The path ahead might be different from what Google originally envisioned, but the story certainly isn’t over.

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Virtual Reality With A Dash Of Live Shakespeare

Virtual reality headsets enforce an isolated experience, cutting us off from people nearby when we put one on our head. But in recent times, when we’re not suppose to have many people nearby anyway, a curious reversal happens: VR can give us a pandemic-safe social experience. Like going to our local community theater, which is an idea [Tender Claws] has been exploring with The Under Presents.

VR hype has drastically cooled, to put it mildly. While some believe the technology is dead and buried, others believe it is merely in a long tough climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment. It is a time for innovators to work without the limelight of unrealistic expectations. What they need is a platform for experiments, evaluate feedback, and iterate. A cycle hackers know well! The Under Presents is such a platform for its corner of VR evolution.

Most VR titles are videogames of one genre or another, so newcomers to the single-player experience may decide its otherworldly exploration feels like Myst. A multi-player option is hardly novel in this day and age, but the relatively scarcity of VR headsets means this world is never going to be as crowded as World of WarCraft. This is not a bug, it is a differentiating feature. Performers occasionally step into this world, changing the experience in ways no NPC ever could. A less crowded world makes these encounters more frequent, and more personal.

Pushing this idea further, there have been scheduled shows where a small audience is led by an actor through a story. As of this writing, a run of a show inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest is nearing its end. The experience of watching an actor adjusting and reacting to an audience used to be exclusive to an intimate theater production. But with such venues closed, it is now brought to you by VR.

How will these explorations feature in the future of the technology? It’s far too early to say, but every show moves VR storytelling a little bit forward. We hope this group or another will find their way to success and prove the naysayers wrong. But it is also possible this will all go the way of phone VR. We are usually more focused on the technical evolution of VR here, but it’s nice to know people are exploring novel applications of the technology. For one can’t exist for long without the other.

Bone Vibration Brings Typing Into VR

Virtual reality is becoming more of a thing, now that we have high quality headsets and the computing power to generate attractive environments. Many VR systems use controllers held in mid air, or camera-based systems that track limbs and hands for interaction. However, productivity scenarios often require prolonged interactions over a long period of time, which typically necessitates working at surfaces that allow the body to rest intermittently. To help facilitate this, a group of researchers at ETH Zurich developed TapID, including a preprint paper (PDF) that will be presented at IEEE VR 2021 later this month.

TapID consists of a wristband that carries two motion sensors, with one worn on each wrist. This allows TapID to detect taps from each of the user’s fingers individually, thanks to a machine learning algorithm that analyses the unique vibrations through your skeletal system. This is demonstrated as being useful for VR environments, where the user can type into a virtual keyboard, or interact with virtual objects on a surface, using their fingers as they would in the real world. This is a sensor fusion with the features of modern VR headsets that include hand tracking. The TapID wristbands deliver granularity and detection of small motions that is not nearly as accurate through headset-mounted senors and camera-based detection.

Test hardware includes 4 accelerometers. Two on flexible PCBs are the sensing hardware used by the system, the other two on the rigid PCB are used as a baseline during testing but do not contribute to the tap detection.

We’re not entirely convinced of the utility of sitting down in a virtual environment to type at a fake keyboard when monitors and real keyboards are more tactile and cheaper. However, having a device that can accurately determine individual finger interactions is sure to have applications in VR. And whether or not the demonstrated use cases are viable, the technology does indeed work.

It’s exciting to see the wrist-band form factor. It brings to mind the possibility of improving tap interactions in smart watches for non-VR uses. We envision chorded keyboard type gestures that detect which fingers are tapping but don’t need positional accuracy.

Those experimenting in VR interfaces may find it useful to reverse engineer what’s already out on the market, as we’ve featured before. Or, you can simply build your own! Video after the break.

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All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s

Virtual reality has seen enormous progress in the past few years. Given its recent surges in development, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the ideas underpinning what we now call VR were laid way back in the 60s. Not all of the imagined possibilities have come to pass, but we’ve learned plenty about what is (and isn’t) important for a compelling VR experience, and gained insights as to what might happen next.

If virtual reality’s best ideas came from the 60s, what were they, and how did they turn out?

Interaction and Simulation

First, I want to briefly cover two important precursors to what we think of as VR: interaction and simulation. Prior to the 1960s, state of the art examples for both were the Link Trainer and Sensorama.

The Link Trainer was an early kind of flight simulator, and its goal was to deliver realistic instrumentation and force feedback on aircraft flight controls. This allowed a student to safely gain an understanding of different flying conditions, despite not actually experiencing them. The Link Trainer did not simulate any other part of the flying experience, but its success showed how feedback and interactivity — even if artificial and limited in nature — could allow a person to gain a “feel” for forces that were not actually present.

Sensorama was a specialized pod that played short films in stereoscopic 3D while synchronized to fans, odor emitters, a motorized chair, and stereo sound. It was a serious effort at engaging a user’s senses in a way intended to simulate an environment. But being a pre-recorded experience, it was passive in nature, with no interactive elements.

Combining interaction with simulation effectively had to wait until the 60s, when the digital revolution and computers provided the right tools.

The Ultimate Display

In 1965 Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, authored an essay entitled The Ultimate Display (PDF) in which he laid out ideas far beyond what was possible with the technology of the time. One might expect The Ultimate Display to be a long document. It is not. It is barely two pages, and most of the first page is musings on burgeoning interactive computer input methods of the 60s.

The second part is where it gets interesting, as Sutherland shares the future he sees for computer-controlled output devices and describes an ideal “kinesthetic display” that served as many senses as possible. Sutherland saw the potential for computers to simulate ideas and output not just visual information, but to produce meaningful sound and touch output as well, all while accepting and incorporating a user’s input in a self-modifying feedback loop. This was forward-thinking stuff; recall that when this document was written, computers weren’t even generating meaningful sounds of any real complexity, let alone visual displays capable of arbitrary content. Continue reading “All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s”