One Foot in the Real World, the Other in a Virtual One

One Foot in the Real World, the Other in a Virtual One
Credit: Shameez Joubert
What you need to know

The Taiwan Virtual Reality Meetup in Taipei is an experiential social gathering of foreign residents and Taiwanese who share an interest in interactive and immersive technologies.

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The first time you feel the sense of “presence” in a virtual reality (VR) environment — the perception of being fully immersed in a non-physical world — it can be an almost religious experience.

Shameez Joubert, who tried VR for the first time in Taipei on Jan. 14, describes using the HTC Vive as “surprisingly visceral.” As she gazed down from a mountaintop during an experience called “Vesper Peak,” she laughed uncontrollably and reported feeling a sense of vertigo.

“Even though I knew it wasn’t real, somehow my brain tricked my body into feeling that it was,” said Joubert, a freelance photographer and graphic designer from South Africa.

Tyler Barth, an iOS developer living in Taipei, was an early convert to the religion of virtual reality, having had his first experience in 2013. When he created the VR Taipei meetup group on Meetup.com, he wanted to promote VR in Taiwan by bringing together people who shared an interest in the up-and-coming technology.

“I just saw that Taipei had all of this talent,” he said. “It’s a city full of tech-savvy people, alongside artists and other creatives, except no one was talking about VR because most people had never tried it.”

At the time, he was one of the only people in Taiwan to own a Samsung Gear VR headset. The Gear VR was the first VR device to target regular consumers, but was only available for purchase in the U.S. Barth had picked one up in the fall during a trip home to visit his family.

All other VR devices were either still in the development stage or were only available to pre-screened developers.

He says he knew that in order to get the creative juices flowing among the community, it was important to get as many people to try it as possible, in order to convert them to the ways of VR.

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Credit: Shameez Joubert
Leo Treasure tries his hand at archery in ‘Longbow,’ one of eight mini-games offered by The Lab, a VR game developed by Valve Corporation.
Taiwan VR meetup

Brian David Phillips, an English professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, had a similar idea. His background was in 3D photography and videography, and his interest in 3D VR was a natural extension of that.

Phillips was running a separate meetup group of VR enthusiasts as well as a Facebook Group for 3D and 360-degree photo and video hobbyists. After attending a meeting of VR Taipei, Barth and Phillips decided to join forces and combine the three groups into one. Phillips took over organizing and running the meetup events and the new group—called Taiwan Virtual Reality Meetup—now boasts more than 600 members.

Comprised of a motley crew of foreign residents and Taiwanese, the Taiwan VR Meetup serves as a “community for [people interested in] virtual reality, augmented reality (AR), 360° photography or video, and stereoscopic 3D media in Taiwan,” according to the description of the group on Meetup.com.

Phillips says anyone is welcome as long as they share an interest in interactive and immersive technologies. Every month or two, the group holds small-scale get-togethers where members can try out the latest devices and interact with each other in an English-language environment.

Each meetup features a combination of presentations from local tech startups, demonstrations of apps or software, topical discussions, and open social time during which attendees can meet others, network, and try out the latest virtual reality experiences.

The latest meeting of the group took place this past on Jan. 14, at the offices of Cardinal Blue Software, creator of the popular mobile photo editing app PicCollage. Cardinal Blue Co-founder and chief executive John Fan is a member of the Taiwan VR Meetup and last year he offered to host the meetups at Cardinal Blue’s office, where they have a number of VR headsets on hand.

As people trickled in to the office space for Saturday’s event, the mostly male crowd got acquainted, shaking hands and introducing themselves. Many of those in attendance were familiar with each other, having met at previous meetups. Others, like Reider Larsen, a translator for a mobile gaming company, were attending for the first time.

“VR is a technology that has such wide-reaching applications, from games and design to filmmaking and even architecture,” said Larsen. “I was curious to see what sorts of ways people are utilizing it here in Taipei.”

The meeting began with a Skype presentation delivered by Dan Cunningham, the marketing director of Hubblo, a Chinese technology company based in Shanghai. Hubblo recently launched a portable 360-degree camera capable of live streaming in VR. Cunningham described the specs of the camera as interested filmmakers and photographers in attendance asked pointed questions about the product.

After the presentation, it was time to get up, walk around, meet people and do some experiential VR-ing. There were five different devices for attendees to try: Google’s Cardboard and Daydream, Samsung’s Gear VR, which are mobile VR devices combining headsets and a smartphone. The other two were Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive, which must be connected to a powerful PC capable of running the VR software.

Experiences like Joubert’s, is one of the primary purposes of these meetups, said Phillips; making VR more accessible to the average person.

“You have a lot of folks talking to each other, many of whom have never tried VR before,” he observed, “when they come and have a positive experience, they then tell their friends and then those people are interested.”

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Credit: Shameez Joubert
Reider Larsen enjoys his time with the HTC Vive.
Virtual Reality: A new medium

VR involves the creation of a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that is realistic, interactive and navigable. VR employs technology to trick users into thinking and feeling that they are present in a world that is not really there. Good VR makes the user suspend their sense of disbelief, forget about their physical surroundings, and accept the artificial environment as real.

Over the past few years a number of developments have increased interest in AR and VR, in Taiwan and abroad. First, 2016 saw the release of a number of new mobile, console and PC VR headsets. Second, there has been a lot of buzz in the media about virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies heralding the fourth wave of personal computing. Third, the short-lived Pokémon GO craze heightened awareness among the general public of the potential uses for AR technology. Finally, the technology is slowly but surely beginning to catch up to the creative vision of its founders and advocates.

Technological advances in computer hardware, software, graphics processing, display technology, positional tracking and haptic feedback have all led to the creation of high-quality immersive experiences that are believable, realistic and interactive, in a way that was never before possible. Uniting the visual grandeur of modern films with the interactivity of video games, VR provides a new medium for interactive experiences.

Although the most obvious near-term uses for VR are related to gaming and entertainment, it is clear that its potential extends far beyond that. Developers are no longer limited to building just games but instead have the capability to make their dreams come to life and create lifelike experiences in virtual worlds that seem to be just as real as the physical world.

“The countless possibilities with VR for creating and sharing immersive experiences excites and inspires me,” said VR developer Dilun Ho (何迪倫) on Saturday. “The potential is just mind boggling.”

At Saturday’s meetup, Dilun demonstrated the latest version of Lyra, a virtual reality application he is working on that allows users to create fantastical musical symphonies in a 3D environment.

Lyra is an example of a VR program that is less a game and more of an interactive experience. Users place floating geometric objects, called nodes, anywhere they want in the 3D space and link them together using the controllers. Each node represents a different musical instrument and the pitch of each node changes depending on where you place it. The farther up from the ground, the higher the pitch, and vice versa. You can control the key and speed between each node. The goal is to create different sequences of sounds and loop them together.

In 2016, Lyra was accepted into HTC’s ViveX Accelerator program, which invites startups developing software and hardware for a global VR ecosystem to join a four-month program to develop their technologies. Lyra was one of 30 companies out of a total of 1,000 accepted into the program.

The Taiwan VR Meetup gives people like Ho a platform to present the project they are working on; an opportunity Ho has taken advantage of on several occasions. Doing so allows him to obtain feedback and suggestions for improvement from actual users.

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Credit: Shameez Joubert
Daniel Chou makes full use of the HTC Vive's 'room scale' technology, which turns a room into a 3D space using sensors.
A whole new world of possibilities

Many tech industry observers argue that virtual reality is the next breakthrough technology, with the potential to improve and disrupt existing industries from gaming and entertainment to education and commerce.

Industrial designers and architects already build 3-D prototypes of products and buildings as part of the design process. VR allows them to create even more realistic models. Corporate marketing and advertising could be transformed as companies have the opportunity to give their potential customers a close-up look of their products and services from the comfort of their home. The same goes for real estate, allowing agents to increase the number of people and families who can check out a property for sale. Education could be transformed, with students benefiting from the opportunity to learn through images and experiences, as well as the chance to go on virtual field trips. People from a wide variety of fields can use VR for job training and to learn extra skills. These are just a few examples.

Most attendees at the Taiwan VR Meetup agree. “The technology of putting a device on your head that allows you to be immersed in another world that has lots of digital information, that’s going to accelerate very quickly,” said Randy Finch, a film professor at the Taipei National University of the Arts. As a producer of theatre and film, Finch sees AR and VR technology as another medium through which creatives can “send ripples out into the culture.”

Tyler Barth, the former organizer of VR Taipei is now just an active participant in the meetup. As an iOS developer, he is most interested in what VR can do for productivity. “I see collaboration among remote workers in VR as something that I am really interested in.”

He is so convinced that VR will revolutionize how we collaborate that he is actively preparing for the eventuality. “I am kind of building that place now in my house,” Barth admitted. “I have an office where I have a VR setup and that two-meter-by-two-meter space will be a virtual space that I can project to anyone in in the world who I need to collaborate with.”

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Credit: Shameez Joubert
Back to reality

Despite their idealistic predictions for the future of the technology, the general mood among attendees at Saturday’s Taiwan VR Meetup event was one of cautious optimism. They are cognizant of the high expectations for AR and VR but also recognize the challenges to widespread adoption.

“My earlier expectations were probably unrealistic, too high, because when you’re within your own bubble, it’s easy to get caught up in it,” Ho acknowledged. “You have to be realistic, because this is still early days, but I think the industry is moving in the right direction.”

“It’s like asking the Lumiere brothers what is going to happen to motion pictures,” Finch, the firm professor said. “Nobody really knows because it takes a while for the grammar to evolve.”

But like most VR enthusiasts, the members of the Taiwan VR Meetup group share the belief that it is only a matter of time before people start to appreciate the significance of VR technology. It is a question of when, not if.

“If you look at the big picture, what’s valuable to people?” Ho asks rhetorically, before answering his own question. “Most people would say ‘experiences’, and VR simulates a whole new level of experience. That is invaluable.”

The next meeting of the Taiwan Virtual Reality Meetup is scheduled for Feb.25, 2017. If you are interested in attending, click here.

Editor: Edward White