Virtual reality. It’s come a long way, baby.
Since the technology emerged in the ’60s, it has transported users to computer-generated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real or imaginary worlds. The computer modeling and simulation enable users to interact with artificial, three-dimensional, visual or otherwise sensory environments.
The basic simulators used to teach how to fly planes, drive tanks, shoot artillery and perform similar tasks employed virtual reality; users send and receive information within the environment via interactive devices worn as goggles, headsets, gloves or body suits.
About 20 years later, the technology reached the commercial and consumer markets. And consumers knew what they wanted as they joined the fray.
“We want lightweight, excellent resolution and a wide field of view. It’s hard to get all three,” said Jason Kaplan, vice president of business development for Sensics, a Columbia-based technology firm that manufactures head-mounted displays (HMDs) —colloquially known as virtual reality goggles.
Sensics creates HMDs for the defense and professional markets. The company just recently introduced its SmartGoggles technology for consumer-related gaming and entertainment platforms.
Proponents of virtual reality list a nearly limitless catalog of applications in entertainment, training, medicine, biotechnology, engineering, military, design and marketing. However, creating high-fidelity experiences bumps up against technical limitations on processing power, image resolution and communication bandwidth.
“Our idea is originally based on research done at Johns Hopkins,” said Kaplan. “Honda wanted the Wilmer Eye Clinic to help them develop a virtual reality system. Honda wanted to use it to put someone in the car [and] accelerate the process development.”
Honda wanted an HMD that pushed the technology beyond the existing market and provided a true feeling of space and mass through ultra-wide field of view and high resolution, so car designers would forego building physical prototypes in favor of virtual “direct from computer” models.
The Hopkins researchers eventually built the device for Honda, and developed and patented the technology. Excited with the market potential, the project researchers formed Sensics in 2003, and signed an exclusive worldwide license to commercialize the invention.
Subsequent NASA Small Business Innovation Research (or SBIR) grants helped Sensics advance the augmented-reality technology and led to development of today’s piSight ultra-panoramic, lightweight, high-definition HMD.
Ultimate Driving Simulator
In 2006, Yuval Boger joined the Sensics researchers as their CEO, because, as he quipped, “They were looking for adult supervision.”
Automaker Renault integrated Sensics’ piSight HMD into its ULTIMATE driving simulator, the world’s first fully realistic road vehicle driving simulator for industrial use. The simulator offered a range of databases corresponding to different journeys, including car manufacturers’ test tracks.
“We needed a high performance, head-mounted display system in order to fully utilize the simulator’s potential in the study of improving vehicle and road safety, thanks to the enhanced visibility conditions offered by new vehicle architecture solutions,” said Andras Kemeny, head of the Renault Technical Centre for Simulation and the corporation’s expert in driving simulation and virtual reality.
“We found such a system in the Sensics HMD, providing a combination of wide field of view and high resolution that we have never seen before in head-mounted displays,” he said.
Today, more than 100 organizations worldwide use Sensics products for industrial design, training, simulation, academic research, automotive and educational applications. Customers include Cubic Defense Systems, General Dynamics, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Renault and NASA.
The company markets three professional HMDs: the zSight at $9,995, the xSight Panoramic at $39,000 and the piSight, also at $39,000. The newly introduced SmartGoggles technology made it possible for Sensics to release Natalia, the first intelligent and fully-immersive 3-D goggle, which combines the resolution and field of view of professional HMDs, the unique ability to run powerful applications on board, and real-time, 360-degree tracking of the hands from the user’s perspective.
“The ability to use interactive goggles without wires and without the need for an external computer opens up new opportunities for applications that benefit from limitless tracking area, greater portability and on-board intelligence,” said Boger.
New Ideas, Every Day
Boger noted the use of his company’s products in such applications as defense and military training, in such settings as power plants, automotive plants, academia and health care.
“The applications are open-ended,” he said. “Every day, somebody calls us with an idea. Do you want to renovate a condo [and see what it looks like before you move the furniture]? Change the wallpaper? The flooring? We just got an order for aircraft interior designs.”
The SmartGoggle technology follows the model of the smart phone: An embedded processor enables it to run interactive applications. An orientation sensor enables a person to be 360 degrees immersed in the virtual world and an array of cameras on the front senses arm and hand movements.
Although the current configuration runs Android 4.0, “You can put most any system on it,” said Kaplan. “It gives you first-person tracking or sensing in 360 degrees.
“We’ve had a large interest in the new SmartGoggles,” said Kaplan. “We took them to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, and have had more than 100,000 hits on the show video.”
Boger points out another less tangible SmartGoggles benefit.
“Jason Kaplan is the coolest dad at his kid’s school. He’s not a lawyer or a doctor,” he said, “but on Father’s Day, he brings in the cool goggles.”