Bridging the Virtual / Physical Divide with Light & Wind

I built two new cool things in the lab recently involving light and wind.

Here’s the first experiment involving light:

In many ways, this thematically piggybacks on the last experiment I built, where I used the Volume as a portable window into a virtual environment. It occurred to me after posting the results of the last experiment that this “window” metaphor could be extended. Unfortunately, when we say “window into a new world” we often really mean one-way mirror. Would it be possible to create a proper window that actually lets light and wind pass through in both directions?

So my first experiment was with lighting. With the Vive Flashlight idea, the “window” becomes a two-way interaction, where the user gets to assert their presence upon the digital space by simply casting a light into it.

The setup was really quite easy.

  • In Unity, I included the Hypercube SDK and the SteamVR libraries
  • I placed 3d geometry inside the Hypercube SDK, and positioned them inside the SteamVR capture area
  • I added a spotlight as a child to the Vive Controller
  • I configured the materials and light so that shadows would be properly cast

Lighting is the best way to make things look physically 3D. It reveals shape and texture, and it communicates the nature of empty space around the 3D content.

The flashlight, as a form factor of light, amplifies the sense of presence by connecting the physical with the virtual. The 3D models cast shadows just like real-world objects would, so perceptually, the easiest way your brain accommodates this stimulus is for you to think it’s physically there.

After playing with this flashlight idea, I wanted some kinesthetic interactivity. I thought maybe a tractor beam from a UFO. But then, I stumbled upon this:

Setup was nice and simple — just a trigger collider attached to the controller and a script that applies forces whenever the trigger is active.

Again, feels great, and makes the barrier between the virtual and the physical more porous.

So, what’s next?

Well, it occurs to me that Vive was a great entry-point because, conceptually, it ties the physical to the virtual so neatly and precisely. But now that these basic prototypes exist, these effects would be just as convincing with more crude tracking. The next step will probably be looking into implementing this with a Leap Motion controller.

We’ll keep building experiments in the lab, pushing into this weird territory of making the digital world feel as physically present as possible using whatever tricks necessary.

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