Revealing the Virtual without a VR Headset

Check out this cool thing we built in the Looking Glass lab!

So, what you’re looking at is a handful of chess pieces that are floating in real 3d space. It is invisible until you reveal it with the Toy Volume, which acts sort of like a spy glass into a virtual world.

This is enabled by combining two technologies: the HTC Lighthouse system, and a prototype for our Toy Volume. HTC Lighthouse is the amazingly good tracking system that powers the Vive. The Toy Volume display is — in this case — an old prototype that we had laying around.

By attaching the motion-tracked HTC controller to the prototype Toy Volume, the computer knows exactly where the display is located, and can reveal world-locked virtual content. This combination of tech (Vive’s SDK and Volume’s SDK) unlocks this powerful effect — the ability to peer into any virtual world through Volume.

The build was really easy to construct. To be geeky for a moment:

  • I converted some chess pieces that I found on Google Warehouse into a Collada file for Unity
  • Then, using Vive’s Unity asset (SteamVR), I got access to the motion-tracked controllers.
  • Finally, I used the Volume’s Unity asset (Hypercube), and nested the Hypercube object underneath one of the controllers
Oliver experimenting with an early prototype of Toy Volume with an HTC Vive Controller attached.

What this reveals about Volume / AR / VR

VR / AR share similar end goals with volumetric displays: to physically present digital matter / make people feel that computer-based experiences implicate the body.

The difference between volumetrics and AR / VR is that AR / VR uses head-mounted displays (HMD), which places the tech on your head to grant the tech access to your sensory organs. Volumetric displays place the tech on the 3d space so that everyone can experience it.

What I like about this experiment is that it really hammers home the idea that volumetric displays are windows into digital worlds. This window-ing effect feels stronger when you can move the window around.