Gaze-directed Text Entry in VR Using Quikwrite

Text entry in virtual environments is one of those old problems that never seem to get solved. The core issue, of course, is that users in VR either don’t have keyboards (because they are in a CAVE, say), or can’t effectively use the keyboard they do have (because they are wearing an HMD that obstructs their vision). To the latter point: I consider myself a decent touch typist (my main keyboard doesn’t even have key labels), but the moment I put on an HMD, that goes out the window. There’s an interesting research question right there — do typists need to see their keyboards in their peripheral vision to use them, even when they never look at them directly? — but that’s a topic for another post.

Until speech recognition becomes powerful and reliable enough to use as an exclusive method (and even then, imagining having to dictate “for(int i=0;i<numEntries&&entries[i].key!=searchKey;++i)” already gives me a headache), and until brain/computer interfaces are developed and we plug our computers directly into our heads, we’re stuck with other approaches.

Unsurprisingly, the go-to method for developers who don’t want to write a research paper on text entry, but just need text entry in their VR applications right now, and don’t have good middleware to back them up, is a virtual 3D QWERTY keyboard controlled by a 2D or 3D input device (see Figure 1). It’s familiar, straightforward to implement, and it can even be used to enter text.

Figure 1: Guilty as charged — a virtual keyboard in the Vrui toolkit, implemented as a GLMotif pop-up window with rows and columns of buttons.

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Someone at Oculus is Reading my Blog

I am getting the feeling that Big Brother is watching me. When I released the inital version of the Vrui VR toolkit with native Oculus Rift support, it had magnetic yaw drift correction, which the official Oculus SDK didn’t have at that point (Vrui doesn’t use the Oculus SDK at all to talk to the Rift; it has its own tracking driver that talks to the Rift’s inertial movement unit directly via USB, and does its own sensor fusion, and also does its own projection setup and lens distortion correction). A week or so later, Oculus released an updated SDK with magnetic drift correction.

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a pair of articles investigating and explaining the internals of the Rift’s display, and how small deviations in calibration have a large effect on the perceived size of the virtual world, and the degree of “solidity” (for lack of a better word) of the virtual objects therein. In those posts, I pointed out that a single lens distortion correction formula doesn’t suffice, because lens distortion parameters depend on the position of the viewers’ eyes relative to the lenses, particularly the eye/lens distance, otherwise known as “eye relief.” And guess what: I just got an email via the Oculus developer mailing list announcing the (preview) release of SDK version 0.3.1, which lists eye relief-dependent lens correction as one of its major features.

Maybe I should keep writing articles on the virtues of 3D pupil tracking, and the obvious benefits of adding an inertially/optically tracked 6-DOF input device to the consumer-level Rift’s basic package, and those things will happen as well. 🙂

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What is Presence?

Disclaimer: Presence research is not my area of expertise. I’m basically speaking as an interested layperson, and just writing down some vaguely related observations that have re-occurred to me recently.

So, presence. What is presence, and why should we care? Libraries full of papers have been written about it, and there’s even a long-running journal of that title. I guess one could say that presence is the sensation of bodily being in a place or environment where one knows one is not. And why is it important in the discussion of virtual reality? Because it is often trotted out as the distinguishing feature between the medium of VR (yes, VR is the medium, not the content) and other media, such as film or interactive 3D graphics; in other words, it is often a feature that’s used to sell the idea of VR (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But how does one actually measure presence, and know that one has achieved it? Some researchers do it by putting users into fMRI machines, but that’s not really something you can do at home. So here are a few things I’ve observed over sixteen years of working in VR, and showing 3D display environments and 3D software to probably more than 1,000 people, both experts and members of the general public:

Fighting Motion Sickness due to Explicit Viewpoint Rotation

Here is an interesting innovation: the developers at Cloudhead Games, who are working on The Gallery: Six Elements, a game/experience created for HMDs from the ground up, encountered motion sickness problems due to explicit viewpoint rotation when using analog sticks on game controllers, and came up with a creative approach to mitigate it: instead of rotating the view smoothly, as conventional wisdom would suggest, they rotate the view discretely, in relatively large increments (around 30°). And apparently, it works. What do you know. In their explanation, they refer to the way dancers keep themselves from getting dizzy during pirouettes by fixing their head in one direction while their bodies spin, and then rapidly whipping their heads around back to the original direction. But watch them explain and demonstrate it themselves. Funny thing is, I knew that thing about ice dancers, but never thought to apply it to viewpoint rotation in VR.

Figure 1: A still from the video showing the initial implementation of “VR Comfort Mode” in Vrui.

This is very timely, because I have recently been involved in an ongoing discussion about input devices for VR, and how they should be handled by software, and how there should not be a hardware standard but a middleware standard, and yadda yadda yadda. So I have been talking up Vrui‘s input model quite a bit, and now is the time to put up or shut up, and show how it can handle some new idea like this.

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More on Desktop Embedding via VNC

I started regretting uploading my “Embedding 2D Desktops into VR” video, and the post describing it, pretty much right after I did it, because there was such an obvious thing to do, and I didn’t think of it.

Figure 1: Screenshot from video showing VR ProtoShop run simultaneously in a 3D environment created by an Oculus Rift and a Razer Hydra, and in a 2D environment using mouse and keyboard, brought into the 3D environment via the VNC remote desktop protocol.

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VR Movies

There has been a lot of discussion about VR movies in the blogosphere and forosphere (just to pick two random examples), and even on Wired, recently, with the tenor being that VR movies will be the killer application for VR. There are even downloadable prototypes and start-up companies.

But will VR movies actually ever work?

This is a tricky question, and we have to be precise. So let’s first define some terms.

When talking about “VR movies,” people are generally referring to live-action movies, i.e., the kind that is captured with physical cameras and shows real people (well, actors, anyway) and environments. But for the sake of this discussion, live-action and pre-rendered computer-generated movies are identical.

We’ll also have to define what we mean by “work.” There are several things that people might expect from “VR movies,” but not everybody might expect the same things. The first big component, probably expected by all, is panoramic view, meaning that a VR movie does not only show a small section of the viewer’s field of view, but the entire sphere surrounding the viewer — primarily so that viewers wearing a head-mounted display can freely look around. Most people refer to this as “360° movies,” but since we’re all thinking 3D now instead of 2D, let’s use the proper 3D term and call them “4π sr movies” (sr: steradian), or “full solid angle movies” if that’s easier.

The second component, at least as important, is “3D,” which is of course a very fuzzy term itself. What “normal” people mean by 3D is that there is some depth to the movie, in other words, that different objects in the movie appear at different distances from the viewer, just like in reality. And here is where expectations will vary widely. Today’s “3D” movies (let’s call them “stereo movies” to be precise) treat depth as an independent dimension from width and height, due to the realities of stereo filming and projection. To present filmed objects at true depth and with undistorted proportions, every single viewer would have to have the same interpupillary distance, all movie screens would have to be the exact same size, and all viewers would have to sit in the same position relative the the screen. This previous post and video talks in great detail about what happens when that’s not the case (it is about head-mounted displays, but the principle and effects are the same). As a result, most viewers today would probably not complain about the depth in a VR movie being off and objects being distorted, but — and it’s a big but — as VR becomes mainstream, and more people experience proper VR, where objects are at 1:1 scale and undistorted, expectations will rise. Let me posit that in the long term, audiences will not accept VR movies with distorted depth.

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2D Desktop Embedding via VNC

There have been several discussions on the Oculus subreddit recently about how to integrate 2D desktops or 2D applications with 3D VR environments; for example, how to check your Facebook status while playing a game in the Oculus Rift without having to take off the headset.

This is just one aspect of the larger issue of integrating 2D and 3D applications, and it reminded me that it was about time to revive the old VR VNC client that Ed Puckett, an external contractor, had developed for the CAVE a long time ago. There have been several important changes in Vrui since the VNC client was written, especially in how Vrui handles text input, which means that a completely rewritten client could use the new Vrui APIs instead of having to implement everything ad-hoc.

Here is a video showing the new VNC client in action, embedded into LiDAR Viewer and displayed in a desktop VR environment using an Oculus Rift HMD, mouse and keyboard, and a Razer Hydra 6-DOF input device:

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Small Correction to Rift’s Projection Matrix

In a previous post, I looked at the Oculus Rift’s internal projection in detail, and did some analysis of how stereo rendering setup is explained in the Rift SDK’s documentation. Looking at that again, I noticed something strange.

In the other post, I simplified the Rift’s projection matrix as presented in the SDK documentation to

P = \begin{pmatrix} \frac{2 \cdot \mathrm{EyeToScreenDistance}}{\mathrm{HScreenSize} / 2} & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \frac{2 \cdot \mathrm{EyeToScreenDistance}}{\mathrm{VScreenSize}} & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & \frac{z_\mathrm{far}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} & \frac{z_\mathrm{far} \cdot z_\mathrm{near}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} \\ 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 \end{pmatrix}

which, to those in the know, doesn’t look like a regular OpenGL projection matrix, such as created by glFrustum(…). More precisely, the third row of P is off. The third-column entry should be \frac{z_\mathrm{near} + z_\mathrm{far}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} instead of \frac{z_\mathrm{far}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}}, and the fourth-column entry should be 2 \cdot \frac{z_\mathrm{far} \cdot z_\mathrm{near}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} instead of \frac{z_\mathrm{far} \cdot z_\mathrm{near}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}}. To clarify, I didn’t make a mistake in the derivation; the matrix’s third row is the same in the SDK documentation.

What’s the difference? It’s subtle. Changing the third row of the projection matrix doesn’t change where pixels end up on the screen (that’s the good news). It only changes the z, or depth, value assigned to those pixels. In a standard OpenGL frustum matrix, 3D points on the near plane get a depth value of 1.0, and those on the far plane get a depth value of -1.0. The 3D clipping operation that’s applied to any triangle after projection uses those depth values to cut off geometry outside the view frustum, and the viewport projection after that will map the [-1.0, 1.0] depth range to [0, 1] for z-buffer hidden surface removal.

Using a projection matrix as presented in the previous post, or in the SDK documentation, will still assign a depth value of -1.0 to points on the far plane, but a depth value of 0.0 to points on the (nominal) near plane. Meaning that the near plane distance given as parameter to the matrix is not the actual near plane distance used by clipping and z buffering, which might lead to some geometry appearing in the view that shouldn’t, and a loss of resolution in the z buffer because only half the value range is used.

I’m assuming that this is just a typo in the Oculus SDK documentation, and that the library code does the right thing (I haven’t looked).

Oh, right, so the fixed projection matrix, for those working along, is

P = \begin{pmatrix} \frac{2 \cdot \mathrm{EyeToScreenDistance}}{\mathrm{HScreenSize} / 2} & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \frac{2 \cdot \mathrm{EyeToScreenDistance}}{\mathrm{VScreenSize}} & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & \frac{z_\mathrm{near} + z_\mathrm{far}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} & 2 \cdot \frac{z_\mathrm{far} \cdot z_\mathrm{near}}{z_\mathrm{near} - z_\mathrm{far}} \\ 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 \end{pmatrix}

Game Engines and Positional Head Tracking

Oculus recently presented the “Crystal Cove,” a version of the Rift head-mounted display with built-in optical tracking, which is combined with the existing inertial tracker to provide a full 6-DOF (position and orientation) tracking solution at low latency, and it is rumored that the Crystal Cove will be released as development kit mark 2 after this year’s Game Developers Conference.

This is great news. I’ve been saying for a long time that Oculus cannot afford to drop positional head tracking on developers at the last minute, because it will break several assumptions built into game engines and other VR software (but let’s talk about game engines here). I’m also happy because the Crystal Cove uses precisely the tracking technology that I predicted: active markers (LEDs) on the headset, and an external camera placed at a fixed position in the environment. I am also sad because I didn’t manage to finish my own after-market optical tracking add-on before Oculus demonstrated their new integrated technology, but that’s life.

So why does positional head tracking break existing games? Because for the first time, the virtual camera used to render a game world is no longer under sufficient control of the software. Let’s take a step back. In a standard, desktop, 3D game, the camera is entirely controlled by the software. The software sets it to some position and orientation determined by the game logic, the 3D engine renders the virtual world for that camera setup, and the result is the displayed image.

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A Follow-up on Eye Tracking

Now this is why I run a blog. In my video and post on the Oculus Rift’s internals, I talked about distortions in 3D perception when the programmed-in camera positions for the left and right stereo views don’t match the current left and right pupil positions, and how a “perfect” HMD would therefore need a built-in eye tracker. That’s still correct, but it turns out that I could have done a much better job approximating proper 3D rendering when there is no eye tracking.

This improvement was pointed out by a commenter on the previous post. TiagoTiago asked if it wouldn’t be better if the virtual camera were located at the centers of the viewer’s eyeballs instead of at the pupils, because then light rays entering the eye straight on would be represented correctly, independently of eye vergence angle. Spoiler alert: he was right. But I was skeptical at first, because, after all, that’s just plain wrong. All light rays entering the eye converge at the pupil, and therefore that’s the only correct position for the virtual camera.

Well, that’s true, but if the current pupil position is unknown due to lack of eye tracking, then the only correct thing turns into just another approximation, and who’s to say which approximation is better. My hunch was that the distortion effects from having the camera in the center of the eyeballs would be worse, but given that projection in an HMD involving a lens is counter-intuitive, I still had to test it. Fortunately, adding an interactive foveating mechanism to my lens simulation application was simple.

Turns out that I was wrong, and that in the presence of a collimating lens, i.e., a lens that is positioned such that the HMD display screen is in the lens’ focal plane, distortion from placing the camera in the center of the eyeball is significantly less pronounced than in my approach. Just don’t ask me to explain it for now — it’s due to the “special properties of the collimated light.” 🙂