I Can’t Ever Get Over This Mars Thing, Can I?

I have talked about KeckCAVES’ involvement in the Curiosity Mars Rover missions several times before, but I just found a set of cool pictures that I have not shared yet. I just saw a reddit thread about a VR application to walk on the moon, one commenter asked about doing the same for Mars, and one thing led to another.

Can an application like that be done for Mars? Do we have enough data, and are the data publicly available? The answers are “yes, already done,” “kinda,” and “yes, but,” respectively.

As of my last checking, there are two main sources of topography data for Mars. The older source is an orbital laser range survey done by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). This is essentially a planetary LiDAR scan, and can be visualized using LiDAR Viewer. The two pictures I mention above are these (Figures 1 and 2):

Figure 1: Global visualization of Mars topography using the MOLA data set, rendered using LiDAR Viewer. Vertical scale is 5:1.

Figure 2: Close-up of global Mars topography data set (centered on the canals), showing individual laser returns as grey dots. The scan lines corresponding to individual orbital periods can clearly be identified. Vertical scale is 5:1.

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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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KeckCAVES in the News

A cluster of earthquakes always gets the news media interested in geology, at least for a short time, and Monday’s 4.4 in southern California, following last week’s series of north coast quakes up to 6.9, was no different. Our local media’s go-to guy for earthquakes and other natural hazards is Dr. Gerald Bawden of the USGS Sacramento. Gerald also happens to be one of the main users of the KeckCAVES visualization facility and KeckCAVES software, and so he took an interview with our local Fox-affiliate in the CAVE, “to get out of the wind,” as he put it.

Here’s the video. Caution: ads after the jump.

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Elon Musk discovers AR/VR

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk posted this double whammy of cryptic messages to his Twitter account on August 23rd:

@elonmusk: We figured out how to design rocket parts just w hand movements through the air (seriously). Now need a high frame rate holograph generator.

@elonmusk: Will post video next week of designing a rocket part with hand gestures & then immediately printing it in titanium

As there are no further details, and the video is now slightly delayed (per Twitter as of September 2nd: @elonmusk: Video was done last week, but needs more work. Aiming to publish link in 3 to 4 days.), it’s time to speculate! I was hoping to have seen the video by now, but oh well. Deadline is deadline.

First of all: what’s he talking about? My best guess is a free-hand, direct-manipulation, 6-DOF user interface for a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) program. In other words, something roughly like this (just take away the hand-held devices and substitute NURBS surfaces and rocket parts for atoms and molecules, but leave the interaction method and everything else the same):

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When the novelty is gone…

I just found this old photo on one of my cameras, and it’s too good not to share. It shows former master’s student Peter Gold (now in the PhD program at UT Austin) working with a high-resolution aerial LiDAR scan of the El Mayor-Cucapah fault rupture after the April 2010 earthquake (here is the full-resolution picture, for the curious).

Figure 1: Former master’s student Peter Gold in the CAVE, analyzing a high-resolution aerial LiDAR scan of the El Mayor-Cucapah fault rupture.

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How Milo met CAVE

I just read an interesting article, a behind-the-scenes look at the infamous “Milo” demo Peter Molyneux did at 2009’s E3 to introduce Project Natal, i.e., Kinect.

This article is related to VR in two ways. First, the usual progression of overhyping the capabilities of some new technology and then falling flat on one’s face because not even one’s own developers know what the new technology’s capabilities actually are is something that should be very familiar to anyone working in the VR field.

But here’s the quote that really got my interest (emphasis is mine):

Others recall worrying about the presentation not being live, and thinking people might assume it was fake. Milo worked well, they say, but filming someone playing produced an optical illusion where it looked like Milo was staring at the audience rather than the player. So for the presentation, the team hired an actress to record a version of the sequence that would look normal on camera, then had her pretend to play along with the recording. … “We brought [Claire] in fairly late, probably in the last two or three weeks before E3, because we couldn’t get it to [look right]” says a Milo team member. “And we said, ‘We can’t do this. We’re gonna have to make a video.’ So she acted to a video. “Was that obvious to you?” Following Molyneux’s presentation, fans picked apart the video, noting that it looked fake in certain places.

Gee, sounds familiar? This is, of course, the exact problem posed by filming a holographic display, and a person inside interacting with it. In a holographic display, the images on the screens are generated for the precise point of view of the person using it, not the camera. This means it looks wrong when filmed straight up. If, on the other hand, it’s filmed so it looks right on camera, then the person inside will have a very hard time using it properly. Catch 22.

With the “Milo” demo, the problem was similar. Because the game was set up to interact with whoever was watching it, it ended up interacting with the camera, so to speak, instead of with the player. Now, if the Milo software had been set up with the level of flexibility of proper VR software, it would have been an easy fix to adapt the character’s gaze direction etc. to a filming setting, but since game software in the past never had to deal with this kind of non-rigid environment, it typically ends up fully vertically integrated, and making this tiny change would probably have taken months of work (that’s kind of what I meant when I said “not even one’s own developers know what the new technology’s capabilities actually are” above). Am I saying that Milo failed because of the demo video? No. But I don’t think it helped, either.

The take-home message here is that mainstream games are slowly converging towards approaches that have been embodied in proper VR software for a long time now, without really noticing it, and are repeating old mistakes. The Oculus Rift will really bring that out front and center. And I am really hoping it won’t fall flat on its face simply because software developers didn’t do their homework.

Virtual clay modeling with 3D input devices

It’s funny, suddenly the idea of virtual sculpting or virtual clay modeling using 3D input devices is popping up everywhere. The developers behind the Leap Motion stated it as their inspiration to develop the device in the first place, and I recently saw a demo video; Sony has recently been showing it off as a demo for the upcoming Playstation 4; and I’ve just returned from an event at the Sacramento Hacker Lab, where Intel was trying to get developers excited about their version of the Kinect, or what they call “perceptual computing.” One of the demos they showed was — guess it — virtual sculpting (one other demo was 3D video of a person embedded into a virtual office, now where have I seen that before?)

So I decided a few days ago to dust off an old toy application (I showed it last in my 2007 Wiimote hacking video), a volumetric virtual “clay” modeler with real-time isosurface extraction for visualization, and run it with a Razer Hydra controller, which supports bi-manual 6-DOF interaction, a pretty ideal setup for this sort of thing:

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