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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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:
In my detailed how-to guide on installing and configuring Vrui for Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra, I did not talk about installing any actual applications (because I hadn’t released Vrui-3.0-compatible packages yet). Those are out now, so here we go.
If you happen to own a Kinect for Xbox (Kinect for Windows won’t work), you might want to install the Kinect 3D Video package early on. It can capture 3D (holographic, not stereoscopic) video from one or more Kinects, and either play it back as freely-manipulable virtual holograms, or it can, after calibration, produce in-system overlays of the real world (or both). If you already have Vrui up and running, installation is trivial.
If you are already running Linux, good for you. Skip the next paragraph.
If you don’t have Linux yet, go and grab it. I personally prefer Fedora, but it’s generally agreed that Ubuntu is the easiest to install for new Linux users, so let’s go with that. The Ubuntu installer makes it quite easy to install alongside an existing Windows OS on your system. Don’t bother installing Linux inside a virtual machine, though: that way Vrui won’t get access to your high-powered graphics cards, and performance will be abysmal. It won’t be able to talk to your Rift, either.
One of the first things to do after a fresh Linux install is to install the vendor-supplied drivers for your graphics card (if you don’t have a discrete Nvidia or ATI/AMD graphics card, go buy a GeForce!). Installing binary drivers is much easier these days. Here are instructions for Nvidia and ATI/AMD cards. If you happen to be on Fedora, enable the rpmfusion repositories and get the appropriate driver packages from there.
I just released version 3.0 of the Vrui VR toolkit. One of the major new features is native support for the Oculus Rift head-mounted display, including its low-latency inertial 3-DOF (orientation-only) tracker, and post-rendering lens distortion correction. So I thought it’s time for the first (really?) Vrui post in this venue.
What is Vrui, and why should I care?
Glad you’re asking. In a nutshell, Vrui (pronounced to start with vroom, and rhyme with gooey) is a high-level toolkit to develop highly interactive applications aimed at holographic (or fully-immersive, or VR, or whatever you want to call them) display environments. A large selection of videos showing many Vrui applications running in a wide variety of environments can be found on my YouTube channel. To you as a developer, this means you write your application once, and users can run it in any kind of environment without you having to worry about it. If new input or output hardware comes along, it’s Vrui’s responsibility to support it, not yours.
I wrote about my first impressions of the Oculus Rift developer kit back in April, and since then I’ve been working (on and off) on getting it fully and natively supported in Vrui (see Figure 1 for proof that it works). Given that Vrui’s somewhat insane flexibility is a major point of pride for me, what was it that I actually had to create to support the Rift? Turns out, not all that much: a driver for the Rift’s built-in inertial tracking unit and a post-processing filter to correct for the Rift’s lens distortion were all it took (more on that later). So why did it take me this long? For one, I was mostly working on other things and only spent a few hours here and there, but more importantly, the Rift is not just a new head-mounted display (HMD), but a major shift in how HMDs are (or will be) used.
Figure 1: The trademark “double-barrel” Oculus Rift screenshot, this time generated by a Vrui application.