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Virtual Reality on an iMac Pro: First Impressions

Over the past year I’ve begun exploring Virtual Reality (VR). I began by exploring Google Cardboard using my iPhone. However, the cardboard viewer was difficult to hold and focus with. But the ability to look around in a space was interesting.

My next upgrade was to get a Zeiss VR ONE Plus (affiliate link). This had better lens and was a lot more comfortable to wear than the cardboard. I began playing a few games on my phone and exploring the few apps that exist on iOS.

My next venture into the world of VR came in the form of a camera. We picked up a Ricoh Theta V 360 camera (affiliate link). In October I spent 2 weeks aboard Callinectes to film content for my upcoming courses. During that time I began shooting a lot of 360 images and video. I was instantly struck by the fact that I could recomposit shots taken in 360 for my courses. This was pretty mind blowing.

With this background and footage I was able to add to Training Tips Weekly with Episode 21: Getting Started with AR, VR, and 360 media.

This fall, I was able to connect with the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College where I was given a tour of their lab and got to experience an HTC Vive headset for the first time. It was a great exchange of ideas about the application of AR, VR, and 360 media in education. Fascinating discussions and a wonderful team of people.

The tools available to edit 360 footage have been fairly limited but at Adobe Max, new 360 tools were released for several of the Creative Cloud apps, especially Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere. Apple was soon to follow with the release of Final Cut Pro X 10.4 and the iMac Pro. With Mac OS X High Sierra also supporting eGPU and the HTC Vive it was time to begin skating to where the puck seems to be headed.

Over the past 2 days I’ve gotten a HTC Vive (affiliate link) hooked up and running with Mac OS X. It took a bit of work, but the basics are there. I watched some videos on YouTube in VR, was able to get a live preview of my 360 images and video I’ve shot with the Theta V while live editing in FCPX. All in all, the technology works fairly well. But there are very few apps currently available and very little is working yet in SteamVR for Mac OS. In fact even Steam Games that work on the Mac and have VR support for the Vive do not work inside of the Vive on Mac OS yet.

I figured I’d give Windows a try and explore this new Vive unit a bit more and see what this iMac Pro can really do. I began with VMWare since I already had a Windows 10 environment setup. However, I couldn’t get the VM to fully see the Vive. Ok, going to plan b, set up BootCamp and install Windows 10 right to the bare metal. This entire process was remarkably painless under High Sierra. A few reboots lated and maybe an hour or two of tweaking settings and I launched SteamVR on Windows 10 booted onto a brand new iMac Pro.

Within 2 second of putting the headset on, I was simply blown away by the difference in the experience. For the most part, everything simply worked. Even the base SteamVR environment was completely different on Windows. I’ve now spent several hours in the SteamVR environment and explored a variety of apps.

Some first impressions. First of all, WOW, this stuff is crazy cool for being in such an infancy of the technology. The sense of space is simply remarkable. I spend most of my working hours sitting inside of a 6’x6’ recording booth, completely isolated from the outside world. The instant feeling of being in a wide open area, outside, on a mountain top, wherever was just indescribable. The experience of being in the HMD and being completely immersed in the world so completely fools your brain in a way that the Cardboard encased phone experience simply doesn’t come close to.

The increased frame rate of the Vive takes the queasy feeling from the phone out of the equation. It is an almost completely comfortable and natural feeling experience being inside of the Vive. There is of course the occasional glitch which really does feel like the Matrix resetting. The overall experience clearly has a long way to go but even at this stage of the game it’s truly remarkable. Perhaps the biggest area for improvement is in the clarity of the display. It’s good, real good, but it’s far from perfect. The depth into the world that you’re looking really makes a difference in terms of what is in sharp focus and what is not.  Text is often very difficult to read unless it’s very large.

Purely digital worlds that are not trying to map real textures seem to look the best to my eyes. This seems simply to be based on the resolution of what the original content was captured, and rendered at in combination with the lens and displays in the Vive itself. I wear glasses and am wondering if contacts may help some to bring the world into a bit more focus for me since I can’t fit my glasses in the headset. In any case it takes virtually no time at all inside of a VR environment before you want a higher resolution display. 8K, 16K, yes please.

As far as content goes, it seems that we are just beginning to scratch the surface here as well. The VR Labs app is a very interesting proof of concept of what is possible. Google Earth immerses you in the exploration of the planet. Having Buzz Aldrin standing in front of you and describing his vision for a mission to mars is fascinating. Going on a space walk outside of the international space station or flying through a scale model of the solar system are all truly remarkable experiences.

Thus far that seems to be the big takeaway, VR is all about the experience. With traditional media, it’s really all about the story that is being told to you from the point of view of the director, photographer, teacher. Inside of VR the story certainly plays a leading role, but it seems to be more of the first act that gets you to buy into the world. After that, it’s all about your unique experience exploring the world.

For a start to 2018, I’m really excited to explore the worlds of AR and VR and discover how these technologies may be used in Teaching, Learning, Storytelling, Research, and much more.