Jan 5, 2016

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The All-Seeing Eyes

The other day I alluded to a kind of project that I wanted to work on, and since I pulled the trigger on the last bit last night, I figured I might as well craft a preamble today.

Elite_phone

I don’t remember where I saw it, but there was a post on some forum somewhere recently that was talking about Elite Dangerous VR using a Google Cardboard implementation. I’ve been looking forward to some kind of VR system for Elite, and like many have been pinning my hopes on the Oculus (pre-orders this week!). Elite has long-standing support for the Oculus…but my wallet does not.

This forum post that I stumbled upon talked about how someone had rigged up his Google Cardboard implementation to handle VR with Elite through a desktop server/phone client called Trinus VR. The server runs on the PC, and the client runs on an Android or iOS smartphone. Using tethering (or wifi for those of us on carriers that make us pay for tethering), the video is streamed to the smartphone and converted to stereoscopic display for use with Cardboard or some other kind of smartphone-enabled headset.

I downloaded the Trinus packages and switched Elite to use stereoscopic 3D, and was able to get the double-barreled view on my Galaxy S6. I was part way there! But I needed the head-mount, so I had to investigate the options.

viewmaster

Viewmaster VR

Obviously, there was the official Google Cardboard option. This is basically a folded pizza box with two lenses that magnify the output of the smartphone. You can get them cheap, but not locally, and it would have cost me more to ship it than the price of the cardboard itself. While discussing this on Twitter, the community manager of Cardboard jumped in an suggested the new Viewmaster, which is a modern take on an old stereoscopic concept. The original Viewmaster used a round disk ringed with photographic slides. The new Viewmaster works like Cardboard in that it allows you to sandwich your smartphone in front of two lenses. It’s inexpensive (~$30), but has no head strap and I wasn’t interested in rigging one up. Last night I went to Best Buy and tried out the Samsung Gear VR, their Galaxy S6-only VR setup, and I was pretty impressed. However, this thing is expensive compared to the Cardboard and Viewmaster (at $99), and they were out of stock.

VRBox2_point_0So somewhere in between all of these options is a whole ocean filled with more attractive but potentially shoddier and differently-branded headsets that seem to coalesce under the banner “VR Box”. For anywhere between $20 and $50, you can get something that looks like a production-model Oculus, but behaves like a Cardboard: you slip your phone into a tray that slides into the headset, adjust the lenses for spacing and distance, and then strap the thing to your head for (supposedly) a VR experience. After checking out some videos last night with friends, I opted for an apparently non-branded “VR Box 2.0” model. This should arrive at my house on January 7th or thereabouts. I was holding off on buying one of these as a last ditch option mainly because the quality could totally be hit or miss. Not only could there be issues with the way the phone sits in the tray, but getting the lenses adjusted, if they adjust correctly at all, might be impossible. And then there’s the issue of using the device with glasses. The GearVR worked well with glasses, and since the VR Box looks a lot like the GearVR, I’m hoping that the mask will fit well enough.

That’s about all I can say at this point. I know that the Trinus setup is going to be complex; I believe it has support for the phone’s gyroscope that can be used for head tracking (the TrackIR works great, but suffers from ambient light issues), and while it advertises itself as allowing stereoscopic VR for almost any game, getting it to work properly on a case by case basis might be an intense experience. I’m a bit worried about the goggles as well since while the Cardboard concept is barely one step above the old school Viewmaster, there’s still plenty of room to screw up that simple implementation in a rush to capitalize on the emergence of VR.

At any rate, I’ll be sure to write up the process once I receive the headset and take it for a spin. I’ll also document the Trinus settings I used should I be able to get it working in case anyone else is interested in trying this out for themselves.

 

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