V-Rtifacts

VR Companies

Business from the virtual side.

How To Make VR “Real” – Advice From 1991

It’s tough trying to manage one of these businesses. Every time one of my vendors/bankers/landlord/ etc., asks what we do, and I say “Virtual Reality,” their eyes roll up and then glaze over, as if to say: “Oh God! One of those flakes!. ..and he seems so normal” At that moment I make a mental note to drop the words virtual reality from my spiel. Why do all the “suits” tune out as soon as they hear these two words? How did we get this bad rep? How do I extract myself from this morass?

Twenty years ago this month, I published an article in the VR industy’s only magazine, Meckler’s Virtual Reality Report (12 pages including the covers – subscription: $197/yr.) Skeletons never stay buried forever; this one surfaced right on schedule a few days ago from the back of a dusty file cabinet. I had started a VR company, StrayLight, just 6 months before penning this bit of unsolicited business advice. I’m wearing a huge smile as I now share the enthusiasm and naivete of a much more youthful alter ego.

Most contemporary VR implementations, literature, and thought derive from academic or research settings. More important, many of the so called “futurists” who propose to have visions of VR’s future come from outside conventional business environments. The two hot topics seem to be defining the semantics (shall we call it virtual! alternate/artificial reality, cyberspace, simulation, etc…?) and social engineering. These social engineers are essentially the folks who want to overthrow the existing social and political order in favor of one of their own design, and have now become entranced by the promise of VR. I guess if you can’t change the real world, building your own is the next best thing, but of course, you may not have many visitors.

Anyway, the credit manager from the firm that sells us computers didn’t seem overly interested in semantics or social upheaval either; he had his own alternate reality and the means to coerce my participation in it. What did seem to impress him was our understanding of our customers and markets, and the reasons people would actually pay money for the stuff we make. Somehow I escaped without being branded a “flake” and, more important, with the line of credit we needed. I felt there was a lesson in this mundane encounter.

If the VR gadgets we are working on are to have any meaning and impact on society, our company had to survive, and to do so we had to create things that people want badly enough to pay for, and pay enough to keep us from going belly up. The incentives are pretty compelling not to just create something that is “really neat” to us, but instead something in which our customers find value.

Having anecdotally introduced my topic, we can now proceed onto a bit firmer ground by addressing the issues normally. The main theme of technological history, especially in free market economies, is that market and industry forces are the prime determinants of technological growth and application.

Opportunity drives innovation, and opportunity in turn is driven by the needs of buyers who can and will pay for such innovation. While an exploration of the “defintional, spiritual, philosophical, sociological, and creative meanings of virtual reality” is laudable, its utility in forecasting the future state of VR is highly limited. VR entrepreneurs who find opportunity in this field will run roughshod over the conventional wisdom and morality of today’s philosophers. As a result these philosophers’ visions will, at best, playa peripheral role in the establishment of VR as a mainstream industry.

Why does opportunity drive innovation? It’s basically a Darwinian thing; you don’t survive long inventing products that nobody wants. Conversely, there are many rewards for inventing things that lots of people want and can afford. Why do you think AutoDesk, Nynex, and EDS are engaging in VR research? But what about those “pure” research labs? Most are funded either directly or indirectly by companies that hope and pray there will be a market (albeit far in the future) for the fruits of their research, or by pubic or private institutions that serve the needs of some group of constituents who also hope to apply this research.

The point here is that capitalism will have a far greater effect on VR than will political correctness, semantics, or social causes. It’s not a matter of advocating or rejecting capitalism, but rather acknowledging its pervasiveness and accepting it as a powerful force acting on YR. By coming to grips with capitalism we can better understand how VR will affect and change our world as it blossoms.

Several analytical tools are useful in a market-driven approach to any budding industry: history, technological and market evolution, industry structure, and the value chain model. Each of these offers a different, yet interrelated perspective. First, let’s humbly admit that VR is not the first technology which threatens to forever change the world.

The interrelationship of technological and social change has an extensive and well documented history. Movable type, the industrial revolution, radio, television, and medicine are but a few examples. Universally, the application of these technologies has been driven by the profit motive. Although their impact has been less than socially perfect, there appears to be no preferable process in sight.

There are several interesting parallels in the development and establishment of earlier technology based industries. Such industries have followed similar developmental patterns from laboratory curiosities to specialized niche markets, and slowly entering markets with broader appeal as intensified competition and demand force production innovations which drive down costs and thus prices. Some have revolutionized societies while others have merely revolutionized existing industries.

In either case the revolution came as a result of the market demanding new processes and products in favor of old ones, and was not due to the efforts of the technology’s early developers. Societies are changed by technological advances when groups perceive benefits in the appreciation of those technologies and forsake old social modes for new ones to adopt such technologies. The process of change is facilitated by firms which detect and exploit those preferences. Short of dismantling the world’s freemarket economies, this dynamic is unlikely to change.

Less socially relevant innovations merely revolutionize industries. A free market tends to drive enterprise into efficient modes of operation. Firms which discover better ways of filling customer needs drive out firms which fail to innovate. While competitive markets may sometimes fail to be completely efficient, this failure is clearly the exception and not the rule.

Innovation also occurs in nontechnical arenas. Such innovations are primarily in novel methods of distribution, that is, new ways of delivering goods or services to consumers. Consumer warehouses are not feats of technical genius, but rather a unique and successful way of delivering goods to retail markets. Fast food chains, portion size packaging, twenty-song music marathons, and movie channels are a few more examples of unique distribution systems. Consider similar possibilities for nontechnical innovation in VR.

Industries also have structure. This is the interrelationship between various industry participants, suppliers to that industry, customers of the industry, regulatory forces, products from outside the industry, and the threat of new entrants into that industry. For instance, an industry may be weakened by having only one supplier of a key component.

On the other hand, if there are very few buyers for a given industry’s products, those customers will undoubtedly get excellent pricing and service. Consider what happens to industries where one firm’s products are indistinguishable from another’s. Buyers simply choose the product with the lowest price. Airline tickets on highly competitive routes are an excellent example of this phenomenon. Barriers to entry are also important to a firm’s success or lack of success. Your company will be far more successful if potential competitors find it too costly to enter your business.

There has been only one new entrant in the commercial aircraft business in recent memory, and it has taken Airbus almost twenty years and countless billions of dollars to break even. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that industry structures evolve over time and that innovation is an important force in these changes.

Currently, VR is probably not mature enough to be considered as an industry and therefore has little, if any, real industry structure. However, it has considerable commercial promise in a number of existing industries and the application of VR threatens to revolutionize many of these. VR will likely follow the classic path of starting as a set of potential technologies which incrementally find commercial embodiment in established markets. As various elements of these technologies begin to see implementation, VR will invade and disrupt the structure of many existing industries. As VR further matures, it will take on a structure of its own, incorporating fragments of the industries it has shattered.

Another important aspect of industries is the value chain. If one examines a final product and looks at the various steps and processes which add value to that product, the value chain becomes clear. A car starts with raw materials: steel, rubber, plastic, etc. Design engineering is added, then manufacturing processes, then shipping to the dealer, and finally sales and service are added. Take away any of these and the car is less valuable.

Thus each process adds value to the final product. Look at each of the components of a car: the wiper blades, battery, engine oil, etc.; each has its own individual value chain which is folded into the car’s overall value. Often the segments of a product’s value chain are divided amongst several firms.

VR will also have a value chain. There will be firms which specialize in making VR computers, others that make interface hardware. There will be creative talent to design and implement the content of these realities. There will be software tool building houses and other companies dedicated to creating virtual reality clip art.

There will be application specialists whose focus will not be virtual reality per se, but rather finding solutions to specialized application needs. They will embrace VR only when it solves the problems of their customers. VR will be interlinked with the structure of the teleconununications industry since virtual realities will undoubtedly be shared over long physical distances. The formative force for these value chains will be opportunity.

How will VR evolve in the next ten years? There will be two related paths: those of enabling technologies spanning many applications and those of vertical market specialists. Vertical market specialists are close to complex customer needs. They are constantly scanning market and technological horizons to find better solutions to these needs. Enabling technologies are the gadgets which vertical market specialists find, integrate, and bring to customers. These specialists add value by applying technological elements to specific customer needs and by providing accessible and efficient distribution channels.

Firms which focus on creating enabling technologies seek to build tools which will have broad application in a number of vertical markets. They do not seek to address specific customer needs, but rather desire to exploit a technology in as many markets as possible. In doing so, enabling technology firms concentrate their resources on perfecting the technologies and manufacturing processes, rather than investing in distribution and application-specific expertise.

VR will play out along these lines. Initially a few firms will come up with innovative technologies. Some will desire to apply these technologies to several markets while others will be interested in narrow vertical markets. In either case, the value chain will be incomplete and therefore these firms will be forced to forward and backward integrate in order to complete the chain and provide integrated solutions to customers. Existing vertical market specialists in traditionally non-VR markets will find opportunities to exploit these enabling technologies by adding their knowledge of customer needs and applications, thus drawing VR technology into new market areas.

More innovation will occur, primarily at the points of greatest opportunity where the elements of the value chain can be done better, with higher quality, or more efficiently. Such opportunities may occur where a pioneer firm had to improvise a solution outside of its sphere of expertise in order to deliver application solutions. In this manner, the original innovators will be driven back to their own turf unless they continue to innovate.

What are today’s enabling technologies? The DataGlove, Silicon Graphics, Polhemus, various database engines and communications networks, etc. What are the opportunities? Innovation in display systems, man-machine interface hardware/software, VR software engines, tactile systems, audio systems, VR clip art, environment authoring systems, and many others.

Who are the vertical market specialists? Anyone who has customer needs in an area which may profitably be served by virtual reality and has the ability to integrate, apply, or specify existing or future enabling technologies. The firms that will make money are those which find creative ways to apply VR to existing customer needs or find ways of creating new needs which require VR.

For the reader with an interest in making his/her mark on the world through the application of virtual reality, I heartily urge you to consider the concepts presented here. VR will be just another passing fad unless it finds acceptance in the commercial world. In order to do its proponents must be active participants in that world. While virtual reality may change “Real Reality,” it will do so as an insider – not as an island. And besides, it’s lots more fun to invent products that everyone wants.

Vuzix Wrap 920 Augmented Reality Hands On

Recently I got my hands on brand new Vuzix video-see-through augmented reality HMD – Wrap 920 AR. It’s not quite a consumer product, it’s more focused on R&D in Augmented Reality field, there are small amount of information about it on the net and few people asked me for a review. Besides, I hope it will be interesting to many VR geeks on the planet, so here it comes. I want to give as much info as I can, but will try to keep this article short and don’t miss anything valuable.

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Editor’s note: Thanks go out to Mnemonic who put together this excellent review. While not strictly a VRtifact, future posts will draw the connection between the earliest augmented reality systems from the 80’s and 90’s and the Wrap 920 AR. Stay tuned…

Virtual Research VR-4 Adapted For Stereoscopic Augmented Reality

Virtual Research VR-4 Adapted For Stereoscopic Augmented Reality – circa 1993

Packaging

Wrap 920 AR comes in really big box in comparison to compact package of VR920. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be so big, but it’s because of bunch of different stuff inside, all packed in different sockets cut in safety foam. You can see list of included stuff on the sign, on top of the box. I liked that each part of the package is wrapped in some packet; head-tracking module comes in small acrylic box for example. Two AR markers on plastic-base included, which is nice to check Vuzix AR demos right away.

Drivers for the HMD are digitally distributed by Vuzix via Internet, so no installation disk is included.

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There is also solid travel casing included in the package, HMD with cables and VGA adapter fits there nicely:

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Adapters & cables

Wrap 920AR based on Wrap series of Vuzix HMD’s, and as any other Wrap HMD it supports various video sources for input. It’s includes composite video, iPod / iPhone connection and what we interested in – regular VGA for PC connection. To use VGA or composite video source you need to choose proper “adapter”, which are actually a control boxes. All currently available adapters (VGA, composite / iPod) included in the package of Wrap AR. Vuzix recently announced Wrap HDMI adapter, so I’m pretty sure it will be compatible. There’s also DVI to VGA adapter in the package for DVI-I connection.

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Wrap AR HMD have two cables, one from visor system (HMD itself) with some small specific connector which goes into control box, and another one from stereoscopic camera system – regular USB. VGA control box have VGA and USB connectors. USB needed to power up screens, provide audio and head-tracking.

Assembling

Before start to work with Wrap 920AR in its full capacity we need to attach head-tracker, VGA adapter and optionally headphones. From the inside HMD have two small jack connectors for ear-plug style headphones and micro connector on the right brow for head-tracker module.

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Tracker connector and HMD-to-control-box connectors are very small, and looks fragile, so I would recommend assembling these with care, because they do need to put some force to plug in. But once connected, tracker (and control-box connector) securely stays in place, and don’t bother you.

Computer connection

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Wrap AR had straight-forward connection to my netbook and laptop, just plug in VGA and both USB cables and it’s ready. But first thing I noticed when tried to connect them to my (most powerful) stationery computer that cables are way to short!

Cables are much shorter than what was in VR920. I suppose Vuzix designed glasses to be connected to laptops, which sounds reasonable for Augmented Reality usage. Besides, in the full PDF manual (more than 100 pages!) I found mention that for stationery computers additional extension cables are need to be used.
In short – I used 3 meters VGA extension cable and two 2 meters USB cables to connect Wrap AR to my stationery PC, and in this configuration device work without any issues.

After connecting HMD, drivers were installed fluently on both systems: Windows XP 32 bit and Windows 7 64 bit, I also tried them on Windows Vista 32 bit, without any problems. HMD supports input video signal with resolution up to 1024 x 768 with 60 Hz refresh rate. It can be used both in clone and extend monitors modes like any external monitor.

Adjustments and ergonomics

Once connected to PC (and drivers are installed), buttons on the control box (adapter) provide control to the HMD adjustments menu. In the menu you can switch between few brightness and contrast presets, set your own preset, switch between stereoscopic and monoscopic modes, switch between different stereoscopic modes (side-by-side stereo pair, or various anaglyphs), swap left and right eyes in stereo mode, and adjust headphones volume.

On the back of the adapter you can find a little screw-driver, which is needed to adjust focus. Two knobs for focus adjustments you can find under rubber cover on top of the HMD. Knobs allow you to adjust between +2 to -5 diopters independently for each eye.

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My Wrap AR when first unpacked and connected to PC, had both knobs set to the very left position, I believe it was -5. I have perfect vision and was completely unable to focus screens this way. But with step-by-step slight adjustments, independently for each eye I was able to set glasses to very comfortable focus, and both “eyes” give me a sharp and clean image.

Also nose-piece can be adjusted for particular nose, and all nose-piece construction can slide inwards (or backwards) into HMD. Additional (spare) nose-piece and ear-plug nozzles of different sizes also included in the package.

It is possible to adjust optics between -5 and +2 diopters, but if you happen to have worse vision, you can find that it’s hard to use HMD with glasses while head-tracker attached, so probably you will need to use contact lenses.

Personally I found Wrap AR to be pretty comfortable, HMD is easy to wear and lightweight enough.

Screens, optics and visual quality

Wrap 920 AR have two true 752 x 480 LCD color screens which are located inside visual module casings and project image down into lens/prism system. In Wrap predecessor – iWear VR920 screens were located in front of the eyes, here Vuzix decided to go with another optical design. Optics has narrow 31 degree diagonal FOV with 100% stereo overlap, pretty much the same as with VR920 (32 degree), personally I didn’t feel the difference in the image size, but of course I would prefer if FOV was bigger, at least like in old VFX-1 with 45 degree.

All surroundings from the sides and from the bottom of the screen can be clearly seen, so it doesn’t block your view. This is bad in case of Virtual Reality use, but can be good when it comes to Augmented Reality applications, because you still see and aware of your surroundings outside of the screens, and on the screens, and in the same time inside screens you can see all AR “magic”.

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In comparison with VR920, picture quality inside Wrap 920 is much better! Picture is perfectly clear and sharp, and looks the same in both eyes; also color reproduction is much better.

As many of you know, iWear VR920 had “child problems” with screens system – image in left eye looked a little grainier (less colors) then from the right eye. When used for long periods of time – VR920 was able to overheat, and when that happened – image quality degraded, user begin to notice “scan lines” and even in case of extreme overheat, many users noted “black dot” which appeared in corner of the screen. Those artifacts thankfully weren’t permanent, and after cooling down HMD by unplugging USB chord image became normal again.

Wrap 920 AR don’t have any of these “child problems”. Glasses stayed almost all working day plugged into my laptop and just became normally warm. Image quality doesn’t change, so it’s really good that Vuzix solved such issues! This HMD can be plugged and powered on as regular monitor as long as you wish.

Also, from the first try I thought that my Wrap AR have bigger resolution screens. What I mean is when desktop is set to 1024×768 mode normally in VR920 I wasn’t able to read any standard-sized text in Windows, in Wrap AR I can operate Windows almost normally, text isn’t perfect but it’s readable in all the menus. Perhaps its benefit of better optics, higher quality screens, and better image scaling algorithm, but fact that picture is pretty readable even in 1024 x 768.

Stereoscopy

Main stereoscopic mode of Wrap 920 AR is side-by-side stereo-pair (it can be parallel or cross-eyed, both modes supported), which is very good from developers point of view, because it’s fairly easy to implement. But, in fact, gives less resolution per-eye. So if Wrap 920 AR is working in 1024 x 768, effective pixels will be 512 x 768 per eye, each scaled to 752 x 480 screens.

Crysis2 Stereo Side By Side

Crysis2 Stereo Side By Side

Crysis 2 in native stereo-pair mode

What is good that both eyes will be perfectly synchronized, and you can give full 60 frames per second for each eye! Stereo-pair support make glasses perfectly compatible with iZ3D and TriDef Ignition stereo-drivers, besides some new games like Crysis 2, and Avatar can output stereo-pair natively.

For those who compare characteristics to VR920, it had limitation of 30 FPS per eye in stereo, because of page-flipping stereoscopy; Wrap series don’t have such limitation.

Cameras

Wrap 920 AR have two high-speed micro-cameras with 640 x 480 native resolution, which are actually capable of 60 frames per second (if your computer can handle). 60 Herz refresh rate gives really nicely smooth and almost perfect picture of the surroundings, which looks really good in stereoscopy! In Windows Wrap AR camera system recognized as two independent USB cameras.

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I’ve compiled small example from Vuzix SDK to check stereo cameras, and tried to make a photo to give you some impression of how it looks like. In reality picture in glasses looks really nice, and it blends good with surroundings. FOV of the cameras and screens optics FOV fit close to each other (not ideally, but close enough to give you proper illusion), which is good point for AR.

Picture quality of Wrap AR cameras not as nice as in new top-line Logitech webcam’s for example, but far better than most regular webcams can provide, and they work very fast when PC can handle it. Besides, exposition, white-balance and other stuff manually controllable from the camera drivers. They are also can be controllable from the inside of self-made software using Vuzix SDK.

Head Tracker

New Wrap 6TC head tracker besides 3 accelerometers and 3 magnetometers also includes 3 gyroscopes, which greatly improved orientation tracking when comparing it to VR920 head-tracker. It’s much less dependent on external magnetic influences, and do not require frequent re-calibrations. In fact I’ve calibrated them only once, and tracker work fine even week after, without any recalibration.

Head Tracker

VR920 AR Head Tracker

Using SDK we can receive full 6DOF information from the tracking. In this mode absolute 3DOF orientation information provided (Yaw, Pitch, Roll), along with relative 3DOF position (X, Y, Z). However Vuzix notes in current SDK that position info is in early beta and can’t be used for anything serious besides just “movement” detection. True I didn’t figured out how to use those X, Y, Z values with current driver and SDK, they seems pretty chaotic, but hopefully they will be useful in future with next drivers release.

Software

Wrap 920 AR drivers supports Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 both in 32 and 64 bit versions.

Wrap 920 AR shipped with “maxReality” license, which is an AR plugin for 3D Studio Max (2010 and 2011). I didn’t use this software so far, because I plan to use these glasses with my own software, but maxReality have few nice demos, which can be used to check all functions of Wrap 920 AR.

I’ve captured movie examples of Vuzix “Dragon” demo, these movies are stereoscopic, so you could take a look how it actually looks like in HMD on your stereo-setup (please watch in HD).

Also Wrap AR is fully supported by Vuzix VR manager software, which provides stereoscopy and head-tracking for more than hundred of gaming titles. Even if it’s isn’t gaming HMD, nice to have this feature.

SDK

Free to use SDK with C++ examples available from Vuzix website to give programmers ability to use any feature of this HMD including head-tracker, stereoscopy, cameras, and also optical marker tracking example based on ALVAR library. SDK is well documented and examples are good to use.

Conclusion

Some of the statements in this review can be fair for other HMD’s from Wrap series (like Wrap 920) its goes to stereoscopic support and head-tracking module. Some other statements can be close too, but I can’t 100% guarantee that, because I’ve used only AR version, which is a little different even externally from other Wrap HMD’s, and also can be a little different in electronic components which used in it.

If you happen to build your own Augmented Reality software, or you make research and development in this field, and you have a budget on Wrap 920 AR, I would say go for it! It’s nice lightweight HMD which provide true stereoscopic video-see-through. It is ready to use hardware solution. I happy I bought it for my projects.

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Wrap 920AR besides VR920 modded with Logitech HD C310 webcam into AR glasses.

Flashback To The ’40s

We all know that the 1950’s were the golden age of 3D movies, Hollywood’s attempt to fend off the rapidly growing television audience. Their 3D thrust was short lived, and with a few exceptions, we enjoyed almost 50 years of 2D bliss. This time around 3D is harder to avoid… TV has it too! For those of you who want to preserve your 2D way of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Amazon now offers 2D Glasses, a simple way to revert passive 3D systems for 2D viewing. And who says the world isn’t flat?

2D Glasses

2D Glasses

And I’m Never Going Back To My Old School

Two snippets from the old, old school of VR, circa 1991, pitching a reputable UK firm – Division (acquired by PTC in 1999.) Featured are a couple of helmets from VPL Research using LEEP optics and cloth/velcro enclosures. One HMD appears to have been modeled after a gask mask from the trenches of the Great War. Also featured is the VPL CyberGlove.

The killer app? Kitchen lighting! Benefits: prevent the dropping of crockery in the home. Kewl!


A tip of the hat to Mnemonic for tracking down these gems!

Flight Helmet – Redux

IMHO, the Virtual Research Flight Helmet was, and still is, the ultimate head mounted display, except of course, it needed modern high resolution LCD panels. Otherwise, it had incredible field of view, great ergonomics, and unbeatable LEEP optics. I came across a more complete brochure including the retail price list (starts at $6,000.)

Flight Helmet side view

photo: Raz Fairlight

Flight Helmet Optics

photo: Raz Fairlight

One unusual aspect of the Flight Helmet was that the left and right images don’t completely overlap, producing a wider image than the normal 4:3 aspect of NTSC video. If you wanted 100% overlap, you needed to purchase prisms (3M Press-On Fresnels) to shift the images horizontally into alignment. To run the helmet monoscopically, the prisms are a must!

Retrospective photo review of Forte VFX1 Virtual Reality system

Forte VFX1 was the most advanced, complex and expensive consumer VR system that appeared on the market during VR craze in mid-nineties. Introduced in 1995, VFX1 was in the shops all around the world in 1996.

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Hardware overview

System consisted of:

  • Stereoscopic HMD “VFX1 headgear” with built-in 3DOF head-tracker from Honeywell, 45 degree diagonal FOV optics with plastic lenses, 180k resolution LCD screens from Kopin, integrated high-quality stereo headphones from AKG, and microphone;
  • Rugged gyro-joystick “Cyberpuck” with built-in 2DOF tracker and 3 programmable buttons (there was reported that not all VFX1 systems were sold with Cyberpuck);
  • To make this all stuff work – system’s “VIP” card need to be installed into ISA slot of the host PC. VIP card worked in pair with PC’s video-card connected via VESA bus to provide stereoscopic imagery on both screens of the HMD. VIP card also processed all the tracking data, and redirect sound to headphones. It also introduces Access Bus hub.

VFX1 was one on the first VR systems that were sold in former USSR countries. It was very pricy for common consumers here (with starting price in Moscow – 1495 USD), but nevertheless exported VFX1 systems were sold in big quantities. Many years after I was lucky enough to get my hands on such complete exported package, originally sold in Moscow, it have additional Russian manual not included in traditional US version.

Packaging

Let’s take a close look on VFX1 packaging arrangement. VFX1 was packaged in relatively small box (38x33x34 centimeters), with bunch of colorful pictures and a lot of self-advertisement, but its Virtual Reality isn’t it? Here, take a look.

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My box was damaged a little – plastic handle was broken, so for transportation purposes box were glued with scotch tape.

Buy a VR system and get free CD-ROM! Hell yeah, funny today but in 1995 this message had sense.

Package included:

  • VFX1 helmet
  • Detachable strap to helmet adjustments for smaller head sizes
  • Helmet data-cable
  • Cyberpuck (gyroscopic game controller) with Access Bus connector
  • VIP ISA board
  • VESA cable (for video-card attachment)
  • Audio cables with simple jack’s for headphones and microphone
  • Floppy disc with drivers
  • “Free CD-ROM!” with game demos
  • User manuals English and Russian versions

Helmet

VFX1 helmet was somehow bulky but well designed and well balanced; nowadays many VR enthusiasts put modern HMD internals in VFX1 shell for comfortable fit. Personally I prefer modern glasses-like design, but I admit – VFX1 sit’s pretty comfortable on my head.

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VFX1 helmet had “smart visor” that can be opened to allow user to look at the outside world, while not taking off whole helmet. This visor working pretty similar to VPL EyePhone visor which were used in “Lawnmower man” movie.

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Visors optics are adjustable, you can change IPD and focal distance for each eye independently. There are no knobs or something to change IPD, you need to gently move oculars along the internal rails manually. Also rubber eyepieces on the oculars are easily detachable.

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Glass optics upgrade was available for additional price, unfortunately nearly impossible to found improved VFX1 oculars today. Insides of the helmet covered with detachable soft foam glued-over with fabric.

Cyberpuck

Is gyroscopic joystick, hold in mid-air, designed to play VR games while standing on foot, absolutely great with Quake. It have 2DOF tracker (Pitch and Roll), and 3 programmable buttons. Pretty neat accessory, too bad it utilizes Access Bus connector and it’s impossible to use it on modern PC’s without being re-wired.

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Other accessories

Among other accessories that can be found in package – is helmet head-strap, 2.5 meters VFX1 data cable, original Forte floppy disk with drivers, and user manuals. VFX1 data cable is actually standard RS-232 26 pin Male-Female cable, which is very flexible. Nowadays it’s very hard to find such cables as spare part, even in specialized cable shops.

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cable
manuals
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This particular cable marked with Forte logo, and had two warning flags:

“Do not use the VFX1 for more than for 15 minutes at a time (take frequent breaks) make sure the volume is turned down before putting on the VFX1 refer to manual for additional information”

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flags
jack
jack_logo

Pretty good ad for a 1500 bucks device isn’t it? I suppose this was one of the show stoppers for VFX1, who will spare so much money on the gaming device that you can’t use more than 15 minutes at a time? But, it was good and pretty functional limitation for gaming arcades, where people play for short periods of time.

VIP board and cable connections

As mentioned earlier VIP board need to be connected to ISA slot, provides Access Bus hub, processes tracking data from head tracker and from cyberpuck. Through VESA connector it provides video signal to helmet. Access Bus was actually a predecessor to more useful standard – USB, it also provided possibility to connect many devices through the hubs (and through each-others), make hot connections on already working system (yep, that was a big step forward in RS232 COM era). However Access Bus didn’t stayed long, and I know only one device that uses it – it’s Cyberpuck.

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vip_1
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In my system VIP card is connected via VESA to S3 Trio, it’s the most powerful video-card that provided proper VESA signal, compatible with VFX1. I found mentions from VFX1 users that proper VESA was also on Voodoo Banshee 3D accelerators, but I didn’t have this card and can’t test this.

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vip_4
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Cyberpuck can be connected to VFX1 helmet or directly to VIP card. I prefer HMD connector because it allows playing on foot.

Turning the system on

We examined particular components of VFX1 system, and now let’s connect them together and take a look on the visor’s imagery.

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VFX1 works in Windows only in 640 x 480 x 256 colors mode. Actual LCD’s (789×230 color elements) can provide wider range of colors, but utilizing VESA for transferring image to HMD – limit’s it to 256 color palette. But, this palette isn’t fixed, it’s optimized, this means that it holds any color from true-color palette, as long as palette length itself no longer than 256 colors. My VFX1 unit was used frequently in the past, but LCD’s are still bright and colors are vivid.

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desktop
quake1
quake2

I’ve tried to take a few shot’s of what can be seen through VFX1 optics, it is much sharper and with fewer distortions in reality than on these photos. But anyway take a look on the desktop and on a few game-shots from Quake, Descent, and Heretic. These games are my favorites for VFX1, especially Quake1 which gives great immersive feeling even today. By the way VFX1 do not utilize depixelation filters (in contra verse to many professional HMD’s at the time), so black-spacers between pixels are clearly seen.

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For stereoscopy, VFX1 supported two formats of input video – line sequential, and horizontal stereo-pair. While for running VFX1 in stereo-pair mode you need to use proper software, you can set VFX1 to force line sequential mode in windows configuration software, or use command line “VFX1.COM +t” to turn it on in DOS.

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crysis

Crysis stereoscopic screenshot in line-sequential mode, suitable for viewing through VFX1

Software

VFX1 have drivers compatible with DOS, Windows 95 and Windows 98. I’ve installed VFX1 in Windows 98 SE system, and it works there without issues. After hardware installation, you need to properly configure VFX1 software to make it work. When installing software, you’ve instructed to set IRQ settings according to DIP switches positions on VIP board. You can also check tracking for HMD and Cyberpuck. Personally I’ve liked VFX1 DOS software more for its fancy graphical 3D look, but Windows version of VFX1 configurator work pretty the same.

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One of the features that I liked in VFX1 better than in its “grandson” –VR920, that tracking need to be calibrated only once, software calibrate magnetometers automatically you only need to  choose your geographical region. After calibration – VFX1 tracking worked perfectly for me, and there’s no need in further recalibration.

To make game to support all VFX1 features you need to have proper game patch, in rare cases game have built-in VFX1 support (like Descent, System Shock or ZAR). In all other cases you can use VRMouse – native VFX1 mouse emulator, which emulates mouse and key presses for trackers and buttons of Cyberpuck.

Design benefits

VFX1 had many benefits in its release time. Other consumer VR systems at that time provide fewer features; all of them were without any sort of game-controller that allow you to play standing on foot, sometimes with lack of good head-tracking (like “CyberMaxx”) and stereoscopy support (like “Philips Scuba”). Only “I/O Glasses” had both 2DOF tracker and stereoscopy, but it lacked in game support at the moment of release and had inferior picture quality. Besides VFX1 had biggest FOV among other consumer HMD’s.

Overall VFX1 offered immersive experience and wide support of currently available games at the time. Stylish, comfortable and well balanced HMD design received positive critics and very soon in many countries VFX1 helmet was associated to Virtual Reality itself.

Design flaws

However, VFX1 had list of fatal design flaws caused by its early production – this includes ISA interface VIP board, utilization of VESA which limited it to 256 colors palette, and Access Bus which pretty soon was out of the game in favor to USB.

To overcome some of the flaws, Forte released “Linkbox”, which allow VFX1 connection to regular VGA outputs, but linkboxes were made in very small quantities, and nearly impossible to find nowadays. Also linkbox provided to VFX1 only video signal, without tracking, which make it pretty useless. Rumored full-feature linkbox were never created.

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linkbox

Linkbox photo by Kevin Mellot

As possible schema to run VFX1 on modern systems – is to use old host PC with VIP card installed, provide video signal to it through video capture card (some old TV tuner), and using Forte VFX1 SDK (which is available) to program VRPN drivers to get tracking info via network.

Instead of conclusion – followers VFX-3D, VR920, and…

After releasing VFX1, Forte was renamed to IIS, and in 1998 they released VFX3D – successor to VFX1. Fully copied external helmet design, VFX3D get rid of ISA VIP card, instead it had control box, with regular VGA connection to PC. Instead of using Access Bus to carry tracking data – VFX3D sent tracking data via COM port, which became obsolete nowadays too. VFX3D doubled the resolution of VFX1 (360k subpixels instead of 180k), had better color reproduction, but had much lesser FOV (35 degree instead of 45 in VFX1) and fixed optics. VFX3D also lacked Cyberpuck, which is on my opinion – a step back. Even with overall better characteristics and compatibility, VFX3D were sold in lesser quantities.

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vfx3d
vr920

Years later IIS changed name to Icuiti, and focused on manufacturing compact video-glasses. However they designed a new gaming HMD, which working title was X-Viewer, afterwards changed to VR920. Before releasing VR920 in 2007 company changed its name again to Vuzix.

Vuzix VR920 – almost tripled resolution of VFX3D (now it’s 920k subpixels, which is true 640×480 resolution), and completely changed its visual design to look like slim futuristic glasses which you can put in a pocket. VR920 have built-in 3DOF head-tracker, and can be connected to VGA or DVI with included adaptor. It supports input resolutions up to 1024 x 768, and drives power, audio, microphone, tracker, and stereo sync-signal via USB. VR920 have no control box, which make it pretty possible to use as mobile HMD for small PC’s or Netbooks. Latest software update for VR920 enables all its functions on Windows7 64bit OS.

Currently Vuzix focused on multi-purpose Wrap series of portable video-glasses which lacks head-tracking for VR gaming. Wrap 6DOF head-tracking module is announced but yet not produced by company.

Teardown – Virtual Research V6

1995 brought us the V6 head mounted display from Virtual Research, the successor to the excellent design of the VR-4. The V6 doubled the overall resolution while retaining the great optics, field of view, comfort, and ease of use originally found in the VR-4. In addition to improved image quality, the V6 refined many of the mechanical elements pioneered in the VR-4, greatly simplifying these mechanical elements. The VR-4 had quite a number of circuit boards inside the helmet, but the control box could have been built completely from Radio Shack components. The V6 moved almost all the electronics into the control box, leaving the helmet with a minimum of electronics.

The V6 manufacturing process did not require any expensive tooling, such as injection molds. The plastic parts are either thermoformed or milled in a machine shop. The metal parts are either stock or machine shop fabricated. Great for short and medium run products! The VR-4 used extremely thin thermoform plastic for light blocks and circuit board mounts. This plastic tended to crack and break off over time. The V6 totally eliminates this thin plastic and uses sheet metal (anodized aluminum) and milled plastic instead.

The V6 was followed shortly by the V8, again doubling the resolution. The V6 and V8 share the same control box, power supply, and mechanical components. The V8 adds a small fan inside the helmet shell to cool the electronics and LCDs. The displays and driving electronics are from Epson.

Specs in the brochure…

Setup A Fastrak – Fast!

For many years, and perhaps still today, the Polhemus Fastrak was/is the reference standard for low lag, high accuracy six degrees of freedom (6DOF) tracking. Used extensively to track head mounted displays and data gloves, this magnetic tracker was used in most VPL systems and all the 1rst generation Virtuality systems.

For fun, here’s a video showing how to setup and test a 4 sensor Fastrak.