Sussex's Interactive Lab blends virtual reality into everyday life.
Technology platforms open the way to create 3D experiences in midair, as Virtual Reality is losing its headsets and wiring in the Interact Lab at the University of Sussex. Instead, users are being given the chance to start experiencing seamless 3D at the touch of a button.
Not unlike the Marvel superhero, Iron Man, we are going to be able to summon up images in midair that we can touch and feel, not just swipe. It will be like turning on the TV, says Dr Diego Martinez Plasencia, a researcher on 3D user interfaces at the Interact Lab, which moved to its current location at the University of Sussex in 2015.
If VR is going to be a tool in our everyday lives, it has to blend in.The Interact Lab
Breaking the limits of Virtual Reality
‘I love the potential of VR to go beyond the real world, creating experiences and collaborations that would never otherwise happen. The trouble is that VR remains a bit like a jealous lover; when you’re wearing a headset, you’re completely cut off from the real world... you stop seeing it around you. You can only respond to VR. You can’t take in any other technologies, you can’t use your laptop or phone, you can’t get access to pen or paper.’
‘VR is brilliant for gaming, but it's not as successful in collaborative working. How can you gauge how anyone is else reacting if you can’t see their faces [in real time]? And how can you be sure that you are all seeing the same thing?’
‘If VR is going to be a tool in our everyday lives, it has to blend in. If I want to use my phone, I just grab it. For 3D, I have to access special equipment and wear it. It is too cumbersome.’
‘In our labs, we already have the technology solutions to develop alternative interfaces. It is a huge engineering step to make them reliable enough for consumption. The question now is whether we have the interest and the investment, not whether we have the technology.’
The prototype on which Dr Plasencia has mainly been working is a world-building tabletop around which up to eight users can gather at any one time. ‘It is a light-filled display generated by an array of projectors using a fog of water and glycol as a diffuser. Currently, we operate at a depth of 10cm.’
Other prototypes are being developed by his colleagues at the Interact Lab, which comprises a team of three senior academics, seven post-docs and seven PhDs, currently working on six projects in 3D display.
‘On one, we are creating a sense of sight, touch and smell by filling bubbles with smoke into which you can project information, such as a logo and some text. When you pop them, you then experience the smell. On another, we are levitating matter to create shapes in the middle of the air. It is another way of looking at 3D displays. We are not creating the illusion that something is real. Instead, we are controlling matter in 3D space.’
‘We are always looking to come from different perspectives, keeping a close eye on advances in physics, materials and optics,’ says Dr Plasencia, who originally wanted to study physics himself, before focusing on computer science.
‘Other labs around the world are working on these challenges, of course. Many specialize in different aspects, such as modulators or holography. At Sussex, we are leaders in investigating how we can combine all these advances into innovations in display formats. We can open up a lot of possibilities.’
According to the vice-chancellor of the university, Professor Adam Tickell, Sussex’s strength lies in this kind of multi-disciplinary approach. ‘Our culture is about open thinking across intellectual boundaries. In our labs and our libraries, we are less interested in what fits into a body of knowledge than whether it is a fundamentally interesting question. In solving global challenges, we are looking to bring together social scientists, engineers, physicists and anyone else. In the process, we are becoming much more tolerant of risk.’
The university also has one of the UK’s most vibrant digital communities on its doorstep in Brighton. ‘Virtual reality has gone through a series of peaks and troughs over the last 50 years,’ says Plasencia. ‘What is different now is that VR is out there. Users can experiment for themselves.’
‘We’ve assumed that VR is going to be the solution to remote collaboration, maybe it won’t be used for surgical or military training after all. Perhaps the applications won’t be as big and shiny as we think. VR just needs to plug into people’s lives. I don’t doubt that VR is going to make it into homes as a consumer technology.’
‘So, as academics, we are learning to adopt a different perspective. We can already demonstrate the scientific principles. Now it is like watching the end of a movie. It is going to be exciting to see what happens.’
Dr Plasencia’s sense is that many others feel the same. ‘If you approach one of the digital majors offering to produce a 3D experience that their competitors cannot, you are going to find some highly receptive listeners.’
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