Feb 21 2020

VR Tracking Is Evolving Quickly and Becoming More Appealing for Colleges

As the technology required to support and implement immersive experiences matures, it’s becoming more realistic for universities to deploy.

When Ken Perlin opened the Future Reality Lab at New York University in September 2014, it was a big project — literally.

“We have the largest VR mocap space in Manhattan,” says Perlin, referring to motion-capture technology used in virtual reality.

There’s a ceiling grid for hanging tracker markers, special lighting and audio equipment. That grid was nonnegotiable five years ago; Perlin needed a place to securely hang the $50,000 worth of infrared cameras then required to track users.

“Now, using the latest technology, you can actually get by without those things,” says Perlin. His lab’s holdings today include Oculus Quest headsets featuring inside-out tracking, which eliminates the need for a large-scale tracking grid.

“It shows that, whatever you do with high-end equipment, you’re showing what the consumer world will look like about five years in the future,” says Perlin.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities are using VR tech to push the boundaries of learning.

Mistakes Help Write the Rules for VR Interaction and Cooperation

The massive advances in VR tracking make getting into virtual reality more attainable for colleges that may lack the budget or space for a dedicated lab full of specialty equipment. And because the aesthetics of VR experiences are still very much developing, even tracking errors can turn out to be happy accidents.

“We put on a theater piece at the Future of StoryTelling Festival in 2017,” says Perlin. The lab was presented with a scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; both the actors and the audience were in the VR environment.

“At some point, three of us who had created the piece together were in the experience, trying it out, and something went wrong,” says Perlin. “Instead of being in Alice’s drawing room at the beginning, with a nice chandelier on the ceiling, suddenly we were floating up by the chandelier.”

They quickly realized two things, says Perlin: First, they had a bug in the tracking software. Second, it was incredibly cool.

“Nobody planned that, but once it happened, we thought, ‘We have to build this kind of stuff into future experiences, because this is just delightful,’” he says.

People are also still writing the rules for how to interact and cooperate in VR. Perlin gave the example of a time when he had three people in a shared drawing experience at a conference in Germany and one participant’s controller stopped working.

“We were like, ‘Oh, no! We have three people and only two controllers! Should we go on with the experience?” he said.

In fact, the loss of one of the controllers improved the experience.

“Now they’re handing these things back and forth to each other and having a much better time because it’s more of a social experience,” explains Perlin. “And that was an accident.”

So, what’s coming in the next five years that will continue to alter how we use VR? Perlin is betting on feet: His lab is experimenting with shoes that, combined with other body-worn components, allow for full-body representations of multiple users in a VR environment.

“In five years, that technology will just be built into all shoes everywhere,” he says.

Damir Khabirov/Getty Images