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Diving Into VR Without a Headset

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Is this the closest we have to the Holodeck? It very well might be.

There are many tantalizing possibilities around immersive technologies, but where they usually hit a snag is the fact that most cool experiences require complicated equipment. Stuff that you have to wear, setup, and ultimately think about.

So the holy grail for achieving a truly immersive experience is, of course, for it to just happen all around you – just like real life. There are many companies working on various visions of that Holodeck-like future, including Light Field Lab which we covered recently, but mostly they’re at an early conceptual stage.

Yet advances in existing projection technology have made it possible for new kinds of immersive movie theaters to be built, such as Space 360 in South Korea, opened last year.

There are many tantalizing possibilities around immersive technologies, but where they usually hit a snag is the fact that most cool experiences require complicated equipment. Click To Tweet

We wanted to make a true VR theater that would give visitors a breathtaking 360 immersive experience Click To Tweet

The setup inside this sphere, which is 12 meters in diameter, consists of a transparent glass observation bridge which spans the interior space, with high-resolution projection enveloping users above, below, and all around in 360 degrees, bypassing the need to wear VR headsets altogether.

The project was financed by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (the country’s national operator of power plants) which then proceeded to donate the entire thing to the National Science Museum as part of its corporate social responsibility program.

The holy grail for achieving a truly immersive experience is, of course, for it to just happen all around you Click To Tweet

The first show created exclusively for the sphere told the story of the Big Bang and the beginnings of human civilization, but it is capable of playing any fulldome or VR content.

Ukrainian creative studio Front Pictures was responsible for engineering and installing the projection system and software. They had extensive experience in engineering fulldome theaters and planetariums, having delivered over 150 such installations around the world. The concept of a fully immersive installation, however, was more challenging. For starters, placing the projectors in such a way that they would not shine directly in the viewer’s eyes was difficult.

“We wanted to make a true VR theater that would give visitors a breathtaking 360 immersive experience. But to meet our idea of the future, the system also needed to have the highest possible resolution and brightness of projection, high energy efficiency and cost effectiveness,” they recounted in a blog post on their website. “Unlike in a conventional digital planetarium, where projectors are located along the dome’s perimeter, the options for placing them in a full sphere are substantially limited. One of the challenges was to devise a layout that would avoid shadows being cast by the observation bridge, minimize openings for the projectors, while, at the same time, maximizing the resolution and brightness of the projection.”

In the end, they chose to use 12 projectors, located around two entrance doors, with their engineers exhaustively testing different layouts that would allow for rotation at extreme angles, as well as equipment configuration offered by various vendors (noise was also a big factor considering the number of projectors in an enclosed space.)

“The spherical screen creates significant geometrical distortions of the projected image. The distortions become even larger due to the fact that in a full projection sphere, it is impossible to place projectors along the perimeter, as a sphere has no edge. They need to be located around the entrance doors on the opposite sides of the sphere.”

A conventional fulldome experience is only half a sphere, so one can get away with deploying one fisheye lens. This is not enough to completely cover the spherical screen with a bridge in the center, however. In this situation, manual calibration – i.e. stitching the images together isn’t the best option, so they adopted an automated calibration system, based on powerful computer vision and image analysis algorithms combined with a 360 degree multiple camera rig. Front Pictures has been developing auto-calibration technology since 2012 which analyses patterns to seamlessly blend projectors together into a unified coordinated space.

Ukrainian creative studio Front Pictures was responsible for engineering and installing the projection system and software Click To Tweet

To overcome that, Front Pictures used four cameras with fisheye lenses mounted around the glass bridge, customizing their software to enable the multi-camera calibration. As they further explain:

“The previous generation of multi-projector systems were built around the “one computer per one projector” paradigm. But this approach has significant drawbacks such as a relatively big budget for computer hardware, more possible points of failure, difficulties with implementing proper failover solution, as well as higher electricity consumption. Another downside of the cluster systems is a discrepancy in video playback speed on different computers, which can result in rough, jerky video playback.”

They developed a technology called Screenberry to address that particular problem. This is a hybrid video processing engine which uses both the GPU and CPU in a much more efficient way and can smoothly playback 8x8K video on up to 72 output devices, all the while connected to just one computer.

The bar is set very high for immersive experiences that manage to capture our imagination and get punters actually paying to try them out Click To Tweet

It all highlights how incredibly difficult, laborious and time-consuming a process it is to get this stuff right. The bar is set very high for immersive experiences that manage to capture our imagination and get punters actually paying to try them out, and that sweet spot is mighty hard to hit. But the continued market growth shows that there is also an appetite for these experiences, it’s just a matter of finding the best way to deliver them. Whether or not that will involve any sort of wearable device in the future remains an open question.

This article was originally published on VRScout

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Alice Bonasio is a VR and Digital Transformation Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.


Also published on Medium.