I get great joy from being able to munge together bits of off the shelf technology to be able to create a thing that serves a need. It’s probably a result of spending too much time with Lewis Richards over the years…
Towards the end of last year I was asked by a client if I could help to source the necessary to be able to create a Virtual Reality experience for a sales event taking place in January in Thailand. The client had recently opened up retail stores in the US for the first time and wanted their people across the rest of the planet to get something of the experience.
At first, I contacted some people who could do full-blown, full-motion 360VR video production. It became quite clear quite quickly that this was going to be outside of the cost expectations for the client, and would also take too long. I’m sure it would have been a glorious experience, but it just wasn’t worth it.
My client, however, kept using as a reference point a 360 walkthrough that had been produced of the business’s offices in the Middle East. Could this be a route to take?
The walkthrough had been created using a system built by a company called Matterport, and was a complex scanner/camera device designed to be used primarily by people in the property industry, and real estate agents in particular. Buying one of their devices seemed out of the question, but a bit of searching showed that there was a thriving industry of Matterport photographers who could do the scanning for a few hundred dollars. This looked like a good option, and a photographer in Skokie where the retail store is based was duly booked.
Creating the content was one thing, but playing it back was quite another.
At first, we explored the options of producing Cardboard devices for people at the event to use with their own smartphones. You can produce the devices these days fairly cost-effectively, but there were two problems. First of all, the hundreds of users would all have to install an appropriate app, and any barrier like “install an app” would be an immense pain in the backside and stop many people participating. Secondly, the event was taking place in a hotel with unknown networking. Whilst public space WiFi is getting better and better, it felt a risk too great to expect a few hundred people to simultaneously be able to install an app and then stream video content.
So we turned to dedicated VR devices.
I’ve played extensively with the HTC Vive, and it’s awesome. It also needs a crap-load of processing power in a PC and a big physical space to enable the “room scale” interactivity. Ditto for the Oculus Rift. Too much hassle, too many risks.
The Oculus Go, however, looked like it was more of an option. It’s basically an Android smartphone in a specialist VR headset case without most of the phone functionality. There was also a Matterport app available for Oculus, and at about £180 per unit they were reasonably priced.
The final little snag was getting the VR content into the app. A bit of hacking around with files on the device and eventually it was all resolved – it’s good to know that I can still work out how developers put things together so I can dip into their data once in a while, a technique I’ve had in my armoury since my childhood playing around with code on a BBC Micro…
So all in we had a VR experience with 9 devices available on the day of the event, and the entire cost ran to less than a few thousand pounds. Hacking bits of consumer tech together can give you good enough results, quickly and relatively cheaply.
You can get a flavour of the final product in the little video below…