Saturday, May 28, 2016

My Experience at the world's first Holographic Hackathon



  So this past weekend I went to Seattle to participate in the first ever Holographic Hackathon. This event sponsored mainly by Microsoft gave a select number of lucky individuals the opportunity to work with the Microsoft HoloLens device. As an organizer of hackathons for the past few years I was beyond excited to be a participant for a change. True this weekend was not the first chance for me to be around the device, we had several at our AEC Hackathon last month in SoCal, but it was the first time I had an uninterrupted weekend dedicated to developing for it.

For those that are not familiar with this augmented reality headset, see the video below from Microsoft's Build 2016 keynote.


Hackathon Day #1




The Holographic Hackathon was held at Fremont Studios just north of downtown Seattle. The venue was a super cool open space with blue lights and black curtains along the walls.


The crowd was an interesting mix of software & Unity developers, audio engineers, artists, and non-technical professionals from various industries. I was pleasantly surprised to see several folks from the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, & Construction) space present and over a dozen others that have participated in either the VR or AEC related hackathons I help organize in Seattle. This diversity of skill sets and knowledge excited me more about the weekend.


The Friday evening started off with a networking mixer and then with an introduction from the Microsoft HoloLens team, Seattle VR, and Windows Holographic User Group Redmond (WinHUGR) Meetup groups. They laid out the agenda for the weekend, shared with us some great resources to help our hacking, and then opened it up to team formations. People wrote their ideas on a huge paper tablet and either stood at their table or walked around looking for team members or teams to join. While I came with a team of three, none of us are pro Unity developers (the main developing environment for HoloLens) so we actively sought someone who could assist our project. After giving the pitch to a few visitors to our table, we finally nabbed a Unity developer named Nicholas Abel that was excited to help us with our construction related application. After teams formed, HoloLens were distributed two per table and wasting no time we setup and begin holo-hacking away.



Our Application
The goal of our team's weekend project was to create a HoloLens version of a building application my tech team at IDEAbuilder has developed for VR (video) and browser based web3D using the Kinect (Wired article). This application uses digital fabrication ready 3D models of building components to 1) give the user/general contractor the ability to place these items in a scene to build a structure and 2) provide them a price of our material and machine time costs for fabrication at our factory. Think of the application like a Lego builder app but with pricing information and other data for building real houses.

Getting Started
As stated, I am not a Unity developer. Sure I can do basic things in the game engine but as a open standards web guy with a focus on real world industries, it is not my tool of choice. While the rest of my team got hacking away at the project, I began building up my knowledge of the tool for HoloLens development via the tutorials at Microsoft's Holographic Academy website. Hands down this site is among the best resources I have ever accessed for learning anything tech related online. The video and text tutorials were very clear and gave step by step instructions on how to develop for the HoloLens. These tutorials are so well put together that I feel anyone, even if completely new to Unity, can get up and running with development for the device in no time. I was so excited about the progress I was making with the device that time flew by. Knowing it was going to be a long weekend, I called it quits a little after midnight.



Day #2



I arrived Saturday morning right after the beginning of the day's presentations that were going to be by various members of the Microsoft HoloLens team. While I was interested in what the presenters had to share, I was more excited about getting back into Unity for more HoloLens development. Wait, did I just say I was excited about getting back into Unity development?!? In all the years of knowing about Unity (David H. is a friend) and times I have HAD to use it I have never been excited about doing so, yet now I was. Seems I have the fever for HoloLens development and I will learn whatever tool I must to do so.


By mid-day I had created a few different HoloLens examples and even had time to show some others how to build for it as well while the rest of my team cranked away at our project. One application I made showed the digital fabrication model of a home IDEAbuilder helped build in Tahoe AR'ed into the room. Seeing this model in the HoloLens impressed the hell out of me as it is a lot of polygons (750,000+) to render in any mobile AR device. While not accurate in its scale, the model still took up a huge amount of the venue's space. The video below of this app was recorded with the HoloLens' video record feature.



I continued my HoloLens education for the rest of the day and night when not helping my team members with items related to finishing our project. I was having so much fun learning and building that 8:00 AM Sunday morning snuck up on me. This is when I realized I should probably nap for a few hours since I pulled an all-nighter and I face planted on a big super comfy beanbag chair.

Day #3

I awoke a couple hours later to jump back into it with my team. The energy of the room was intense as everyone was getting their projects and presentations ready for the hackathon deadline. At little after 1:00 PM the presentations started and what a variety of projects they were.



There were close to 20 teams and HoloLens apps for medical, storytelling, shopping, and more. There were even a few AEC related apps by AEC Hackathon alumni. Cody "Kick-ass" Nowak's team made a cool AR measuring app and Willard "the Wizard" Williams showed what architects can do with the device. I could write a whole post on what all the teams created but recommend you check out what they have shared on Twitter using the #HoloHacks hashtag and here at the HoloHacks Facebook page. I hope the Microsoft team puts the videos of the presentations online as well!

This video shows some presentation slides and video footage taken in the HoloLens of our Wall Builder project.



Although our team didn't win any of the three categories and receive the Unity Pro license prize, we all feel the weekend was a huge win and success in itself. I have much love for my team members Chris, Nicholas, and Greg. Thanks guys for all the hard work and awesome time. We really pushed up the bar for innovation in one of humankind's oldest industries.

I learned a lot, made new & saw old friends, and am definitely excited about developing for the HoloLens. Our team is going to polish and take our app much further. I will publish the hackathon version of the Wall Builder app to the HoloLens store in the next couple weeks and update this post with links and make announcements on social media for those interested in trying it.

I thank Dona Sarkar, the Microsoft HoloLens team, and other organizers that made this the best hackathon I have ever participated in as an attendee. I look forward to participating in future HoloHacks and using this device to augmented and improve my reality. Now I just have to get my own to keep the innovation going. :)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

An A-Frame for WebVR

  The FireFox folks on the MozVR team released this month the first version of A-Frame: an open source framework for creating WebVR experiences with very simple markup. For those that are unfamiliar with WebVR, it is the term used to describe virtual reality experiences that are accessible via a Web browser (opposed to VR experiences that are downloaded executables).


Currently WebVR only works in the developer builds of Google's Chromium browser and Mozilla's FireFox Nightly build. There are a few options for WebVR including X3DOM, the standards based framework I use for my WebVR scenes. A-Frame is simply another Javascript framework for WebVR and since it leverages WebGL, the demos and scenes are viewable in any updated browser.


  "A-Frame makes it easy for web developers to create virtual reality experiences that work across desktop, iPhone (Android support coming soon), and the Oculus Rift. We created A-Frame to make it easier to create VR web experiences. WebVR has shipped in builds of Firefox and Chromium since the summer of 2014, but creating content for it has required knowing WebGL. The WebGL scene is unbelievably talented and has created many mind-blowing VR experiences in the last year, but they are a small subset of the full web dev community. There are millions of talented developers who do not know WebGL. What if each of them could create and share VR experiences on the open web?" - A-Frame blog


The syntax is fairly straight forward and reminds me a lot of X3DOM. Let's take a look at how to create a basic scene from one of the A-Frame examples

<html>
<head>
<meta charset="utf-8">
<title>Hello, World! • A-Frame</title>
<meta name="description" content="Hello, World! • A-Frame">
<script src="../../dist/aframe.js"></script>
</head>
<body>
<a-scene>
<a-sphere position="0 1.25 -1" radius="1.25" color="#EF2D5E"></a-sphere>
<a-cube position="-1 0.5 1" rotation="0 45 0" width="1" height="1" depth="1" color="#4CC3D9"></a-cube>
<a-cylinder position="1 0.75 1" radius="0.5" height="1.5" color="#FFC65D"></a-cylinder>
<a-plane rotation="-90 0 0" width="4" height="4" color="#7BC8A4"></a-plane>
<a-sky color="#ECECEC"></a-sky>
</a-scene>
</body>
</html>

The A-Frame Javascript library is referenced here:
<script src="../../dist/aframe.js"></script>

with the 3D scene being defined between the 'a-scene' tags:

<a-scene> <a-sphere position="0 1.25 -1" radius="1.25" color="#EF2D5E"></a-sphere>
<a-cube position="-1 0.5 1" rotation="0 45 0" width="1" height="1" depth="1" color="#4CC3D9"></a-cube>
<a-cylinder position="1 0.75 1" radius="0.5" height="1.5" color="#FFC65D"></a-cylinder>
<a-plane rotation="-90 0 0" width="4" height="4" color="#7BC8A4"></a-plane>
<a-sky color="#ECECEC"></a-sky>
</a-scene>

Given this is simply HTML, modifying the scene is done very easily via Javascript.

I am very interested in playing around a bit more with A-Frame (get it here on GitHub) and hopefully will get the chance to sit down with the guys at Mozilla in 2016 for an interview to learn more about their plans with this WebVR framework. I say job well done to all the contributors to this project.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Virtual Reality is getting Religion


It has finally happened, virtual reality is getting religion! It started yesterday when I read a post on UploadVR (a great resource for VR and related news) about a Bible app for Google Cardboard called Bible VRX. Bible VRX, developed by Derek Ham, puts users in different scenes from the Bible with, "a mission to use advanced technology to communicate the stories of the Bible, stories of faith, hope, and love”.

One can see in the video below some of the scenes it is possible to visit. According to the article this app is just a prototype that Derek hopes to build out with other scenes that have music, narration, and animated effects.  

 

So this got me thinking. Religion is such a integral part of humanity and this is probably the first virtual reality application I have heard of anyone doing. There were plenty of digital religious experiences back in the heyday of virtual worlds so surely this cannot be the case I thought. To Google I went to find other religious VR experiences and what I found, or didn't find, surprised me. There are no virtual reality applications that popped right up.



Top of the list is a book by Rachel Wagner - Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, that looks at the role of games and religion. In a video of her lecturing on the subject, she discussed what the rise in a digital, algorithmic culture means for religion, how religion is depicted in video games, and what video games mean for religious practice and ritual. Interesting but more focused on screen based games and not immersive VR ones.

Figuring there have to be VR religious experiences in the works, I went to Kickstarter and lo and behold I found one. Called Virtual Reality Jerusalem, this Kickstarted project (that just launched today ironically) looks to use virtual reality for exposing and educating visitors to the geography, structures, and locations from religious scripts. The team behind it is called VR Disciples and while their website doesn't say much beyond what is on the Kickstarter site, further investigation shows that Destiny and her team have been thinking about this since April 2015 (when they posted the video below).



While I consider myself more a spiritual than religious person, this seems like a cool project and I decided to put some money toward it. Who wouldn't want to see ancient Jerusalem and other places from religious history. They claim to release the app for $1 if they hit their goal or make it free if they surpass it. Go donate your $1 and let's make VR religion history!


I really hope these projects make it and more begin to come out. I feel we are at a time in world affairs where those with different faiths need to be better understood and this is among the better ways to do it. Plus, the business of religion is a multi-billion dollar industry so I really expect we will see more companies like these in 2016.

Virtual reality is a great way I feel for believers to connect more strongly with their faith in a way that puts them in the narrative. Like with other things this story starts with just a man and a woman, but I have faith that what Derek and Destiny have begun will turn into a VR Garden of Eden for all faiths and followers for experiencing religion like never before. I say to them both God bless and may you achieve your goals of bringing virtual reality into religion.

**Thanks to some folks on Facebook, I was exposed to this other VR app named Sermon on the Mount by Immersive Faith.

  .     .     .

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My interview with Voices of VR


So I was at the SEAVR 2015 event where I bumped into Kent Bye, the producer of the Voices of VR Podcast. I gave this quick interview on Using Open Standards to Deliver VR Over the Web and thank Ken for the honor of being on his show.


Based out of Portand Oregon, Kent travels to various conferences to find the most compelling VR experiences, developers, and academics to feature on the podcast. Make sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter @kentbye. Keep up the great work Kent!




Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bullet Train, Epic’s Unreal Shooter that takes VR into the fast lane


Epic Games, the company behind the Unreal game engine, recently showed off a new tech demo at Oculus Connect that uses the Oculus Touch dual-handed motion controllers.


Named Bullet Train, the mini-game is an awesome virtual reality first person shooter. Like with the Sixense Stem hand controllers, the Oculus Touch takes the VR experience to a whole new level. Beyond using the controllers to grab, aim, and shoot weapons, players can teleport around the game level and use a slow motion feature to dodge or even grab bullets (that can be thrown back at enemies).



I love the folks over at Epic and I got the chance to have my own personal demo of Bullet Train when I visited their Seattle office earlier this week. Here is my colleague Greg Howes that went before me giving Bullet Train his all.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Linden Lab Aims to Build the WordPress of Virtual Reality



Second Life creator Linden Lab has announced that it has begun inviting creative people to test its new virtual reality world, code-named Project Sansar. Project Sansar is scheduled to open to the public in 2016, and its aim is to democratize virtual reality. Much like Second Life, the platform aims to empower people to easily create, share, and monetize their own multi-user, interactive virtual experiences, without requiring engineering resources. Linden Lab said the platform will enable professional-level quality and performance with “exceptional visual fidelity, 3D audio, and physics simulation.”

Project Sansar will be optimized for VR headsets, but also accessible via PCs and mobile devices. “We want to lower the barrier of entry for VR experience creation,” said Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg in a statement. “Project Sansar will do for virtual experiences what WordPress has done for the web: empower a broad range of people to create with professional quality and reach global audiences. “By greatly expanding who can create virtual experiences, Project Sansar will also extend the value of VR to a wide variety of use-cases – from gaming and entertainment to education, architecture, art, community-building, business meetings, healthcare, conferences, training, and more.”

Linden Labs has learned from Second Life it seems that creatives want to use their own tools for creating content and those that are invited to help test Project Sansar will create 3D content using Autodesk’s Maya software. At the consumer launch next year, Project Sansar will support a variety of third-party creation tools as well as native building options.

I look forward to seeing what the Linden Lab folks are going to release and what my friends that are avid Second Life users think of this new VR platform from the masters of virtual worlds. With making VR world creation 'Wordpress simple', we shall see if Sansar becomes our first choice and a second life in virtual reality.