Why the answer to mass VR adoption might lie in your pockets…


Does virtual reality have to be about expensive headsets, workstation or gaming rigs, complex software or all of the above? Yes. For the most part, at the moment, that appears to be the case. The process of developing and engaging in your own VR experiences is not a path traversed by VR newcomers; if VR is to gain wider adoption, then this path needs to be made more accessible to encourage more creators into the space.

MAVRiC champions solutions and approaches that are non-exclusive be it economical, situational or level of expertise, aspects which are often a barrier to adoption. Such things aren’t always possible or even beneficial. For example, a deep understanding of multiple fields (or here) is often necessary to make things happen in this arena. In most cases, this would at least include a base level familiarity or skillset in general IT and multimedia. Eventually, expanding more specifically into 3d modelling, game engines, audio and video production, programming and add to this a touch of industry-specific speciality such as CAD/CAM/BIM, Design, A.I and Machine Learning, Gamification, Juggling etc. and we have an amalgamation that’s almost a fully baked VR showcase, tool or prototype.

MAVRiC’s ‘Application of AR‘ showcased an approach to achieving mobile AR, minimising the above obstacles as best possible (for the time). Today we are looking at a workflow for mobile VR in a similar vein, which considers how we might break the cable tethering us to our hefty machines!

What’s Possible Then?

At a basic level there’s the smartphone and 360 degree images. Apart from the ‘digital detox’ crowd, criminals or your grandma… smartphones are the norm, not 2000’s style flip phones. Therefore, your average mobile device easily has the capability to view 360 images or even better to capture them also. This photographic data becomes a type of on-the-go, anytime virtual reality via web-based applications, controlled by your touchscreen. As we’re all likely familiar with the concept of “Street View” you’ll understand what we’re talking about.

We can then go another step further by obtaining a VR viewer allowing the user a more immersive experience, seeing stereoscopically with the help of optical distortion via lenses. Such viewers can be obtained relatively cheaply in comparison to full fledged headsets or “half-way” devices such as Google Daydream with its controllers.

Staying in this realm offers several possibilities, as regular readers will understand our fascination with survey tools, one useful application is the use of 360 images or video to capture as-built site data or construction progress to be reviewed away from site and as if you are in the context of that space at that time of capture. This process itself has improved with the availability of products such as Ricoh Theta. These 360 images can then be uploaded to various web-based apps or frameworks to provide your VR functionality, ranging from ‘drag & drop’ to “Javascript guru” on the skillset scale. More on this to come.

When the “Real-World” is not good enough… a.k.a Virtual Virtual Reality

The beauty of VR as I’m sure you’re aware is the possibility to manifest and visualise data that is not present in the real world e.g. buildings that only exist on paper. So, how can we achieve this simply on mobile smart devices? Correct, web-based VR (webVR).

Here we are starting to add greater complexity on that “VR Newcomer” path, but essentially the principle remains the same. All we need to do is to create a 360 panorama image file (e.g. JPEG) through whichever medium our media is tied to. Keeping it AEC then, you should be covered at every step: SentioVR (as with almost everything nowadays there’s a subscription fee) allows users of Sketchup and Revit to export in 360 degrees as does Autodesk Rendering for Revit. Users of Blender and 3ds Max might be aware that it’s possible to do so in these packages also.

Chaos V-Ray

As part of our VR workflow conference paper we used V-Ray, a 3D rendering software, to create some rather nice looking 360 images. V-Ray is available as a plugin on around a dozen or so of the most common AEC related software packages which opens up lots of possibilities. V-Ray offers something a little bit more special here in that it has functionality to create stereoscopic effect by duplicating and offsetting two of the same images.

In V-Ray, 360 images are set up with ‘cubemaps’ – 6 sided images compiled into a single (360) image or 12 images in the case of stereoscopic.

Web Apps

So how do we turn these 360 degree images into a VR experience? For those with the know how who are looking for greater functionality, A-Frame might be your best option. This is a framework, using Javascript, that allows users to create web apps for mobile, desktop or VR headsets. On the simpler route, there are many “drag & drop” type VR web apps that allow you create VR walkthroughs. One such website is roundme.com, see our University of Brighton AEB site tour for an example of what’s possible*.

All/most walkthrough VR guided tours use ‘Hotspots’. These are visual markers placed by the creator that direct the user to alternate panoramas, thus linking a series of 360 images to create a walkthrough effect. Visual and audio cues can be added to this to create a greater immersive experience. Different web apps will provide difference settings, these will likely allow the user to choose between method of viewing: VR Mode, desktop etc. As well as calibration tools if using, for example, with a cardboard-type device.

Is this the Future of VR?

Web-based VR will likely play a part in wider adoption, particularly due to the convenience of being accessible on many devices, anytime and anywhere, without being locked-in to a proprietary software or hardware; not everyone is ok with needing multiple devices for individual purposes. As a side note, compare this with AR which adopts mobile app/web-based systems (open source or otherwise) out of necessity (naturally).

Web-based VR as a medium is going to face competition from proprietary software on increasingly capable VR headsets – not forgetting that headsets, particularly standalone, can access and use webVR, in which case perhaps this is more power to webVR – but there’s also the possibility of a coming second-hand market offering affordable options.**

Given some of the aspects discussed, we see that webVR can allow rapid prototyping of VR solutions by removing as many obstacles as possible, on the way towards greater VR adoption.

Is webVR the way forward? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

*Note: Gyroscopic functionality over web no longer works on this site since permissions now have to be requested to access your device’s sensors due to security concerns. Until Roundme update their software, look elsewhere if this is a requirement of your project.

** Unlike the smartphone market which is relatively stable in terms of hardware updates from generation to generation, VR headsets to this day have quickly become outdated beyond the point of any resale value beyond a few years.

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