Ever since geospatial information software (GIS) ventured into creating three dimensional models made even more real by the release of ESRI CityEngine, the potential to blend virtual reality and geospatial data has intrigued gamers, GIS techs, and film makers. Oculus Rift has been in development for some time, and will be released to consumers this spring.
There are other “headsets” already commercially available, and as the technology of virtual reality becomes more affordable and therefore accessible, everything from games to films will become more popular. Are there more practical applications? How far are we from the holodeck of the Enterprise? What role does GIS play in all of these applications?
Evolution of Hardware
The simplest of VR devices are simply powered by a smart phone. This is possible due to the simplification of the software needed, so it takes less computing power, and the advancement of smart phones so they have more computing power. The two technologies have met in the middle, so to speak.
the simplest of these headsets, and are most often made of, well, cardboard. They require the user to use their own headphones, but are adequate for simple apps, and to get the idea of how virtual reality and 3D video works. Sets can be purchased or made to fit almost any phone, although VR apps are limited on less powerful devices.
A step up from these are the Samsung Gear VR and the Zeiss VR One. The Samsung Gear VR is designed, of course, to work with Samsung phones, although it is likely that aftermarket “trays,” the device that holds your phone in the headset, will be developed so other phones can be integrated as well. The headset does run Oculus Apps as well as Samsung specific and Google Play apps.
The Zeiss VR One works with the iPhone as well as Samsung devices, and hardware for other phones will likely be developed over time. While not as powerful as the Samsung, at the moment the Zeiss is a little more versatile. Both sets have integrated audio, and these are by no means the only options available in a consumer price range.
The ultimate in consumer headsets is, at the moment at least, the Oculus Rift. Rather than using a phone as the processor, this headset must be tethered to a PC of some sort, as the higher quality audio and video require more processing power. Some users have even developed fully immersive environments for the Rift. But the consumer end of the hardware is only one part of the picture.
Of course, the “reality” must either be captured or created. There are a couple of interesting methods to do this, and of course this is where GIS and 3D modeling play a role. There are several ways to capture video, even on the consumer level. Single cameras like the Ricoh Theta S and the Nikon KeyMision 360, coming this spring can be used to capture 360 degree video like the one below.
The other option is to use multiple cameras, like those made by GoPro attached to a circular device like the GoPro Heroes Pro6 360. This set up, or the Nikon, which films in 4K, provide the best video quality. Ideally, footage is captured at higher frame rates beyond those in normal filming, reducing motion blur (when the user turns their head or moves quickly).
What if to film on location, a crew did not actually have to go there? “You can create million dollar sets and locations for a fraction of the cost,” says George Bloom in a TED talk about How the MetaVerse will Change Filmmaking. The virtual sets he talks about creating which allow all kinds of computer rendering are much like those that can be created by CityEngine.
In fact, CityEngine interfaces with Game Engine technology, and has already been used to model large urban areas in films like Cars 2 and Transformers 4. The application does not end there, however, as a workflow has already been created to take date from CityEngine to Oculus Rift.
Layers created in CityEngine can be used to render alternate realities over these models, enabling actors to move around inside a place that does not really exist. Add to this motion capture suits (mocap) such as those used in Avatar, and the actor’s appearance can be altered as well.
The Relation To GIS
“Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture,” says Chris Milk when talking about virtual reality and creating empathy. It is such an experiential media that putting it into words is challenging at best. The field is so new, there are not any set standards. New ideas are emerging all the time, and “It’s like the wild, wild west,” says Lucas Wilson when talking about the Nuts and Bolts of Virtual Reality.
“It’s not a video game peripheral, it connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other kind of media,” says Milk. He’s right, but it is more than just the sense of person. It is also the sense of place. People can be immersed in places otherwise inaccessible.
Scenes can be filmed, destruction can be wrought without the need for expensive travel or elaborate sets. Gamers can travel on adventures through the streets of Paris, London, and even their home town. The scenarios are endless.
Games are often location oriented, and CityEngine is used to author the procedural model rules. Each layer is exported separately to create individual layers in Unity, Game engines and immersive hardware will be used to enhance the work already being done in 3D GIS, and result in more realism in rendered models.
Virtual reality and 3D GIS modeling are “cool” and serve to raise public exposure, which increases public interest and oversight of community planning projects, something GIS is already a big part of.
True, GIS can model real locations for racing games or strategy games set in historic locations. It can also make filming in such locations affordable on almost any film makers budget.
However, virtual reality has much more to do with GIS than just the development of games. Architectural applications and military simulations are just a couple of areas where virtual reality will save money and maybe even lives, allowing for real world training without many of the risks. CityEngine’s integration into Oculus Rift, Unity, and 3D Runtime expands the possibilities beyond imagination.
But 3D mapping and virtual reality also effectively communicate with the public, fascinating even those who are not cartographers, taking them place they would not otherwise go. It’s more than just a game: it’s a way to bring about real change.