Like cryptocurrency and 3D printing, virtual reality has been a hot-button topic in the tech world for some time now. As with many fledgling technologies, early barriers like cost and overall refinement have improved considerably in recent years, and that has created new opportunities in turn.
“Five years ago or so, we were building an experience for people visiting Prague,” says Marek Polčák, co-founder and CEO of VRgineers. “The experience would let the user fly over sections of the city in VR. But the problem was that the technology just wasn’t good enough for customers – they expected more and the quality wasn’t there. After upgrading the hardware a few times, I realized that it made more sense for our team to develop what we needed rather than to trying to make someone else’s technology work the way we wanted it to.”
The Reality Behind VR
The result was the XTAL headset. Outfitted with a pair of 2.5K OLED displays that provide a 170-degree field of view and a full 24 bit RGB color palette, VRgineers says it’s the most powerful virtual reality headset ever created. “Our mission was significantly different from the goal of something like Oculus Rift and other consumer-grade headsets,” Polčák explains. “In that respect, it’s a lot like developing a car – do you want to build something as inexpensively as possible, or you want to build a supercar?”
But the goal wasn’t simply to out-spec existing hardware. “When you’re doing a retail headset, you want people to be awed by the experience – intensity is the main goal,” he tells us. “But if you’re doing enterprise VR, you need to get as close to reality as possible. The resolution and picture quality need to be as high as possible to provide the user with an accurate rendering.”
And it’s the XTAL’s capacity to recreate incredibly detailed rendered objects that has caught the attention of the automotive industry, where designers are now leveraging the XTAL’s formidable muscle to help designers develop the vehicles we’ll be seeing a in showrooms a few years from now.
Less Fantasy, More Reality
After Polčák and his team put the finishing touches on the XTAL, they started to look at what industries could best utilize the capabilities of the headset. “We discovered that there were two markets that were really prepared to use it – the automotive sector and simulations. It mainly comes down to the fact that those industries use 3D modeling in day to day development, so they already had the data the headset needs for those renderings. And because of that, they also already had the computational horsepower that’s required to make it all work as intended.”
Because of that pre-existing data, integrating the XTAL into the vehicle development process has proven to be a largely plug-and-play operation, Polčák says. “We developed the headset to be compatible with specialized software from developers like Autodesk and Dassault. These are the tools that many automakers already use in their design studios, so in most cases the headset works right out of the box.”
Design evaluation was a natural fit for the XTAL, he explains. “That’s the most common use case right now, and it’s where the headset’s benefits are immediately obvious. If you already have a 3D model of something and you want to fine tune it, this allows you to have a better understanding of how that will look out in the real world. Designers are able to look at the exterior and interior of the car and make changes to materials, textures, shades and so on, and getting a better sense of how that will present itself as a finished product.”
Polčák notes that this also takes a lot of guesswork out of the prototyping phase, and can potentially speed up the development process in turn. “Everyone is looking for ways to increase efficiency – reducing time and cost while still maintaining the quality standards they’ve set for themselves. With this technology, an automaker can reduce the number of physical prototypes they need to produce in order to arrive at the finished product, and that’s really key.”
He says that the XTAL’s accuracy is what really makes the difference. “It’s not difficult to produce a very sharp picture in the center of the user’s field of view, but the problem is that with typical headsets, anything outside of that small area is very distorted, so it’s not really useable. When you’re evaluating the whole design of the car, you want to observe it in various environments – that’s an important element of the process. If you’re designing a new vehicle for families you might want to see how it looks in the suburbs, and if you’re designing a new roadster, you’ll probably want to see how it looks on the highway, at the racetrack, or next to the beach. And to do that you need the whole environment to be rendered accurately.”
Audi, BMW, Honda, and Skoda seem to agree, as all four have already signed on with VRgineers. “We’re in negotiations with General Motors and Ford, too,” Polčák adds.
Down The Road
While automakers are already putting the XTAL headset to good use, Polčák says that the design studio is just the tip of the iceberg for VR integration in the automotive realm. “There’s going to be opportunities to leverage the technology for training, both in the service and sales departments, and there are also ways that consumers will be able to use the tech as well. In a virtual showroom environment, a customer could spec out a vehicle and get a highly accurate portrayal of what that might look like when it’s parked in their driveway.”
And advancements like these may be coming sooner than you think. “It’s changing from month to month,” he says. “With something like this you start in the most demanding and technical fields, and as it evolves it begins to move into other areas. And we’re already starting to see the latter – I think this will be accessible to the general public in the next few years.”
That trend might eventually bring the XTAL and devices like it into your living room. “Right now the tech isn’t focused on entertaining the user – accuracy continues to be the main he goal,” Polčák reiterates.
“But what’s interesting is that the professional software is starting to utilize more elements of game engines because they want to improve visual latency to make the motion as smooth and lag-free as possible. And on the other side of the coin, the teams who develop game engines are starting to focus more on accuracy and precision. So what you have are these two different approaches to the technology, and they’re actually moving closer and closer to one another all the time.”