VR reVIVEd

Last week I received a very special package. A big box of futuristic technology. I have posted before about my use of the Oculus Rift DK2 VR headset, and one of my personal goals is to make my life as much like I was living in Star Trek as possible. I have now gotten another step closer to having my very own Holodeck with the arrival of my HTC Vive.

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Hard to tell in this picture but its a very large box.

The box that arrived at my door was extremely large, much bigger than I was expecting. I became very glad that I had it delivered to my home address and not to the office as it would have been impossible to transport this on my bike. Inside the giant cardboard box was a slightly smaller, but still large, retail box of the Vive.

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The Vive box next to the Oculus DK2 packaging

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Well padded

The reason that this box is so large, almost 4 times larger than the box for the Oculus DK2, is because the Vive comes with a lot more hardware for Room-scale VR (remember this, there will be a quiz later). This is a huge leap over the old Oculus development kit.

The Vive is a virtual reality headset. Like the Oculus it is a computer display behind some lenses arranged with software so that the lenses warp the image on the screen to make it seem like they are googles to a computer generated world. The advancements since I got the Oculus almost two years ago are numerous. The biggest difference, on paper, is that the Vive has a much higher resolution screen, actually, the Vive has two higher resolution screens, one for each eye. This improves the picture quality a lot. The lenses are basically magnifying glasses held very close to the monitors and every pixel counts when you are looking at them up close. There are also improvements in the Lenses and the ergonomics over the Oculus, though the Vive is still a little heavier than the Oculus.

The real fun is comes with the other pieces in the box. The headset is very comparable to the Oculus Rift consumer version also released earlier this year, but its not too different from the old DK2 either. The real fun come with the addition of the controllers and the lighthouse stations.

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The important bits (I added the GorillaPods)

 

A small aside, to explain some of the technology: For a good virtual experience the computer needs the most accurate data it can get to know where a users head is pointing every time the computer renders a frame. This information tells the computer which way you are facing and it renders the scene accordingly. This is what gives users the ability to turn their head and look around the environments and is the key thing that separates VR headsets from the TV googles in SkyMall catalogs that just project a 65″ screen in front of you no matter where you look. This tracking can be done with an accelerometer and gyroscope to determine which way the head is moving as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The Oculus DK2 also came with a camera, which could track IR LEDs on the front of the headset to let users move their head from side to side, or to duck down or up, giving the headset another degree of tracking that is impossible to achieve without using an external reference point, the camera. This is referred to as positional tracking, the tracking of an objects position in 3D space relative to a known constant. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift uses the same technology as the development kit to track where the headset is pointing. The Vive however, does not need a camera pointing at the headset for positional tracking. It has a much more complicated, but much more fun system for positional tracking.

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One of the lighthouses mounted to a lamp

The Vive set comes with two small black boxes, about three inches across with one side made of dark glass. When provided with power a little light inside them turns on to notify if they are working or not. What a human cannot see is that these boxes are shooting out a complicated pattern of infra-red lasers into the room. Each lighthouse has a rotating drum with a laser that fire with very exact timing. The Vive headset is mottled with light sensors which can detect an increase in infra-red light. By analyzing the timing differences of the lighthouses IR pulse on three or more of the sensors the headset can triangulate its position relative to the base station. This gives it positional tracking. This position tracking is, simply put, the opposite of what the Oculus has. The Oculus has ‘dumb’ lights on the headset and tracks them with a fixed camera, the Vive has ‘dumb’ laser pulses and tracks them with the headset. While this may seem like an arbitrary inversion it actually leads to some interesting technology.

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Hello? Are you still there?

The odd looking doughnuts with handles that came in the box are the Vive’s controllers. Yes, it came with two controllers. Why would one need two controllers for one headset? Are they supporting multiple players somehow? Are these controllers so likely to get lost or break they they just sent two off the bat?

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Had to add an extra beefy graphics card to power it all

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Initial set up is a mess

There are two controllers because there is one for each hand! These are not just some boring old Xbox controllers, these are tracked controllers for interacting with virtual environments. All that positional tracking techno-babble is now becoming important. The beauty of the Vive system of having the sensors on the device being tracked is that it makes it easy to add more tracked objects. In this case these controllers position in 3D space is tracked as accurately as the headset is, making it possible to look down and see your hands, or reach out and touch the environment. Oculus doesn’t have that (yet).

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Pulling a virtual bow

This is what make the Vive so compelling. It stops VR from being a passive experience and turns it into a much more active one. Also the tracking is good enough that you can stand up, and walk around the room. Remember I mentioned that this was Room-scale VR! This is another step closer to the holodeck, now I can summon a virtual world, look at it, walk around in it, and interact with it. All that is missing is smaller headsets, lighter controllers, smarter computers, force fields, and photons.

Computer Aided Design

Last week I finally upgraded my mobile computing unit. I am retiring my Lenovo T410, accepting it as the lemon that I put up with for 6 years.

With significant thought I settled on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for my upgrade. Since school I have dreamed of a computer with a pen that is good enough to take handwritten notes. Unfortunately all the computer-tablets that existed when I was in class were clunky and the pen input was never fast enough or accurate enough to truly take hand written notes. The claims of massive improvement on input with a pen is what has draw me towards the surface line.

I have been enjoying my surface immensely. It is by no means a perfect machine, as windows 10 still struggles a little in high DPI tablet form, but its almost exactly what I wanted 6 years ago.

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Some Sample notes

Microsoft encourages the use of their note taking application, OneNote, for use on the Surface for note taking and tout the pen integration in the application so widely that a long press of the pen’s eraser from anywhere in the OS will bring up OneNote. I have found that there is a much better note taking application (for me) that is, oddly enough, also made by Microsoft. The application ‘Plumbago’, Latin for lead, is a Microsoft Garage project, and application made by employees basically in their free time, and its is a much simpler but much preferred note taking application. The app just lets you create notebook with a wide variety of paper styles and then gives you 25 pages to write what ever you want in pencil, pen, or highlighter. Its pretty simple but what is does it does right, the controls are simple and intuitive and the pen integration is the best I’ve tried.

Just testing around a in a notebook with graph paper I started sketching the items on my desk and got the idea that I could raise my monitor a couple inches closer to eye level and remove the speaker amp from the rest of the clutter. So as I often do I started sketching designs for a little stand that would accompany the amp and provide a little storage. One I had a design I liked  I modeled is in SketchUp and printed it out on the 3D Printer.

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Digital Sketchbooks!

By the morning after having the idea I had created and installed the monitor stand. It had gone trough a few iteration of design on ‘paper’ already moving form squares to hexagons. For a project taking a few hours its, so far, been working wonderfully.

Helping a Hand

I am the first to admit that most of my hobbies are realistically not the most efficient or effective way of handling something. Smart lighting and home automation are a convenience at best and really don’t provide enough utility to be a necessity; Sous-vide while amazing is not going to replace your stove or even a microwave oven; but this week I was able to take a step towards a future I hardly believe in, but many boldly claim might be an upcoming reality: home manufacturing.

With the popularity of 3D printers many media sources are calling this the start of the home manufacturing revolution. A new way of life that will be as big a change to our way of life as the industrial revolution. While I am very skeptical about this and building and operating a 3D printer has taught me that there are many, many obstacles in the way before this will be close to a reality. 3D printers today are very limited, very expensive, very slow and fairly unreliable, not to mention nowhere near as efficient as a large manufacturing run. But this week I showed myself that there is potential for a home manufacturing revolution.

As I spend most of every day sitting at a keyboard poor ergonomics and the cost of them is a real concern. Well it seems i had not been giving it proper attention as this week I started developing the wrist pain that comes from too much keyboard use. After aching through a day at work I came home and realized that I did not own a proper reinforced wrist brace to slap on until my wrist was better and I had made the necessary ergonomic improvements. While these can found online and in most drug stores I remembered a design I had seen that I wanted to try. 3D printing a wrist brace.

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3D printed wrist brace

Modeling and digitally fitting a fully formed wrist brace would be a pain and would by very difficult and time consuming to print. This design, of which I found a few iterations online, is ingenious as it uses the relatively low melting temperature of one of the commonly printed plastics, PLA, to make printing and fitting much easier. The brace is modeled and printed as a flat piece and after a dip in near boiling water becomes malleable enough to be wrapped around a wrist. Once cooled it maintains this form and is stiff enough to provide support.

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The wrist brace being printed

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A flat and formed wrist brace

While certainly not as comfortable as a commercial wrist wrap it worked quit well. The model I chose had fitting s for Velcro to be used to hold the brace in place but I found wrapping a compression bandage around it worked quite well, though it covered all those pretty hexagons. The printing of each brace took a little under an hour and half and the forming took just minutes, all without leaving home. It may not have been modeled from a 3D scan of my hand but it held up for a few days until I manage to get a proper brace and it was and interesting talking point to all who noticed.

3D printers will probably not be as popular as the inkjet for decades to come, and editing a model in CAD will never be a simple a writing up a document, but there is potential for 3D printing and home manufacturing to replace as least some mass manufactured products.

Pebble Power

I still have a bunch of photos that I have not uploaded from my vacation in the mountains. So many photos that I have to carefully curate them to a succinct few for posting. While working on that I want to report on an experiment that I preformed on my 10 day trip. The Pebble Time Steel which I had recently received boasts a 10 day battery life. Coincidentally the length of the trip I was about to embark on.

Could I go the entire trip, Friday to Sunday without charging it?

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Pebble, Tracking a trek at 12,000ft

No, I couldn’t. At 10:43am on the last Saturday of the trip the watch gave out. But 9 of the promised 10 days isn’t bad.

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Interestingly enough the Pebble still functions as a regular digital watch when the battery hits zero. I wounder if it would have lasted another day in that state?

Bleeding Out on the Edge

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Last week Oculus released SDK and runtime version 0.7 to bring Virtual Reality to all us windows 10 users.

Today I got my hands on an Original kickstarter Development Kit and was ready to settle in to some Oculus time comparing the two development kits.

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Sadly after a significant time spent getting windows and the Oculus configuration utility to detect the DK2, I loaded the demo scene to find that the fastest frame rate that could be driven to the headset is around the order of 3. Not quite the 75 FPS that the system was designed for. After some researching I found that I am not the only one having this problem; the community is blaming a bad graphics driver from Nvidia, and that the unreleased latest version has the fix.

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So I am still without means of powering my own VR.

Tough Little Machine

Though uses of quartz watches, analog or digital, may not sees the merit in it; I must rave about how hearty the original Pebble Smart watch is. I have had my Pebble over two years now and it stands today as amazing and marvelous as it was then, even with the launch of AndriodWear and the Apple watch in the interim.

I have been neglecting to charge my Pebble recently, not giving it the daily ten to twenty minutes of juice it usually gets, as I am moving house and my charger has yet to be packed and moved. But as the Pebble is advertised as having a five to seven day battery life, it has not been a problem. Limited charging through last week and no charges over the weekend. Monday morning I wake up to the ten percent battery warning! Now If my phone were down that low I would panic and scramble for a charger. No way that a tenth of the battery would last me the day, let alone an hour! But with the Pebble it was a challenge, can a device with a glued in battery that has been running continuously for two years last a day on nearly no charge. This is a challenge that plagues our technologically integrated society, we are stressed by our batteries and tethered by our chargers, any other device was sure to fail.

As the existence of the blog post may give you a premonition, the battery held. Like holy oil wanton for resupply the tiny battery stretched far longer than it should have. Lasting the entire day with no complaints. I may have stacked the odds a little by turning off the back light and the vibration motor, the more power hungry features. But who we to say that the Maccabees didn’t go easy on the oil. So while I wait impatiently for my new Pebble Time Steel to come off the assembly line, I am still impressed by the one on my wrist.

Technology Perpetuating Technology

In the news this week Apple unveiled more information about their newest product, the Apple watch. Discussions of smart watches (smarches) are very polarized, especially within the smart watch community. Whether or not smart watches are useful and what system is the best; Android Wear vs. Apple Watch against all the rest, the market is already pretty big. Personally, I am a backer of the Pebble smart watch, having been wearing one for nearly two years. Pebble has strategically launched their new watches in time with Apple’s event even though neither devices will be on anyone’s wrists for another few months. Still many are drawing conclusion and making unfounded comparisons between the two. Since I have access to a 3D Printer I decided to make a less-biased comparison and compare the physical form of the two.

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Left: Apple Watch, Right: Pebble Time

The Pebble Time is wider than the Apple Watch, which is much smaller than I expected it to be. The model I printed is of the 42mm model which is the larger of the two offered. The Pebble time is significantly thinner than the Apple Watch, and with the rounded face feels much more like a watch. The Apple watch gains a lot of thickness from the heart rate sensor the sticks out of the underside of the watch and the round rectangle shape make it feel like a mini tic-tac case.

With out regard to my personal preference in smart watches, it amazing how small both of these devices are.

Combining hobbies

When one has more than one hobby its always interesting to see how they can cross. Two of my passions happen to naturally fit well together; 3D Printing and Games.

Board and tabletop gaming mesh perfectly with 3D printing. How many times has a little piece of plastic gone missing from a box, only to be noticed weeks later half way through the next playing of the game? A small unicolored plastic token, that is what FDM printers are best at! Better yet, should you have to model the new piece yourself all the pieces from the box are usually the same shape so you have an object from which to take measurements. I had a missing Catan road piece that was easily replaced by some ABS plastic. One could easily see printing missing Monopoly houses or a militia man from Risk, pieces that get lost so easily and so often. Why stop at small pieces, I am in the process of rebuilding my Catan set with entirely 3D printed tiles. But this is only the first step, 3D printing and games can benefit from a closer association.
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So a 3D printer can replace a missing piece from a game, but what about a game that had no pieces to start with. Dungeons and Dragons and many other ‘Table Top’ role playing games do not require anything but paper, pencils, and imagination. Though imagination is all that is needed many players have found that adding drawn maps and physical tokens to the game are beneficial organizational tools and help encourage more role playing. Many campaigns will use what they have on hand; bottle caps, guitar picks, and thimbles. Some of the more committed will get Games Worksop miniatures or buy sets of models from Wizards of the Coasts. But with a personal fabrication device, why would anyone want to do that, just print them. There are a few artists who have started making and providing models of creatures, monsters, and dungeons elements often found in the worlds of Dungeons and Dragons to be printed and used. A committed and industrious Dungeon Master could try and print all the party’s encounters before the group meets. This is not always easy as the party will not always take the path the DM planned and encounters are sometimes unexpected by all involved. We have started using the 3D printer to print custom marker tiles, labeled “MONSTER” to denote where on the grid the big beasties are. This with some adhesive vinyl and wet erase markers lets us enact any encounter. My group uses hero characters out of my set of old Games Workshop miniatures but for players who are attached to their characters there is now a service, Hero Forge, that lets DnD players customize a character design and then have it printed on high resolution SLA printers. While its hard to get the same detail out of the popular FDM printers now, in the future creating one’s character might involve some 3D design and extruded plastic.
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So the 3D printing community can take a game and repair or enhance with this new technology. But what about the future of table top and board games, how might that be affected by the rise of 3D printing?

Since it may take years to decades for 3D printers to be common place in households (if this ever happens at all), the first place games will see innovation from 3D printing will probably be inside the packaged box. Game makers with access to 3D printing will be more easily able to prototype mechanically and visually complex game pieces. The parts that the home player would get would still be injection molded plastic, but used as a rapid prototyping device a 3D printers will make these pieces easier to design and play test with before the manufacturing run starts.

If 3D printing ever does become common place, then there may exist a market for digital distribution of physical board games. Table top and board games that come with printable STL files instead of playing pieces. Catan might be reduced to a deck or cards and a download code, tiles and play pieces all to be printed. This can make games cheaper, more flexile and shake up typical board game distribution channels. If a 3D printing enthusiast were to look online now there are already a couple of independent games designers making games to be printed and played. Some are calling the spread of 3D printing the start of a new home industrial revolution and I think that may be a big step away from where the technology is headed, but if there is ever is a time with a Form1 or Makerbot printer next to the family InkJet then games seems like an industry that should easily adapt to this new revolution.

Indulging in Hobbies

Today I held a race of man vs. machine. Myself against my 3D Printer. I started printing a hand shaped coat hook and started a Metal Earth model of a tarantula.2015-01-03 13.33.37 HDR

After a few hours though it was still neck and neck, but the printer managed to finish the hand a few minutes faster than I could assemble the laser cut model kit.

A New Dimension

Last week I revived a very special package, a box containing all the components I would need to assemble a printer. “Why would anyone what to build their own printer? Electronics stores are almost giving away ink jets these days.” This printer does not print with ink or paper, it prints plastic.

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There are many types of 3D printers but the ones that have been making the most news are Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers because a combination of expiring patents and availability of precision parts had made it possible for anyone with some time to kill to build one. FDM printers work by heating plastic until it is soft and malleable then pushing it through a pin hole opening to form hairlike strands of the plastic. Motors and belts move this extruder around while it is pushing the plastic out which forms shapes. This is repeated over and over creating layers of a 3D object.

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If you want something done right, you need to do it your self. Though this is not always true, its often applicable in the world of 3D printing. More and more people are making businesses out of selling and servicing 3D printers, most printers have no support other than the operator. That’s why its a good idea to build the printer one’s self and get a good knowledge of how the machine works, because eventually it won’t.
I purchased a kit from Makerfarm for a Prusa i3v 10. A printer in the popular open source Rep-Rap family. This kit came with almost all the prices needed for full assembly, I just needed a power supply and a piece of glass for the build plate. The assembly was fairly straight forward with every step of the way documented by YouTube tutorials. Putting in hours after work it took me a few days to get it ready to print.

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The Printer nearly completed

First print

First print

The first print was a calibration cube, 24mm by 24mm by 24mm, and it took me three tires until I could get one to print completely. Printing this helped me troubleshoot and find anywhere that I may have made a mistake when building the printer. I had to deconstruct and rebuild the extruder because some part of it were not tight enough the first time.
wpid-wp-1414603536453.jpeg Once the calibration cube was completed, it turned out very nice. Often these printers require hours of tuning and calibrations before they will print anything decent. This Prusa i3v just need some bed leveling at it printed pretty well. Eventually I will go through all the setups and calibrations to get perfect prints but first I want to try something a little more ambitious than a cube.

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3D printing a Star Trek com badge

I printed a few of these Star Trek com badges. A fan design that merges the styling of the new movie series with the com badges from The Next Generation. That’s pretty cool but I think we can do more.

Printing a Bust

Printing a Bust

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Though it didn’t come out perfectly I was able to print this bust from a 3D scan of a Greek statue. The entire thing took almost 6 hours to print but it came out pretty well. The spaghetti like string hanging off it are places on the statue, like the chin, where the overhang was too great for the rigidity of the plastic and the print was printing on air. To counter this prints with overhand are often printed with attaching support material.

2014-11-02 11.14.51With 3D printing one also gets a choice in the material to print with. The most common choices are plastics, specifically PLA a corn based plasic, and ABS you standard toy plastic. All the prints made from the white material are PLA. PLA is considered the easier print material to use because it melts at lower temperature than ABS, cools faster, and is completely nontoxic. PLA is more brittle than ABS and more sensitive to temperature changes, making it very good for display pieces but not for functional parts. To print with ABS a printer needs to have a heated build plate to keep the model warm while printing. Since ABS cools slowing than PLA a ABS print that is not heated will curl and bend as it cools, causing the print to fail.

My printer supports printing with both PLA and ABS and I also purchased a spool of black ABS plastic. Above is one of my first prints with it, a clip on bow tie.

3D printing is still in a state where it’s really only best for hobbyists, but it is fun hobby to have. This is not the home manufacturing revolution some say it will be, but it might be a baby step towards star trek style replicators, and I am glad to have a piece of the future sitting on my table.