Experience virtual reality at ESC Minneapolis

August 29, 2016

Max The Magnificent-August 29, 2016

I've long been enamored by the possibilities offered by virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems -- not just for entertainment purposes, but also for a wide variety of commercial, industrial, and military applications.

I believe that -- for the reasons discussed below -- 2016 will be seen as the starting point for an exponential growth in the deployment of embedded VR/AR systems. I think that embedded systems developers will be involved in creating specialized VR/AR chipsets and SDKs for use by the creators of higher-level systems; also, embedded systems developers will be augmenting their own products with VR/AR capabilities.

Although many people don’t know it, some surprisingly sophisticated VR and AR systems have been developed over the past 10 to 20 years, but their eye-watering price tags meant that they were available only to very specialized and limited industrial and military markets.

All that changed recently with the availability of high-end consumer systems -- like the Oculus Rift (~$600) and the HTC Vive (~$800) -- that end up costing a only couple of thousand dollars with the high-powered graphics workstation required to drive them. (I know a couple of thousand dollars isn’t cheap, but it's a mere bagatelle compared to the excruciatingly high cost of their industrial forebears.)

There are also lower-end systems -- like the VR Box (~$20) and the Gear VR (~$99) -- that employ your smartphone as the compute/graphics engine. In fact, just a couple of days ago as I pen these words, I visited my chums at GigaParts early in the morning before they flung open their doors to the hoi polloi their regular customers, and I spent a happy couple of hours evaluating, comparing, and contrasting all of the options mentioned above. I'll be reporting my findings in a future column (see also A brave new world of virtual, augmented, hybrid, hyper, and diminished realities and Virtual and mediated realities: presentation technologies and potential applications).

Your's truly at GigaParts experimenting with a surprisingly affordable VR Box
(Source: Max Maxfield /

The reason I mention this here is that my chum Daniel from GigaParts, along with a gaggle of his colleagues, will be bringing some of their mega-VR workstations -- along with a full Oculus Rift setup and an HTC Vive station -- to the forthcoming Embedded Systems Conference (ESC), which will take place September 21-22 in Minneapolis, MN.

The GigaParts Booth will be on the main Expo Floor, located close to the ESC Engineering Theater, and anyone attending the conference or Expo is welcome to wander over and experience the most mind-blowing virtual reality experience of their lives.

Actually, while I was writing this column (at this very point, in fact), Daniel emailed me to say that they've just posted this video showing the Oculus Rift and HTV Vive stations in their store -- this will be very similar to the setups they're bringing to ESC.

But wait, there's more, because Chuck Carter -- the man who created the graphics for the legendary Myst game -- will be giving the keynote presentation Playing a New Game: VR Challenges and Opportunities at ESC Minneapolis.

Chuck Carter (Source: Eagre Games)

As you may recall from a previous column (see Virtual reality experiences like ZED will change gaming as we know it), the folks at Eagre Games, of which Chuck is the founder, are furiously beavering away at an innovative, beautifully immersive, story-driven game called ZED.

A scene from ZED (Source: Eagre Games)

Chuck told me that he perused my column on the beast of a graphics workstation that I purchased from GigaParts to drive my Oculus Rift, and that he's very much looking forward to seeing my machine's big brothers at the GigaParts booth.

Furthermore, Chuck is planning on giving a live demo as part of his keynote. The idea is to get someone who has never used one of these high-end VR systems before to come up on the stage to try it out for the first time. Meanwhile, the rest of us will see a shallow 2D representation -- presented on the big screens either side of the stage -- of what this lucky soul is experiencing.

The problem is that Chuck has no desire to lug one of his own monster workstations around the country with him. Tra-da! GigaParts to the rescue! I just called Daniel to see if they can help out. He informs me that they've just introduced a line of high-end VR-ready laptops and that they will be delighted to loan one to Chuck for his keynote (I do love it when a plan comes together).

What, you want even more? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier column (see Discover more about the recent MS-DOS vs. CP/M analysis), a bunch of us (an "Enigma of Engineers," if you will) will be meeting up on Tuesday 20 September -- the evening before the conference -- at the Brit's Pub & Eating Establishment in Minneapolis.

Chuck says that he looks forward joining us there for nibbles and refreshments and that he'll be more than happy to chat about the Myst days, all of the games and other things he's been involved in since then, his new ZED game, and virtual and augmented reality in general. We'll all be wandering in sometime between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and hanging out for a few hours, so please feel free to drop by and join us if you are in the vicinity (I'll be the one in the Hawaiian shirt -- just shout "Max, would you like a beer?" and you will be assured of my undivided attention).

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