Every year or so I touch base with the next generation of multimedia developers at Carnegie-Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, located at Electronic Arts’ Redwood Shores campus. ETC is the premier graduate program for interactive entertainment, a multidisciplinary endeavor run by my friend and mentor Carl Rosendahl (yeah that Carl as in PDI as in Shrek). Yesterday I made the pilgrimage to ETC, and the visit did not disappoint. I was treated to two excellent projects by the students.

One of the projects was an experiment in untethered virtual reality called Project Gotan (not to be confused with Gotan Project, the electronic tango band). Project Gotan is an experiment in virtual reality that puts a Durovis Dive 7 together with a Project Tango tablet, allowing you to freely navigate room-scale VR using a mobile device. The Tango continually scans the physical environment, creating a virtual world in real time to represent your actual surroundings. The upshot of this is that you can be in a fully immersive headset, optically cut off from the outside world, and yet walk around freely without fear of bumping into things and, more importantly, without wires and a cable sherpa keeping you safe.

That’s me, all over: walking around in room scale VR with no wires.

A nice touch was the procedurally generated, voxel-rendered world in the style of Minecraft. Unlike the game, this world doesn’t need to calculate surface areas using marching cubes or some other computationally challenging task on a tablet. The Tango is delivering point cloud data, which Gotan can render directly as those familiar grass-and-dirt block shapes without much fuss; this world had a few million points in it, easy.

The world of Project Gotan, with real-world physical obstacles rendered as voxels in the virtual world.

One small critique I had was that I thought the size of the voxels was deceptive. In Minecraft it feels to me like voxels are about 1/2 meter on a side each. Now this is the interesting part: even though I have only ever experienced Minecraft on a flat screen (hope that changes soon!), I have an unconscious sense of the physical size of a voxel. I brought this innate assumption with me into the Project Gotan environment, and during my first forays it tripped me up, literally and figuratively. The Gotan voxels seemed to be just a few inches on a side, which made me move very tentatively through the space until I got accommodated to the difference in scale. Don’t get me wrong; this is a minor complaint, and I only share the story for the observation about how our sensory systems are intertwined with muscle memory — crazy!

Even though I have only ever experienced Minecraft on a flat screen, I have an unconscious sense of the physical size of a voxel.

Project Gotan is a grad student project, an experiment to see how far we can push room-scale immersion. It’s still crude — but maybe it points to where we can take VR with a little imagination and a lot of hard work jamming for a grade. This was Unfettered VR and now that I’ve had a taste, well, the bar has been raised for me.