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Atlas: Mapping Virtual Reality Onto The Real World

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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Anyone who grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation has had one persistent dream: to one day stand on a holodeck, that miraculous 24th century technology which can simulate any environment.

Want to run down a back alley in Gotham City? Stand against Death Eaters in the halls of Hogwarts? Visit the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise? Just step onto the holodeck and you're there.

Okay, with that last one you're already on the Enterprise, but maybe you're not allowed on the bridge. Point being: a holodeck would bring imaginary worlds to life.

Game developer Aaron Rasmussen grew up with that dream. When a friend asked him a few years ago if he could work on anything, with money as no object, he knew it would involve pursuing what is essentially the holy grail of video games.

"So then I started seriously looking at it to see what technologies were out there," said Rasmussen, "and I felt that the goggles were going to be getting close."

Which is how we get to Atlas, the new "virtual reality made real" system that Rasmussen is looking to jump start via crowdfunding. The claim that Atlas can make virtual reality experiences feel more like real life is a bold one, and warranted a first hand examination.

Rasmussen and his partners had brought an Oculus Rift experience If a Tree Screams in the Forest... to the Electronic Entertainment Expo this past June, pulling it together after just a few short weeks with the VR development kit.

If a Tree Screams in the Forest... puts players into a creepy forest, where monstrous trees stalk you. If they catch you: game over. However, they can't move if you're looking at them. Playing the game involves lots of quick looks over the shoulder, checking for murderous oaks.

Motion in the E3 demo was handled by way of a standard Xbox 360 controller. This is something that non-gamers have a problem with when it comes using the Oculus Rift. As intuitive as a controller is for gamers, it is opaque for many who don't have console gaming experience.

Rasmussen's Atlas aims to address that problem.

"The concept is seven or eight years old, but the tech just wasn't there," Rasmussen told me. "There's three major issues that I saw. One, we needed a wide field of view VR goggles. Two we needed super low latency, orientation head-tracking and three we needed accurate 3d positioning."

Oculus VR's Rift took care of items one and two on Rasmussen's list, and earlier this month the developer hit Kickstarter seeking funds to finish up the project that he believes solves the third.

The need to test Rasmussen's claims of having overcome that last hurdle is how I found myself standing in his living room with a iPhone strapped to my chest.

Rasmussen stood behind me with his laptop after placing a series of colorful QR-code markers on half the hardwood floor to give the positioning software reference points. The other half of the floor was taken up by a Persian rug, which Rasmussen told me could be used by the system as a reference point.

Once I donned the Rift, which always feels like putting on a snorkel, I was no longer standing in Rasmussen's apartment but a villa somewhere. Outside a giant rock monster was smashing the ground. Without headphones I couldn't hear any sound from inside the world, but with them I wouldn't have been able to hear Rasmussen if I was about the run into an armchair or reach the end of the cable that kept me tethered to the laptop in his hands.

This was not a super-sexed up media experience but an impressive alpha nonetheless. Everything that goes into the experience is, essentially, off the shelf aside from the Atlas software itself. Rasmussen's living room isn't particularly big, and if I turned around at certain points the virtual world would deform as I pivoted the iPhone away from the tracking markers.

When I was in the middle of the markers, however, the experience was even more uncanny than my previous turns with the Rift. Leaning into a character brought me closer to their face, crouching brought me an entirely new perspective on the scene. What's more: these simple motions where fun in and of themselves. I'm sure the novelty will wear off after a few dozen trips in, but at the moment the sensation of being able to physically move inside a virtual space is compelling.

"When you turn your head you want your brain to think it's simultaneous with the world spinning around you," said Rasmussen.

This engineering problem led Rasmussen to chase "very low latencies" in the positioning system.

"I luckily met David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies simultaneity in the brain. We talked quite a lot about what does the brain perceives as simultaneous," said Rasmussen. "He just said: 'No, no, no, you're going way way too low. The brain can handle much higher latencies than that."

According to Rasmussen the current positioning system is five times slower than what he was originally pursing.

"The brain is way more sensitive to orientation than it is to positioning," Rasmussen learned. "Which kind of makes sense. The same reason that an accelerometer isn't good at dead reckoning in a 3D volume, your inner ear isn't going to be very good at dead reckoning.

"It uses your kinematic model but if you close your eyes and then you walk a ways and you open your eyes, you're not going to be where you thought you were. You can kind of take advantage of that, so I use the Oculus Rift for orientation, because you have this amazing low latency."

Rasmussen says that he's asked everyone who has tried the Atlas/Oculus system if they have experienced a delay, and the response is always that they haven't. I can attest to that: save for when I stepped "off" the game board the Atlas experience was incredibly natural. There was so latency lag that I could detect.

"Apparently I'm the only one," said Rasmussen, "because I know it's there and that's what I'm looking for. So that's great news."

The developer is currently seeking $125,000 in crowdfunding, which will go "towards manufacturing chest mounts in quantity (aka inexpensively) and bringing the other part time team members to full time."

Rasmussen said "the extra manpower is needed to deliver a really great product."

This isn't Rasmussen's first go round with crowdfunding. A previous project, for an device called "Mr. Ghost" that turns iPhones into electromagnetic field detectors, was a hit with the gadget set. the "ghost" is a reference to the assembled product's similarity to the "PKE meter" from Ghostbusters and the belief by "ghost hunters" that spirits create EMF distortions. (You can also see Rasmussen's living room in the pitch video for Mr. Ghost.)

In previous career incarnations Rasmussen spun a robotic sentry gun he built in college into a robotics company, and then turned to making novelty energy drinks aimed at gamers. There's a magpie mind at work behind these creations, one that seems to have found a calling as a game developer.

"In February I went to IndieCade East because we had a video game in it called Blindside and stood in line for an hour, tired the Oculus," said Rasmussen. "It was absolutely phenomenal and I just quit everything I was doing just to work on this."

If the Atlas as it stands today is the result of just five months of concentrated work, then that dream of standing on the holodeck might not take until the 24th century to come true.

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