Virtual Reality, Drones, and Bots

Virtual reality for drones and bots
Credit: @pestoverde FLICKR

A look at the impact of virtual reality on the world of sports and how VR immerses spectators into the eyes of robot athletes.

When the World Drone Prix came to a close earlier this month, a fifteen year-old from Somerset, England had to take a few steps back, forcing himself to breath as he came out of a state of utter disbelief – he was now the champion. In a daze he pushed his goggles back, letting the air get to his bloodshot eyes for the first time in what must have felt like hours, even though the race had only took seven minutes. He had won. Suddenly Luke Bannister was bombarded with yapping people all around him, shaking his hand, patting him on the back, and taking pictures as he posed victoriously in his iconic pilot outfit – a white jumpsuit, a bulky controller hanging from a black strap around his neck, and the indispensable Fat Shark visor hanging just above it.
The Dominator HD headset is a popular choice among quadcopter enthusiasts looking for a good set of First-Person-View (FPV) goggles. It’s price-point is significantly lower than the Oculus Rift, another common sight at the FPV scene, and the Fat Shark brand is trusted within pilot circles. Some pilots use their own custom-built headsets. They allow for a deep level of immersion – the pilot can become one with their machine.  

Without these visors, FPV racing simply couldn’t exist. They have their limits, however. Many racers hook their drone up to a Transporter 3D, a helpful little box that directs two video signals into a headset. If dual equipped, it can also send accelerometer data back to the copter’s moving camera mounts, which then move in sync with the pilot as he pivots his head to look around. Unfortunately, though, the T3D uses video inputs from antiquated RCA cables. These only carry standard definition video, which can be grainy and unpleasant.

There’s another transmitter box that’s popular right now because it uses good ol’ HDMI, as man was intended to live. It’s from DJI and it’s called the LightBridge, which can deliver 3D video to a headset in a much prettier 720p/1080i, with a stream of flight data. It’ll read out altitude, speed, battery charge and more in real-time. There’s a trade-off here, though, because the LightBridge doesn’t have any support for head-tracking gear. Hopefully the next generation of communication systems will pack all the features from the LightBridge and the T3D into one system.

Quadcopter pilots are extremely excited at the prospects of a second wave of Virtual Reality(VR) tech. FPV and VR go hand in hand, and nearly every major tech company has a vested interest in the virtual world. Almost every push forward in the Augmented Reality (AR)/VR industry will nudge FPV racing along too.

Mankind has always sought ways to experience what can’t be lived, to inhabit new realities, in mind and perception at least. Today, you can put on a headset and escape into a world nearly indistinguishable from the real one, at least graphically speaking. But even before we had the Oculus Rift we were painting on walls, sharing our experiences.

You can get lost in a painting the same way you can in a video game, but it takes a special amount of effort.

So our murals have gotten bigger, our cathedrals became towering and acoustic powerhouses that came closer and closer to enveloping the entirety of our senses, so we could lose ourselves. Maybe the earliest attempts at “virtual reality” go back to the renaissance, in beautiful panoramic murals so grand they could totally encompass a man’s field of vision. Soon there would come the stereoscope, and not long after we’d have 3D movies. Now technology can do what was barely imaginable a century ago.

There was a VR “boom” in the nineties, but it was just one big flop after another. The technology simply couldn’t do what was promised. It couldn’t provide the immersion, just pixelated images that didn’t even approach the photorealistic, and without a minimum of detail VR is just dizzying and a little annoying, at least according to focus groups. 1990 virtual reality pixelationBut that’s all changed, now. In fact, the Digi-Capital team is predicting the Augmented and Virtual Reality industry will be worth a staggering $150 billion dollars in 2020. In addition to the Facebook-owned Oculus, companies like Samsung and Sony are developing high-end immersion goggles, not to mention all the gear VR headsets that work with smartphones coming from companies like Google, HTC and LG.

Now that the technology has reached that critical turning point, and can handle simulations with an insane amount of visual detail. The only thing really holding consumers back is the basic lack of content to get immersed in. People want to use VR in a way that feels a lot like they’re living out a movie (not always suitable for all ages…), and there’s just not a lot of content available like that. Which is where companies like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix come in. Amazon is still in the recruiting phase. Netflix released an app for gear VR, and is rumored to be developing scripted entertainment for VR. Hulu boasts that a slew of content will become available this spring. Independent content-creators have been loving the new tech as well: dramas, sci-fi and comedies for VR have all come out of Sundance’s New Frontier Story Lab. And there’s potential for so much more than scripted narrative.

Importantly for Third Law Sports, sports fans are about to get a huge upgrade to their at-home experience. A company called NextVR has partnered with the NBA and Turner Sports to deliver a game live and in stunning virtual reality, making them the first ever to do so. This landmark event came after the company had captured several NFL games, which they showed off at a booth during the SuperBowl. It’s a whole new medium, an experience that lets you move between a number of locations and look around. It lets the fan feel like they’re there in a way a TV set could never do.

It’s only a matter of time before tech like NextVR makes its way to the world of robot sports. Imagine Battlebots in VR – you could stand in the ring as the machines duke it out, feeling the warmth of the flamethrowers on your skin, jumping out of the way on impulse as a free flying buzzsaw comes hurtling through the air, then switching to the view of the winning bot as it delivers the final blow.

Put on a helmet and suddenly you’re buzzing around treetops. Or a drone’s view has been augmented to imitate a different planet. Or flying through the air and doing lots of things people normally can’t do. Maybe you’re not a person at all – hell, there’s a full-body immersion rig called Birdly that lets you control a flight simulator by flapping your arms, complete with a fan that revs up the faster you fly. The user can feel just like a bird. Almost sounds like magic, doesn’t it? What was it Arthur C. Clarke said about any sufficiently advanced technology?

Virtual reality technology will invariably change the relationships between audience and athlete, between an individual and the universe, and between a pilot and his machine. Perhaps the biggest challenge people will face in the next few decades will be taking the visor off.


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