Virtual Reality Station

College Library recently began offering a virtual reality station within its computer lab. We hope the introduction of this station will catch the attention of individuals or departments that would like to utilize our technology for research or education.

The station is simply a computer and an Oculus Rift with touch controllers. The computer is a Dell Precision T5810 with the following specs:

Intel Xeon Processor E5-1603 v3 (Four Core, 10 MB Cache, 2.8GHz)
PNY GeForce GTX 1070 Graphics card – 8GB GDDR5 – PCI 3.0 x16
16GB (4x4GB) 2400MHz DDR4 RDIMM ECC
1TB SATA Hard Drive

The station is located just within the entrance of our computer lab for high visibility, and showcases the current user’s experience on a monitor at the station. This allows for interested parties to be a part of the experience and see what environment the user is interacting with.

There is no keyboard or mouse provided at the station, so the only way a user can interact with the station is through the Oculus Rift software using the headset, and the touch controllers. This prevents users from using the station as a regular computing station, and makes security and management of the associated computer unnecessary. If troubleshooting is necessary, one of our staff can plug in a keyboard and mouse as needed.

Since the Touch controllers are wireless, we require that users check them out from the desk. This removes the need to secure them at the station, which would restrict movement. The other advantage to circulating the controllers, is we are tracking the number of uses, which is a valuable metric.

Finally, we roped off the perimeter of the station so that viewers do not stand within the playing area while a user’s vision is obstructed by the headset. The Oculus Software allows you to draw your boundaries so that when the user is nearing the edge of the play area they will see a virtual wall warning them that their space is restricted.

Our virtual reality station in public space
Our virtual reality station in public space
User playing The Climb on the virtual reality station
User playing The Climb on the virtual reality station

Why Oculus Rift?

We began offering VR by circulating the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, allowing patrons to borrow the headset for possible development prior to the retail release of the Oculus Rift. This item was circulated using our reservation system, and was booked for months by interested patrons. At that point we wanted to purchase another to increase availability, but Oculus had made the Development Kit 2 unavailable to prepare for the retail release. We decided to pre-order the retail version of the Oculus Rift to circulate once it was made available to us.

Since we were already circulating Oculus hardware, we decided to stick with that brand for consistency’s sake. There was no investigation done to determine the best VR headset for our environment since the Development Kit 2 was the only headset of its kind available on the market.

Why a VR station instead of circulating the headset?

With the release of the retail version of the Oculus Rift came greater hardware demands. While we felt that the demands for running the Development Kit 2 were reasonable for the average user (we were able to run it on a mac laptop, albeit with a relatively low frame rate), we could not expect the average user to own the hardware that could meet the demands of the Oculus Rift.

We considered continuing to circulate the Oculus Rift and adding a computer to the package, but supporting and maintaining the computer that circulated with the VR device would add an unnecessary complication to making the device available. Also the entire package would be much less portable. It was clear to us that the most logical solution, which would provide the best experience for the user, would be purchasing a high powered computer and offering access to the device within our lab.

Testing

To test the usability of the station we set it up in our office and did usability testing ourselves. We tested any of the free software that made use of the Oculus Touch controllers and purchased a package of software to test as well. This allowed us to find the VR experiences we could offer that would be easy for any patron interested in using the station to easily jump into without prior knowledge of using the device.

Once we tested software, we had to test the user experience as best as we could. To do this we invited several of our student staff, coworkers, and friends to come experience VR. Over a period of two weeks we had about fifteen different individuals with varying degrees of experience in VR and video gaming test our setup. With little, next to no guidance, each individual was able to dive-in and enjoy their experience. This testing did reveal some possible technical issues we could encounter when the station became available to the public.

Anticipated Problems and Solutions

One issue we discovered was the cables plugged into the headset end would sometimes get pulled loose while the user was attempting to put on the headset. This would result in a blackout within the headset since the HDMI was no longer connected. The fix was simply pushing the cabling back in, but each time required intervention by the person supporting the device.

Without any experience with the Oculus software it is not clear how to exit an experience to try a new one, or once you have finished using the station. Because of this, users would remove the headset mid-experience, which resulted in the next user entering VR in the middle of a mysterious experience.

At one point one of our users chose a VR experience that required sitting. Because of this they adjusted the sensor cameras for a sitting position manually, which resulted in a poor experience for the next user who attempted to use the station. To correct this we had to walk through the setup process again, which can be a bit tedious. Any experience that requires sitting was removed to avoid making users feel like they need to adjust the sensors.

Lastly, after vigorous activity and use, the foam on the Oculus Rift headset would become saturated in sweat. This would likely make the next user uncomfortable putting on the headset. Unfortunately, time is the only thing that can effectively dry the foam on the headset.

To mitigate these issues created by users we developed a “station reset process” that our staff would go through when the Touch controllers were returned. This involved making sure the user returned to the home menu in the Oculus software, everything was plugged in and working as expected, the sensors hadn’t been repositioned, and wiping down the headset and controllers with alcohol wipes.

The last problem we were able to observe was software crashes. Periodically an experience would crash, which would make the station unusable unless you had a keyboard and mouse to resolve the issue. Ideally these will be few and far between, and our staff can intervene if these occur.

To provide extra assistance to new users, we provided a set of Quick-Start instructions at the station with a recommended first experience (First Contact, which was developed by Oculus as an introduction to the Touch controllers).

We also anticipated that the station could receive high traffic, and if someone wanted to use the station for specific educational purposes, it may be valuable to be able to reserve it. Using the same reservation system (EMS) that we use for study rooms, we included the VR station as reservable space. To inform possible users of reservations, we put an iPad display at the station, which shows the reservations for the day.

Initial Software

As previously mentioned we tested a wide range of software, but only software that allowed use of the Oculus Touch controllers. By only testing and offering software that made use of the Touch controllers, we can offer a consistent experience where the user can physically interact with the environment. We tested all of the free software available in that category, but also purchased a bundle package of software to test (all software in the purchased section was a single bundle).
Since the Oculus Rift is relatively new and video gaming focused, the software available that was produced by professional developers had little educational focus. Given the opportunity to purchase software that was specifically educational versus video gaming focused, we would have purchased the educational software. Without that choice we chose the Oculus Touch software package to offer a broader experience to the users.

Below is a list of the games and experiences we will offer:

Free
Bullet Train – Single player, first person shooter
Dead and Buried (Free with purchase of Oculus Touch controllers) – Online, cooperative, first person shooter
First Contact – Oculus’ introduction to the Oculus Touch controllers
In.Block – 3D drawing
Robo Recall (Free with purchase of Oculus Touch) – First person shooter
Thread Studio – Interactive T-Shirt Design
Toy Box – Interaction with various objects
VR Multigames – A variety of games and experiences

Purchased
I Expect You to Die – James Bond themed escape game
Job Simulator – Humorous interactive job simulator
Kingspray – Spray paint graffiti
Medium – 3D sculpting, modeling, and painting
Quill – 3D drawing
Ripcoil – Online, competitive, pong style game
Space Pirate – Single player, First person shooter
Super Hot – Single player, strategic, first person shooter
The Climb – Rock climbing
Tilt Brush VR – 360 degree painting

Adaptations

Once we offered the station for a couple weeks, we made some observations and implemented some adaptions to respond to issues:

Users were manually adjusting the sensors, which was unnecessary. To attempt to deter users from doing this we put labels on each sensor advising them not to move the sensors. While this has only been somewhat effective, the degree to which the sensors have been adjusted or moved has decreased dramatically.

We noticed that most of the users of the station tended to play first person shooter games exclusively, turning the station into something resembling an arcade machine. Our initial goal was to showcase the many mechanics and capabilities of the hardware to attract academic use of the technology. We assumed users would be drawn to the shooting games, but hoped they would also try other experiences. Unfortunately this was not the case. On top of that, we also didn’t feel comfortable showcasing shooting games within our library.

To attempt to remedy this, we uninstalled all games that were shooter focused, and refined the overall software list by removing redundant software. We also purchased some new experiences to offer more of a variety. Our adapted list became:

Calcflow – 3 dimensional graphing
Everest VR – Explore a virtual Mount Everest
Fantastic Contraption – Build life-size contraptions
First Contact – Oculus’ introduction to the Oculus Touch controllers
Home Improvisation – Furniture Sandbox – Wacky furniture building and interior design
Job Simulator – Humorous interactive job simulator
Kingspray – Spray paint graffiti
Medium – 3D sculpting, modeling, and painting
Perfect – Experience a variety of virtual environments
Star Chart – Interactive constellation and star map
The Climb – Rock Climbing
The Martian VR Experience – Interactive adventure based on The Martian film
Thread Studio – Interactive t-shirt design
Tilt Brush VR – 360 degree painting
Toy Box – Interaction with various objects

We categorized this software list based on experience type, ease of use, and recommendations, so that a user can make a more educated decision when they pick which experience they would like to try. This list was printed on a poster and placed at the station.

To allow for users to give us feedback, make software requests, or request special use of the station for academic purposes, we created a survey, and have the link posted at the station.

Initial Impressions and Observations

UPDATE: Oculus Rift has released an update for their software that allows for the Rift to be used in “Demo mode”. This allows complete control over what software users can access, and makes it more viable in an enterprise environment.

Overall, I would say that in its current state, Oculus Rift technology does not belong in this environment. This is because of one major issue with the software, which is lack of features to provide control. From the headset a user can access the Oculus store, and download any free or already purchased experience. So, despite the fact we uninstalled the first person shooter experiences, they remain the most popular because users are able to install them again. There are no feature in the Oculus software that would allow us to prevent this, not even parental controls.

As a result, a cool, new piece of hardware that has the potential to become a powerful education device is rendered to an arcade machine for study break stress relief. From the perspective of the passerby, instead of our investment in the technology being viewed as enriching technology experience to any user, not just gamers, it is likely being viewed as us financing our users desires to try virtual gaming. It is clear that they have a very restricted target market, which will substantially impact the success of this technology.

The hardware itself is impressive and of high quality. The controllers have a perfect balance in your hand, and once a user is used to the button layout, they function flawlessly in the virtual setting. The headset does not feel like a burden to your face, and it is very easy to adjust, but periodically the cable attaching it to the computer can disrupt the experience. Unfortunately, the lack of control the software provides outweighs the niceness of the hardware, no matter how ideal it is.

If this technology pilot turns out to be a success in creating academic partnerships, we would be willing to expand on it. However, if Oculus does not offer some kind of control in their software, we would move away from the Rift and explore new options such as the HTC Vive.

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