Google’s Johnny Lee Is Out To Solve VR’s Biggest Problem

by Ian Hamilton • March 14th, 2016

Move over John Carmack, Google’s Johnny Lee and his fellow Googlers are out to solve mobile positional tracking for VR and AR.

Positonal tracking is the fundamental VR technology that unlocks the ability to walk around a room while immersed. It’s currently limited to wired VR headsets because doing it with a mobile battery-powered device currently seems to drain too much power and create too much heat. Carmack, the chief technology officer at Oculus, took it upon himself to try and solve the problem problem for Facebook. The first company to figure out how to do positional tracking in a sleek mobile device will be able to leapfrog existing technology and Lee, who is the technical lead on Google’s Tango project, thinks it’s a solvable problem.

“I definitely think we can get there,” Lee said during a phone call with UploadVR ahead of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Lee is a tiny bit famous among geeks for a 2007 video in which he hacks a Nintendo’s Wii hardware to film a jaw-dropping demonstration of virtual reality. In just under five minutes, he uses the hacked Wii remote and sensor bar to show how the basic concepts of virtual reality could be accomplished with a traditional TV. The video has been viewed more than 10 million times since its release.

“Forever I will be known as the Wiimote guy on Youtube,” Lee joked.

Not if he solves positional tracking for VR before Carmack.

That’s still in the future, though, and this week at GDC Google is focused on unveiling Unreal Engine integration for its Tango platform by way of a plugin by Opaque. It joins ealier integration with Unity. Now game developers can use some of the most common game creation toolsets for entertaining augmented reality experiences that can understand the world around you.

Developers like Jesse Schell, for example, have used Tango to build a two-player Jenga game where you can place a virtual stack of blocks on a real-world table and then pass a tablet back and forth to pull out blocks and place them on top. The whole game is played through the lens of a tablet. Lenovo is first off the mark with a Tango-compatible phone planned for later this year and, Lee said, “we’re definitely interested in talking to other manufacturers.”

For games, there’s an incredible amount of potential in Tango to let a device scan a room’s dimensions and then use it as the enviornment for a game. Imagine firing basketballs all over the room and seeing them realistically bounce off your walls or furniture. That’s the kind of thing Lee and his team at Google are hoping more developers get excited about doing with the Tango platform.

When asked is he’s working on both AR and VR, Lee clarifies that what most interests him are “devices that know where they are.” It sounds like an abstract idea, but it gets weight when you think about the ways technologies like GPS and an App Store that could use general location information have changed our lives. When our devices know exactly where they are in a room, “there’s a whole new class of products that could be made.”

Not the least of those devices is an integrated mobile VR headset that could theoretically combine the portability of today’s phone-powered headsets with the incredible immersion of wired systems with position tracking like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

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