In the space of just one year virtual reality has gone from a highly anticipated hobbyist kit, to a commercially available consumer product available at Best Buy. While the overwhelming majority of that is positive, one thing I do find myself missing is the days when one, or two innovators could blow our collective minds with a hacked together prototype. That wild west era when people with enough imagination, guts and duct tape could create something truly incredible has been overshadowed a bit as more and more money pours into the space. Last week I got to dive back into that time thanks to a new, very early prototype from two modern-day VR cowboys.
The product is so early that it doesn’t even have a name, but its creators do. Stephen Greenwood and Allan Evans are the mad scientists who one day had the thought, “I think we could make a VR headset that works underwater,” and are now following through on that theory. Greenwood works in digital production for Discovery and Evans is the CTO and co-founder of Avegant Glyph.
The duo invited UploadVR to try out their underwater HMD in an early-access demo and we got the whole thing on tape.
There were two experiences running on the underwater headset. The first was a space walk with soothing music played over bone-conduction, underwater headphones. The second was a coral reef complete with schools of fish that would swim right up to me. This experience was scored by David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Come to think of it that song makes more sense for the space experience, but the juxtaposition actually worked amazingly well.
Speaking to the headset’s design, Greenwood explains that, “Essentially it’s basically like a Google Cardboard headset but with a waterproof phone…basically we put lenses on a dive mask. It uses water as part of the working distance and a Samsung Galaxy Edge Phone.”
What he means by “working distance” is that the unique lenses inside this HMD use the refraction of the water to properly align the images of each eye. VR images are warped and distorted using lenses and software to cost effectively offer a wide field of view with a commodity display. The lenses on this headset do some of that bending, but they depend on the water that leaks into the headset to do the remaining work.
What this breaks down to is a mass of waterproof rubber and tape and a display that only truly works to render proper VR when you’re underneath the water. Submerging yourself and watching a brand new world appear around you is an incredible experience and the weightlessness of the water provided a layer of immersion I didn’t even know I wanted until now.
That transportive essence is what Greenwood thinks could be a key use case for the device going forward, stating that “maybe someday when this is high fidelity enough you can go for a dive on the great barrier reef without ever leaving your city.”
Ultimately though, for now this project is all about answering questions. “It was our chance to explore some theories about VR underwater. Do you get motion sick when you’re underwater? Do you get a sense of Zero-G? Can you do a space experience…It also allows your mind to have a suspension of disbelief. So I think as crazy as it is yeah it’s worth trying,” Greenwood said.
There is no positional tracking inside the device and audio is currently provided using third party conductive headphones that can be heard clearly underwater. However, Greenwood and Evans were very clear that this is an early, early prototype that could be described as “pre-pre-alpha.”
The inventive pair does not necessarily know just yet where their research and development into underwater VR will take them, but Greenwood can see it being used to create large-scale installations in pools or at the beach and could even be aligned with the sensory deprivation scene for “floating.”
In any case, it was exciting to see that not every question in VR needs a massive investment check to be answered. Some amazing experiences can still be forged on a very small budget with a very big idea.
Just make sure you keep your eyes open.