Milton Keynes-based Transport Systems Catapult has installed an advanced virtual reality system to test how pedestrians react to driverless cars in a safe environment.
The system uses the Oculus Rift headset, Optotrak’s motion tracking technology and a special floor that allows the user to move and walk in the virtual Milton Keynes completely unconstrained.
“This is the Omnideck 6, the missing link between reality and virtual reality,” said Daniel Hopstadius, CEO of Swedish firm Omnifinity which has engineered the system.
“What you can see behind me is my colleague Peter walking around in Milton Keynes as if he were there for real. He is constrained to a wire and when the wire stops, he stops. But having this floor, he can move totally freely in the world.”
Omnideck 6, which had its UK debut in Milton Keynes during the Imagine Festival last week, smoothly responds to Peter’s movements by compensating for the speed of his steps. Although he is walking through the unlimited space of the virtual world, he will never walk off the circular floor only a few metres in size.
Omnideck was launched in December last year and has seen a huge amount of interest from researchers, architects and designers, the military and of course, the gaming industry.
“The next thing is to bring in the tactile feedback so that you would be able to feel the objects with your hands,” Hopstadius said. “That’s going to be a huge step and also combining sound with visual and the smell. Once you get all these together, you will be fully, fully immersed.”
The current virtual world in Milton Keynes is designed to test the interaction between pedestrians and driverless cars. In the safe virtual world, pedestrians can get familiar with the pods and their behaviour without risking an injury.
“For example, if a pod is approaching you on a pavement, do you need to know that the pod has recognised your presence? Do you need to know that it is going to change course or direction and therefore should it indicate this change externally?” Transport Systems Catapult’s principal technologists Martin Pett named some of the questions the researchers want to ask in the trials.
But the potential of the tool is, of course, much wider.
“We believe that there are a number of opportunities to use virtual realities to help decision-makers make decisions,” Pett said. “To take away the emphasis on large lengthy reports and 2D drawings and to use a consistent language to communicate the future designs of infrastructure, civil engineering projects and other possible areas where using visual media is much more powerful in communicating what’s intended.”
The experience is truly captivating and the user easily forgets about the real world around. The researchers believe that in the future, people would be able to use virtual worlds to visit exotic places, ancient monuments or natural marvels. Let’s hope our appetite for the beauty in the real world stays unchanged.