In July of 2016, we published our Virtual Reality focused issue of Make: magazine. It was a lot of fun to build since I’m admittedly a VR nerd. I got to visit Valve Software and see all the prototypes that led up to the HTC Vive, and thoroughly geek out for a solid month on people’s projects in this space.
Virtual Reality is still growing strong, and getting ever more popular, which leads me to keep asking how it fits into the Make: community. Are makers innovating in this space? Is it a useful tool?
Lets dive into the things I’ve seen over the past year and make some guesses.
First, watch this talk I gave at Maker Faire Detroit, which covers the observations I made during the creation of the Virtual Reality issue of the magazine. In this talk I discuss where makers fit into the Virtual Reality community.
Now let’s look at how things are playing out, as witnessed at this year’s Maker Faires and online.
Really, makers aren’t doing much here. There are a few people tinkering, but largely the development of new headsets and new display technologies is being left to the large budget labs. There are a few new contenders in this market attempting to gain a foothold, but this is not an area that makers are disrupting. This is no big surprise, as we saw last year, things like custom optics are very difficult for people to play with at home, and creating new high refresh rate and high resolution displays isn’t something the garage tinkerer is typically pulling off.
I have seen an incredible adoption of headsets into booth displays at Maker Faire though. As recently as a few months ago, you’d see a couple pairs of Oculus Rift or HTC Vive set up as an attraction, with a long line. The headset itself was the draw. Now, you can hop into a Maker Faire and find VR being integrated as a new display method in many booths, even when their focus isn’t VR. Watch through this hour long live tour of one of the buildings from Maker Faire Rome and you’ll probably catch glimpses of 20 or more instances of VR being used as an additional tool at a booth.
People who are doing architecture and farming are using VR to show off the projects that they can’t bring to the Faire. Others are using it as an interesting way to interact with art pieces. Adoption is happening incredibly fast, and a VR rig is simply another tool in a maker’s toolbox, like a fancy monitor.
There are still many makers and startups in this area. It’s my personal opinion that the level of innovation here is at a bit of a plateau. Most of what I see happens to be gloves with vibrator motors in them, or gloves with actuators to stop your fingers and make it feel like you’re touching something. There are probably hundreds of variations on these two things. Outside of this, there are a few people playing with smell and heat/cold, but I’m just not seeing large numbers of people exploring this space.
Here is an example of a rather polished system for giving resistance to your fingers:
One huge reason that many people aren’t tackling a wide variety of haptics is that the interaction with the hardware has to be programmed into the game or experience. This means that you can’t simply create a new system and hope for large scale adoption. This friction for growth stops, or at least alters, many people’s plans.
This is where the makers are really shining. Way out on the fringes of the VR ecosystem are all the bits and pieces that go around your rig.
There are so many mounts available to 3D print on thingiverse: mounts to hold your HTC Vive controllers while you’re not playing, mounts to hold your motion trackers without messing up your paint, mounts to keep your Oculus Rift looking cool on your desk when not in use. Hundreds of mounts!
This isn’t only being given away for free either. If you search Etsy, you can see finely crafted storage systems and accessories available for purchase. Same with Ebay.
When it comes to things you actually use, there are many accessories being created for that as well. Most of these are passive things that change how the controllers feel and work in your hands. In the video above, I used the example of a PVC Rifle rig that makes it feel like you’re using a rifle. Continuing on that idea, there are now grips that allow your controller to really feel like a laser blaster or gun.
There are also really inventive accessories that I wouldn’t have foreseen, such as a little joystick modification for the HTC Vive’s touch pad (seen below). For some people, using the touch pad feels awkward and they’d rather have a joystick. Some creative 3D printing with conductive filament results in a snap-on accessory that allows it to work as though it has a joystick.
The Current State of VR in the Maker Community
It is my opinion that VR, in general, will fit into the maker community pretty much exactly like computers and consoles. We will see some radical customization and some inventive add-ons and accessories, and eventually even some really cool software for “making.”
There has been rapid adoption as a new and useful display system and a new way to interact with things, but I don’t predict that the maker community will drive this industry as a whole, like we saw in the home 3D printer industry.
[feature image leugnchopan / Adobe Stock]