Your next enterprise collaboration tool could be a game engine

Multiple VR headset users online simultaneously in a sandbox talking to each other sounds remarkably similar to a deathmatch.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
(Image: Nvidia)

As virtual reality begins to find its way into businesses, users are looking for a way to get more than one person at a time into a world to boost the collaboration factor.

British supercar marker McLaren Automotive is one such organisation, with its design operations manager Mark Roberts telling the audience at Nvidia GTC of the progress the company is making with VR.

The company still uses clay to see how a design looks physically in the real world -- a full-sized 3-tonne mass of steel, clay, and paint that is convincing enough to pass as a road vehicle, and allows the design team to improve and take in how the car's exterior will look.

According to Roberts, the physical model is realistic enough to give the designers the confidence to treat it as a real car and thus make improvements, and as the company moves towards VR, a similar feeling needs to be reached.

"The real challenge now as we go into VR and visualisation is to achieve that same level of confidence," Roberts said.

The company is using virtual reality headsets to design the interiors of its cars, as well as in its dealerships for customers and marketing, but the one thing Roberts would like is the ability for the entire team to be in the same virtual world for a design review.

"At the moment, what we do [is] we have one person that's the hero, that's got the headset on, and everyone else has to see in mono [on a display] what he is seeing in stereo view," he said.

"So we're talking, we're in the room with him, [but] it's not the ideal solution at the moment, in that he is getting the real proper immersive experience, and the rest of us can see on a big screen what he is looking at.

"It's a little bit clunky at the moment."

During the his keynote on Wednesday, Nvidia founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang demonstrated a project that would approach the sort of solution McLaren is looking for. Called Project Holodeck, the technical demonstration is built on a highly customised version of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4 that allows multiple users to communicate in a virtual space.

In a live demo, Christian von Koenigsegg, the founder of the eponymous Swedish supercar manufacturer, was involved in a three-person VR meeting within Holodeck looking at the Koenigsegg Regera.

Although impressive, Holodeck is merely a concept, with Nvidia saying it has no plans to make it into a sellable product.

As GTC progressed, whenever the topic turned to collaboration, the words Unreal Engine were not too far behind.

According to Theia Interactive CTO and co-founder Stephen Phillips, using multiplayer game environments makes sense for what is being dubbed as "collaborative VR".

"We are doing it, a little bit," he said. "A lot of companies are building this environment around Unreal Engine ... because multiplayer games are not new.

"Everyone is racing towards it, it's all going to happen soon."

Taking it one step further is NASA; the space agency not only uses virtual reality to train its astronauts, it also adds objects in the real world to mirror what is seen under the headset, and has created a hybrid reality.

With a specialised crane system that relieves trainees of much of Earth's gravity, along with 3D-printed drills that are created to weigh the same as they would in non-Earth environments, astronauts and NASA are able to conduct hours of training in an environment as close to the Moon or Mars as NASA can create.

As NASA looks to create an augmented reality solution for its astronauts, NASA Hybrid Reality Lab software lead Matthew Noyes said NASA is using VR and backpack PCs to develop its AR.

"One of the things that I love about the Vive and VR is that it is the final media; you can simulate any other media interface inside of it," he said. "A lot of our action on the Space Station would use something like Microsoft Hololens to have a procedure assistant to tell them how to do a task and so forth -- inside the VR headset, we can actually simulate the Hololens interface completely for the action.

"So they get a virtual space station around them with the exact same augmented reality interface they would use in the field."

And the engine that NASA is using to build these virtual worlds is, once again, from Epic Games.

Although NASA is currently unable to send a human into space, the agency is leading the way in adopting pieces of the consumer games industry to satisfy its enterprise needs, and it seems a wide array of industries may not be too far behind.

Disclosure: Chris Duckett travelled to GTC as a guest of Nvidia

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