Williams College Pushing Virtual Reality Beyond Science Fiction

Sep 29, 2016

Could a history lecture be enhanced by allowing students to virtually experience a moment in time? Faculty at Williams College in western Massachusetts think so and WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis went to find out how they intend to do it.

I completely lost track of where Williams College Professor Morgan McGuire was after he strapped me into what are basically ski goggles and headphones that entirely covered my ears. Instead of standing in a square, gray room inside a library, I was in some sort of high-tech robot world.

“Hidden in that room are two things that look like little wall speakers,” McGuire explained. “They’re called lighthouses. They are basically laser beacons and it’s constantly sweeping the room with a radar-like sweep. Because there are two of them it can use that to triangulate exactly where your head and hands are. That’s how the system knows that when you move your head it has to rotate the world in the opposite direction to make it seem like it’s staying put.”

Using two controllers with buttons allowing me to virtually grab things in this game world, I was tested on repairing a robot before it self-destructed. I failed and was quickly sent back to the square, gray room.

“I think the line from the Matrix is something like ‘No one can be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself,” said McGuire.

McGuire is an associate professor of computer science at Williams who has contributed to video game franchises such as Call of Duty and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. He says part of what makes VR so realistic is low latency.

“The goal is to be around 10 milliseconds of latency,” McGuire said. “That’s 10-thousandth of a second is the delay between when you move your hand and when your hand has to move in virtual reality. It’s technically impossible to achieve that today. We’re somewhere around 50 to 60 milliseconds, but there are a lot of clever tricks we can do to predict things. You can’t move your hand instantaneously. When you start moving your hand or your head we can predict; ‘Well you can only accelerate so fast. If you’ve started moving your head it’s going to keep moving for a little while and I can predict where you’ll be at the end of that movement.”

McGuire has been working with students and faculty in other departments to see how virtual reality can be the next big thing in film or if it can create experiences to enhance the understanding of history.

“I just put you in an experience where I took you to this science fiction laboratory and to some extent I hope it felt like you were really there,” he said. “Your memories of that place should be very different than if you played a video game or you saw a movie in terms of you’re remembering being there and the sensations of being there, the sounds you hear around you and the things you see. There is a level of exploration you can get into because of the interactivity. Where if it was the Coliseum you could pick up individual rocks, you could look behind things and you could do all kinds of things that you’re not going to get from a really well-produced documentary.”

This past summer Williams put on a virtual reality hackathon with professionals from the video game company Activision, which has an office in Albany.

“We actually made new technology,” McGuire said. “This included things like a flame-thrower that we could not only see it in virtual reality and hear it, but it heated up in your hand. There were electronics that made it get hotter or colder in your hand.”

McGuire says MIT, Stanford and European universities are also pushing virtual reality. He says sporting events are likely the next virtual reality experience to be available to the masses. Companies like Google and SONY are developing VR products, some of which a person can have in their home for hundreds of dollars or less. McGuire says the New York Times is even experimenting with VR. In fact, the first presidential debate was available in a 360-degree virtual reality view.

“The notion of journalism and nonfiction in VR is essential because when we show you a regular documentary there is a huge level of editing and hiding the camera crew off screen,” McGuire said. “If I’m showing you a picture of a protestor clashing with a riot police officer, you have a very different impression if you see hundreds more people having those conflicts outside the frame versus if you realize that’s an isolated incident and there are people walking past with baby carriages just outside the frame.”