Challenge of figuring out 3D development alone:
Room VR, virtual reality system for viewing properties
Introduced this spring, Room VR is an experimental virtual reality system for viewing properties. It uses the Oculus Rift head-mounted display—recently in the news because Facebook acquired the manufacturer. Since its introduction, Room VR has attracted attention from numerous newspapers, magazines, and news sites, including TV Tokyo's World Business Satellite, as a system that uses Oculus Rift to make it possible to experience interior layouts, views from windows, exposure to sunlight, and other aspects of a residential property based on virtual reality technologies—ultimately giving consumers the experience of being inside the property.
Below, we speak with two members of the Room VR development team.
WentzEngineer, Littel Laboratory
GoManager, Littel Laboratory
What inspired you to develop Room VR?
I joined NEXT midcareer in November 2013. After I was assigned to my position, I was asked to come up with something innovative on my own.(Looking back now, that assignment sounds unreasonable!) After considering various possibilities, I came up with a proposal for Room VR.
Until then, I'd worked on developing iPhone apps. But there were already two developers on the team who had begun developing iPhone apps in October. I thought it would be wise to work on something they weren't already working on, so I came up with the proposal for Room VR using Oculus Rift.
Actually, at my previous job, I'd played around a bit with an Oculus Rift headset that belonged to a colleague. I was impressed. Although I'd never worked on 3D development before, I decided to take this on as a challenge, since I'd been given the opportunity.
Room VR lets you experience life within a residence even when circumstances would make it hard even to see outside of the actual property, like new condominiums on sale before construction is complete, homes made to order, and homes in remote locations. The technology conveys a much more realistic sense of things than looking at model rooms, photos, or floor plans. This is a vision for the future that eliminates some of the uncertainty and makes choosing a home more fun.
In October 2013, I was appointed leader of a new section that would eventually become the Littel Laboratory. Our mission was to create innovative things. The mandate from management was to create things using new technologies and ideas, without worrying about practical applications or profits.
Our team had four members, each possessing different skills and knowledge. I decided to have each team member come up with a single project over six months, drawing on his or her own past career and specialties.
Wentz first proposed another product, which I rejected. Later, when he proposed Room VR, it seemed like incorporating this new device, Oculus Rift, into the somewhat dated field of virtual reality might be a way to come up with something brand new. I told him, "Why don't you give it a shot?"
Rigorous challenges and joyful achievements
Since I didn't have any previous experience in 3D development, I had to deal with many topics I didn't understand at first. Things couldn't go well without an awareness of concepts I'd never considered before, like 3D, gravity, and collisions. For example, the concept of collisions affects the placement of things in a VR world. Without an understanding of the concept, items like a table on a floor could fall beyond the floor infinitely. In addition, the text was written in English. That was a brand new concept to me. Since there was no one in the company I could turn to, I resolved every challenge that came up by seeking out experts in the developer community and asking them questions.
During this process, we exhibited the project at the Oculus Festival, an event that brings together various products connected to Oculus Rift. The reaction was stronger than I'd expected. I felt like I'd made some kind of breakthrough. It was a huge kick to see users' expressions change right before my eyes. That was completely different from my experiences in app development. The event also introduced me to various people and helped broaden my network of colleagues in the Oculus Rift community.
I was often in conflict with Wentz on matters of quality. He would bring something he'd developed on his own through trial and error and say, "Look, I did this!" He was proud of what he'd worked so hard to make. But since I'd dabbled in 3D computer graphics, my reaction would be, "What's that sorry-looking thing?" I think I might have annoyed him. Beyond this, in many cases, I learned that terms I was familiar with from 3D graphics had different meanings in the world of game-engine 3D, the basis for developing Room VR. That made communication harder.
But even when there was no one he could turn to, he moved ahead on his own path, one step at a time, seeking out and meeting with people who could help the project move forward. That ability to act is important when you tackle new challenges. In this aspect he was promising. I don't think he would have got this far if he were the kind of engineer who simply went to the Internet for information he didn't already know. Although Wentz had just joined the company midcareer and didn't know anyone here, when they heard he was working on something interesting, people gradually started to visit from other sections to take a look themselves. Since we announced the project, it's been reported on many times and even shown on television. I think that's great.
On what points were you especially uncompromising?
Actually, I was too busy to be uncompromising on really anything all!
I asked Mr. Go to create the 3D model of a NEXT meeting room we used in the first version of Room VR. But I didn't like the texture. I photographed the entire room once again and added my own small features, like an air conditioning control panel to make it more like the actual room. I guess I had something to prove because it had been criticized harshly as sorry-looking. I took countless photos of the views outside the meeting room's windows, stitching them together to approximate the actual scenery. I guess I was being uncompromising on this point, even though I wasn't familiar with creating 3D models.
Once it went to a certain state, I'd try it out on various people. When they used the feature that lets you pick up and move furniture—a feature added to simulate the process of moving in—most said it would be fun to try throwing the furniture around. In response, I used the Oculus Rift acceleration sensor to let you throw the furniture by turning one's neck rapidly. So, I incorporated a playful spirit into the project.
The project started with the vague idea of using virtual reality to simulate a tour of the interior of a property. But as it took concrete shape, we added various features. For example, we made it possible to change views by changing the floor height and to change how the room looked depending on the user's height. While some of these were changes I'd asked Wentz to make, others we added in response to feedback from company staff who had tried it out, or he added from his own ideas. The end result is much more versatile than we'd expected.
What do you see as your next challenge?
Actually, right now, I'm more interested in tasks like soldering together electronic circuits than software. In developing Room VR, I realized the biggest innovation was Oculus Rift itself. Software is limited by the hardware we use to run it, and it's already pressing against those limits. That's why I've begun to want to create something that has never existed before.
Oculus Rift began as a project built by a 20-something year-old student, using components like a smartphone display and existing sensors that already existed. While each part was something easily obtainable, combined, they made an amazing device. I feel like I want to make something like that myself, too.
When our team first started, we came up with a grand design for what we'd like to achieve in two years. We proceeded with this plan for a little less than a year while making minor course corrections. We generated various results, including Room VR. In the future, I'd like this to be a team in which all members can create better products as part of the NEXT vision, to build an overarching narrative of progress, not just simple standalone products.
New technologies are being developed at a rapid pace. I want us to introduce products that generate the innovation called for in our Corporate Philosophy by bringing in new technologies, rather than just following the popular trends at any given time.