At the SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim last month, virtual reality was, not surprisingly, the name of the game. Inside a massive "VR Village" that took up the better part of a mammoth convention hall, researchers and academics alike showed off their latest developments for virtual reality experiences. One of the most popular offerings? Another shocker: products that turn their users (figuratively or literally) into giant robots.
Visitors to the SIGGRAPH exhibition floor couldn't help but raise their eyes toward the oddest, and most unmissable, element in the room: the 17-foot-tall Big Robot Mk. 1a.
A product of four researchers at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, Big Robot is exactly what you’d think it is. It’s a massive humanoid robot that users climb a staircase to strap into. Once they strap into the robot, they they control it with their body motions.
For the average person, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to becoming a giant robot.
According to Hiroo Iwata, the lead researcher behind the project, the inspiration for the project came from Japanese anime and manga like Gundam and Macross that feature large battlebots. The goal, he added, is "to develop the world’s largest robot in which a pilot can ride and move."
Just down the hall from Big Robot is another project. MechVR is a giant biped robot simulator where users strap into a custom amusement park-style control deck and control a virtual robot. Where Big Robot’s all about the physical experience of piloting a massive robot, MechVR’s all about giving a more detailed version of that experience in a virtual world.
MechVR’s robots walk, run, and fly. The system’s non-hydraulic moving system shakes participants around, jolts them, and gives an intensive physical experience. The team’s creators at Clemson University use the system to create a more intense simulation than a player would experience playing a conventional video game or at an amusement park.
Victor Zordan, the project’s lead, said, "You’re a mech jockey, riding a robot, and that’s something that doesn’t exist in real world. We use a physical simulation similar to an engineering analysis of a car or an aircraft, but it’s now a simulation of a biped large enough to carry a human."
In our conversation, Zordan noted the challenge of his team—which is, of course, from the educational world—creating an amusement-park style project. Zordan hopes that the techniques behind the project, in the future, can be used to simulate other types of experiences such as piloting a lunar rover.
Other projects at SIGGRAPH carried on the promise of a new, and slightly weirder future. Two NYU students, Deqing Sun and Peiqi Su, came up with Plinko Poetry: a life-size "Plinko" board inspired by The Price Is Right which generates poetry in real-time using words obtained from random Twitter feeds. Down the way, the Facebook Demetricator from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Benjamin Grosser invited users to use a Facebook stripped of all notifications and metrics, and to see if it was still as interesting.
But the virtual reality part is key. The big problem for VR vendors such as Facebook/Oculus, Samsung, Sony, and HTC is simple: There’s no breakthrough product—no genius product like Tetris or Star Wars to sell users on the new platforms. However, in the meantime, VR will let us all be virtual robots.