Category Archives: Virtual Reality

Giroptic 360cam review by a Ricoh Theta owner

Updates:

  • 2016/07/20 – more commentary.

I have been following 360-degree (sometimes called VR) images for many years. I even had an old webpage dedicated to one-shot VR style devices like the 0-360 mirror device.

The whole concept of a VR-style picture, where you could move the image and look in all different directions, was pioneered in 1994 by Apple QuickTime VR. In those days, you had to mount a camera on a tripod and take a bunch of photos then have them stitched together using special software. The viewer (QuickTime) then allowed the user to look left and right in the image.

As time progressed, other methods of doing these types of images were developed, including a process where you used a 150-degree fisheye lens and took only two photos and stitched them together. These spherical images allowed you to also look up and down.

0-360.com's one-shot VR lens attachment.

0-360.com’s one-shot VR lens attachment.

The easiest solutions were one-shot devices that used a mirror. The camera would point up towards the mirror and create a donut-like image that could then be turned in to a VR image without any stitching. I always wanted the 0-360 device (about $600), but ended up with a much cheaper one called SurroundPhoto ($250). It produced poor quality images, but you get what you pay for.

In recent years, special multi-lens cameras have been introduced that are substantially cheaper than a camera+lens mirror system, and can offer greater field-of-view (up and down).

The Giroptic 360cam was the first such camera I became aware of when it was announced as a Kickstarter project in 2014. It a three-lens camera that can take a 360 VR-style picture with one shot.

I signed up to get one at the half-price early bird level, and at the time they hoped to ship before the end of the year. A year later, the camera was nowhere to be found. During this delay, other similar devices from established companies  entered the market at a much lower price point, including:

  • Kodak SP360 – I saw the one advertised at RadioShack for under $300. It used one lens with a huge fisheye pointing up, so it couldn’t get full VR images, but it could create a circular panorama. It could be mounted on a bike or helmet so it was more of a 360 GoPro type device.
  • Ricoh Theta – This $350 two-camera came out with a first model, then the m15 improved model (which added video!) . It could instantly create full 360 images with one click. I had the m15 model.
  • …and likely many others by now.

The Theta m15 and it was amazing. It was small enough to carry with you at all times, and as fast as a regular digital camera at taking the images. There was an iOS and Android app to download and post photos and videos from the device and share them immediately. The resolution was not great. Photos and video could be especially grainy in lower light situations.

In July 2016, the 360cam finally shipped to all of it’s original 2014 backers. Today I want to quickly review how the 360cam stacks up. To save you some time, I’ll present the conclusion first:

CONCLUSION:

This camera is way too slow to be useful. I believe if you are looking in to a device like this, you should probably get something like the Theta S (now available at Best Buy). It is substantial cheaper, easier to use, and much easier to carry around. If there is any advantage to the 360cam’s three-lens setup, I feel most users will not benefit from it.

DETAILS:

The 360cam is neat, and had I obtained it two years ago (before owning a Theta), I would have raved about it. But today, it feels like a dinosaur.

CONS:

  • Heavy. The 360cam is much heavier than the candy-bar style Theta.
  • Bulky. It is the shape of a smaller pear, and therefore cannot be carried in a pocket. After lugging mine around, I find I have to carry a fanny pack or other type of pouch with me because there’s just no convenient way to attach something like this to a belt. (The Theta came with a belt strap padded carrier.)
  • SLOW! Oh my gosh. This thing is stone-age slow! When you turn it on, it takes about 25 seconds to boot up! This is ridiculous. Forget any concept of pulling out the 360cam and taking a quick photo. You have to plan ahead. Also, switching between video and photo mode is also frustratingly slow. My device spins a little animated mustache graphic for about 28 seconds while it goes from one mode to the next! (And right now, the display is showing me “E801” so I guess I have to go look up what went wrong. A quick look at their support site shows five codes, including the 801, that could mean “Something might be wrong with the camera last firmware update. You can restore your camera to factory settings, and try to update the camera again.” Great.) It also does not take pictures quickly. I have mine set for a 3 second countdown, and it will often display a little animated graphic for a few seconds before it even gets to the countdown! Useless!
  • iOS iPad App only works in Portrait Mode. In this modern era, why are any iPad apps still not supporting device rotation? The VR images rotate just fine, but all the menus are set for portrait mode, which seems odd for a world where video and modern digital images are 16×9 landscape.
  • More Seams. Three lenses means you will have three seams in your images, rather than just two with a two lens system. With the Theta, you just pointed it at your subject and hit the button. With this thing, you have to make sure one of the three lenses is pointing there to prevent a theme down it. Frustrating, but once you get used to this, it will become second-nature.
  • No Bottom View. Since the base of the camera is large, there are no straight down views offered. Instead, a large circular graphic is placed there (just like old VR images had, to hide where the tripod was). The Theta has no problem with straight down.
  • SHORT Battery Life! It seems with the unit on (WiFi and GPS enabled), you will be out of juice in 30-60 minutes just having it “on” and barely using it. I am watching the battery drain as I type this. I doubt I could ever fill up my 16GB memory card with only one (or maybe even two) batteries. I managed to completely drain the battery after recording a 9 minute video, and about 30 images. Do not expect to take this with you all day without stocking up on a ton of extra batteries.
  • App Required to Change Basic Settings! Why do I need the use my phone and WiFi to change between one picture and self timer mode? By the time I toggle through 360cam menus to turn on WiFi, then connect to the camera. then run the app … I’ve forgotten what I was trying to take a picture of.
  • Awful User Interface. The built in color display (big pixels) is neat, but the user interface of two buttons is very sluggish and cumbersome. At least it’s better than having to remember what button to hold down to change modes (like the display-less Theta does; they fixed that with the new S model). Once you learn how to navigate, it becomes easier, but it it still time consuming to dig through a half dozen or more displays to make a simple change.
  • SLOW!!! Did I mention how slow this thing is? It’s ridiculous.

That said, let’s look at the PROS:

  • Three lenses! This should mean better resolution for video and photos. But does it? I do not have a Theta S to compare side-by-side, so I will leave that to other reviewers. I will say the images from the 360cam look very nice and it handles low light better than my Theta m15 did.
  • GPS. The 360cam has GPS built in so images can be geotagged without requiring linking to a phone. That’s nice (but it will drain the battery quicker).
  • Removable battery. My Kickstarter package came with two batteries, so I can charge them up and swap them out during the day. Unfortunately, you have to pop open three connectors on each side and remove the base (and not lose the microSD card that seems to pop out easily). It’s a “stop walking to do this” operation.
  • Nice iOS and Desktop Software. The app and desktop software are nice, and probably on-par with the Ricoh software. They allow remotely operating the camera, changing modes and limited sharing. You will need to link your 360cam to an iOS/Android device if you want to change modes (one photo, self timer, timelapse, etc.). That is frustrating but at least the modes are there.
  • “Patch”. Many 360 image systems allow you to put a special graphic at the bottom of the image where the tripod would go. Giroptic refers to this as the “patch” (I’d call it a logo). You can customize your own logo, which is a nice touch. The last Ricoh I used had no such option.
  • NO HUGE FINGERS!  Since you can hold the 360cam by the base and take a picture using the self timer, you can voice the HUGE THUMBS problem all the Ricoh Theta selfies seem to have. This is very nice.

I personally plan to get rid of the 360cam and replace it with a Theta S soon. I’m quite disappointed. While I might be able to get used to the pear-shape, the slowness of this device is absolutely unacceptable. “Hey, let me take a cool picture. Everyone wait a minute while I boot up and switch from video mode to picture mode.”

Great attempt, Giroptic, but competition has rendered your device obsolete except for those who may benefit from the three-lens setup. I would have to see a side-by-side comparison to see if the 360cam even has that advantaged.

Just get a Ricoh Theta S and use the heck out of it :) They are $350, versus $499 for the 360cam.

CoCo VR

Over the years, there were a number of cool ideas at Sub-Etha Software that I really wish we’d followed through on. Last year, I mentioned some unfinished software projects I uncovered when going through all my old floppies, but there were also a few hardware projects that never made it out of the idea or concept stage…

Reveal VM100 "voice mail" device for PCs.

Reveal VM100 “voice mail” device for PCs.

For instance, once I found a low-cost gadget at Walmart that interfaced a telephone line to a computer. It was controlled by a serial port, and plugged in to the audio in/out ports of a sound card on a PC. It came with software to turn the PC in to an answering machine.

I bought one to hook it up to my CoCo, and had plans to create a simple CoCo answering machine. On a 128K CoCo 3, it would be possible to play a short greeting, and record a short message from the caller then save it out to disk. Sure, the audio quality would have been poor and it would probably be cheaper to just buy an answering machine, but wouldn’t it be fun?

VM100 ready to hook to a CoCo via cassette cable and RS232 pak.

VM100 ready to hook to a CoCo via cassette cable and RS232 pak.

Concept software was witten (in assembly) to record audio from the VM100 (using 1-bit cassette input, or 6-bit joystick input) as well as play back digital audio.

Concept software was witten (in assembly) to record audio from the VM100 (using 1-bit cassette input, or 6-bit joystick input) as well as play back digital audio.

I was even wanting to do touch tone decoding in software and create a simple voice mail system with mailboxes. There was even a plan to create a “telephone adventure game” where a description would be read and the user could make a choice by pressing buttons on their phone. (Years later, the Tellme company did something similar with a version of blackjack you could play over their 1-800-555-TELL demo line. It was so cool, Microsoft bought them!)

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

I will try to share some more of these “lost” projects in the future, but today I wanted to focus on a virtual reality project I was working on.

VR was a big buzzword in the early 1990s, and many thought it was going to be the next big thing. As we know know, it fizzeled out rather quickly, with Atari, Sega and Nintendo abandoning their home VR products.

The Atari Jaguar VR project was being done in conjunction with Virtuality, the company I previously wrote about that created the VR game I first experienced.

The Sega VR project has a CoCo connection, since one of the launch titles was being worked on by legendary CoCo game programmer Steve Bjork**! I believe this is the game that Bjork was working on: Iron Hammer

Nintendo’s effort eventually came out as the failed Virtual Boy where, instead of wearing an immersive helmet over your eyes, you peered in to a 3-D viewer that remained stationary on a table. Hey, at least they tried!

But I digress…

In the pre-world wide web days, we had things called catalogs which were like paper versions of Amazon.com. One of the catalogs I received always had interesting items often at cheap liquidation prices. One such item was the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster VR helmet. The wiki page claims this was the very first commercial VR helmet made available.

TODO: I need to add a photo of my VR helmet, as soon as I figure out which storage box it is in.

The Stuntmaster wasn’t a real VR helmet, though. It did not provide a stereoscopic display, and did not have any head tracking capability for use with true VR games. Instead, there was an analog dial on one side that connected to a shaft which you clipped to your shoulder. As you turned your head left or right, the shaft would turn the dial, allowing a simulation of left/right head tracking.

You could plug this helmet up to a Sega Genesis game console and then play some games where you held the game controller to play, but used your head to turn left and right. It seems unlikely that this would have worked well with any games not specifically designed for this, but hey, it was the first.

Here is a video of it in all it’s glory:

Me playing Dactyl Nightmare again in 1994.

Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare (I am shown here playing it in Dallas in 1994) had a helmet and a hand grip controller that featured a trigger and a thumb button.

When I saw this in the catalog, I immediately ordered one to see if it could be used with the CoCo. My plan was to send CoCo video and audio to the helmet, then wire the left/right control shaft up as a joystick. Taking a nod from the controls of the Dactyl Nightmare arcade VR game I played, I was going to use the two joystick buttons for “walk” and “shoot”. My thought was you could turn your head left or right, then walk in that direction using the button. I guess I was thinking we’d build a special pistol grip controller to work with the helmet.

I had become friends with Vaughn Cato*, who did the original bouncing ball demo when the CoCo 3 first came out. He had been writing routines to do bitmap scaling and such, and I was hoping to use some of this in some CoCo game projects.

Toast 3-D maze engine by Vaugn Cato.

3-D maze engine by Vaughn Cato. It ran under OS-9.

On of the coolest things he created was a 3-D maze engine that drew everything using lines (I guess we would call this a vector engine). It looked similar to Dungeons of Daggorath but you could move through it in all directions, like Wolfenstein 3-D or DOOM did.

I cannot remember why, but for some reason the demo executable was called toast. It would read a small text file that represented the maze, then you could walk through the maze in 3-D. Things never went much further than the demo, but I thought it would work well with the VR helmet as the basis of some kind of VR maze game.

I think I was planning to create something like Phantom Slayer VR (a tribute to the old MED Systems 3-D maze game by Ken Kalish). I certainly know I had worked on this concept before without VR in mind, as well as a 3-D Pac-Man game. The Pac-Man one was interesting, as I got as far as recreating the original Pac-Man maze in 3-D and had it populated with dots you could walk over to “eat.”

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

I still have the helmet. Who knows . . . maybe some day CoCo VR might still get done, even if there is no longer a supply for helmets to make it a sellable product.

*Vaughn Cato may be the only former CoCo guy to accept an Oscar. He was working with a company doing motion capture and he was on stage to receive a 2005 Technical Achievement Award. That’s quite the trip from a bouncing ball demo on a TRS-80, don’t you think?

**Steve Bjork has also had encounters with movies. If I recall correctly, he was an extra in films like Rollercoaster and The Goonies, as well as working on movie related video games like The Rocketeer and The Mask. Oh, and his CoCo program Audio Spectrum Analyzer appeared in Revenge of the Nerds, and his CoCo Zaxxon program appeared in Friday the 13th Part 4.

Revisiting Virtual Reality from 1993

Everything old is new again… Virtual reality is back and trendy with many predicting it will be “the next big thing.” Again. Today I want to share an article I wrote over 20 years ago when VR was “the next big thing” the first time around.

Me playing Dactyl Nightmare again in 1994.

Me playing Dactyl Nightmare again in 1994 in Dallas, Texas.

But first … Why is VR back again?

I believe it is mostly due to the propagation of powerful pocket computers full of sensors: smartphones.

When the original iPhone was released in 2007, it changed everything. If you look at what a cell phone was before that time, and then what phones are today, you can see a clear jump away from “candy bar” style phones with simple screens and physical keyboards. Today, a modern phone is basically just a high resolution touch screen pocket computer.

Even in the early years, iPhone developers were starting to leverage the sensors inside the device with interesting virtual (or augmented) reality type experiences. I recall a number of early apps that let you hold the iPhone in front of you and then turn around and have the screen respond, as if you were looking through a tiny window in to another place. Today, there are hundreds of such apps for iPhone and Android, with the most famous VR-style experience being Google Cardboard.

When Google created a low-cost VR visor that you could slide your phone in to, they started a huge ball rolling. Now, anyone with a smartphone could easily have a virtual reality helmet. Admittedly, even with the cheap cost of a cardboard visor, most higher end phones today still cost more than the original VR helmets from over 20 years ago, but we already own the phones so why not put them to work?

And if papercraft isn’t your thing, you can buy a plastic VR visor for under $20. Insert your Android or iPhone, load some software, and bingo: instant virtual reality!

But VR wasn’t always this easy or accessible… To appreciate the significance of this, I would like to share an article I wrote back in 1993 that documented my first experience in the world of VR.

Enjoy!


My Trip Into CyberSpace
———————–
by Allen C. Huffman (12/01/93)

The term “Virtual Reality” is new to some of us, and completely unknown to the rest. This term has been used so often in media lately that it’s difficult to know what it is all about. Movies such as Lawnmower Man don’t help clarify things – after all, Science Fiction is just that. Fiction. Today, however, I had the pleasure to experience the real thing and I must say – I’m impressed.

A friend of mine picked me up this morning and we made a three hour drive to Dallas in search of high tech toys. Our search led us to several large electronics superstores where we had a little hands-on fun with some of the hottest video games and gadgets available. We were told about a place not too far away which reportedly had a virtual reality setup. After making a phone call, we discovered this place was a restaurant, bowling alley, pool hall, and arcade all in one. An interesting combination – and one we just had to check out.

A short drive later we were there. Wandering through the dining section we found a pathway leading to the game room. Once there we saw what we had been searching for: Virtuality.

Virtuality is the first commercial attempt at making virtual reality available to the public for entertainment purposes. We found ourselves watching a rather amusing game in progress. There were two platforms side by side. Each one had support beams around it and a “rail” at about waist level. The players had large helmets covering their faces and held a small pushbutton device in their hands. They turned around, pointed up and down, ducked, and just generally acted silly. We noticed two large monitors displaying, apparently, just what each player was “seeing”.

The helmets contained a set of small monitor screens which projected a three dimensional image in front of you. Sensors in the helmet enabled the computer to know where you were looking, and adjust the image accordingly. If you turn your head right, the view pans to the right. If you look up, you see what is above you. Apparently the images were rather convincing, if the actions of the two players was any indication.

It was four dollars for four minutes in a game called Dactyl Nightmare. My associate and I eagerly climbed aboard when it was our chance. The attendant strapped a belt around my waist then gave me a rod to hold. The rod, held like a gun handle, had a trigger on the front and a pushbutton on the top activated with your thumb. The large, awkward helmet was then lowered onto my head and tightened into place. To my surprise, I saw a perfectly clear image of what the large monitors were showing. In front of me I could see a small checkerboarded area with stairs leading down to a large playing area. The square area had stairs leading up on each side, which allowed four starting positions for participants. The center area had an open roof with poles supporting it, and a large doughnut shaped object in the center. While the graphics were bright colored computer shapes floating in space, one could not help but feel like you were standing inside a giant computer world.

A voice came through the stereo headphones in the helmet notifying me that the game was awaiting another player. As soon as my friend was strapped into his setup, the attendant put the game into practice mode. The top thumb button made you “walk” to where you were looking, while the trigger button fired your gun. Gun? Amazingly enough, when I held my arm out in front of me, I saw a computer generated “hand” holding a gun in front of me. If I turned my hand left or right, my virtual arm did the same. Amazing! I tilted my head left and right and the screen moved accordingly. I even turned all the way around and found myself looking at what was behind me.

We took a few moments to walk around. I could hear virtual footsteps as I navigated my way down the stairs and around the poles. “Are you guys ready?” asked the attendant as he activated the real game. A counter appeared at the top of the image at four minutes, counting down. Scores were displayed in either corner. The game was afoot, and I was ready to blast my friend into virtual pieces.

I eased my way around the playfield, turning my head in all directions looking for my target. There he was at the top of one of the side platforms! A computerized person stood there – arms, legs, and a head with facial details and hair. His legs even moved as he came down the stairs. I raised my gun and fired, but missed. The challenge was on. As we chased each other around the playfield shouting “where are you?” back and forth I couldn’t help but notice how real this all felt. Finally, a shot made it’s mark and I saw my target blast into pieces. He was soon back together at the top of his starting platform. The game of chase continued as he shot me and I shot back. After eight shots, a warning flashed on the screen – it was an image of a winged reptile. Looking up into the blackness, a large green creature was sweeping down towards me. I fired up in a panic and saw it disintegrate. My partner wasn’t so fortunate – after his eight shots, the dino picked him up high above the playfield – then dropped him! No harm done, but valuable time wasted.

We had an audience. As I hid behind objects and leaned over and found myself suddenly disembodied by a shot I never saw coming, cheers shouted out. We chased each other some more with some hits but many more misses until the voice warned us “time is running out”. The counter reached zero, and the game was over. As I stood there, completely unaware as to which direction I was facing in the real world, I slowly heard the noises of the surrounding area and realized where I was. The attendant – after what seemed like an eternity – removed my helmet and I found myself staring at a small line of people waiting to take their turns. My friend looked at me and smiled. We stepped down and proceeded to discuss our feelings on what we just experienced. It was very real.

The technology that makes this all possible is not entirely new. The helmet and playing platform were specifically designed for this application, but the computer than ran the show was a specially programmed Commodore Amiga system. The company that produces this “game” packages everything in their own cases (right down to a custom made label on the keyboard) with a CD-ROM drive to hold the program. After it is all put together, it in essence becomes a virtual reality computer system having little to do with the desktop computer that made this all possible. Each pod contains it’s own computer, and up to four can be linked together. Perhaps next time we’ll find a place with all four units available.

Now, you may wonder just how realistic this all was. It felt real. While the images I saw were certainly computer pictures and could NOT be mistaken for anything we see in the “real” world, the feeling of being there was very convincing. You didn’t “walk” with your legs, and you couldn’t touch anything, but the way the world responded to my commands was stunning. The best part is that this is a first generation example of this type of arcade virtual reality. One can only imagine what the next “game” will be like.

So, if you ever get the chance to check out a Virtuality setup, do it. The money was well spent and the brief four minutes felt like an eternity. It was well worth the three hour drive. (By the way, the final score was three to three so we’re going back soon for a rematch!) What a way to start the new year…


That was in 1993 and, as you can tell, I was blown away. Here is a TV program I found on YouTube that featured the above mentioned game (or at least a version of it):

I actually found a number of clips on YouTube featuring this old hardware (some as recently as 2014, as folks have kept the machines running – I guess it’s retro VR now?). I have even read about a modern remake of the game for Oculus Rift:

But back to the 90’s…

I had completely forgotten this until I found a photo last night (included at the top of this article), but I apparently got to play Dactyl Nightmare a second time, about a year later (also in Dallas, quite possibly in the same Dave & Busters). But Dactyl Nightmare wasn’t my only experience with VR. I also got to try a “next generation” version, this time thanks to Disney.

During a 1995 vacation to Walt Disney World, my father and I watched an Imaigneering presentation about Disney VR. They brought a few audience members up on stage and let them try out a new Aladdin’s flying carpet VR game they were developing. It was a very interesting presentation, and the graphics had gotten much better in the two years since I played Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare.

Disney's Aladdin-themed VR game at Disneyland in 1996.

Disney’s Aladdin-themed VR game at Disneyland in 1996.

A year later, that VR experiment showed up as a $5 video game at the Disneyland Tomorrowland Starcade. I got to play it there in 1996 and took one tiny 320×240 photo with my first generation Epson PhotoPC digital camera.

The Disney approach had you sitting on a motorcycle-style seat, rather than standing, and you were steering the flying carpet with handles. It was really more of a flight simulator (or flying motorcycle simulator). The game itself involved collecting coins while flying over Agrabah (as seen in the 1992 animated movie Aladdin). The Disney touch was occasional encounters with animated characters that would talk to you during the game.

I don’t know what happened to all of Disney’s work in VR, but I do know that some of this technology ended up as playable games at DisneyQuest in Florida when it opened a few years later. At the time, Disney had big plans for building similar virtual theme parks across the country, but that never happened.

Note: I don’t know if this was the original name, but It appears the game was called Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride when it made it’s way to DisneyQuest. Websites I have found show a photo that is very similar to the installation at Disneyland, though I expect it was a bit upgraded since the descriptions I read mention effects that were not part of the prototype presentation at Epcot or installed at Disneyland’s arcade.

Second Note: Had Disney gone through with building Disney’s America theme park in the early 1990s, one of the proposed attractions was a parachute experience that would have made use of VR helmets. (I once read that a version of this was going to be installed at an ESPN Zone somewhere, but I don’t know if that ever happened.) With all the research and investment in to VR, it looks like they saw big potential in the technology if it had caught on.

My third (and so far, final) arcade VR experience was with a second generation Virtuality pod at an arcade somewhere (I keep thinking it was in Canada) running Missile Command VR. Although the graphics were improved, I didn’t find the game itself as immersive as running around those checkboarded platforms being chased by pterodactyls. (Missile Command VR was planned to be released for the Atari Jaguar VR add-on, but when that failed to happen, the game was released as Missile Command 3-D as a normal TV screen game.)

Sadly, the VR fad of the early 90’s ended quickly. Although upcoming offerings like Oculus Rift look promising, who knows how advanced things would be today if it VR had caught on the first time and been in continual development for the past two decades.

Next time … a look at our CoCo VR project that almost was!