Lonesome no more: When virtual reality goes social

Researchers at the Université de Montréal have patented technology that allows multiple people in different locations to participate in a virtual reality environment
Université de Montréal
Electronic Arts
Silhouettes of many people interacting on a reflective surface that looks like water.

Given the incredible speed of technological development these days, there’s a good chance virtual reality will become part of our daily lives in the coming decades. After all, why limit ourselves to reality when we can be immersed in an artificial world for entertainment or education?

But there is some work to do before VR goes mainstream. Currently, many VR systems require a headset, which makes it hard to interact with the other real people around you. And most set-ups that swap out the headset for multiple screens and projectors are usually not very portable and limit users to interacting with people who are in the same room.

These limitations have been driving Tomas Dorta and his team of researchers at the Université de Montréal to develop something better.

A user sits inside a virtual environment created when a projector (mounted behind the laptop), projects images onto a convex mirror hanging from the ceiling, which reflects the images onto a spherical, concave screen to create an immersive
3-D experience.

Image courtesy of Emmanuel Beaudry Marchand

The Hyve-3D system can be used by multiple people to sketch in 3-D for things like architectural design.

Image courtesy of Hybridlab

Participants of a co-design workshop in Lodz, Poland, collaborate remotely with a team in Montreal.

Image courtesy of Emmanuel Beaudry Marchan

Their invention, Hyve-3D, is a game-changer for at least three reasons: it fits in a few suitcases and can be easily mounted to the ceiling, so it’s portable; anyone with the same system can log in to interact, so it allows multiple people in different locations to be immersed in the virtual environment together; and since it doesn’t require a headset, you can see the body language and facial expressions of the other participants, making it a truly social virtual reality.

Game-changing technology goes from the lab to a thriving company

Along with the projector and screen system, Dorta’s lab devised software that turns a device like an iPad into a 3-D cursor, a capability he says will be key to the future of augmented reality. By tipping and turning the device in space, users can sketch and interact with the projected images in three dimensions.

The system received its share of fanfare when it launched, including being listed as a technology to watch by Bloomberg in 2014. The university patented and commercialized the technology that same year and now the lab’s spin-off company, Systèmes Hybridlab, has sold multiple units to companies and educational institutions across the globe.

Being collectively immersed in a 3-D environment has powerful applications in design

Having the ability to interact with a group of people in a 3-D environment has multiple applications that could change how we collaborate to create and learn.

Imagine, for example, researchers from different parts of the world collectively modelling new drugs.

“You could be manipulating a molecular protein,” explains Dorta. “And then a lab in another part of the world puts a new enzyme in the protein, and suddenly, everybody understands what is happening because they are visualizing together.”

Using images created with a 360-degree camera, Hyve-3D can also recreate real-world spaces that can then be altered in the virtual environment. Think, for example, of an architectural firm sketching in plans overlain on real-world images, all while having the input of their client in real time. “It’s a way to teleport people to a location,” says Dorta.

Education and research also benefit

The system has been installed in museums to engage interactively with visitors and there are also several research applications.

Partners in France, for example, gathered physiological and psychological data from Hyve-3D users to study the creative process in groups of people working together.

“In the design process, people talk. We measure the experience,” says Dorta. They do this in part by listening to verbal exchanges and observing the gestures of participants. “There is an ‘inner speak’ and we have access to that.”

Canadian technology is something to be proud of

Dorta isn’t shy to brag about the fact that Hyve-3D has received global attention, especially since it’s easy to imagine how aspects of it could become ubiquitous in the future. “It’s nice that we are exporting Canadian technology,” he says. “It’s growing up slowly, but we’re making a social virtual reality network of devices made in Canada.”