VR and robotics at the NXTBLD conference

Published on: 17th July 2019

The AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) sector has for the past few years been using VR to assess their designs and present ideas to clients. The organiser of the NXTBLD conference (AEC magazine) tailored the conference accordingly, with half of the talks on VR and graphics specifically and the other half on construction-based approaches which utilise robots.
Talks were from the likes of Boston Dynamics, NVidia and Unreal Engine, and the main sponsor Lenovo was also present, showcasing some of their new NVidia RTX powered laptops. A long list of exhibitors was also showing their latest products, including Varjo, a VR headset developer claiming to have made the first retina resolution headset.

The Talks

The robotics-based talks discussed how robots or drones could be used within the building industry to aid construction and monitoring. Boston Dynamics envisages a dog-like robot, suitably named Spot, capable of roaming around a building site to collect project progress information. They’re currently in the final stages of testing at the moment and estimate that Spot will cost around $100,000 when launched.

The Unreal Engine talk was directly relevant to us at DCA as it’s our software of choice for our VR activities. Epic (Unreal Engine developer) demonstrated new features such as Unreal Studio and Twinmotion, which speed up the process of getting data into VR. They are also working closely with NVidia to get the most out of the engine and have successfully integrated NVidia’s brand new real-time ray tracing features.

Other talks looked specifically at the new RTX cards from NVidia and their real-time ray tracing capabilities. Traditional ray tracing, which you’ll find with render engines such as Vray, simulate rays of light and how they reflect and refract around an environment to give you a very accurate render. The downside of doing this is render speed; often it can take hours or even days to render a single image. This new RTX real-time ray tracing rendering system does it all in a fraction of a second. How is this possible? Well, significant compromises have been made in order to achieve this. The number of light rays being traced as well as the number of reflections is significantly lower compared with traditional ray tracing. This leads to a very noisy image in most cases unless you dial up the settings and allow the framerate to drop way below acceptable interaction limits. So, for now, this technology sits in an interesting middle ground where it gives users a more accurate but slower render than rasterization (a render method currently found in 3D games) and at the same time a less accurate but much faster render than full ray tracing found in Vray.


The Exhibitors

Varjo was the main exhibitor of interest to DCA. We’re continually looking to improve our VR capabilities and Varjo’s new ‘retina’ resolution headset might be a way to achieve this. After testing it at the conference, it seems like they’ve managed to fulfil their claim of retina resolution. The centre of the screen is very high resolution and pixels cannot be seen. However, to save on performance overheads the rest of the screen is a much lower resolution. They’ve achieved this mixed resolution screen by actually using 2 screens: a high pixel density, small screen in the centre and a lower pixel density, large screen for the surround. They have done their best to hide the junction between the two screens but to our eyes it appeared far from perfect. Strange artefacts were noticeable in the middle band between screens which detracted from the experience.

Another aspect of the Varjo was its inbuilt eye-tracking. They had a demonstration running based on an airport scene which placed the user in the role of an air traffic controller. Whenever you looked at an aeroplane, the software provided you with the relevant flight details. It worked well and was probably the stand out feature of this headset.

While the Varjo provides users with improvements in visual quality it does so at the expense of framerate and price. The scenes shown were being run on ‘good’ hardware, but this still failed to provide a smooth experience. On top of this, the list price of $5995 may act as a barrier to some potential adopters.


Summarised conclusions from the conference

Unreal Engine powered by NVidia graphics cards is still an excellent option for producing great VR.

Real-time ray traced VR is not a possibility just yet. Some serious hardware improvements are required for it to become a usable reality. For now, standard rasterization techniques are the only way to achieve the smooth framerates required to keep users engaged and avoid the risk of nausea.

The Varjo headset is impressive but appeared slightly flawed and expensive at present. The eye-tracking features were particularly engaging but the latest Vive headset, the Vive Pro Eye, seems to offer similar functionality to the Varjo in this respect at a fraction of the cost.