CyberEdge Journal

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Test Drive of Marriott’s Teleporter Virtual Reality System

Yesterday I spent a few moments on a beautiful sunny beach in Hawaii, and then, within seconds was looking down from a ledge many stories above the street in nighttime London.

No I wasn't traveling on the newest supersonic transport. I was experiencing Marriott hotels new Teleporter, a minute long virtual-reality experience presented at a Marriott Hotel in San Francisco.

The system looks simple, but provides a multi-sensory experience that not many VR systems can match. The system includes an Oculus Rift head-mounted display, and uses water vapor, aromas, and wind in your face, combined with a rumbling and tilting floor, to provide an interesting, unique, and surprisingly believable experience.

The experience starts by signing a waiver, having your picture taken, your date of birth recorded, and waiting in line for a while the people in front of you have their experience. An attendant asks if you have epilepsy, seizures or balance problems. You step into the booth through a Plexiglas gate that allows you to enter. The area of the booth is about a square meter with a waist high railing around the active space. The attendant helps you donned the headset and headphones, checks to make sure you're okay and turns on the system.

Preparing to visit Hawaii, virtually.

The experience starts in what Marriott calls their great room, which most of us would call a hotel lobby. While bustling with noise and the buzz of many people enjoying themselves, the room is oddly bereft of any images of people. Nonetheless the graphics are quite good, with a complex 3-D scene including several dozen chairs and a bar, hanging lights, windows showing a view of the outdoors, patterned rugs, a detailed ceiling, and lots of detail, that makes the scene almost photorealistic, and a good representation of a typical hotel lobby bar.

After you've had a moment to look around, the system transports you forward toward an abstract sort of map in a frame on the wall ahead of you. It seems you've moved about 50 feet while of course you haven't moved all, but the rumbling of the motion platform on which you're standing provides a realistic sensation of motion. As you approach the frame a different  noise is heard and the image of the map of Hawaii dissolves into an abstract, moving Kubrickian image represrentiung some kind of space/time warp, which deposits you on a lovely black sand beach somewhere on Oahu in Hawaii. The air is humid; you feel a breeze on your face, you hear the waves and the wind through the palms. All in all it's a very realistic impression of being on the beach. You can move your head in any direction including up-and-down. When you look down you see sand when you look up you see a beautiful tropical sky with a few wispy clouds. If only it smelled more like salt water you really believe you were in Hawaii (as I wish I were).

After about 10 or 20 seconds in Hawaii, the rumbling starts again and you're transported once more, this time backwards, through the teleport into the hotel lounge. The platform makes a virtual 90° right turn, rumbling and vibrating as it does so, and then starts heading between tables and the bar toward another frame, this one with a map of England with a circle, a sort of the target, showing where London is. As you approach the frame it again dissolves in a spacey pattern, and you pass through it. In this case find yourself precariously on a ledge on the outside of the building apparently 20, 30 or 40 stories above a nighttime London street scene.

I've been in hundreds of virtual worlds and this is one of the few that actually made me lurch and catch my breath. It really felt as if I was out on a ledge with nothing around me, that far up in the sky. It was more than a little disconcerting for a few seconds.

Unfortunately in London there wasn't much to see, as it was dark. You could look around at the city lights, and I assume that if you knew the London landscape better than I do, you would be able to recognize where you.

After few seconds in London, which didn't seem like long enough, you're whisked out again with the rumbling and shaking of backward movement, and turned another 90° to the right and deposited at a corner of the bar. That's where the simulation ends. The lights go out, the attendant reaches toward you and removes the headset and the earphones, and you're back in the real world.
I'm not sure what Marriott hopes to accomplish with this display of virtual reality. I do commend them for an eminently well done experience. The rendering of the virtual world is extremely well done – better than anything I've seen in a long time, though I have to admit it's been a long time since I spent much time in virtual worlds. The sound quality was excellent and the special effects provided by the motion platform, vapor spray, and wind were all quite good. Marriott says that there are smells in the system but I was unable to detect them. 

When you finish you are given the opportunity to post a video of your experience to a social network, or email a link to yourself.

However the big question is the quality of the visual display. There's no question that the modeling and rendering are top-notch. Fifteen years ago it would've taken $1 million computer to provide results like this, which is running on a common PC. However the quality of the Oculus Rift head-mounted display is really not much better than what we saw fifteen years ago. The image has softness to it that I found unpleasant, as if it was slightly out of focus. The “screen door” effect caused by the pixilation of the LCDs of themselves was quite apparent. Believe me, this looks nothing like an HDTV, unless you happen to be standing a foot away from it.

These display problems are nothing new, but frankly I was surprised that Oculus hasn't found a way to solve these problems. There's been a lot of efforts made to reduce the pixilation issue (the screen door effect) over the years, including various diffusion filters and lenses, but all of them degrade the image more or less. This is going to remain an issue for a long time, I suspect. The solution is ultrahigh resolution displays; perhaps the 4K displays that we are now starting to see on high-end phones will do the job. However, the overall quality of the Oculus Rift seemed good. The HMD is lightweight, and comfortable, I could easily wear it for hours.

So here I am again, evaluating virtual reality systems once more. It's been at least 10 years since I've had a head-mounted display on, and I must admit I enjoyed being back in the virtual world. With my new book on virtual reality coming out next week, I thought it was time to try out some of the new experiences and see what's changed, what's improved, and what remains the same. The Marriott Teleporter was a really good place to start this investigation. I'll report on other experiences as I discover them, and hope you find this useful. In the meantime let me put in a shameless plug. Please buy my book, Sex Drugs and Tessellation, which will be available on Amazon next week, the week before Thanksgiving 2014.

Marriot’s promo on the Teleporter:

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