What do you get if you give a bunch of students a whole load of technology, a fixed time frame and an impossible task? The answer: the world’s first completely full-body, untethered virtual reality experience.
Known as Project Myron, a team of students at the Netherlands’ Saxion University of Applied Sciences have built a full-body VR experience in the space of just 20 weeks. Having started knowing little about the world of VR beyond a little development experience and their own curiosity, this student team has done what no other VR company or agency has managed.
"We haven’t see this much of a dedication [to building full-body VR] in the professional market."
Obviously it’s been no simple task. Project Myron all started thanks to an idea from The Virtual Dutch Men, an agency that’s focused on building VR experiences beyond simple games. Working with Saxion University and other Dutch tech companies Xsens and Manus VR – along with computer manufacturer XMG – the dream of Project Myron was finally realised.
“Even though they’re students, they’re really stretching the technology and that’s something really special,” Xsens’ Remco Sikkema explains. “We haven’t see this much of a dedication [to building full-body VR] in the professional market.”
Building stadium-sized experiences
The aim of Project Myron is simple: using existing technologies on the market, can you build a full-scale, full-body VR project for multiple people to play within?
By using Xsens’ internal motion-capture suits, along with Manus VR’s hand- and finger-tracking gloves and XMG’s backpack PCs, the students of Saxion were able to accurately track someone’s full body in a VR environment. By donning an Oculus Rift, alongside a little bit of jiggery-pokery in Unity, they had built a completely immersive VR experience.
“The students did a live demonstration of the technology [at FMX festival] and, seeing as they only had ten weeks to develop [a prototype], they had two people playing simultaneously,” said Saxion University’s Matthijs van Veen, lecturer and overseer on the Project Myron programme. “By [the end of June] we will have better gameplay and can do more with multiplayer in a shared arena with multiple people running around. We want to show that the concept works as a multiplayer game.”
Envisioned as a research project for Saxion University’s Creative Media and Game Technologies study programme, Project Myron has quickly ballooned into a potentially viable VR product. “The first goal of the project is research, but internally we’re looking to see if we can make it viable [as an experience],” explains Nick Hartmann, a student working on the project. “However, [Project Myron] isn’t something that’s overly consumer-friendly due to the need for space and all the equipment.”
He’s not wrong either: while the most interesting aspect of Project Mayron is how it’s built entirely from combining existing technologies together, it’s not something just anyone could afford to buy.
For instance, the Xsens internal motion-capture suits, which are used to track a user’s arm, leg and body movements in VR, are a professional piece of equipment. They’ve been used on a variety of Hollywood projects such as Independence Day: Resurgence, the X-Men: First Class trilogy and other Marvel Cinematic Universe titles, along with Ninja Theory’s game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. For professionals, it’s an affordable way to mo-cap, but that doesn’t make it a consumer-grade product – the fact you have to “request a quote” on the website suggests as much.
“The Xsens is an internal motion-capture suit, meaning its sensors are embedded so there are no cameras around the room,” Sikkema replied when asked why an expensive suit was being used for Project Myron. “It makes it easier for students to use as they can use it in the classroom; they can use it on a soccer field; they’re not bound to a studio.”
The tech works too as, in conjunction with Manus VR’s trackable gloves and wrist mounts and XMG’s backpack PCs, the Saxion University students managed to create an experience running on a football pitch.
“From the beginning, we wanted to implement team play and [back then] we thought about building something the size of a football stadium,” explains Zoë Wolzak, a student working as an artist on Project Myron. “Everyone has their own eighth of a field to play in, so [the playable space] is the equivalent to one eighth for each player.”
Thanks to the Xsens suit’s lack of camera for tracking, the student team can do away with Oculus’ need for camera-based tracking – thus freeing up movement even more. “Oculus has motion-sensing capabilities, but we don’t use them because we have Xsens,” Hartmann explains.
Overcoming the hurdles of full-body VR
Obviously something of this size, scope and scale comes with its own challenges. Not only do you have to get all the different parts of tech talking to one another, but you also have to make a cohesive experience within a limited amount of time.
“There have definitely been some challenges,” admits Hartmann, “although that may be partly because we’re students. They are students, but they did an amazing job,” interjects van Veen. “With the help of our technical partners, they got [a prototype] working.”
Indeed, it turns out the biggest problem the team faced – from a programming perspective at least – was ensuring Xsens, Manus VR and Oculus all played ball with Unity. “The biggest challenge was creating the rig for a character, as we had to make sure the body and hands were correctly implemented,” Hartmann continued. “Separately the body and hand [tracking] worked wonderfully, but when you combined them you’d discover something was wrong and you’d end up remaking the [character] rig completely.”
So, why has it taken a group of students and a handful of Dutch tech companies to get something like this off the ground in the first place? Put simply, it seems like Dutch companies are more open to active collaboration in the region, and Saxion University actively encourages experimentation in the technologies.
“We’re complimentary [as teams] because The Virtual Dutch Men are really good in handling the concept and content in tandem with Saxion,” Sikkema explains. “At Xsens we supply the body, giving a sense of presence in VR – when you move, [our suit] makes you move in VR. Manus VR provide the finger tracking, and XMG is the perfect addition because they have backpack PCs. Combining them together gives you total freedom of movement in a virtual space.”
"A real showcase of what you can do with the right technology and people who have a drive to make something."
As van Veen puts it best, Project Myron isn’t just interesting as a VR proposition, it’s also an example of how great things can be achieved when companies work together to forward an industry as a whole. “I think, with all these different technologies being used across various fields, having the students bring them together to solve the presence issue with VR is a great project.
“It shows not only that it can be done, but also the quality of the technology we have at our disposal to do it. In that sense, I think [Project Myron] is a real showcase of what you can do with the right technology and people who have a drive to make something.”
Project Myron is still just a research project, but it’s experiments and prototypes like this that move an entire industry forward. As it currently stands, VR has a problem. Virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are too restrictive – even at room scale. For something designed to create immersive experiences, there’s still a way to go to turn it into something beyond novelty.
Let’s just hope Project Myron inspires others in the VR industry to strive towards more immersive VR experiences. Regardless of what happens next, Wolzak sums up the sentiments of Project Myron best: “It feels like I’m doing something completely new [with Project Myron], and it’s something we can be proud of.”