The New Vulcan Inc. Holodome at Seattle’s MoPOP Offers Trippy View Into Future of VR
Most virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (VR) experiences remain cumbersome. Although headsets have become lighter even as speed and resolution increases. But AR and VR participants still must don hardware for an experience. And then they must master the quirks of solution providers to fully engage. Enter Vulcan Inc. to rethink the user experience. Welcome Holodome.
During the March 2019 Emerald City Comic Con I had the pleasure of meeting the Holodome team at Seattle’s MoPOP to talk and walk through their experience.
What is Holodome?
Holodome is a shared immersive reality experience developed by Paul Allent’s Vulcan Inc. It is a 360-degree dome that emerges from one of MoPOP’s exhibit spaces like a fabric igloo projected from the already odd contours of the museum’s irregular concrete and steel construction.
The Holodome is actually a spheroid, a shape chosen to help eliminate corners and the sense of physical boundaries. Being a tech company, were precision is everything, Vulcan was clear to point out that the shape of the Holodome is actually a compound oblate spheroid.
The dome’s projectors hover about the spheroid’s center point, projecting 9.2K resolution at 360°. The development team employs custom algorithms and lenses to merge and blend the edges of the content.
Holodome video production requires custom camera rigs to hold the 6-8 cameras that capture their subjects. Video post-processing synchs and stitches images and videos so they adhere to Holodome’s design parameters, which run 15’, 360-degree horizontal x310-degree vertical. The projection covers all but a 50° opening in the center of the sphere. Video pumps through the experiences at 1.4 billion pixels per second to achieve a 30 frame per-second refresh rate.
But the images would be flat without sound. And that sound also had to be shaped to the dome. A custom mix highlights higher frequency sounds while noise reduction techniques dampen the echo caused by the sound bouncing off the exhibits non-parallel walls. Vibroacoustics in the floor and wall create earthquake-level vibrations and provide a sense of actual motion as participants move.
What was your experience with Holodome?
The current incarnation of Holodome consists of three experiences: Death Planet Rescue, Seattle Seahawks: The Art of the Play and Songs of Infinity: Journey into a Black Hole.
Of these three experiences, the game was the most fully formed and engaging. It was also the one that required a prop gun to receive the full effect (and to save those around you not looking to their back and sides). I think the added physical element made the experience more memorable. Future versions could be improved with personal haptic feedback (on body), but of course, the more elaborate the experience on-boarding, the more similar an experience like Holodome becomes to VR and AR.
As a Seahawks fan, being on the field during Seattle Seahawks: The Art of the Play was great, but that experience also revealed some of the work still required on perfecting image capture and display. At some points during the experience, players awkwardly emerged from the floor with their bodies seemingly smearing up the sides of the enclosure from a point on the floor. Doug Baldwin, who acted as host, was well-positioned, demonstrating how designed video, versus footage in live environments challenges concepts in Holodome in the same way 360º does in VR.
Songs of Infinity: Journey Into a Black Hole did not linger in memory despite my affinity for all things event horizon and quantum gravity. A few weeks down and I have a hard time recalling details. I think a more teaching script and more detail beyond what has been seen on Nova and other science programming would make the Black Hole experience more memorable. This experience demonstrates the limits of the technology, as a Black Hole simulation without some sense of gravity doesn’t really convey the impact of the subject.
What is Holodome good for?
AR and VR can be made very personal. Holodome was designed for shared experiences. Unless someone rents some future pop-up Holodome for a party, most homes will not likely see a Holodome. But for business, education, and entertainment, Holodome could play a significant role in new learning, new experiences and new ways of interacting collaboratively.
For instance, businesses could deploy Holodome as a repurposed conference room. Business could deploy sophisticated training with customers, or product simulations. It would perhaps offer a unique way to gather customer feedback. At some point hardware could be built, bespoke and at scale, to bring small and large artifacts into the experience. Learning through these early demonstration sessions should help shape the kind of engineering support and costs needed to bring even richer experiences to customers.
For education, Holodome could offer interactive experiences at scale, and with groups, potentially augmenting the learning experience. The more the learning experience moves from passive to interactive, the more likely learners will be to retain the information.
For entertainment, Holodome games could easily be the next laser tag or escape room, with game developers creating games that require realtime teamwork and multi-person perspectives to win. Yes, those experiences can be had in VR or even in traditional gaming, but bringing people into a shared space enhances the types of verbal and non-verbal communications: ankle kicks, subtle nods or aggressive shoulder taps create a more realistic virtual experience. I imagined the space might even bring back drive-in movies, without the outdoors or the cars. I would love to sit under a simulated starry night, in a Holodome, and check out the latest movie with friends and family munching popcorn in the warmth of a heated alternative to the outdoors.
What are the drawbacks of Holodome?
Holodome experiences rely on well-constructed data, the images, the sound, the coordinated vibrations, and any interactive tracking props, like any other virtual experiences. Short the integration of design freedoms and constraints on the content and experiences become sub-part. Today’s Holodome experience is unique and interesting just because it is different. Vulcan faces the same issues as Occulus and HTC in their need to attract first-class developers to jump into their vision. Vulcan Productions gives them a jump start, but any meaningful market penetration will require partners to build out content that drives engagement after the initial technology release ceases to do so.
As noted above, Holodome requires space and a number of proprietary software and hardware technologies to produce and deliver content. Holodome will likely be limited to business, education and entertainment use cases, but those should be enough to create a market. First responders, military and others who currently deploy cave-oriented VR may migrate to the more sophisticated and immersive Holodome technology.
When can I see the Holodome?
Holodome will be available to MoPOP guests starting March 29, 2019 through the end of April. More about Holodome times and pricing can be found at on its MoPOP page.
A preview of Holodome from local news station KOMO.
Special thank you to Kamal Srinivasan for his insights on the installation. Images courtesy Vulcan Inc.