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Making virtual reality even more realistic


Tokyo, July 24, 2016: Virtual reality technologies are useful in facial motion detection and dangerous job training.

With companies exploring new ways to use virtual reality (VR) technologies, more people are entering virtual worlds that, although created with computers, unfold right before your eyes. VR simulations are helping athletes practice and people train for dangerous jobs. Research into recording disappearing landscapes is also making headway.

Facial motion detection

Standing in the batter’s box, I face the pitcher. At my feet are dirt and green grass, while white clouds float in a blue sky above. The pitcher throws a fastball at over 130 kph. It grazes my knee, and I involuntarily bend backward to avoid it.

In reality, this is not a baseball field. When I remove the goggles I’m wearing, I am back in a very ordinary conference room. What I had just experienced was a VR batting practice device that was developed by NTT’s Media Intelligence Laboratories in Yokosuka, Kanagawa prefecture. Senior researcher Dan Mikami said, “Its features allow users to practice in conditions similar to that of a real game.”

The background footage was filmed near the batter’s box in a real baseball field, using a special 360-degree camera that takes videos in all directions. Separately shot pitching scenes with professional pitchers and a white ball rendered using computer graphics (CG) are added to the footage.

Through the use of US-made VR goggles, the footage moves in response to the movement of the face, making it feel almost as if you are standing inside the batter’s box.

The images projected onto the left and right eyes are slightly different, making the space in front of the eyes appear three-dimensional. Additionally, the goggles incorporate a number of sensors, including accelerometers (see below) and ones that measure rotation. The sensors instantaneously detect any movements of the face, and the image moves in accordance with those changes.

Images are refreshed at the rate of several dozen per second, eliminating choppiness. Even fastballs are said to look natural.

Dangerous job training

The use of VR for training people in dangerous occupations has also become more widespread.

Tokyu Techno System Co., based in Kawasaki, is developing a programme to train road traffic controllers. When trainees put the goggles on, a road construction site reproduced using CG appears. As only one side of the road is open to traffic, drivers need guidance.

When directions are given, the vehicles in the simulation stop or move accordingly. Weather, time of day and traffic volume are all variables that can be freely adjusted. Trainees’ movements are captured with a camera set up nearby.

Masaki Hanawa, a manager with the company, said, “Road traffic controllers can go to work sites after receiving sufficient training with VR, enhancing safety.”

VR can also be useful when decommissioning nuclear power plants, where there are places in which work cannot be carried out for a long time due to high levels of radiation, as it allows technicians to hone their skills in advance. At the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center (see below) in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture — which began full-scale operations in April — a system is in place that uses VR to simulate the interior of the No. 2 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

There are also initiatives to save disappearing landscapes and other scenes using VR.

University of Tokyo Prof. Michitaka Hirose used a camera to capture the interior of the Hokutosei limited sleeper express that was taken out of service last year and developed a VR simulation in which viewers can freely move about the train’s sleeper cabins and aisles. Advances in the use of VR to preserve records of such things as rapidly disappearing Tokyo bathhouses and museum exhibits are also said to be under way.

“To record landscapes of places with historical and cultural value, it is best to have VR so viewers feel as if they are really there. These kinds of uses probably will increase in the future,” Hirose said.

Auditory, tactile research

Advances are being made not just in virtual reality but also in the development of augmented reality (AR), in which information supplements scenes. For example, when a smartphone is held up at a tourist destination, useful information and directions appear on the display alongside actual scenery. In addition to visual information, research is also being carried out on using computers to add auditory and tactile information.

■ Accelerometer 

An apparatus for detecting acceleration, which is the rate at which the velocity of an object changes. When a force is applied to a weighted spring, the length of the spring changes. Acceleration is detected and measured by converting the expansion and contraction of the spring into electrical signals. Accelerometers have a wide range of applications. They are used in devices that cut gas supplies and stop elevators during earthquakes, as well as in car navigation systems to accurately measure a vehicle’s position and direction of travel. They are also used in smartphones and tablets to automatically change the orientation of the display depending on the angle and orientation of the device.

 ■ Naraha Remote Technology Development Centre

A facility established by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, in anticipation of the decommissioning of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Full-scale operations began in April. In addition to VR equipment that can simulate decommissioning work, there are also facilities that reproduce parts of the reactor and stairs. The facility, which cost about 10 billion yen (US$94.32 million), is being utilised to develop robots in addition to training workers. There are plans to hold a contest to develop the best decommissioning robot among technical college teams around Japan in December.

By Sho Funakoshi