What is The Outpost?
The Outpost is a remote VR social experience for 2-6 participants who are completely immersed together as robots on a tropical beach -- set in the future on a faraway planet. As a participant, you sip tropical drinks, play games, and chat with other SIGGRAPH attendees in this strange and wondrous refuge.
We have shown multi-participant immersive co-located VR experiences at SIGGRAPH since 2015. One of our previous works -- CAVE -- which premiered at SIGGRAPH 2018, won Best Art Paper at SIGGRAPH 2019. The Outpost is a far more lean-forward experience, representing an innovative new paradigm for multi-participant VR. It is an inside-out tracked social VR experience, containing procedural characters and avatars. The entire state of the shared virtual world is synchronized for 2-6 participants.
We originally designed The Outpost as an experience where co-located participants are completely immersed together in a parallel VR world and can hear each other in their correct locations in the actual room at SIGGRAPH. We had planned to build a physical bar on the SIGGRAPH conference floor with real walls, tables and chairs to sit in, as well as glasses that people can carry containing tropical mixed drinks that they can actually drink. When participants looked out of a virtual window together, they would see an awe-inspiring vista of an alien planet.
However, due to the post-COVID constraints that necessitate a fully remote environment, we went back to the drawing board, re-engineering and re-designing our project with the hope of bringing participants the joy of connecting with colleagues at SIGGRAPH -- all while they sit safely at home at their desk or kitchen table and use their own VR headset.
Participants still have many ways to interact with each other and with their environment, all while seeing and hearing each other as procedurally generated robot avatars seated around a virtual bar, perfectly situated for small group conversations. The experience will feel unique, yet also powerfully familiar and natural.
This approach has utility as a prototype system architecture that will allow remotely located people to interact and collaborate with each other in exciting new ways. Also, people will enjoy the chance to jump into a bar on another planet as a temporary refuge from the neverending stream of Siggraph Zoom meetings.
Our project moves beyond current paradigms, as it is a fundamental rethinking of a shared VR experience in a parallel world. Similarly to commercially available systems like Altspace, VR Chat, and Hubs, our system uses only the inside-out tracking sensors in the VR headset to track the rigid bodies of each participant. However, in contrast to these systems, we built our custom low-latency network stack from the ground up as a plugin for Unreal Engine. This allows us to measure and analyze meaningful data about the shared state of the participants and the environment at any given moment. Our underlying research platform is therefore immediately able to support the broader VR development and scientific communities.
The user experience
The user experience is also highly collaborative. When people have correct spatial audio in a parallel world that is not bound by our usual rules of perception, they can use their virtual co-locality to collaborate in ways not available either remotely or in their normal physical environment. Unlike most VR experiences, this experience allows, and in fact encourages, many people to interact and collaborate with each other at the same time. We are showing that such systems can be low cost and can work using only inside-out tracking technology to track each participant, and therefore can easily be scaled up for mass use.
SIGGRAPH attendees make a reservation for a time slot to visit The Outpost on our website theoutpostvr.com. After registering, they will receive an email with links and instructions to download The Outpost from the Steam Store (a free Steam account is required). After attendees open The Outpost in the Steam App and put on their VR Headset, they will find themselves on an alien planet with a cool retro-future vibe.
All of the other patrons at The Outpost are robots, as are you. After selecting a seat at an available table, you will be able to customize your robot avatar by selecting an avatar from a population of procedurally generated robots.
You can then talk to the other robots at The Outpost, whom you realize are fellow SIGGRAPH attendees. As you hang out with each other, you drink your tropical drink through a straw.
There are many opportunities for research, and we expect that a number of scientific papers and some Ph.D. dissertations may come out of this work and related work.
Professor, New York University
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