To be fair, I’ve not really done any virtual reality stuff. The closest I’ve really come is a 4D movie experience at Disney where you’d watch a 3D movie and they would spray water on you or release scents during key scenes. Interesting, sure, but frankly VR just seemed like it was a technology really geared toward gaming or kids or something.
So when my calibrator friend, Adam Pelz, suggested I should visit his company’s demo at CEDIA, I obliged out of our friendship more than any real expectations of greatness. Also, Adam wouldn’t tell me what the demo was but just said that I would be really disappointed if I heard other people talking about it and I missed out. Fortunately for me, I made the time, as the demo turned out to be my highlight at CEDIA, and left me telling other people that it was the must-see demo of the show.
REAL Audio Video is located in Utah and is internationally recognized as a top design and integration firm that has been doing ultra-high-end installs for more than 18 years. Immediately prior to CEDIA, REAL AV merged with The Erskine Group, which includes current chairman of the CEDIA board, Dennis Erskine, one of the top home theater designers in the industry.
REAL partnered with another Utah based company, Fractal Mob, to create its new Private Cinema previsualization software, which was demonstrated at CEDIA for the first time. This previs software is not only incredibly innovative, but also potentially game changing in its use of virtual reality for aiding in the pre-sale and design of high end theaters.
The two firms worked closely together on the project with REAL acting as technical consultants and providing Fractal with the floorplans, elevations, and reference photos to recreate the room in VR. By using virtual reality, REAL wants to let customers “walk through” their new theater space “before a single nail is driven.”
For the demo, Fractal Mob took 4K VR scans of one of REAL’s actual, already constructed theater designs. As the firm didn’t have access to the actual room, they had to build everything from scratch—speakers, chairs, projector, room, textures, etc.—as if it didn’t exist in real life, or exactly as it would be as if someone was previsualizing a room that had yet to be built.
After the modeling is complete, the software lets you walk around and explore every inch of the room. The resulting image quality is nearly photo realistic, and in fact is limited by the current hardware limitations in VR rendering and will only improve as computing hardware catches up.
Jonathan Law, REAL Audio Video’s owner, guided me through my demo, both explaining how to move in the space and what was happening. After putting on the headset and earphones, you hold two “wands.” The wand in your left hand is a virtual flashlight you can use to highlight things you want to examine in further detail.
Jonathan Law leading my VR demo.
As the theater space might be 40-feet long and the actual space where you are standing might be a 12×12 room, you can walk into things in the real world without being able to reach them in the virtual space. As you near a real life boundary, a series of blue lines appear in your virtual display to let you know that you shouldn’t walk any further. The wand in your right hand is used to solve this problem, letting you “teleport” to places inside the room.
Once inside the virtual space, you can walk up to walls and see the micro detail and texture in the fabric and the grain of the wood and quality of the millwork. Sconces gently bathe the sidewalls in light, the intensity and brightness changing as you walk up to them. Look back into the projector room and you see lens flare that changes based on the projected image and where you’re standing in the room. There are even micro dust particles floating through the air in the light path of the projector. Kneel down and examine the carpet.
Sit in different points in the room and see exactly how big—or small—your intended screen size looks. No more will the question, “Will 120 inches be too big from this seating position?” be a theoretical one. Now you can sit the client in the front row, the middle row, the back row and let them see exactly how big the screen will look at all seating locations. Same with seating. How will four seats look in a row? Put yourself in the space and see exactly how wide the pathways are. Or if the first row is low enough to not have sightline issues.
The actual room
Ultimately REAL would like to get enough “models” and “textures” that they could easily change details like fabric or wood color with some quick button clicks. Don’t like red? How’s blue? No? How about an earthy taupe? Or grey?
After you’ve walked around the room and marveled at the visuals, with the push of a few buttons some more magic happens. REAL modeled not only the finished room, but also the wall construction, so they can peel back the walls, revealing the acoustic treatments and speaker locations.
With another button press they can model speaker reflection points letting you see exactly where the acoustic treatments are needed based on seating position.
They can also show the standing bass waves in the room.
Modeling speaker reflection points and standing waves
Even more amazing—and educational—the audio tracks your position in the room, letting you move in and out of room modes so a customer can experience exactly what is happening with the audio and why the need for multiple subs and room correction—my friend Adam’s specialty—is so crucial. While the VR demo video is playing, the audio also tracks as you turn your head as you turn from side to side, moving the stereo image position. Amazing.
Right now, this is a Ferrari-level experience that is expensive to pull off and would really only be viable for the ultra-high-end of the market. (They don’t know exactly how long it took to complete this room, as programming occurred in parallel with building design tools and the software’s core engine. However Fractal Mob says it was easily a couple of months’ worth of work.) As more assets are modeled, however, the time and price should come down. Ultimately, REAL would like to put clients into a virtual showroom where they could walk through different options, say rooms of different sizes, color schemes and budgets.
Another terrific use from this would be a true working virtual reality theater. Why invest in a million dollar room that takes a huge space in your home when you could slip on your VR set and step into any number of fantastic theaters, all with the ideal screen size and acoustics? You could now have a palatial sized cinema in a space no larger than your favorite seat. Then invite your friends over to join you and host virtual movie meet ups, sharing the experience—including chatting back and forth—even though you could be separated by thousands of miles.
Regardless of where REAL takes this technology or how far downstream it ultimately gets, it really opened my eyes to what a game changer VR can be in this space and how creative people are putting this new tech to use in amazing ways.