Adaptive 360 VR Video Streaming

We’re having a lot of fun at the Pixvana working on various VR storytelling technologies, what we have termed “XR Storytelling” as we are thinking broadly about both AR and VR but also xR, such as virtual reality caves, and other as yet to be conceived of immersive platforms which will require similar tools and platforms.  One of the key challenges we are working on is how to deliver absolutely gorgeous/high-quality adaptive streaming 360 VR video.

Last week we combined our love for food with our love for VR, and shot a rough blocking short film that we intend to turn into a higher quality production in a few more weeks, when we can bring a higher quality camera rig into the mix.  Aaron blocked out the shots while the team at Manolin, the f-ing awesome restaurant next to our office, was prepping for the day.  Here is the rough cut:

Then, we threw it into our cloud elastic compute system on AWS and produced several variations as a series of “viewports” which when viewed on a VR headset like the HTC Vive (the best on the market so far) produces some pretty darn immersive/awesome video at a comfortable streaming bandwidth that can delivered on demand to both desktop and mobile VR rigs.  Here’s a preview of what the cumulative render “viewports” look like in one configuration of the settings (we are working on dozens of variations using this technique, so we can optimize the quality:bandwidth bar on a per-video basis):

Looking forward to sharing more of what we are up to with the public in the near future–for now, if you are a seattle friend, stop by for a demo, and, delicious dinner at Manolin Restaurant!

 

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Clear Example of VR Video Assembly

Here’s some really clear images and videos that illustrate a VR Video assembly process using a 6 camera go-pro rig.  This isn’t meant as a comprehensive how-to, rather, just a visual only guide that I will be using in presentations to walk folks through the process.

Step 1: The Rig (6 gopro cameras)

camera

Step 2 – Shoot

shoot

Step 3 – Raw Footage

Step 4 – Exploded View

Step 5 – Equarectangular Stich (rough)

Step 6 – Spherical Playback

 

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Why VR Video Will Be BIG

wevr theBlu.jpg

A lot of my friends have asked me why i’ve plunged into starting a new company, and, why / how i chose building a VR Video Platform specifically as an area for software innovation?  I think i can succinctly summarize as: VR Video is *magical*, and things that are truly *magic* are f8cking cool and rarer than unicorns.  I see a unique confluence in time for me, my skills, my passions, and a market need and opportunity.  It’s only been about 90 days since I put on my first vintage 2015 VR headset (like many i had tried the 1990s era stuff which just made me vomit), and my Pixvana Co-Founders and I gave birth to our VR Video startup Pixvana this week.

Here’s why:

When i put on a HTC Vive headset for the first time and experienced the demos Valve has been showing in summer of 2015, i experienced a profound, complete, pervasive feeling of what I knew immediately to be what the VR industry calls “presence”.  The sensation was right there with other must-try-in-a-lifetime, hard-to-describe-to-someone-who-hasn’t-done-it-yet experiences: falling-in-love, skydiving, scuba, sex, certain recreational mind-expanding drugs, finishing a marathon, watching my wife give birth to our boys…  Specifically, for me, I experienced a sense of outer-body time and space travel: time stopped functioning on the normal scale of my daily routines, my body perception was replaced with something “virtual” that was not quite real but not quite fake either, and i was taken to far away imagined worlds–underwater, into robot labs and toy tables and several other places that while not photo-real in their rendering, felt and behaved in ways that were significantly real enough that it WAS REAL.

wevr theBlu.jpg

WEVR’s theBlu, often the first moment of real “presence” experienced by those that have tried the HTC Vive in 2015–it was for me!

When i took the goggles off after that first experience, it took me a good 3-5 minutes to “come back”–just like landing in Europe after a long flight and sensing the Parisian airport as different than my home city departure equivalent, coming back from the virtual world took me a moment of reflection and introspection to balance the “wait a minute, where am i now”?  It made me think of existentialism and some of my favorite Jorge Luis Borges short stories–my mind immediately considered “wait, am i still in VR and i am just perceiving another layer of possible reality, waiting to take off another set of goggles within goggles?”  This wasn’t a scary thought or psychotic split, rather, a marvel at the illusion that i had just witnessed, like a great card trick from a magician–only it was my own mind that had played the trick on me…

Lu with VR Headset-1000 small

The smile on my friend Lu’s face perfectly captures her “aha moment” of first-time-presence.  I’ve seen dozens of friends light up this way during their first time VR trials.

In addition to the Steam VR experience (HTC Vive is just one hardware implementation, what I was really marveling at was Valve’s SteamVR vision and software–not the hardware form factor) in the last few months I’ve tried most of the other mainstream 2016 expected delivery VR experiences: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Playstation’s VR, and a variety of configurations of Google Cardboard and various phones.  In terms of delivering “presence”, without a doubt the Vive is on a completely different level–i’d rate it a 10 on a scale of 1-10, the DK2 Rift and Sony VR a 5, Samsung Gear a 3, and Google Cardboard a -5 (i’ll write more in detail about Cardboard in the future–suffice to say it is antithetical to creating any sense of presence, and it does VR an injustice to have so many of them floating around out there, suggesting a inferior experience is to be expected to all the unknowing consumers who have tried it and think they have seen what is coming in VR).  But these distinctions between hardware systems this early in the market is really inconsequential.  I believe that just like with mobile devices or PCs, within 5 years the hardware will become pretty uniform and indistinct (is there really any difference at all between a iPhone 6 and a Samsung Galaxy 6?), and the real business and consumer differentiation will be in the software ecosystems within the app stores and developer communities that will rise, as well as in the software applications that will be fantastic but will run cross-platform on all of these devices.

Andrew Little 1

Andrew in disbelief, watching a VR video that made him forget he was sitting in my living room.

So for that reason, i’m much more interested in the content and software enablement systems that need to be built to enable creators to build cool shit that will be compelling and magical for consumers.  The more magic experienced, the more VR consumption and headsets will be sold, and a virtuous business cycle of new content, demand for that content, more content creators, repeat….

It is clear to me that there are two (2) canonical types of content for these devices–3d CGI environments, and video/still image photography based content.  3D CGI material is very attractive and inherently magical, as it can fully render images that track the users head movement side to side and even at “full room scale” if she walks around and freely explores the environment.  A pretty mediocre piece of VR content in 3d CGI on the Vive is pretty darn amazing. A great piece of CGI VR is astoundingly cool (eg: WEVR’s theBlu Experience.

verse u2

Chris Milk’s U2 VR Video is a glimpse of VR video specific semantics that are just now being worked out–both creatively and from a technology perspective.

On the other hand, even a really great VR video can be pretty darn “meh” on any of the VR headsets, and pretty darn awful and nausea producing on a bad VR headset (‘wassup Google Cardboard!).  But it won’t be that way for long–this is more a reflection of the nascent state of VR video than of a fundamental problem with the medium.  VR Video Content and the technology to shoot, prepare, fluff, and deliver for playback of VR video will follow a rapid improvement cycle just like other new film mediums have enjoyed.  Consider:

In the late 1890s when motion pictures were being introduced, Vaudeville was the mainstream performance art form and most early cinema consisted of “filmed vaudeville”.  Within 20 years, unique storytelling technology and production and editing techniques were introduced with films such as the Great Train Robbery, and various intercutting techniques between very different camera compositions (wide shots, close ups, tracking shots, etc.) started to tell stories in ways that bore no resemblance at all to vaudeville’s tropes.  This transition from Vaudeville-to-cinema was ~1900-1950 phenomena which included the addition of audio in the 20s and color in the 40s and large format wide aspect ratio spectaculars like VistaVision and Cinerama in the 1950s.

great train robery

1903 film The Great Train Robbery used a myriad of new techniques in composition and editing, which must have been initially disorienting in their novelty and break from more traditional Vaudeville “sitting in an audience” perspectives that viewers would have been accustomed with.

Television came next and introduced live broadcasting and recorded programs which were stored on tapes in both professional (and later) for consumer distribution on VHS/Beta.  Editing was done as “tape-to-tape” transfer, cumbersome and time consuming and actually slower than just cutting film pieces together on a Moviola.

great train robery

Thankfully i came into the film industry just as digital film making tools were obsoleting devices like this.  I’m sure it was just a joy to handle all that film by hand and make splices with razor blades and cuts with glue and tape… NOT!

In the 1990s when i worked at Industrial Light and Magic, the first digital effects and digital post-production projects were just being introduced.  When Jurassic Park was made in 1993 there were less than 30 digital effects shots with CGI creatures, but 5 years later there were films being made with 1000s of shots and some that were color graded digitally and thus 100% processed through computers.  In that same timeframe non-linear editing tools like the Avid made it so much quicker and time efficient to edit, that editors started to cut films in a whole new style that was much more rapid and varied–it is incredible to watch a sampling of films from the 1985-92 period, and compare them to those from 1996-2000.  My teenage sons see the earlier films as i might see a 1922 film pre-sound/color.  The analog-to-digital-cinema production transition was perhaps a 1990-2009 transition that started and ended with James Cameron films (The Abyss was the start, and Avatar as the culmination in its perfection of blending digital and analog content seamlessly).

great train robery

Web video infrastructure enjoyed rapid innovation and disruption, from crappy low-resolution thumbnails in 2000, to pretty darn awesome 4k with robust streaming by 2010.

In the 2000s the web was the big disruptor, and technologies like Quicktime, Flash, Silverlight, Windows Media, and the enabling web infrastructure have pushed televisions which were once broadcast reception devices, into on-demand streaming playback screens for web-content and DVR playback.  My household is now dominated by Youtube (which consumes my teenagers free time at all hours of the day on their phones) and Netflix and HBO GO (which dominate my wife and my evenings).  Early web-video was mostly inconceivably small and crappy looking, but by 2010 was of the highest quality and matched master recordings in resolution and fidelity.

friends with VR Goggles On

I’ve given VR Video demos to ~70 folks so far; it has been fascinating to see and hear people’s reactions.

Which brings me to VR Video.  It is clear to me that VR Video will disrupt other forms of video consumption and viewing in a similar manner, and following the trend of other media tech adoption, will do so in a much shorter time frame.  There is so much to do, so much to build, so many creative problems to solve.  I’ll write more about that soon–but for my friends that have asked, now you know the context for my excitement about VR Video.

Forest Pixvana 2015.jpg

Forest Key with a “VR Video is going to be frickin awesome” grin sitting on the steps of Pixvana’s new office in Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.

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Pixvana is a lovely word, and i will make it MINE!

Ximira virtual reality

I’ve got a new favorite word that i’m investing energy in imbuing with greenedness: Pixvana.

Pixvana is evocative of video delivery and virtual reality, and has its very own domain at http://www.pixvana.com.  I really like the combination of the pixel and nirvana concepts, as in the place pixels grow up and get to go when they achieve enlightenment.  I’ve chosen this lovely photo of green tea that i enjoyed while at a bamboo garden in Japan last spring to capture the feeling that Pixvana gives me.  Here are some more evocative images of Pixvana, in a bamboo forest.  I hope to grow Pixvana into a little bamboo garden just like this, someday.

Ximira green garden Ximira bamboo garden

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Grand Canyon River Expedition with Hatch as Outfiter

River Rafting the Grand Canyon

My Family and I just completed a marvelous 9 day expedition on the Colorado River from Lees Landing launch, down through the marvelous Grand Canyon National Park.  We used Hatch as our expedition outfitter/organizer and we were absolutely thrilled with them, our crew, their end-to-end service, and of course, the amazing experience and majesty of the canyon/river.  I wanted to post a few thoughts here for the benefit of others considering the trip, and, Hatch as an outfitter for your adventure on the Colorado/Grand Canyon. Hatch was FANTASTIC.

Here’s what we did:

  • From Las Vegas, we took a regional small plane flight from the city of Boulder to Marble Canyon (not really a town per se, more like a landing strip for the plane and next to a bridge that crosses the Grand Canyon in the “Marble Canyon” area of the park). The flight was arranged with the help of Hatch expedition folks but was a cost separate from the expedition itself.  Here at the upper North-East of the Grand Canyon National Park we met our group which totaled 16 family members, some of whom took their own cars to park at this location, or, who took shuttles from Las Vegas by land.  We all stayed the night before departure at the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, a very nice little motel on the side of the road with clean updated rooms, with a nice little restaurant and supplies shop for food/water/snacks.
  • We awoke early and met the Hatch Expeditions team at our hotel, loaded up in a van, and 15 minutes later we were at Lee’s Ferry, the departure point for the trip (where we met our boat, boat captain, and “swamper” who would assist the boat captain–thus making our total boat party 18 folks).
  • We then boarded out boat and started our journey down-stream which comprised of 9 days 8 nights.  The trip can be configured to be 7 days or as long as 15–in our case we were in a motorized boat (small outboard engine powered the vessel through rapids and long stretches that would require some real paddling effort), we saw other groups that were in mixed use paddle/cayak configurations… i can imagine any and all configurations to be great fun, but the motorized option was definitely optimal for our group that included children ages 10, 12, and 14, as well as several 60-70 year olds in various states of good conditioning (but not strong enough to be paddling a boat for 4-6 hours a day every day).
  • Each day consisted of a routine of (a) rise with the sun, (b) breakfast and break camp usually before 7:30am and on the river (c) a mixture of river rapid ridding, short stops for short walks, and longer stops for side-canyon hikes that lasted upwards of 3 hrs round trip, (d) lunch break mid day usually in a shaded river-edge spot, (e) more rapids and or hikes in the afternoon, (f) make camp landing by 4pm, set up camp, relax a bit before (g) dinner and then lights out with sunset.
  • All camping is on rivers edge on sandy beaches that have mix of rocks/bushes–very very comfortable camps on cots/tents as needed, but we slept outdoors with no cover all nights and enjoyed the stars.  Warm temperatures in July averaged 80+ at night and 100 during the day.  No mosquitoes, very pleasant lack of nuisance bugs of all kinds, with exception of red-ants that re everywhere but only bit 1 in our party 1 time…
  • Fantastic meals and snacks entirely organized and prepared by our captain and swamper.  Our responsibilities as passengers included helping unload/load the boat, and setting up our own camp and sleeping equipment.  We participated as a group in helping with cleaning post-meals, but largely were taken care of by the crew (i don’t know how they did all that cooking–but they did).  Meals were *VERY* good and complete with mixed preparation, sauces, sides, etc…. we were NOT wanting of food comforts, ever!
  • End of trip involved being picked up in a helicopter and flown out in groups of 6 to Bar10 Ranch, from where we had our first showers in 10 days, before boarding a small plane and being returned to Las Vegas area (this flight is included in the expedition fees from Hatch).

In summary–absolutely great experience for all in our group, it truly is a once in a lifetime, one place in the world kind of experience.  Where else can you travel 180+ miles through a national park, take in the absolute majesty of millions of years of natural geology, and never see any cars/villages/cell-phones, etc.?  I now understand why this trip is on so many people’s lifetime “bucket lists”… surprisingly, it wasn’t on my list before taking the trip, but upon returning, i would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys nature.  Hatch was a wonderful outfitter and I will strongly recommend to my friends who consider the same trip–their attention to customers, professionalism, great equipment, and real meaningful multi-generational commitment to the park and river guiding (grandpa Hatch started the company in the 1950s) is evident in the excellent service they deliver.

Grand Canyon Rafting 2015-1324Grand Canyon Rafting 2015-1025 Grand Canyon Rafting 2015-1026 Grand Canyon Rafting 2015-1129 Grand Canyon Rafting 2015-1245

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F80 BMW m3 Kidney Grill Replacement Install

I changed the kidney grill “bib” from the factory chrome to a matching black; this is apparently pretty common cosmetic upgrade/change, and it was ultimately pretty easy to do–however, i found the online documentation/help to be a bit confusing so I thought I’d pass my learnings forward herein for others, feel free to post a question if I can help you out with more details.

before after f80 grill

First, I bought from IND who were very good with customer service, prompt on delivery, and super knowledgeable when i called a few times with questions before and after purchase.  Highly recommend.  Here’s the F80 Front Grill Surround part that i ordered.

Here’s what the part looks like:

Front Grill

IND provides a DIY video tutorial which is generally correct, but, it was not sufficient for me to succeed with the installation.  Here’s the video:

And here’s what was wrong / additional information needed to be successful:

  • In addition to a Torx 27 tool to remove 6 screws that hold the top of the bumper to the frame (which need to be removed in order to lift the bumper forward to gain access with your hands to the rear where 8 separate tabs snap the plastic of the cover to tabs on the bumper), there are 2 ADDITIONAL screws that require a Torx 25 screw driver.  It may be possible to complete the project without pulling these additional Torx 25 screws, but I would not recommend as it would put needless pressure on the plastic bumper element.  See photo for location:

torque screws

  • With all screws removed, the next step is correct in the IND video, but grossly oversimplified.  it is VERY tricky to find and remove the 8 individual snap/pressure points to get the original grill off the bumper.  After 20 minutes of fidgeting and trying to figure out what to do, i found this very helpful and more accurate video illustration that correctly captures the effort and steps needed:

  • Despite being much harder/trickier then the IND video made the project look, it is actually only a 10 minute project and very DIY… just a little tighter space to work with and some small hands come in handy given the tight spaces.

I love the result and i think it is a great cost/benefit upgrade, much better looking!

Here’s some additional photos in the process which i wish I had as reference, hope they help you out:

pulling off

In photo above: try to get one grill off first by starting with top 3 fasteners, then either the left/right one which allows to start to pull out of frame (as seen in picture, where top 3 and left 1 (so 4 of the 8) have been unfastened), with the right 1 and the bottom 3 still to go.  Once all 8 of them are unsnapped, the piece just pops out.  And THEN, the other grill is easy, as you can now stick your hand through the empty space you created, making for a much faster remove  of the 8 snaps.  It took me 10 minutes to do the left grill, and less than 1 minute to repeat for right side.

Photo below: shows both grills removed.  Inserting the new grills is a simple push/snap gesture, takes 2 seconds each.  So all the work is in getting the existing grills to pop-off!

grill offAnd here is the finished result:

IMG_1478

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Play It Again Sports & Ski Seattle Location = SUCKS

ripples of bad customer service

It has been nearly 3 years but i’m still smarting over the horrendous customer experience that I had at the Play It Again Sports & Ski store in downtown Seattle (the one by REI’s flagship store).  Every time I drive by their location and see their sign, my blood boils a little–so I figured I’d take the time to write up my experience, in hopes of helping their business to fail!  I’ll keep it short so it doesn’t suck up too much more of my life…

I went into the store with my wife and 2 boys ages 9 and 10 at the time, and purchased 1 new pair of boots, 1 used pair of boots, and 2 used pair of skis.  I was helped by a young woman who’s name i no longer remember, but who at the time i did (let’s call her Beth).  Beth was very nice/friendly and helped us find the right equipment amongst their buckets of random used stuff (pretty good inventory).  I did this on a personal credit card, and as always, threw the receipt away on way out the door because who keeps receipts when great customer service stores never require a receipt for legitimate issues that arise (read on).

My 9 year old thought his boots were too tight, so i came back to the store with him after 1 day of use of the equipment, 2 weeks from the original date as it was a weekend errand.  I was greeted with what I assumed to be “distrust that this customer is trying to rip us off”, and told that exchanging the boots for a different size was going to cost me $20 USD unless i had the receipt.  The reason, “because how are we to know that you didn’t buy those boots a year ago and are now coming in to upgrade for free”.  Wow, even if that is the thought going through the cashiers’ mind–to say that out loud to a customer?  For what–to get another $20 bucks at the risk of pissing the customer off at being called a thief/con-artist?  Alas, i saw Beth and said “Beth, you remember us, we were here 2 weeks ago for over 90 minutes picking out boots and skiis,  you were so helpful, remember us?” To which Beth stared at me with a blank stare and said… “Nope”.

I haven’t been back since, nor will i ever, and I’ve told everyone i can at the slightest opportunity that the store SUCKS… it literally is the single worst customer experience i’ve ever had in retail.

And no, the employees were not jr/unexperienced–the guy that gave me the hardest time was the shift-manager or the manager or the owner, because when i asked if I could speak to a manager, he proudly told me that he was the person responsible and he was only too proud to demonstrate his mastery of company policy, nay incompetence at basic customer service skills.

As a counter-point, a few months ago I was at the Peet’s Coffee and Tea location on Greenlake, where my wife and I realized shortly after ordering at the cash register that neither of us had our wallets.  After watching us fumble and look at each other in consternation, the cashier kindly volunteered that “this one is on us, no problem” and treated us to our morning coffees.  That too is a story i tell often and at every opportunity i get, and i’ve found myself buying more Peet’s and less Starbucks (across the street) whenever i’m at that particular location and in the mood for coffee (which is 2-3x a week).

Little customer service moments are always HUGE to the customer.  Organizations that don’t intellectually get that, and are not slavishly pursuing customer happiness and delight with every ounce of their energy and resources… will loose.

Play It Again Sports & Ski downtown Seattle, here’s to your catastrophic business failure!

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