A virtual escape into mapping

Over the past months, the OS Labs team has been busy developing a GIS based educational game experience using the Oculus Rift virtual reality system.  The project is one element in a wider project that is exploring how both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can be used to present geospatial data in new and stimulating ways.  Read on for a little background on the project… 

Virtual reality, as a concept, has existed for many years. The first functional VR headset was built in the sixties, yet long before that, science fiction authors had already been daring to imagine such worlds.   The early 90s saw consumer-orientated VR products being developed, marketed and, in some cases, actually released for sale. However, that technology couldn’t meet people’s expectations, leaving many disillusioned.  More recent advancements in technology have put it back on the agenda. There is already a broad range of VR kit available for purchase, with more lined up for release in 2018. So, how might this relate to Ordnance Survey?  With a sense of ‘place’ being a key component in VR, it seems that there is some common ground to explore.

Virtual reality at OS

In 2017, the OS Labs team took delivery of a new Oculus Rift VR system. Although colleagues had previously experimented with a more basic ‘dev kit’ headset, this would be our first opportunity to work with motion-sensed hand controllers alongside. So, what might we do with this new toy?  Previous OS demos had focused on the viewing of textured terrain models. These were focused on showing static 3D models, rather than leveraging the ‘interactive’ aspect of the platform. With the clever Oculus Touch controllers now in our hands, surely a lot more could be achieved?

Ben Nevis shown in VR

So, where would we start?  Online research indicated that VR was proven to be effective in the fields of entertainment, education and simulation. Also, perhaps surprisingly, we hadn’t yet tried incorporating our established 2D maps and data within a virtual environment. Certainly, we’d not seen any attempt to replicate core GIS-style functionality within a VR context. How might that even work? Could basic interactions like panning, zooming or map selection be given a different twist in the virtual world? There were lots of questions and possibilities.

The Map Room Escape

We planned a simple educational game – The Map Room Escape – based on the popular ‘escape room’ concept. At the start of the experience, participants would find themselves inside a locked virtual room.  Directly in front of them would be a large table, just the right size for an ‘unfolded’ map.  At one side of the room, there would be a shelving unit containing ‘cartridges’ of map data, whilst elsewhere, further cartridges of points of interest features would be found. Users would then be guided (via text and voice-over narration) through a series of tasks, requiring them to set up and interact with geospatial data.  Successfully undertaking this would then win them their reward – a passcode to help them to ‘escape’ and discover a surprise! The ‘educational’ angle would be that the whole process will introduce users to the fundamental building blocks of GIS data, albeit in an unconventional way.

After weeks of coding, modelling and learning, we’ve built the first version of the application.  The player’s first task is to choose a base-map cartridge from the shelf, (virtually) pick it up, then insert it into a ‘reader’ device located just below the table top. This ‘cartridge’ paradigm – similar to loading data from a VHS tape or CD – is something we’ve seen used to good effect in other VR experiences and worked well for us. Currently, the base-map cartridges include 1:50k/1:25k ‘consumer’ maps, OS VectorMap District, a styled OS MasterMap raster and imagery. Further to that, separate ‘points of interest’ cartridges work in much the same way, the data itself sourced from our AddressBase addressing product. Support for polygon features has also been added, with data from OS Open Greenspace. All this data, once visible on the table, can be panned (by reaching onto the map and pushing it!) and zoomed. Individual feature layers can be toggled and, upon touch (using the hand controllers), attribution relating to individual features will be displayed on one of the two wall-mounted monitors. Aside from the room’s functional objects, additional contextual detail gives users a familiar and believable virtual space to spend time in.  The need to make users feel comfortable was a valuable early lesson for this project – one of the many things that makes developing in VR a unique challenge.

We’ve kept the initial task deliberately simple, effectively serving as a tutorial through a series of map-related tasks. As we were using the app for short demonstrations, we didn’t want the experience to feel overwhelming, or cause (potentially first-time) VR users to feel unwell. So far, most test subjects have really enjoyed the experience without significant side-effects. For future versions, much scope exists to adapt the nature and difficulty of the challenge, in line with the needs of different audiences.

Because the app is currently serving as a testbed for our ideas, it’s something that may never be fully ‘finished’. Certainly, for now, it’s not something that we’re expecting to release to the wider world.  However, it IS functional…On GIS Day 2017, we presented to groups from local secondary schools to great effect (photo above). We witnessed virtual reality’s power to engage interest, drawing participants into the experience. In a very different setting, we also presented a tailored ‘free-play’ version to executives and academics at a property redevelopment event. Seeing their uninhibited reactions to the experience was also very interesting!

What’s next?

Overall, seeing how others take to using VR has been a revelation. For the most part, people seem to really enjoy the experience. However, some are much more adept at it than others! A little experience of other VR apps, or simply of playing video games, certainly seems to go a long way, particularly where touch controllers are used, as they possess a complexity and scope that can be surprising and (initially) confusing. This acclimatisation period is significant when offering demos at events – we can’t assume that people will be fully ‘up-and-running’ in an instant. Users can sometimes demonstrate unexpected and surprising behaviours which adds another level of complexity to the development process.

One particularly attractive aspect of VR is the potential for creativity that it offers. In a virtual world, just about anything is possible! For example, we discovered, by accident, that allowing the user to stand waist-deep IN the table affords them a really satisfying view of the map. Of course, allowing this breaks the ‘logic’ of the space and is perhaps undesirable in this app, for that reason. However, the opportunity is certainly there to make use of this idea further in future projects. To date, through necessity, the focus of our development has been largely focused on the core map functionality. However, the scope is certainly there to take things significantly beyond that. We certainly have ideas of how more creative content could later be incorporated alongside this…watch this space for future developments.

It’s already proven to be a very interesting project to have worked upon. We’ve been successful in making-real many of the original concepts and aims. Also, we have learned new development skills in the process. It’s generated much interest amongst those that have had the chance to try it – and people genuinely seem to enjoy the experience. Perhaps more significantly, we’ve also seen, first hand, how the VR format can engage people in a subject matter that they might not otherwise have pursued.  In addition, though, this project has also been a catalyst for further ideas and developments, either as enhancements to The Map Room Escape, or as separate applications. Our big problem now is in choosing where we might go with it next!

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6 Responses

  1. bob lang

    How and when will this be available to schools to try? I am geography teacher from Birmingham who is very active in using and promoting the use of geospatial tools

    1. Hi Bob

      It’s very much a research project at the moment, which the team are demoing if they’re out and about at events. There aren’t any plans to release it, but I will feed your interest back to the team.

      Many thanks

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  3. Nilesh Raichura

    Hi I read about your project in slack where a link was posted to this webpage as am working with the Government Digital Service .

    could I be one of your trialists – I have a Samsung VR using Oculus

    1. Hi Nilesh

      Great to hear that you’re interested in our project. We aren’t running a trial on this educational game though or releasing an app for others to try out. We’re demoing with it if we’re at appropriate events, or if we have visitors in (such as on GIS Day). Watch this space, we’ll certainly blog about it if the situation changes.

      Many thanks

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