Holodome: On the path to the Holodeck
February 11, 2019
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Senior Mechanical Engineer Greg Minarik inside the Holodome.

On a typical gray sky Seattle afternoon, Paul Allen arrived at Vulcan’s Innovation Laboratory eagerly anticipating witnessing one of his visions come to life.

The Holodome hardware and software platform -- taking people places they could not otherwise go.

Although our 4-person engineering team knew of his plans to visit the windowless Georgetown studio within a two-day timeframe, he gave us less than 60 minutes to prepare for his 4pm visit that day. To say the least, he expected a lot from any of Vulcan’s teams. Hurriedly sweeping the floors, we scrambled to tidy up the place. With 30 minutes remaining, the door to the amalgam of projectors, servers, audio equipment, and various other devices and sensors was unintentionally locked (by yours truly!) with no door handle installed. Yikes!

Chaos? Oh yes, to say “just a little” is an understatement. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Well, it is all part of the excitement of showing a demo (right?). The celebration when we did manage to solve this last minute issue was short lived since our visionary promptly arrived.

I am proud to share that on March 3, 2017, Allen successfully experienced the second prototype iteration of the Holodome – a platform that renders 360 content without the use of head mounted displays. Our demo set-list included various film segments (with all-around scene projection - and YES! on the floor too!) and early attempts of interactive experiences – so early that the interactives were running at 15fps. While Allen immersed himself in our presentation, the core team patiently waited outside, for what seemed like, the longest thirty minutes ever!

When Allen exited the Holodome, he clapped, and congratulated us. Stamped as one of the best days, career wise, for our team, his primary question after the quick debrief was, “What’s Next?”

Fast forwards to almost two years later, our team is in the midst of delivering the General Availability (GA) version of the Holodome. 
 
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Upper left: Holodome Prototype 1 (2016), Upper Right: Holodome Prototype 2 (2017), and General Availability (2019). Bringing transformative platform potential, the Holodome (codenamed Holodeck in its early development) utilizes a system like a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) that allows for human-scale rendering of digital content to produce life-sized experiences. CAVE is also a reference to the allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic in which a philosopher contemplates perception, reality, and illusion (see Wikipedia article).

This journey from prototype to a platform product required a transition in mindset from R&D to productization. The small team assembled grew from the core four engineers to a cadre of twelve coming from a diverse set of backgrounds of shipping various products (HoloLens, Kinect, mobile apps, aerospace components, experimental media art, strategic envisioning installations commercial game engines, and games).  For Prototype 2, we pushed the limits of visual fidelity within our constraints. Now with the added expertise within the team we began to progress the audio and interactives to be state of the art with the goal of scalability. The latest work that we are doing with ambisonic audio (3rd order) and real-time rendering performance is increasing our fidelity level to new heights. 
 
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Left :Vance Galloway (Sr. Systems Engineer for Immersive) working with ambisonic audio mixing in Protools driving content in the Holodome. Right: high-resolution Unity scene in real-time (ArchViz content) with Jonathan McAfee our Sr. Technical Service Engineer
 
In between the journey from Prototype 2 to GA, we took a little detour and validated the Holodome experience by deploying it as a public facing installation at MoPOP where it has now entertained over 35,000 visitors since May 2018.  We collaborated with Vulcan Productions and with the best cinematic teams at the forefront of 360 content development to provide the best content possible for the Holodome format (Mechanical Dreams, Pixvana, WEVR, Technicolor, V.A.L.I.S., MPC, Kaleidoscope, Juvee Productions, Protozoa Pictures)
 
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The diversity of Holodome content currently showing at MoPOP Seattle (video)
 
The deployment to MoPOP also served as a forcing function to grow the team’s ability to support a live installation of the Holodome.  Having the support infrastructure is instrumental in the success of any product and the MoPOP experience highlighted where we needed to grow.  We learned to establish seven day support readiness – our customers will be using the device seven days a week and the team is proud to say that the MoPOP deployment has over 99.5% uptime.  Not to be overlooked, our content received near 8/10 satisfaction
 
Holodome attribute Prototype 1 (2016) Prototype 2 (2017) GA (early 2019)
resolution around the equator 5K 9.2K 9.2k
number of projectors 2 4 4
number of servers 3 5 2 (with one media server)
number of speakers 7 plus haptics 7 plus haptics 15 plus haptics
controller support none 2 HTC Vive Controllers up to 8 HTC Vive Controllers/Trackers
build time ? a month 3 days
360 Cinematic yes (HAP) yes (HAP) yes (HAPQ and H.265)
360 Interactive none yes (at 15 fps) yes (30-60 fps)
Interactive SDK none None yes (Unity)
door design open zipper based custom
audio 7.1 Surround 7.1 Surround 15.1 Ambisonic
remote management none None yes
projection mapping cameras manual 8 1
Cinemtic Emulator (via HMD) none Yes Yes
Interactive Emulator (via HMD) none None yes
A few of the engineering accomplishments in the past three years.
 
In the process of developing this platform product, we have streamlined the content creation process.  It is critical to give content creators very quick iteration times.  Since the Holodome is a unique device and there are not many installations (only four in the world), we provided the remote teams with emulators that can be used in conjunction with a VR headset.  This allowed artists, developers, and sound engineers to make creative and technical decisions in situ and saved them a trip to Seattle or L.A.  And we are extremely excited to announce that the Holodome SDK for Unity is ready for General Availability along with the hardware.  Getting the SDK to be functional and feature rich leveraged on the foundation of the commoditization that is happening in the VR HMD space.  We rely on SteamVR and the HTC Vive set of controllers and trackers to provide highly accurate input in the real world to drive interactive experiences for gaming and enterprise context – we accomplish this by running SteamVR in headless mode.  If you are interested in the SDK or 360 cinematic content creation, please check out our developer portal and connect with us on twitter.

Let us discuss another major piece of the puzzle -- the door design.  Not many projects have attempted to create a door that is close to spherical in shape.  The team worked diligently and the decision to replace the zipper entrance with a custom door proved strategic: later in the MoPOP installation, the zipper mechanism failed a couple of times, triggering a late night fix of uninstalling the screen and installing a new one.  That is a major pain point that will not scale.  But designing a door for the curvature of the Holodome is not an easy task, and we are glad to have hardware folks in the team attacking this.

Many people have asked, “What’s the purpose of the Holodome?”  Our simple answer, we want people to experience a created reality unencumbered by a head mounted device, facilitating a memorable group experience.  For context, the first time my son tried the Oculus DK1 back in 2013, he was four at that time, he asked, “where are my hands?”  In the Holodome, he does not have to ask that, and he is able to see me too.  No need to learn something different to communicate with others in the same space and time.

As we pursue the North Star of the Holodeck in a spectrum of exciting parallel efforts across the industry and academia, there are more areas to optimize and innovate on. One of which is display technologies. We are still far from achieving reality levels of projection capabilities, which is about 500-600 pixels/inch at 0 distance (Practical Multi-Projector Display Design, page 222). While RAM and CPU/GPU components are improving at exponential rates, display technology is not keeping up.  Games released 20 years ago were running on console components that are 32,000 times less powerful that what we have available for the Holodome but TV displays back then only have 72 times less resolution than the Holodome.

To close, what we have accomplished as the core engineering team along with Vulcan Impact Engineering, Vulcan Productions as well as various industry partners to deliver the Holodome GA is just a milestone along a much longer journey in the spectrum of VR related efforts.  

Allen’s vision to take people places they could not otherwise go has set us up with clarity and purpose. 

We dearly miss him and wished he could have clapped for the Holodome a second time.
 
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Vulcan Impact Engineering visiting the Holodome team at our lab in Georgetown, Seattle, WA recently for an All Hands meeting










 
About the Author
Joseph L.
Senior Software Engineer
Prior to joining Vulcan Inc, Joseph was a member of Microsoft's Strategic Prototyping Team where he worked on ideating and implementing functional envisioning pieces for senior level executives as well immersive installations for the Microsoft Envisioning Center.  Before Microsoft, he was actively involved in the game development scene in the Seattle area (SOE, WildTangent, LithTech, Nightlight, etc.) shipping various commercial games and game engines.  He graduated from the Paul Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering in 1997.

Category Tags
Holodome
OnlyAtVulcan
About the Author
Joseph L.
Senior Software Engineer
Prior to joining Vulcan Inc, Joseph was a member of Microsoft's Strategic Prototyping Team where he worked on ideating and implementing functional envisioning pieces for senior level executives as well immersive installations for the Microsoft Envisioning Center.  Before Microsoft, he was actively involved in the game development scene in the Seattle area (SOE, WildTangent, LithTech, Nightlight, etc.) shipping various commercial games and game engines.  He graduated from the Paul Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering in 1997.

Category Tags
Holodome
OnlyAtVulcan
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