How to build virtual reality goggles | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.01.2014
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How to build virtual reality goggles

Until now, virtual reality glasses were complex and expensive. But a new alternative, made by a German computer scientist, could make them accessible to everyone.

Wearing his virtual reality goggles, Stefan Welker looks pretty odd in the YouTube video. They wrap around his face like a huge pair of skiing goggles. Welker is in another world - the virtual world of the computer game, "Quake 2," where he's running through a dark, three-dimensional labyrinth in which he is shooting monsters. When he turns his head, the sensors in the glasses recognize his movement and immediately adjust the view accordingly. That gives him the feeling of actually being in the world of the game.

Bonn-based Welker is the creator of the cheap virtual reality glasses. The most important part is a smart phone, which measures the wearer's head movements, calculating how the image should be adjusted and then displaying this image for the user.

In order for the illusion to work, the smartphone has to be fixed a couple of centimeters in front of the eyes. In order for the illusion to work, the smart phone has to stay in a fixed position a few centimeters from the eyes. Two lenses are situated between the eyes and the screen, in order to magnify the image. On the Internet, there are several concepts for such holders - made of wood, cardboard or even Legos.

Goggles from a 3D printer

Casing for the goggles can be made with the help of a 3D printer. Stefan Welker has made the information publicly available on the Internet, so anyone can download it.

A 3D printer in the Bonn City Library

It took eight hours for the 3D printer to produce the casing

Although few people own their own 3D printers at this point, there are plenty around in public facilities for the true gaming enthusiast to make their own pair of virtual reality goggles - like the one in the Cologne city library.

The principle behind how the Makerbot Replicator works is similar to a hot-melt adhesive: synthetic material is made fluid through heating and then freshly squeezed out from an injector. The injector moves very quickly over a plate, like an inkjet in a regular printer. The material hardens when it cools. And that's how - layer by layer - any type of shaped can be created.

Stefan Welker's glasses took some eight hours to print out. But assembling the printed-out pieces doesn't take long. The required lenses and rubber piece can be ordered on the Internet.

Apart from the smart phone, the parts for the glasses are very cheap, and virtual reality apps work on many popular smart phones. In one app, the users can ride a rollercoaster, and in others, users can go car racing or even scale a mountain.

They all make the player feel like he right in the middle of the game. Every small movement of the head is recorded and processed. And all of that has to happen very fast.

The DIY virtual reality glasses

For the virtual world to be reality, the smartphone serves as a screen

Any delays would have an uncomfortable effect, says Cologne-based computer scientist Ulrich Lang: "The effect could be major, like seasickness."

Competing with expensive variant

Computer scientists at the University of Cologne had the opportunity to compare Welker's glasses to the preliminary release of the Occulus Rift, a virtual reality headset, which is already in high demand from computer game players even though it's only due to be released next year.

Computer scientist Stefan Zellman puts on the DIY smartphone glasses and has a look around every direction in the virtual world.

"When you think about how this is all based on a smart phone, that's really something. The optics are also totally comfortable," he says.

The glasses from Occulus Rift are of course more complex - but there's a whole PC behind that system.

Also for designers and teachers

Apart from computer games, a lot more can be done with virtual reality. In the working world, virtual models of new products can be created in a computer. So that the designers can look at their creation before an actual prototype is made. Architects could also examine virtual models of their buildings.

For Ulrich Lang, virtual reality provides the opportunity to help schoolchildren understand something. For example, the trajectory of a ball can be demonstrated in a physics lesson or 3D model of molecules can be created.

"The possibilities are truly endless," he says.

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