XINDIAN DISTRICT, NEW TAIPEI CITY — For those who follow communication technology, it is no secret that Taiwan is constantly on the “bleeding edge” of emerging tech. Stemming as far back as the “Taiwan Miracle” economic boon of the latter 20th Century, this island nation has consistently been among the global leaders in information systems innovation.
One of the leaders in this space is Taipei-based HTC. For folks in the US, that name is probably most well-known for the HTC VIVE virtual reality headset, which was released for sale in April 2016. That device sold over 100,000 units within one month, and is among several devices considered responsible for the increasing popularity of VR, augmented reality (AR), and related technologies (some use the term XR to refer to “extended reality” systems).
As part of our ongoing research, my colleague Dr. Jih-Hsuan “Tammy” Lin arranged for a meeting at HTC headquarters earlier this week, where we met with project managers and other members of their development and marketing teams. A primary focus of our meeting was to seek out potential collaborations for research, but we also wanted to get a broader sense of their vision for VR’s past, present, and future. We also got several hands-on demonstrations with their own emerging projects.
Our meetings started with a very warm welcome in the HTC lobby, and a quick trip to the coffee bar to perk up for the day. Something that I have observed during my short stay in Taipei so far? People in Taiwan are remarkably caring and compassionate–I feel as if nearly every person I meet takes time to make me feel comfortable, extending a helping hand or at least, a smile and a nod to acknowledge me. It’s a truly humbling experiences … and it makes me feel like I’m back in West Texas. I only hope that I am as warm to others as they are to me.
Afterwards, a quick elevator ride up to the demonstration floor brought us closer to some very cool technology. =)
The HTC team had prepared for us a few different demonstrations on each of their devices, showcasing the potential for using VR in advertising and (for this demonstration, art) education.
The education demonstrations in particular we fascinating to me, as they both showcased the use of VR not to simply replicate the reality in front of us but instead, to create entirely novel and unique experiences otherwise impossible in our corporeal reality.
The first demonstration was a VIVE Arts project, “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass.” The experience starts with a standard portrayal of the Mona Lisa as if one were standing in The Musée du Louvre–the painting behind a protective barrier, and throngs of tourists somewhat blocking the view. After a few moments however, the painting pixelates and comes to life: Mona Lisa comes to life, in three dimensions, sitting in front of the viewer. I walk around and see the many different angles and details of the painting, as a narrator walks me through unique facts and features (for example, I had no idea that the painting was made on a large section of wood, with repairs visible on the back-side of the canvas). For a few minutes, I stand with and around Mona Lisa herself, and I’m able to understand the intricacies of this renowned painting (as well as its renowned subject).
Our second art education demonstration is of a famous Chinese painting, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival.” From Radio Taiwan International, the painting depicts “…the daily lives of city dwellers around the time of the Tomb Sweeping Festival during China’s Northern Song Dynasty.” The VR version of this painting places the viewer directly in the center, rendering the buildings, landscapes, and peoples of the city of Kaifeng during the time of the Northern Song dynasty. As I wander the city, I’m tasked with finding different characters in the painting; I hunt down each one and pick them out of the painting, and as I hold them in my hand, I’m told a bit about their social role and daily life in Kaifeng. When I’m done with each person, I can place them back in their proper space … or I can fling them into the Yellow River or the mountains in the background.
Both demonstrations provided me with perspectives on their respective artworks otherwise impossible at a distance, physical and perceptual. Especially with “Along the River…” I already began to understand the social structures being depicted in the painting. At least, it’s an empirical question, right? Almost as soon as the headsets came off, I turned to Tammy and started sketching out research ideas. I haven’t read too deeply into the literature just yet, but I immediately wondered if these sort of immersive and interactive elements might influence:
- our knowledge of basic principles of classic art; at the very least, perhaps our affective learning (our attitudes towards learning) is increased when we can “play” with the works
- our appreciation of classic artworks; both these specific works, but also artworks more broadly
- our behaviors afterwards, such as seeking more information about the art, or the museums housing the pieces, or other works from these artists
NOTE: Tammy and I are already working to formalize these (and other) research concepts, but we’re always down for suggestions. =)
A few more demonstrations of equipment–playing some classic Beat Saber on the HTC VIVE Cosmos and then a demonstration of advertising materials via the HTC VIVE Focus–we visited a conference room to talk about future plans. During our chat, we kept coming back to the notion of a VR ecosystem. That is, an understanding of VR that moves beyond a myopic focus on content and instead, considers how users (and companies) create, deploy, and experience VR. Constantly during the conversation, there was a commitment to objective and empirical data, and the role that educational institutions can play in this development cycle.
It was refreshing to have such passionate and high-level engagement with a major corporate player in the VR space, and to do so in a way that was truly and mutually inspiring. There was a genuine interest in the room (and I suspect, throughout the building) on not merely improving HTC products, but more broadly how we can all make effective use of VR in our daily lives.
I’m eager to see where this partnership takes us, in the next six months and beyond.