Augmented Reality

Vrvana’s Totem first alpha units to be shipped early 2016

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Vrvana’s Totem first Alpha units to be shipped early 2016

VR headsets such as Oculus Rift, Vive HTC, Playstation VR, look truly promising and those companies will certainly push and promote VR like crazy this coming year 2016. In the footsteps of TED Talks popularization, we might see soon more VR related events, such as the iconic SVVR, taking place in our cities, I mean out of the Californian bubble. That’s a fact, for now most of VR related companies are based in the bay area. When I met last Wednesday with Bertrand Nepveu, founder of Vrvana, at his office located downtown Montreal, of course I wanted to know more about their headset, the Totem, but I was also curious to know if he feels like an outsider, standing here in Montreal, and how he deals with that. It sounds like he’s actually doing pretty great! Get ready folks, the Totem, is truly ‘a step ahead’.

“Already recognized for its vitality in the field of digital technologies, Montreal aims to become a world leader among smart and digital cities. More than ever, quality of life and economic prosperity will be achieved by Montrealers for Montrealers.” Source

Montreal is a dynamic North American pole providing great opportunities to developers, creators and entrepreneurs specially the ones engaged with new technologies and bioart. If you are not convinced, check the number of Montreal meet-up groups dedicated to new-tech, it gives a big picture. After becoming a hub for video game industry in 2000s, Montreal’s new branding is all about becoming “a world renowned leader among smart and digital cities by 2017.” So, what is happening now in Montreal? Well, contrarily to recently created company Retinad (which deals with analytics and ads in VR since 2014), Vrvana started ten years from now in a basement of this beautiful city, went through a Canadian accelerator and incubator program, launched a Kickstarter in September 2014 and raised around $1.5 million in capital. They plan to ship their headset, the Totem, late spring 2016. For Bertrand, Vrvana’s biggest challenge in growing in Montreal is to be away from the investors. But this leads to his point, which I support 100%: “Here, we have to do more with less, it’s called capital efficiency. Companies like Oculus or Valve, they have tens of million of dollars and hundreds of employees. Here we are a dozen people working full time. If we want to be competitive, we need to be more creative than them, which means taking more risks.”




Here, we have to do more with less, it’s called capital efficiency.”

The COO of Vrvana, Marc-Olivier Lepage, was socializing in San Francisco while I was interviewing Bertrand in Montreal. It is a necessity for them to be present and represented in the bay area, so they go. After all, that’s where the magic happens! “While we are bringing sixty people together for a Montreal VR meeting, they have more than three hundred participants in SV.” Bertrand replied affirmative when I asked him if they were thinking of opening an office in California in the coming year. He also understood the meta question behind my question and said that they would still stick with their hacker’s philosophy by growing up. I can tell Bertrand is in love with Montreal but also very pragmatic; Montreal is open minded and adorable city but surely not suitable for the VR macrocosm to grow and develop quickly enough. 2016, time to expand for Vrvana.



So here is the news backers have been waiting for: first alpha units will be shipped to backers and selected developers early 2016, commercial units will be shipped later in the year. Totem’s specifications: screen OLED 1440p, two on-board cameras, 105-120° field of view depending of eye-relief, hardware acceleration, custom lenses, positional tracking on-board, switch modes button, Unity & Unreal full support. In a nutshell, it is a solid advanced gear, great for gamers but also for developers because of its double VR/AR option and multi platform support (Unity, Unreal, OSVR). To my knowledge, the Totem is the only VR headset which proposes both AR and VR features. Bertrand actually likes to talk of ‘mixed reality’, VR and AR being two opposite poles and mixed reality being the line that connects them. That’s not dumb. Those notions of VR and AR are kind of messy that’s true. Does virtual reality not augment our reality? Does augmented reality not require virtual to operate? From what I understood, Vrvana’s strategy is not to go crazy by producing and selling million of units, but rather develop and sell their technology, their patents. They will certainly ship the Totem and continue to work hard on R&D, but it sounds like they are focusing more on a long term strategy rather than leading a neverending fight beside Oculus, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, etc.

“The headset will be ready at the end of year, we start the production early 2016, we ship our first units right after.”

I asked Bertrand about the strength of their headset, the feature I should not forget to talk about in the article! Aside the double AR/VR mode. He instantaneously mentioned the on-board cameras and their Mixed Reality Processing Unit, which not only brings AR, but also offloads work from the computer and prevent from latency. As mentioned on Vrvana’s blog, they worked in partnership with SoftKinetic on including a Time-of-Flight sensor and I guess that’s what makes them stand a step ahead from other VR headsets (at least for now, as mentioned to me by an internaut Sony recently signed a deal with SoftKinetic). The result of all those great technologies: no latency at all in AR mode. I actually tried their augmented reality mode and have been really impressed. I used to work with the Oculus Dk2 with the Leap Motion mounted on the top to do a pass through, which is grayscale. So obviously, seeing through the goggles in color was amazing. I actually remember feeling like falling in love with VR again. The headset is really light and comfy. The way you tighten it on the back of your head with the white knob (see picture) feels really good and it doesn’t hurt on the nose like the Dk2 by example. Headset’s design has changed a lot since last year when they started their Kickstarter. I tried the Totem last september for the first time. I didn’t like it at all. But this one, the one I tried on Wednesday, this one is good. At least much better than the dk2. I feel like I could wear it for hours. I didn’t pre-order one yet but will definitely look forward after it.

Vrvana also developed other AR modes -or should I say mixed reality modes- including a Matrix and a LSD mode. Those are pretty impressive! The Matrix mode reminds of The Matrix because of the green color and works with edge detection. The LSD mode is more colorful, with great vivid colors. It is, as suggested by the name, kind of a psychedelic experience! I can’t wait for you to try it!






Alecz is currently initiating HIGHWAY101, Experiential Techgnology Community, a VR-focused hub based in NYC that represents visionary creators in NYC, builds a network of industry influencers, and actively participates in industry events and festivals. He's co-organizer of The Virtual Art Collective Meetup in NYC that focuses on painting, sculpting and animating in VR.

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