Sawmill studio in Vancouver brings VR to the masses

[From The Vancouver Sun]

Nicole Lynch at Sawmill Studio

[Image: Nicole Lynch visits Tuscany in virtual reality at the launch of Vancouver’s new virtual reality studio, The Sawmill.]

Vancouver tech specialists bring virtual reality to the masses

At the Sawmill studio in Vancouver, anyone can rent state-of-the-art motion capture equipment

By Gillian Shaw, Vancouver Sun
July 23, 2014

VANCOUVER — If you can trace your way through blind alleys and dead ends to an old sawmill tucked away at the foot of Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Street, you’ll find yourself in a different world.

A virtual world, and one that is realizing the dream of some Vancouver tech specialists of bringing virtual reality to the masses.

Called, fittingly enough, the Sawmill, in a nod to the building’s provenance as a sawmill located in a spot handy for logs floated up the Fraser River, the studio is equipped with state-of-the-art motion capture technology that lets everyone — from pro developers to ordinary folk — play and create projects in a virtual online world.

“There is no shortage of changing-the-world stuff going on here,” said Aaron Hilton, co-founder and chief technology officer of Conquer Mobile, president of the Vancouver Virtual Reality meetup group and a partner in the Sawmill. “We wanted a motion sickness-free experience for virtual reality.”

Hilton said Conquer Mobile is exploring the technology for such applications as medical training and simulations. It can be used by architects and developers to transform 3D models into a virtual reality experience of a home or other building space. Travel marketers could offer virtual reality tours to entice visitors — there are endless possibilities for the technology.

The recent launch of the Sawmill drew dozens of virtual reality enthusiasts, including highly skilled developers building business models around the technology and newbies interested in the potential of virtual reality technology.

Nicole and Matthew Lynch were there to learn more. The couple are thinking about a career switch from their current work in the natural resources sector. At the launch, they donned headsets for a virtual visit to Tuscany.

“We wanted to see what’s going on with virtual reality,” said Matthew. “We want to see what career paths there are.”

The headset is large, with reflective markers on the front that are picked up by 14 cameras positioned around the cavernous space and linked to a computer that translates your real-world movement in the virtual world.

Trying out the headset, I lined up two lenses in front of my eyes and was transported to the seaside in Tuscany. It wasn’t like looking at a picture of the seaside; as I walked, it was as if I was walking toward a cliff and peering over the edge to the water below.

Even though I was standing in an old industrial building in south Vancouver, I felt that if I took another step, I’d be diving into the sea. Turning, I saw a little house and since the software was set to give me a giant’s perspective, I felt like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians as I bent down to peer in a window. Standing up, I towered over the roof and when I leaned over, I plunged right through the roof to the room below, where a fire burned in the hearth — all in virtual reality, of course.

The launch saw other demonstrations of the technology, including a create-your-own avatar using an iPad equipped with a $300 sensor.

David Clement, principal at Wavesine Solutions and creator of the customized of VR headset of the Tuscany demo, scanned in a 3D image of a person simply by circling the person while scanning from head to foot with the iPad-mounted sensor. As he scanned, a 3D image of the person appeared on the computer screen and projected on the wall behind him. He could do the same with any object.

“There are really no barriers to bringing things from the real world into the virtual world,” he said.

At its launch, the studio offered an introductory free period for people to try it out, after which costs vary from a half-day drop-in rate of $40 per person, $25 for students, to a monthly pass of $500 for businesses and $200 for student groups up to four people.

Alastair Macleod (online at is a software developer and motion capture consultant, and a founding member of the Motion Capture Society. He has worked on such productions as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Matrix Reloaded. He has his studio at the Sawmill and had the idea of transforming it into a publicly usable space.

Macleod developed the software that is powering the virtual reality experience at the Sawmill through his work as a consultant with Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He said motion capture technology is becoming accessible.

“A mocap system now costs less than some people pay for hi-fis — it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. Within a decade, he said, the technology will be in the thousands.

“Before too long you’re going to be able to buy this system at Best Buy,” he said.

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