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If the idea of putting on a VR headset and walking with your vision obstructed through a real city sounds suicidal, that’s just because the technology hasn’t yet caught up with its potential — at least, that’s what researchers from Microsoft believe. A newly released video of DreamWalker shows how the company expects to turn real-world walks into VR experiences, using a combination of inside-out tracking and GPS data to avoid dangerous obstacles.

Equipped with a prototype testing rig — a backpack with a PC, VR headset, and full monitor, among other components — eight testers walked for 15 minutes through Microsoft’s campus while seeing one of three VR environments: New York City, a beach, and a frontier town. In addition to populating the scenes with multiple people, each environment uses various visual clues to steer wearers away from obstacles; for instance, the streets of Manhattan have concrete-looking blocks pop up to suggest objects that might cause injury.

The most intriguing element of the research is the real-time component — the fact that Microsoft’s inside-out tracking system and RGBD frames were used to identify actual environmental impediments such as light poles, and steer people away from them. Additionally, the system uses yellow ball markers and arrows to indicate safe routes, letting users enjoy the experience and health benefits of traveling by foot without the boredom of seeing the same old places on their daily walks.


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Given the current state of Microsoft’s research — and VR in general — there’s little chance that most users will feel comfortable obscuring their actual views with VR headsets in the immediate future, even though some people have been taking their chances in open public spaces with certain Oculus Quest apps. But Microsoft says DreamWalker is exploring “a future in which people spend considerably more time in virtual reality, even during moments when they walk between locations in the real world.”

Numerous vendors are working on wearable mixed reality solutions for use in real-world environments, though most have focused on augmenting reality — overlaying digital objects on top of real-world environments — rather than blocking the real world out. Facebook recently said that the inside-out tracking system developed for its Oculus Quest and Rift S headsets, Insight, will power future AR headsets, though it doesn’t yet have a timetable for the release of AR hardware.

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