Virtual reality is great for transporting us into new worlds and placing us in the shoes of intrepid explorers through history. It’s an interactive and involving medium that is still very much in its infancy.

While there was an initial wave of interest in consumer headsets, the tide has seemingly receded. The glut of passionate VR fans have filled their boots and now the technology needs to mature again before we’ll see another rush.

In the business sector, however, things are different. A slew of low-cost, business-focused Microsoft AR headsets are about to come to market from the likes of Dell, Acer and Lenovo, and VR workstation environments are creeping in as a norm. Dell is committed to educating businesses about the benefits of implementing VR into the workplace, and now Nvidia’s latest tech is here to blow possibilities of VR wide open.

Announced back in May at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference (GTC) in San Francisco, Holodeck is a VR application designed for real-time simultaneous collaborative work in VR. As part of an announcement at Nvidia GTC in Munich, I got the chance to dive into Holodeck ahead of its Early Access signup opening to the general public.

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As with everything in VR, it’s hard to really make it sing on paper – or with words on a screen. It’s a brilliant experience that, with enough user feedback and tweaking, has the potential to become an invaluable work tool for designers, engineers, architects and beyond.

Virtually working

After donning an HTC Vive, I find myself stood in a completely white expanse. A vast space where there’s no horizon, no line between land and air. With a press of a button, the world materialises around me – with a retro-futuristic grid line of green and black mapping out the space a second or so before plopping me into a realistic rendering of a warehouse.

In front of me sits a vibrant orange McLaren 570S Coupé. This isn’t just a pre-rendered solid object, it’s interactive and is built using imported data from the finished 3D model McLaren uses for production purposes. The floodlights of the warehouse roof reflect down upon it and my own avatar’s reflection is visible in the window and even its glossy body. With a touch of a button, I can, in real time, explode every piece of the car and engine out into the room around me. In the demo, the car and all its parts moved as one, but in Holodeck’s release version you can interact with each individual piece. It’s a triumph of design that Nvidia is able to even render out all these minute parts without skipping a beat.

Despite the resolution limitations of the HTC Vive’s display, it’s clear that everything here is photorealistic. While my demo lacked haptic feedback, it does really feel like the McLaren is parked in front of you – even if you can pick it up with one hand and wave it around in the air.

Another fascinating tool is the object cutaway, allowing you to slice through a subsection of the vehicle model in real time. The level of detail is astonishing, but with a combination of the cutaway tool and the ruler and annotation, you could easily imagine a collaborative working space where you cut through a 3D model, make some measurements and leave notes behind for another worker to look through.

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You can also have multiple participants occupy the same workspace simultaneously and they can be based anywhere in the world. Latency is an unavoidable issue, but as everyone works on their own instance and model data updates from a central store of uploaded assets, the experience should be smooth enough in these early days of use.

The future of collaboration

In its current Early Access form, Holodeck is certainly an impressive tool but it’s what Nvidia plans to do with it over the coming years that makes it truly transformative.

Creators can import all their model data created in Maya or 3dsMax, meaning an architect could virtually explore a space before it even exists. It would let designers collaborate with architects to bring a building to life for a client, or an automotive manufacturer could do away with costly clay models and wind tunnel testing.

Interestingly, NASA already uses VR for training, but it sees the potential of Nvidia’s technology to help improve its design and development teams collaboration efforts.

“During our design process, teams of our engineers and scientists work together to imagine an idea, plan a design, create that model, experiment and test that solution, then take time to reiterate and improve the original — all steps that are crucial to mission success at NASA,”  Frank Delgado, NASA’s head of Hybrid Reality Lab, said in a statement.

“With Holodeck, we will be able to clearly visualise our models, easily collaborate in a physically simulated environment, and review to ensure the efficiency and safety of our designs.”

NASA’s VR Lab space for trainign astronauts with virtual reality

Future updates will also include integration with Nvidia’s AI platforms, meaning AI assistants could occupy the space in their own virtual bodies, providing an extra pair of hands to help. The same assistive AI could complete rote tasks quickly and cleverly, allowing a small team of collaborators to work on something else in the virtual space, safe in the knowledge that the AI is tying up all the loose ends.

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Nvidia’s AI and robot training tool Isaac will also be eventually integrated into Holodeck, meaning there’s a complete virtual robot training simulator tucked away inside a VR headset. For those working in robotics, it’d allow for them to simulate a robot in real space, without needing to actually build said robot until it’s trained and ready for work.

Nvidia is making Holodeck completely free to use as part of its Early Access programme and, while it’s disclosed nothing on the matter, it’s likely to stay free even after full release. The only caveat is that you’ll need an Nvidia GPU to get it working and, as you may have expected of photorealistic graphics rendered in real time, you’ll need a powerful card to use it.

On release of the Early Access, selected applicants will need to have a minimum of either the GTX 1080Ti, Titan Xp or Quadro card to run Holodeck. SLI cards also don’t work with the platform yet, so a single card needs to deliver that power. Nvidia’s David Weinstein claims this benchmark will drop over time as the product readies for commercial release, but for the testing phase, only the best can be accepted as they work through the platform’s niggles.

Holodeck currently only works with the HTC Vive but, again, Nvidia is prepared to implement support with any and all VR platforms people are using. So, if room-scale Oculus Rift takes off in the same way as the HTC Vive, or the inside-out tracking of Windows MR devices catch on, you’ll find those in Nvidia’s Holodeck too.

Holodeck is clearly still in the early stages of its life, but it’s clear that platforms like this are the future of collaborative creativity. Now I just hope it trickles down to consumers so I can get a damn Star Trek-style Holodeck sooner!

You can sign up for an early access opportunity for Holodeck over at Nvidia’s website.

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