How We Created the First VR Photo Exhibition featuring the EyeEm Community

By Dario Penic, Android Developer

Photography community and marketplace EyeEm recently teamed up with Canon and Imaging Mind to organize the fourth annual Photo Hack Day in Berlin. During the 24-hour hackathon, EyeEm co-founder Lorenz Aschoff and I built a virtual reality experience called ‘Rooms,’ an app for Android phones that allows anyone with a Google Cardboard to experience photos from the global EyeEm community in an immersive 3D gallery with sound.

As a new medium, virtual reality is without clear guidelines and open for experimentation. So our main goal was to explore how photo viewing could not only work, but become a truly immersive experience within VR. So during Photo Hack Day, we created a prototype of experiencing photos on EyeEm.

Rooms is a Google Cardboard app for Android, with iOS coming soon. As it’s built in Unity 3D, support for other platforms like Gear VR or Oculus Rift is possible with minor changes to handle different SDKs. We chose to support Google Cardboard first, as it’s currently the most accessible VR platform, costing less than $5 to purchase.

How ‘Rooms’ Works

Rooms is a combination of four different exhibition rooms, each featuring a different album from EyeEm. Each room is a combination of three elements: an interior, music, and a selection of trending images from one of EyeEm’s albums. For now we have chosen to showcase the ‘portrait,’ ‘newyork,’ ‘japan’ and ‘streetart’ albums.

The technology used to develop Rooms is Unity 3D and models were built inside Blender. Currently, Unity is the preferred tool for developing Cardboard projects. With its drag and drop editor and Google’s Cardboard SDK, it’s powering most Cardboard experiences. According to Unity, at least 90 to 95 percent of all VR content has been built on the platform so far.

Keeping Movements Simple

Photographs are placed on four walls surrounding the user. We decided against moving in the space, so point of view is locked in the center of the room. As joysticks or controllers on mobile phones are uncommon, adding a support for moving through the room would force the user to use a side button on their phone. One-click movement is unnatural for the brain, and would create a difficult user experience. Users move from room to room with a side button on the Google Cardboard device.

Emphasizing the Reality in Virtual Reality

For a smoother UX, we wanted to keep the user immersed in VR for as much of the experience as possible. This means avoiding unnatural moving animations and an easy transition between scenes with teleportation to avoid motion sickness, and including spatial audio. Spatial audio is a great way to add more ‘reality’ to VR. Google’s recent Cardboard SDK update brings audio to the experience the same way humans actually hear it. For example, if the user hears a sound coming from the right, it will reach their left ear slightly later than the right, creating a more realistic auditory experience.

The Future of Rooms and VR

In the longer term, Rooms could be developed into a virtual gallery space — which would mean improving the architecture and optimizing the lighting and audio systems, as well as adding image curation based on EyeEm Vision. To create an even more immersive experience, we’ll add a realistic lighting system based on the set-up used in real galleries and improve the spatial audio. The audio source is currently music playing in the room without actual space boundaries — which is needed to create echo-like effects and a natural audio landscape.

Virtual reality has advanced quickly in the last few years, and 2016 won’t be any different. Oculus Rift has already been released for pre-order this year, Google Cardboard integrated the previously mentioned spatial audio, and VR is beginning to pop up in more industries than just gaming and entertainment. It’s opening up new ways to consume content one otherwise may never be able to consume. VR allows anyone to experience everything from a sports event to a concert, vacation, and now, a photography exhibition.