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Virtual Reality (VR) Meet My #sqlfamily


Virtual Reality? And SQL Server?

“… and never the twain shall meet”

Or should they?

The time has come for data professionals to begin embracing and learning new ways of presenting visualizations to end-users. I see a coming intersection of three sets: data professionals, gamers, and VR.

I just happen to be writing this the same day Microsoft announced HoloLens, an augmented reality (AR) device:

If a picture is worth a thousand words then what is a VR experience worth?

It is hard to describe in print what VR is like without a headset and a cool demo. Do you remember the first time you tasted an orange? Have you ever had to describe it to someone else who has never tasted an orange? You can read about it, watch videos and even hold one in your hand but until you taste it you will never know what an orange tastes like. Consumer VR has come a long way from its clunky and expensive past. 2015 will finally be the breakout year for VR!

Quick, what are these?DK1_DK2_600

These are my first VR headsets from Oculus- a DK1 and a DK2. No, I don’t have a GearVR but I wish I did. But what is an Oculus Rift?

I want you to perform an experiment. I’ll admit up front this will seem silly but bear with me.

I want you to look around right now. What flat screen device are you reading these words on? What do you see beyond the device- in your direct vision and within your peripheral vision? For example, let your eyes go soft focus- don’t stare at anything. Try to see without moving your eyes what you can see at the very edge of your vision, all around while still looking forward. What is at the absolute edge that you can see clearly and what gets fuzzy? Notice the colors, depth, shadows, movement, shapes. Now I want you to look down, up, turn your head behind you, what do you see? Again try to focus on details and on the things you normally don’t focus too heavily on around you.

Now come back. VR is like that except everything you can see is digitally created. The field of view (FOV) in VR is smaller than your normal vision but you would be surprised how that really doesn’t detract from the experience. Everything in VR, all objects, all lighting, all of it has to be “placed” in a 3D space of some kind. Most of the VR projects you might hear about are probably using a video game engine as most of the heavy duty plumbing has already been done for you. All of the major first person shooter (FPS) companies have announced support for the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets.

The best demo I show family and friends right now using my DK2 is called “Welcome to Oculus” It is an eight minute demo and it takes the viewer on a ride through the history of VR and then goes into a collection of some neat applications and then ends with the statement that VR is the ultimate canvas capable of conveying the vastness of human imagination. A bold statement to be sure but one I do agree with right now! The demo is done in Unity and it is a lot like one of those rides in an amusement park that takes you on a tour and shows you several sights and sounds. With your Oculus headset on and a decent pair of headphones it really is a solid demo and explores a few of things that VR can do that other mediums like movies or video games just can’t do well or can’t even do at all. Sadly, like the orange reference above, it really has to be experienced- a text description just doesn’t cut it. The YouTube videos that are out there usually show some over-the-top reactions to VR- many are quite hilarious. The VR rollercoasters and horror ones elicit the most intense reactions so far. But hey, if you don’t have a headset what are you supposed to watch? If you have a headset you can just download and run the demo from the link above. And you could also watch this YouTube video with a headset but you would lose the head-tracking sensor capability; the image projected into the headset would not move as you move your head around to look at things. It would appear like the same view no matter where you looked/moved your head. Why the dual eye windows? In VR it gets combined into a single image for your brain to process much like a pair of binoculars. Here is the best one I’ve found of the demo so far without a ton of jerky head movements or commentary:

So what in the world does any of this have anything to do with SQL Server?

Glad you asked. I will be creating more blog posts that will explore that question much more in depth. This is just to give you a heads-up on the kinds of things I see the #sqlfamily using VR for:

1. Give presentations using an FPS engine instead of PowerPoint. It would also be a type of memory palace: to aid in learning and understanding.

2. How about taking a flowchart and creating a 3D VR version of it? This is what I do for my main presentation I give now, The Life Cycle of a Query in 3D. In previous versions I used PowerPoint slides like huge IMAX images inside the game engine and then walked around explaining the content. I’m currently re-creating it from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4 in preparation for Phoenix SQL Saturday #370 and hopefully others this year. Yes, I can shoehorn PowerPoint into VR all day long.

3. Create novel training and learning environments using immersive VR, sound and puzzles. Think of something along the lines of a graphic adventure video game like Myst.

4. Provide new ways to visualize data sets in 3D that simply won’t fit on a computer screen. Business intelligence people take note!

5. Imagine being able to see things without scrolling or switching tabs in order to see all aspects of something you are looking at. Need to tune a query and want to see the query’s execution plan, IO metrics, actual SQL text, SQL Server and operating system performance metrics all at once? How about showing students a chamber of horrors of poorly written queries and contrast that with efficiently written queries?

6. What about being able to see all properties of database laid out on a vast landscape and see relationships, properties, out of date statistics histograms, index fragmentation, and page corruption?

7. How about a VR version of the Picasso Database Query Optimizer Visualizer?

8. Or used to explain a new technology like In-Memory OLTP?

I will also create a few tutorials on how to get started. I am a data professional and gamer but I don’t create video games for a living. It has taken time for me to come up to speed on these tools and I really am looking forward to being a part of seeing what can be done with VR and SQL Server- stay tuned!


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