UCL Innovation: the Virtual Reality Lab

Figure 1: A virtual demonstration inside CAVE: an immersive environment hosted in UCL’s Virtual-Reality Lab on the ground floor of the MPEB building.[3]

Students from UCL have the exclusive chance to access the Virtual Reality Lab located on the main campus. On the third Wednesday of every month, students with an interest in virtual reality can see the latest gadgets on display, and even have the opportunity to try them out. The lab features elements at the forefront of virtual-reality research, including a brand new humanoid robot with a projected, virtual human-like face that could recite famous lines from Shakespeare.

UCL’s Virtual Reality Lab hosts various demos for students to experience. These change from month to month, making a monthly visit to the lab a worthwhile experience. In March, the technology on display included: the latest demos on the Oculus Rift headset; CAVE, an environment of immersive demos with surround video; demos with Robothespian, a humanoid robot; and a haptic force-feedback grasping demo with Force Dimension haptic controllers.

Oculus Rift is a virtual-reality headset that opens up new opportunities in computer gaming. The demo on display in March included a logic game that required the user to try and escape a plane that is on the verge of exploding. In contrast to conventional gaming, the use of a virtual-reality headset truly immerses the user into the game, making the action feel more realistic. The virtual reality games in the UCL Virtual Reality Lab are programmed on Unity. This is a widely used game creation engine, especially for virtual reality.

Using the haptic force-feedback grasping controllers was an unusual experience, as it added the feeling of weight to a virtual game. One demo involved picking up and stacking two boxes of differing weight. The other involved lifting an inflatable duck out of the water and trying to hold it in mid-air for 5 seconds. This second exercise tested out the controllers’ ability to not only mimic the weight of objects, but also the pinching (or grasping) of one.

Robothespian is another new addition to the lab. The robot can do basic human gestures, such as shaking hands, and can act out certain pre-programmed scenarios, such as a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Additionally, it is able to recognise people in its line of sight and guess their approximate ages. However, Robothespian’s real potential lies in its virtual-reality abilities. There is ongoing research at UCL on using robotic humanoid surrogates for symmetric telepresence.[1] Telepresence uses virtual reality to ‘transport’ a person to another place, giving them the ability to perform tasks without physical presence. This idea has existed for decades: for example, with underwater probes that are sent thousands of meters under the ocean. These probes often feature a robotic arm that can be controlled by a human from the ‘comfort’ of the ship’s laboratory.

The novelty in UCL’s research involves simultaneously teleporting both sides to each other’s location. Though this might not be useful in the previous example, it could prove revolutionary to day-to-day communication. By having simultaneous telepresence, a business meeting could occur without the need for physical presence in the boardroom. There are current alternatives to this, such as Skype, but being represented by a humanoid robot that can gesticulate and operate in 3D may provide a more effective form of expression.

Another area where symmetric telepresence could prove a better alternative to videoconferencing is for job interviews. Research conducted by DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University found that, in online interviews, interviewers found potential employees less likeable (and therefore less likely to be hired) than if the interview was conducted in person.[2] Similarly, those being interviewed thought that their future employers were less competent.

Each of the demonstrations and technologies at the Lab are explained by academic members carrying out research in virtual reality, with the possibility of asking questions and having discussions on their use. For those interested in finding out more about virtual reality, the VR Club offers a mailing list with monthly announcements on forthcoming demos. To subscribe, simply request to be added to the list by emailing vr-club-announce-request (at) cs.ucl.ac.uk


  1. Arjun Nagendran, Anthony Steed, Brian Kelly and Ye Pan, Symmetric telepresence using robotic humanoid surrogates, 2015.
  2. Julia Thomson, Video killed the interview star, 2013.
  3. University College London, CAVE Panorama, 2014.