Saying ‘I do’? First, get a virtual preview

If you’re an old-fashioned romantic, there’s no better time to express your love for that special someone than Valentine’s Day. Some Romeos go beyond the traditional chocolates and roses and offer their Juliets an engagement ring. But even if you don’t pop the question on February 14, all the work involved in planning a wedding can take away from the high of getting hitched. Researchers at Rakuten, though, are taking some of the pain out of the process with a platform that allows users virtual previews of possible venues for the big day.

The Virtual Wedding System takes users on an immersive visit to a wedding venue with high-definition, 360-degree photos of what it looks like inside and outside. It can save couples the time and effort involved with visiting multiple wedding venues, which are often being used and not available for visitors. Users put on an Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) to see the images and can then “navigate” through the virtual environment with a standard game controller.

In one example, 134 high-resolution omnidirectional images were taken using a Ricoh Theta camera at a wedding hall in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo. Users can explore the facility’s courtyard and swimming pool, entrance hallway, dining room, grand staircase and table of honor by following glowing green arrows that seem to float on the 360-degree imagery. If you’ve never tried the latest wave of virtual reality (VR) gear including Oculus Rift, it’s like Google Street view for your eyes. You may soon forget your real surroundings as your brain accepts the wraparound imagery, and you’ll feel like you really are descending a grand staircase into an elegant banquet room.

“Photographing this venue only took a few hours, but it would have taken at least three months to recreate it as a 3D computer model,” says Naoki Chiba, a computer vision researcher at the Rakuten Institute of Technology who has been working on virtual reality for about 10 years. Chiba developed software to merge the images into a seamless virtual experience, a process that only takes about a day.

Chiba previously used the platform to capture two famous religious sanctuaries in Nagano Prefecture: the Buddhist temple of Zenkoji and the Shinto shrine of Togakushi. Rakuten introduced the virtual travel experiences to the public in 2014, with another event the following year featuring the scenic garden of Kenroku-en in Ishikawa Prefecture. People who can’t easily travel due to age or infirmity expressed particular appreciation for the experience.

“The camera system for Google Street View would cost around 2 million yen, but the Ricoh Theta is only about 40,000 yen,” Chiba notes. “One of the reasons we’re having a VR boom is that the cost of components for the display and sensors in the HMD, as well as the capturing device itself, is much lower than in the past.”

The Virtual Wedding System is being provided by Rakuten Wedding, a wedding search and planning site, and will be shown off at bridal fairs this year. With the consumer launch of the Oculus VR’s Rift HMD this spring, Chiba believes that 2016 will be a banner year for VR with big potential for applications.

“This is a new type of media for Rakuten services that could be used by merchants, hotel owners and wedding venue owners to generate their own immersive content,” he says. “Instead of designing webpages using photos and text, in the future we may want to design a virtual reality system highlighting the unique features of each venue.”


*Photograph courtesy of TAKE AND GIVE. NEEDS Co., Ltd.

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