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DIY Virtual Reality Helmet

This is a flight simulator virtual reality helmet.  The pilot sees a virtual world
through two computer monitors in front of their eyes.  As the pilot moves their
head, the corresponding view changes in the virtual cockpit.

The idea of virtual reality has captured our imagination for a long time, but the
technology to make a truly immersive experience still eludes us.  We decided to
experiment a little with virtual reality to see if it could apply to flight simulator.  I’ll
take you through the process of starting with a stock VR headset, and ending up
with a custom VR helmet.

This experiment started with the VR920 virtual reality headset from Vuzix.  It has
three main components, the display, the view tracker and the ear bud speakers.

The first thing we did was throw away the extraneous speakers.  Our simulators
already have speakers.

The view tracking system is much like TrackIR because as you move your head,
you see around your virtual cockpit.  However, the VR920 works with different
technology, so you can actually turn your real head around to see over your real
shoulder.  You can’t do that with a TrackIR.

The view tracker in the VR920 works with internal magnets, but they just don’t
work that well.  Often times the view would become stuck and need to be re-
centered.  Now ,the TrackIR has a hotkey to re-center the view, but the VR920
does not, so you would actually have to shake your head like a dog to re-center the
magnets.  

We quickly disabled the VR920’s view tracker, and just used our existing, reliable
TrackIR.

Next, the display system.  The VR920’s tiny monitors appear to have little fresnel
lenses to make the images appear larger in front of the pilot’s eyes.  Very cool.  
Unfortunately, the monitors only have 640x480 resolution.  

That resolution is too low for air combat, and too low for civil flight simulators
because you can’t read your instruments, but we tried it anyway.

Light from around the edges of the headpiece can make the screens hard to see,
so Vuzix sells a snap-on shroud to help block the light.  That helps with the light in
front of you, but that doesn’t totally solve the problem.  Light from behind your head
can also washout the image.

What do to?  We needed to block out light in front and in back, like a hood or
something, but I didn’t really want to wear a hood.  Well, what is something that
pilots might wear on their head?  A helmet!

The first thing we did was chop off the uncomfortable ear pieces, and find a
lightweight hockey helmet.  

We needed a way to suspend the eyepiece in front of the eyes, so we attached
this face shield, painted it black and held the eyepiece in place with Velcro.  

We originally had three TrackIR reflectors, and later used just one.

It worked well, but looked like something the police would wear to a riot.

So, how can we do this with a real fighter pilot helmet?  Those things are
expensive, about $400 or $500.

The answer was Ebay.  We found these Chinese motorcycle helmets for about
$40.  I wouldn’t trust my life to a $40 helmet, but it’s great for a flight simulator.

We painted the visor black and cut  a square hole to accommodate the VR920.  
Again we secured it with Velcro.

This is the reflector for Track IR.

The chinstrap was awful, so we replaced that with Velcro too.  

We were planning to use this outside in a hangar and it’s warm in the summer,
so we drilled ventilation holes in the top.  

NOTE:  Wear safety glasses and a dust mask whenever you’re drilling fiberglass.

We wanted to make the helmet somewhat adjustable for different head sizes, so
we removed the liner and replaced it with these foam insulation inserts.  Use one
insert for big heads, and both inserts for smaller heads.  We have hygienic
bouffant caps so a lot of people can share the same helmet.

Finally, we covered the big Red China star with a red stripe and added some
Roger Dodger decals.

The best thing about the VR helmet is that it looks crazy awesome.

The drawbacks are that you can’t see any real-life buttons on your instrument
panel because your view is blocked.  This means you’re somewhat limited to
flying with your hands on the throttle and joystick, which would be fine for
dogfighting, but there again, the screen resolution is too low for air combat.  If the
resolution was just a little better, even a modest 1024x768 would be a great
improvement.  Also, the headpiece was awkward for pilots wearing glasses.

What we ended up with was an interesting experiment, that worked pretty well and
we had a lot of fun in the process, and that’s what it’s all about.
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