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I poked at a heart inside HP's virtual reality display

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It almost looks like something out of a cyberpunk film: sort of hacked together, with too many sensors and a weird set of glasses that you have to put on. But it is, apparently, a complete and modern product that HP is getting ready to sell. This is how HP is doing virtual reality — using a big 3D display with a stylus that lets you poke around at and interact with whatever is on screen. HP is demonstrating it as an educational tool, but it also thinks that this display could be used by designers and engineers who want to see their creations in 3D.

The stylus works like a less fun Gravity Gun

The 3D display is called the HP Zvr, and it will be available this spring for a currently undisclosed price. The display is a big, black, chunky thing, and using it requires sitting more-or-less perpendicular to its screen, wearing a pair of glasses, and grabbing hold of a wired stylus. A number of sensors on the display itself track your head movement, adjusting the picture based on where you move — so long as you don't move very far. The pen appears to shoot out a tiny laser at the screen, and you can press a button on the pen to drag around whatever the laser is pointed at.

When I sat down to use Zvr for the first time, there were about half a dozen objects on screen, arranged as though they were scattered across someone's desk. There's not much to do in this demo other than grab at objects and try to toss them around, as though the pen and its laser were a real-life version of Half Life 2's Gravity Gun. It's not quite that fun, but it's novel enough that it makes learning to use the Zvr fairly enjoyable.

The second demo that HP ran on the Zvr shows how its tech could actually be put to use. This demo presents a model of a beating human heart. You're able to pick it up and spin it around to study the heart's outside, but you're also able to zap away layers so that you can see what's happening on the inside, where valves are opening and closing and running into different chambers.

It's obvious how you could learn this way

Though the visuals were extremely blocky in the demo, the Zvr's 23.6-inch display is able to output 1080p into each eye. That means that a designer or an educational institution that really wants to put this display to use should be able to work with something a lot more detailed. What HP showed is certainly an engaging way to teach some basics about the heart, but it's easy to see how, using a more detailed model, the interactivity the Zvr allows could be far more intuitive for many learners than looking at a diagram on a page or playing with a model using a mouse. Digital learning tools are obviously nothing new — and HP doesn't exactly make a compelling argument for its display being the best solution — but it certainly appears that something like the Zvr could be a viable option.

HP isn't building the Zvr on its own. It's partnering with a company called zSpace that appears to be handling most of the software and hardware design, meaning that HP may primarily be responsible for turning that design into reality. In a demo of the product just over a year ago, zSpace said that it was selling models of its display for $4,000 — though that model was somewhat different than what HP is presenting today. The overall tech is the same, however, and you can get a sense for how it works in the video below.

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