So its mid December 2016, and I was recently at a designing and building trade show. Many stands were using virtual reality (VR) headsets. Some to demonstrate products, others to play games and entice people to enter their competitions. Last year the total number of stands using VR was exactly zero. Has the VR revolution finally begun?
Some technologies take a little while before they become the new standard. Films with sound replaced their silent counterparts, widescreen television replaced 4:3 and the car replaced the horse and cart for the majority of people. Will VR become a new standard?
A product demo was using VR as an educational device, so I experienced the Oculus rift or HTC Vive, I’m not sure which, for the first time. Both devices are similar headsets for the ‘virtual reality’ experience. One could call television ‘virtual reality’ but we don’t – we keep the definition to mean an immersive experience where the virtual world encompasses your entire field of vision – you only see the virtual. The user must also be able to look around with movements from their own body. Both devices are fairly similar when it comes to the screens and technical specifications, but on first inspection the HTC Vive has additional controllers that allow better interaction with the virtual world. More on this in a moment. I start with specifics then I speak in more general terms:
Motion and comfort
The headset moved with my motion seamlessly and I didn’t feel any eye strain so I’m thinking the focal distance was long (I’ve confirmed it may be infinity, so better than a screen for the focusing muscles of your eyes – they’ll be at their most relaxed)
These things cost £550+, a little more than most would spend on a television set and a great deal more than a gaming monitor.
Experience and image quality
When I first place the device over my eyes I’m transported to a new place. Its a corridor, and looking around is fascinating, but distinguishable from ‘real’ reality. The realism of the simulation will of course depend on the programming and hardware simulating the environment as the headset is just a display. Some games look more real than others. The picture is detailed so the resolution must be quite high (I confirm the resolution is around of a little above HD, surprising it did not look ‘blocky’). When a display covers your whole field of view, the resolution better be high enough to stop it looking pixelated. Viewing an HD display at a normal distance renders the pixels indistinguishable from one another. Curves look curved and smooth, detail is sharp. Take that same resolution and make your screen a lot bigger or sit closer and you start to see individual pixels. With huge screens or super close viewing ‘4K’ helps keep things crisp. Field of vision of the VR device is a little limited (apparently its 110 degrees) compared to the near 180 degree horizontal field of vision of human eyesight, although it does vary from person to person. This limits the immersion a little, but even 110 degrees blows a television or monitor out of the water. For comparison my television screen takes up no more than 30 degrees of my field of vision (all that I can see), and I’m sat 5 feet from a 48inch screen.
Wearing the device comfort
So this may put some off – the device has to be worn and so it’ll make your head sweat a little more and make your hair messy and perhaps leave you socially a little outcast. You’ll also be completely unaware of your non virtual surroundings, so you’ll want to lock the doors and move away anything breakable from nearby. Think of its use for games however, and these points become non issues.
What is it good for?
The simulation was educational and so it was a nice use for VR technology. I can see VR being very effective at delivering more realism for both education and interactive entertainment (games). Any experience learned with VR will surely be more easily translated into real life – training any number of skills in a safe environment in preparation. With VR, virtual worlds will be more interesting to explore and a lot more physically demanding to play – the body may well become more involved with your virtual movements since you’ll have to physically spin, look up and down, duck and jump, and move your arms (the HTC vive is the more physical of the two due to the hand controllers). I wouldn’t be surprised if one day there is a resistance suit to simulate forces on the player. Is is a real shame that so many games disproportionately focus on negative aspects of the human condition – guns, war, gangs, crime. These games may seem brutal to the outsider, but for mature players the killing is far detached from real life. When you ‘kill’ someone in a game, they don’t real die, and so you’ll find people in games laughing with friends even if their game aim is to kill one another. Sounds odd but remember that each player knows the game isn’t real and they are not actually killing their friend or being killed, its just make believe. Saying that, I’d say children are different, and the impressionable mind needs to be kept away from the experience of ‘violent’ games.
I think the experience was interesting because it was novel and it really was immersive – I was there. I wanted to reach out and touch the table, feel the heat from the cooker, move things around. If the environment was interactive – as it can be with additional technology- then it would have been taken to another level. You don’t feel like picking things up with your hands when using a normal screen. Even with a 3D film.
Gaming and educational simulators such as those used for police, racing drivers, the military etc will undoubtedly take advantage of VR, but it won’t replace the screens for television, films, phones and tablets. The necessity just isn’t there and having to wear a headset to see your texts messages would be silly. So I think screens are here to stay but VR is here now and ready to transform the niche of gaming and educational simulators.
But when? this year?
If you’ve regularly read technology news, you’ll know VR has been “the big thing for next year” for many years. It was arguably more popular 20 years ago when 3D graphics were new. I remember watching people look daft using it on TV, and this was in the 1990’s. More recently, John Carmack (a pioneering 3D game developer) was very enthusiastic in 2004. But what is the problem? The technology requires overcoming great technical challenges, and after doing a little research and experiencing a device for myself, I can offer some insight.
Virtual reality needs visual displays which are ideally: Flat (or better curved!);Thin and light; Low power; High resolution in a tiny screen, so viewers see smooth detail and not big pixels; Fast response time, or viewers will feel nausea from the motion blurring – Over 60 frames per second are needed for head panning. I used to have an old CRT monitor which could display 120 frames per second, and when I performed tests on different frame rates, I found 120 frames per second much smoother than 60. CRT monitors where mostly replaced by the flatter, lighter LCD, but liquid crystals initially had real issues changing quick enough. 60 frames per second were just a dream because the pixels were taking longer than 1/60th of a second to change their colour. Slow changes mean you see some of the previous frame in the next frame, and things look blurred and make everything a bit unpleasant and soft. (OLED displays mostly fix this since CRT monitors were too heavy to wear on your head!). Have a look at 30fps vs 60fps here.
The device needs to be low power to run from batteries, or you’ll be stuck in a tangle of cables.
It needs to be light enough to be comfortable to wear on your head.
Separate from a VR headset, the virtual world needs to be rich, detailed, and very responsive.
Programming the environment (software)
The virtual world needs to be crafted by artists and wrapped code by the programmers. This takes great ability and huge amounts of data which needs storing and processing. More powerful computers in every way have been needed for a realistic world.
Motion sensing hardware, wireless technology, high density batteries, affordable lenses.
Even when all these technologies are possible, adoption will only happen when the price of all the above is also affordable. Many early adopters will pay a big price and deal with a lot of early issues in the hardware and software.
So, will VR become the new standard?
Yes, for games and simulations, the immersive display of 3d, definitely yes. With the current combination of computer hardware and software, we are technically capable but the costs are too high at the moment. I estimate it’ll be another few years before most game playing adults will be wearing headsets of the quality spoken about in this article.
Whether this is a good thing is a question for another day.