When Facebook announced that they would be acquiring Oculus, a tiny pioneer of low-cost immersive displays, for $2 billion, the dawn of widespread virtual reality (VR) seemed just around the corner. The hype suggests that a lighter, higher-resolution, and lower cost head mounted display (HMD) might finally take virtual reality to the mainstream for games, immersive experiences, and even better wall-street trading desks. Mark Zuckerberg said,
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.
The basic idea of generating virtual worlds with HMDs has been around since Ivan Sutherland first plugged into the first simulated world in the late 1960s. In the early 90’s the field began to pick up a little steam with demonstrations that allowed one to navigate crude virtual worlds through pixilated images that seemed like you were sitting a little too close to the TV. And they weren’t all that portable, the best ones—which provided a high degree of fluidity in connecting movements of the head and body to the virtual world—required giant metallic booms for tracking movement and for sending the low-res images to the eyes.
Not only are the latest HMDs cheaper, but they incorporate a variety of techniques to reduce the side effects of stepping into virtual worlds like nausea and dizziness, which have limited the time people might feel comfortable engaging in a virtual world. At the same time, the merger between Facebook and one of the leading VR pioneers of the day might also represent the acceleration of the Matrix that Neo spent three movies trying to escape from with his friends.
The potential for bringing fully immersive 3D worlds into new computer games is attracting considerable interest from the game developer community. Over 75,000 developers have signed up to experiment with the early Oculus Rift prototypes. But game designers caution that not all games are a perfect fit for the technology today.
Ian Shiels, User Experience Designer for EVE: Valkyrie at CCP Games, said,
Certain applications today could be considered low-hanging fruit. In developing EVE: Valkyrie we found that a person’s natural playing position was a close match to that of sitting in a cockpit so our game largely avoids any unpleasant feelings derived from a dramatic disconnect between the user’s position in the real world and in the game simulation. For applications that require ambulation (walking) it is more challenging but there are a number of novel solutions in development. The dramatic progress that has been made in VR in just 1 year is good reason enough to be very optimistic about the future of this developing platform.
But there is also considerable interest in non-gaming applications such as movies, therapy, overcoming social phobia, and disaster simulation trading. Virtual tours and educational applications are a great fit too. For example, Next3D makes camera rig technology that lets you record an event as an audience member, and experience it in VR form with head tracking as though you are right there.
Some believe that adult entertainment may ultimately become the killer app for the technology, as sex put a lot more VHS players in homes rather than the technically superior Betamax technology. “For the record, the killer app for this is sex simulation,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
Where We Are
Immersive displays like Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus are based on the notion that a simulated 3D world can be generated by displaying a slightly different perspective for each eye using 2-LCD screens. High-fidelity sensors built into these head mounted displays can translate the movement of your head and body into the corresponding movement in the virtual world. The actual commercial products are still about a year off.
Other smaller players with low cost head mounted displays (HMD) include True Player Gear, VRelia (AKA Immersion), and Technical Illusions. Leading browser companies like Google with Chrome, and Mozilla with Firefox are also starting to dip their toes into these virtual waters with tools for turning the Web browser into virtual gateways.
In the consumer HMD space, it was unheard of to do more than 640X480 pixels per eye for less than a few hundred dollars, said Neil Schneider, Executive Director of The Immersive Technology Alliance. Prior to Oculus and Sony’s Project Morpheus, there were recent 1080P HMDs, but they were pushing the $1,000 barrier and didn’t have head tracking capabilities or a high enough field of view (FOV). Schneider said,
“I’d have to say that the biggest roadblock to VR has been price. Anything that required a mix of high resolution, FOV, and practical head tracking was easily in the tens of thousands of dollars, and was usually relegated to the military or privileged academia. The idea that you can achieve all this for a few hundred dollars is a game changer.”
At the low end, Google Cardboard has been released as a framework for rendering lower-resolution virtual worlds with lower-fidelity movement tracking that can be rendered as a stereogram on smart phones. They have even created a crude set of goggles that one can fold out of a piece of cardboard to make it easier to see these stereograms on a phone. These can be thought of as the old-school View-Master on steroids. Although, if one has learned to see stereograms in free-space (it takes a little practice), one can see these worlds on a phone without any attachments.
In Google’s proud tradition, it’s a novel idea, and is similar to Oculus’ roots of being an inexpensive HMD. The challenge is smartphones have all kinds of specs, and most of them don’t have the horsepower to do VR effectively. Oculus, Sony, The Immersive Technology Alliance and others have been pushing for a grade A experience. Everyone recognizes that one bad experience reflects on everyone else—and that’s a very expensive problem. If a customer gets sick from product A, they will expect to have the same experience from products B and C no matter how big their marketing budget is.
I’m hopeful that Google Cardboard is seen as a proof of concept for users to buy the real VR gear, and not have the legacy of being VR’s anaglyph glasses. I think it’s critical that the right expectation is set for Google Cardboard as the experience is what’s remembered and sets the tone for everything else.
Mozilla is also jumping into the fray with tools for incorporating virtual worlds into websites and blogs, which could be rendered on a Firefox browser using an immersive display, or potentially Google cardboard-like overlays. Vladimir Vukicevic, Engineering Director a Mozilla recently announced that they were adding native support for VR devices to early experimental builds of Firefox, so that Web developers can start experimenting with adding VR interactivity to their websites and content. “This is only the first of many steps that well be taking over the coming weeks and months,” Vukicevic said.
The Nausea Factor
One of the challenges of VR technology in general has been the feelings of dizziness or nausea that people can feel after being plugged in for too long. A small number of people have reported getting dizzy right away. Others have found that they could get used to playing for longer and longer periods after breaking in the VR equivalent of sea legs.
One early solution to this problem was simply to limit the amount of time that people would spend in VR. For example, when Nintendo introduced the Virtual Boy 3-D immersive gaming system in 1995, it included an auto-shut off features that limited play to 15-30 minutes at a stretch. Virtual Boy never made it passed a small test launch in Japan before it was pulled from production.
“If VR becomes some kind of ‘how much can you take before you get sick’ decision, it won’t get very far at all,” said Schneider. Fortunately, we are seeing some excellent content coming out of the woodwork, and this will grow more consistent and widespread with time. Schneider sees at least four main sources for the dizziness caused by immersive displays:
- The latency or delay between moving your head, and seeing the visual result in what you are playing or using.
- Poor stereoscopic 3D settings. If the left and right view are too far apart for your eyes, or simply mismatched for your interpupillary distance (IPD), then that will introduce eyestrain that shouldn’t be there.
- Lack of positional tracking. It’s not enough to just track the rotations of your head; you need to capture the nuances of your body as well.
- Content—the development community is definitely going through a widespread learning curve with this stuff. The content will either be well put together and easy to digest, or it won’t.
Game developers believe that the latest VR headsets and content are doing a better job at addressing these issues. Shiels noted,
We have seen in the past year a dramatic improvement in all of these areas so the future bodes very well for VR. At this time we cannot say with any certainty and it will depend entirely on the user but we are very confident that people will be able to use VR comfortably for long enough to have incredible immersive experiences. Most importantly, the platforms are still developing rapidly and we are yet to see a consumer VR headset.
Welcome to the Matrix?
Anyone who has suffered through the anxiety of a pleasant conversation interrupted by the beckoning of a Facebook notification might wonder about the implication of Facebook stepping full force into virtual reality. As it is, real life friends already seem to vanish into relatively low fidelity games of Facebook interaction. How bad could it get when these worlds and games built around them grow even more engaging, perhaps even more addictive than they are now?
Jaron Lanier, one of the early enthusiasts of virtual reality, cautions against automatically surrendering to the call of “Siren Servers” like Facebook that have the power to rob us of our dignity. He said,
Whether the combination of Oculus + Facebook will yield more creativity or creepiness will be determined by whether the locus of control stays with individuals or drifts to big remote computers controlled by others. VR can be tremendously fun and beautiful. It’s been frustrating that more people haven’t been able to enjoy it for so many years. I hope lots of people will soon find VR to be as fascinating as I have.
Schneider at least, does not believe that better VR plugged into a Facebook engine will ultimately lead to a culture of zombies. He said,
Real life is just too interesting to ignore it completely, and if people participate in the Metaverse, it’s because they are getting some kind of stimulation they aren’t getting elsewhere. The way I see it, media survives and flourishes when it does something we need or crave every day – it has to be useful. If the medium is the message, what is the Metaverse’s message? What useful experiences will it deliver that is impractical to achieve otherwise?
Online VR chats are good early steps to bringing social aspects to VR. But to stand the test of time, we are going to need the ability to transmit the nuances that make in-person communication great—in particular, the accurate capture of facial expressions, tone, and body language. Schneider said,
What we have today is a bit of a novelty, so things definitely need to advance in a big way to make things viable at a technology and software level. It’s good that services like VRChat, Second Life, Facebook, Alterspace and others are going through the early steps to make this discovery possible.
George Lawton has been infinitely fascinated yet scared about the rise of cybernetic consciousness, which he has been covering for the last twenty years for publications like IEEE Computer, Wired, and many others. He keeps wondering if there is a way all this crazy technology can bring us closer together rather than eat us. Before that, he herded cattle in Australia, sailed a Chinese junk to Antarctica, and helped build Biosphere II. You can follow him on the Web and on Twitter @glawton.
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