The state of virtual reality

When most people think of virtual reality, they think of science fiction. For decades, novelists and screenwriters alike have written about the fantastic possibilities of such a technology, many times with grim consequences. There’s an obvious desire to escape reality from time to time, and what better way to do that than create a new reality. Five years ago, that statement would have sounded far fetched, but the technology necessary for virtual reality is here, its inexpensive, and it’s about to change the world.

The monster in the industry right now is Oculus, which pioneered cost effective VR technology with the creation of their virtual reality headset, The Rift. In 2014, Oculus was acquired by Facebook at a tune of over $2 billion pre-revenue. Since the creation of The Rift, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, Sony and Valve have all announced VR headsets for release within the next year. As far as cost, The Rift sold for only $300 per unit upon the prototype release, but it requires a fairly hefty computer to run properly.

What Does VR Look Like Right Now?

With the exception of Google, whose current VR platform is a cardboard apparatus that converts your cellphone into a mobile VR device, many of the headsets are designed similarly. The basic structure of modern units resemble really large ski goggles. They house two high-resolution screens (relative to 1080p) and tracking sensors in every axis across the device. It’s basically a really small high-definition TV that tracks your head movement and changes the image accordingly. The virtual image is rendered from a computer, and duplicated with slight angle differences on each screen. This creates a 3D effect while in the virtual world.

Some of these devices, such as The Rift, come with an infrared camera that tracks your movement. The purpose of this is to simulate not only the movement of your head in VR, but also the position of your body. To give an example, if you’re in a virtual space and want to lean in to get a better view of something, these cameras allow for that. They’ve also just announce a product called Oculus Touch which is a controller that can also be tracked from the infrared camera, allowing the use of arm movement in a virtual space.


The History

A look into the history of VR is actually quite fascinating. It’s an idea that was introduced as early as 1935 in a book by Stanley Grauman Weinbaum titled “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” After that initial inception, the scientific and engineering community put resources behind the idea for military reasons. A simulation that engaged multiple senses was clearly a cost effective means of training. That research led to the first flight simulator being developed in 1966 for use in the Air Force.

The entertainment industry gained tangible interest in the early 1980’s, with Atari starting a short-lived research lab specifically for VR. Sega and Nintendo made concerted efforts to launch VR products in the 90’s to no avail. The technology hadn’t caught up to the idea until 2012, when a then unknown company, Oculus, entered the game.

Oculus is a Cinderella story that begins in 2011. The founder, Palmer Luckey, was frustrated with the current state of virtual reality headsets. The then 18-year-old’s response was to build his own out of his parents garage. 10 months later, Luckey’s 6th prototype named “The Rift” was born.

This led to a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 while Luckey was out demonstrating his hardware to the biggest names in the video game industry. Although his prototype was described by one executive as “dangling wires and circuit boards and duct tape and hot glue all over the place,” he received endorsements and investments from numerous industry leaders. The initial Kickstarter goal was $250,000. The Rift raised $2.4 million from crowdfunding alone when it was all said and done. Oculus proved the demand was there, now the technology is on its way to perfection.

It’s almost just right

The goal of every virtual reality hardware and software developer is what’s known in the industry as “immersion.” This means that the user forgets that they’re staring into a glowing screen inches from their face and are completely immersed in the virtual world. Right now, immersion is the white whale of VR. Many users claim they’ve experienced it, but it’s by no means a regular occurrence at this point. I’ve personally worked with The Rift since the first shipments went out, and despite having over 50 programs and games at my disposal, I’ve only experienced immersion once for a very brief time.

Virtual reality, via Maurizio Pesce / Flickr

Virtual reality, via Maurizio Pesce / Flickr

The potential for immersion is limited due to the VR headsets, the software and the computer hardware. For the headsets, it’s largely the physical unit. It’s hard to ignore the fact that you have a clunky, wired device that weighs just shy of a pound hanging off your face. Additionally, screen resolution, refresh rate and calibration are also limiting factors.

Software and hardware hurdles are largely related to each other. The software currently being developed for VR is coming mostly from small developers or even individuals. In most cases, their systems aren’t as optimized or graphically sound as they could be. A computer that would otherwise have no problem rendering an optimized scene will now cause a delay to the headset, which results in what’s known as Juttering. This is caused by the frames per second (FPS) that our eyes see dramatically dropping below the magically 60 frames per second threshold, causing a stuttering delay. This problem is no joke, and is even known to cause severe nausea if prolonged.

Where is the industry headed

We are experiencing the Wild West of virtual reality. The applications of this technology have already transcended simple entertainment, and more are likely on the horizon. Industries from Oil and Gas to Medical are currently using VR to train skilled labor. In Real Estate, developers are building homes in VR to allow prospective buyers to see new constructions from their couch before the home is even built. Facebook is rumored to use VR as a way to further connect people through social media, whatever that means.

The more you think about possible applications, the more logical the use of VR in everyday life seems. Sure the idea of escaping reality seems cool, but the possibilities are much bigger. As we develop new technology at an exponential rate, our kids still use textbooks and paper in school. It’s a generation that learned to read on a tablet, yet the method used to teach them comes from the last century. As virtual reality evolves, the inclusion in education is a no brainer, and could prove to be revolutionary in the way our children learn.

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