From Virtual to Reality…

So if the hype is to be believed, VR has finally arrived. Or is arriving at least. This is it; we’ve been talking about true immersive experiences since the early 90’s, but it’s taken this long to get the technology to actually make it happen. But is this just another passing fad? (3D movies anyone?). Or is this it, will people look back at our funny old fashioned TV and cinema screens and think – ‘how quaint’?

For those who’ve been around long enough to remember the promises and early experiments in VR during the 90’s – it’s easy to feel like we’ve been here before. And those early arcade experiences were disappointing to say the least (yes, we played them, and yes, they were terrible) – barely hinting at the sense of immersion that was promised to us by the tech evangelists of the time.

It wasn’t until the Oculus Rift started experimenting with VR again back in 2012 that people started to get excited (again). Now it’s 2016, and the Rift has finally launched – having been bought out in the meantime by Facebook for a cool $2 billion. Mr. Zuckerberg certainly believes that VR is the future.

Although the Rift was originally at the bleeding edge of tech when it was first announced – it’s since been joined by HTC and Valve who co-developed the Vive. This has a slightly higher quality display, but is also coupled with a full room-sized space that you can move around and interact within (about as close to Star Trek’s ‘holodeck’ as we can get at the moment!). Not to be outdone, Sony have just launched their own system, the (slightly unimaginatively) titled PlayStation VR. Although technically this is slightly less capable than the other big contenders, its main USP is that you can use it with a PlayStation 4 console – rather than requiring a (very expensive) high-end PC. This could potentially open it up to a much larger, mainstream audience. To counter the concern that the PlayStation 4 isn’t capable of producing the level of graphical fidelity required for a great VR experience, Sony has even announced a PlayStation ‘Pro’ with higher tech specs – which should be able to keep up with its more powerful PC competitors.

One particular struggle with delivering a great VR experience is that of ‘frame-rate’. Movies (and most high-end TV shows) output at 24fps (that’s 1 frame every 0.041 of a second), which is all very well when you’re watching a movie, but when you’re trying to fool your brain that you’re ‘actually’ there, this just isn’t enough. It turns out you need a minimum of around 90 fps in order to provide convincingly smooth motion – and the current PS4 isn’t really capable of rendering full HD images so quickly. So, Sony came up with a clever little box that renders ‘in between’ frames, taking a 60fps source and pushing out a much smoother 120fps end result, making for a much more convincing experience. Although this process can sometimes add some minor visual artifacts or glitches, it’s a great work-around that enables lower spec hardware to keep up.

The other main avenue for the VR mainstream is simply to use all the tech already inside your smartphone. Samsung’s Gear VR is a decent VR helmet that allows you to use your Galaxy S6 or S7 phone to run a very good quality, motion sensitive display. At the other end of the price spectrum is Google Cardboard, a super simple spec – essentially a cardboard box to hold your phone and a couple of cheap plastic lenses. Whilst it doesn’t sound like much – as most of the hard work is done by the phone itself, it can still give a reasonable VR experience for those wanting to test the waters.

In addition to Cardboard, last week, Google announced its new ‘Pixel’ phones – coupled with this higher spec hardware it has launched its ‘Daydream’ VR platform – aimed at making smartphone VR experiences even better. As neither of these phones or the Daydream headset has been released yet, it remains to be seen quite how much of an improvement this might make.

Key competitors:
• HTC / Valve: Vive
• Facebook: Oculus Rift
• Sony: Playstation VR
• Samsung: Gear VR
• Google: Cardboard (and Daydream coming soon)

Key benefits
HTC Vive – Great display, full room interaction
Oculus Rift – Facebook innovation, evolving hardware
PlayStation VR – lower price to entry, good specs.
Google Cardboard – more of a ‘gateway’ VR experience, super low cost to entry.

And what of the actual uses for VR?
The first and most obvious use for VR is for ‘immersive’ video games – there’s already a huge number in development. Added to that, however are demos hinting at the possibilities beyond video games – VR has already made great inroads into medical training, education and industrial applications. Property marketing is getting in on the act with amazing virtual tours, not to mention great executions with brands and media properties using VR and 360 degre video. Movie and documentary film-makers are also experimenting with the format, trying to help make the viewer experience life from a very different point of view. From a film that explores what it’s like to be blind to experiencing life as a Syrian refugee or trying to see the world the way someone with autism might, these show VR can be more than just a tech gimmick but a whole new medium to be explored.

So far, so amazing, but why might VR NOT be the next big thing?

Well, the tech industry does love to get excited about the next big potential change (tech never seems to move fast enough for some!). And it’s true, this time around, the technology is finally able to deliver on the original promise. However, one of the big issues with VR – and still not entirely solved yet – is the problem of motion sickness. Some people are more sensitive than others, but basically, it comes down to this: VR fools your brain into believing that you’re moving – but the slightest disconnect between what your head is doing and what your eyes are seeing will eventually lead to a feeling of nausea – ie. motion sickness. This is one of the reasons why VR is so demanding on 3D hardware – separate left and right eye views have to be rendered and displayed at a minimum of 90 frames per second in order to convince the brain that your view matches your head movements.

Added to that, a multitude of sensors on the headset have to match your motion and position in all dimensions and feed this through to the processor to render any change in movement – all within 0.01 of a second. This is the key reason that this hasn’t been possible until now, and the reason why this generation of VR is still struggling to battle motion sickness issues.

Developers are already looking at multiple ways of solving this – traditional ‘first person’ approaches may not work quite so well, so the experience has to be adjusted to fit the medium. They have discovered that it’s essential to match the virtual environment as much as possible to your real situation – showing your virtual arms, legs and body within the environment. Even showing a virtual nose within your field of vision has been shown to help.

However, perhaps the biggest worry is that whilst the latest VR experiences are very cool – it’s still not clear if they usher in a whole new experience that a mainstream audience will want to buy and own in their own home. Will this just prove to be another ‘flash in the pan’? New tech has a recent history of short lived, so-called game-changers that ultimately proved to be dead-ends. In gaming alone, the incredible initial success of the Wii – which then gradually faded from existence, and the amazing full-body control of the Microsoft Kinect, since unbundled from its latest console due to lack of interest (and the added cost). 3D movies are gradually fading from our cinema screens and TV buyers are largely disinterested in 3D at home (mainly due to the lack of content, coupled with requirement to wear 3D specs). VR could easily turn into another tech oddity that goes from massive potential to niche in the space of a year or two – as people try it and move on to the next big thing. Whilst the technology is now pretty much there, VR is still waiting for it’s ‘killer app’ that will sell headsets by the bucket load. That said, there are an awful lot of companies betting huge budgets on VR being a success this time around.

So, whether 2016 proves to be remembered as the start of a new VR revolution or just the coming of age of yet another gimmick remains to be seen.

However, for those who regret missing out on the early days of creating websites, smartphone apps, social media or streaming services – ie. tech ideas that went from nothing to world changing in the course of just a few years …now might be the time to really start checking out the possibilities of VR.

After all, the one thing that everyone does agree on is that VR can bring experiences to life in a way that no other medium can – creating a whole new way to connect brands and stories with a fascinated audience.¬

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