Virtual reality glasses and head mounted displays have jumped out of the realms of sci fi and into reality in recent times. They are not ubiquitous, or even part of the mainstream yet, but they are definitely gaining something of a cult following.
VR glasses will soon be common enough, however, and it is not just niche cutting-edge futurists that are entering this marketplace. Many of the big name technology companies have now developed and are creating their version of glasses and headpieces for us to wear, as we enter the realms of virtual reality. Many are not on the market yet, but they will be in your headspace very soon.
The world of virtual reality appears to be going down two alternate paths, with full immersion experiences like the Oculus, Morpheus, and Vive, versus augmented reality experiences like Hololens and Magic Leap. And then there is Google, who has made virtual reality accessible to anyone through Cardboard. Helping people understand virtual reality’s potential, even at the simplest level, will inspire more people to explore and adopt the technology.
Chet Faliszek, game developer at Valve, has another way to motivate people to jump into VR games quick: “Rule No. 1 is if someone has a headset on and you don’t, it’s your fault if you get punched”.
Sony, of course, has invested many millions of dollars into making the PlayStation 4 a complete gaming, and indeed entertainment, experience. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they have developed a virtual reality headset to help you immerse yourself in your gaming even more deeply. They have named their product Project Morpheus (there definitely seems to be a Matrix connection going on here).
It incorporates a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED screen (indeed it is now 1920 x 1080, 960 x 1080 per eye), so you will definitely be immersed in a high-definition world. It has a high refresh rate at 120Hz. You have a field of view of nearly 100 degrees.
Sony expects the Morpheus to enter into the marketplace in the first half of next year. At this stage, they say that it will sell for “several hundred dollars”
People who have trialled this unit talk about how they become fully immersed in their games, reacting to what they see around them and others in their virtual world reacting to their movements. They can hold onto the Move controllers and use them as items in-game. For instance, one player reported hearing a cell phone ring, in the game, and was able to pick up the Move controller and use it in the game like a real cell phone. Very shortly afterwards, the controller in the player’s hand morphed into a shootable gun.
The users suggest that it gives a high quality immersive experience, but it is let down somewhat by being uncomfortable to wear – clearly an area for Sony to focus their future development work.
One advantage that Sony has over much of the competition is that they have developed their product for an existing gaming system. There are now more than 30 games announced that will function using the Morpheus headset.
Microsoft: Holodeck and Hololens
Microsoft is, of course, a big player in the gaming market, with their Xbox One following on from their Xbox 360. It is no surprise, therefore, that they would want to be at the fore of immersive gaming.
They took a different tack initially, by inventing a system that turns your room into a gaming environment. This makes your lounge into your personal holodeck. This involves projecting your gaming environment over your whole room (not just your television screen) and you being able to react to it. While this is still very much an experimental concept, RoomAlive (as they have called it) involves using Kinect sensors and six projectors to map your environment onto your room. You can touch, shoot and dodge items in your virtual environment. Although not virtual reality or augmented reality as it’s classically recognized this did breach into territory that seems to carry over into their latest innovation.
Microsoft has also gone down the VR glasses route with the Hololens, as I have previously looked at. These are svelte as far as virtual reality glasses go. Microsoft has placed holographic capabilities in Windows 10.
At the recent E3 show, Microsoft demonstrated a new version of Minecraft, designed for people to play while wearing a Hololens headpiece.
As the video below demonstrates, Microsoft sees their Hololens as being used for much more than just gaming.
One obvious difference with the Hololens compared to most of the competition is that the Hololens does not make your world totally immersive. You can use it in your everyday life, and you effectively use holograms as you go about normal activities.
HTC Steam / Vive
HTC and Valve Corporation have combined to produce the HTC Vive virtual reality head mounted unit. It is part of Valve Corporation’s SteamVR project.
This unit (which in all reality does not look anything like glasses – it looks like a black box covering the upper part of your face) is still in its development phase, although it has been demonstrated at a couple of tradeshows, including recently in HTC’s keynote speech at the 2015 Mobile World Congress, as I covered at the time. There is a tentative release date of November this year.
There are two screens, one per eye, each with a resolution of 1080 x 1200, and a refresh rate of 90fps. It works with Steam VR base stations, which you can use to set a specific area in which to track your motion. You can use wireless controllers to represent the tactile objects that you can control within your game, for instance guns that you pick up mid game to fire.
The relationship with Steam, which is the largest player in the PC gaming market, means that this headpiece, also has the advantage of a ready-made audience.
Valve has also just announced a relationship with Microsoft. This means that the Vive should work well with Windows 10, and possibly Xbox One games (although that has yet to be confirmed).
Arguably, the best known of all the VR glasses prototyping at the moment is the Oculus Rift. Indeed the initial excitement about this product was so high that Facebook bought the product for $400 million in cash, $1.6 billion in Facebook stock, and an additional $300 million subject to Oculus VR meeting particular financial targets.
To be honest the initial versions looked somewhat clunky, but as Oculus moves closer to production, the product certainly has started to look less like a stylised gas mask that has climbed up the face. In fact, the version shown to the public this week looks like a normal consumer product. You can even wear it over your normal prescription glasses.
It is a pity that it still is not wireless, though. Unlike much of the competition, Oculus believes that virtual reality is best experienced seated.
Oculus has realised the importance of having software available, and have managed to get Oculus support in a number of Xbox 1 and PC games. Microsoft is certainly getting involved in the VR world! Interestingly it will come packaged with a normal Xbox controller – no need for a fancy virtual reality sensing device… yet.
Like many of these products, expect to be able to buy an Oculus Rift in the first quarter of 2016.
Oculus has demonstrated an exciting new addition to their virtual world at E3. The Oculus Touch comprises two handheld controllers. Each provides haptic feedback, so users can feel vibrations that correspond to their actions in their virtual world. There are six degrees of freedom tracking and a multitude of sensors can that recognize hand and finger movements such as pointing or giving a thumbs-up. Now when you punch someone in that fighting game you will actually feel the pain!
Remember those quaint devices from your childhood (or your parents’ childhood, depending on your age) called View-Masters. You used to stick circles of little pictures into them, bring the device to your eyes, and click your way through a story, lit up before you in something approximating 3D.
Now the View-Master is back for the 21st Century.
A while ago Google introduced their budget entry to the virtual reality world, Google Cardboard. This is basically a do-it-yourself device consisting of cardboard, lenses, magnets, Velcro and a rubber band, with your cell phone inside the box; definitely low tech! There is even an official Cardboard app for your android or iPhone.
I bought one a couple of weeks ago and honestly it’s been a lot of fun to demonstrate virtual reality’s potential to friends and family. There is a fun integration with Google Streetview that allows you to move around virtual spaces like Tokyo or the Eiffel Tower that has been a bit of hit regardless of it’s simplicity.
There is now a View-Master version of the app where you lay a View-Master disk of pictures on a table, and then look at them as if they were in your Google Cardboard glasses. The software takes the images from the table in front of you and makes the images appear in front of your eyes.
The Samsung Gear VR
Samsung’s Gear VR operates like the Google Cardboard product, but exclusively with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 phones. It aims to be a phone-powered cut-down version of the Oculus Rift. Indeed, Samsung has worked with Oculus, and it incorporates some of the Oculus technology. One reason that Samsung has chosen that particular phone to use in this product is that it has a 2560 x 1440 5.7-inch display (better than many of the more expensive specialist VR sets). The glasses themselves are more user-friendly and better designed than much of the opposition, too. Unlike some products, including the Oculus that it is based on, being cell phone-based means that there are no cables tethering the glasses to anything. They are completely self-contained.
Outsiders Competing in the VR Glasses Marketplace
The above devices are the big guns of the virtual reality world. They do not have the space to themselves however. A number of smaller firms have also tried to enter the marketplace… some more successfully than others!
Magic Leap is developing an augmented reality platform. They are done it almost by stealth, building it up without much publicity until they received $542 million of funding from a number of investors, including Google and Weta Workshop, late last year.
Magic Leap’s augmented reality headset works by shooting light directly onto your eye, rather than having a screen in front of it, as most of the other headsets do.
They have released a demonstration of how you could play a first person shooter game with it, inside your office.
Although it is still early days for the Magic Leap, they are now training developers on how to create games for this system.
Razer is developing a VR headset, as part of the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) ecosystem. They are part of an open standard for virtual reality.
There is also a $199.99 Hacker Development Kit available for people; to purchase and then build their own headpieces from this coming July.
It is good to see firms try to design products for the affordable side of the market; however, it appears that there is still quite some development needed yet.
The 3D Head has been marketed as the “Oculus Killer”. Well … maybe.
What is it? In essence, it is simply a tablet strapped to your head. Not quite the immersive experience that the big devices will give you, but definitely different. It is a big helmet, with a tablet in the end, as far away from your eyes as it can get without looking too silly. There is some 3D technology in there, too. It comes with an “interesting” controller, (which for some bizarre reason incorporates another tablet).
What does the 3D Head have for it above the big name devices? Well, you can actually buy it now.
The Sulon Cortex consists of a screen mounted in front of your eyes and a camera mounted on the back of your head. The camera can create a 3D model of the room you are in and feed the image back to the screen before your eyes (along with whatever “extras” you want added to your environment.
There is still quite some development needed. The virtual reality suffers from a low frame rate, certainly when compared to the better name units. There is also an issue of with the camera and your eyes not lining up when you are looking at the real world, along with picture delay. The object tracking also lacks precision. It is early days, however, and I hope Sulon can sort these issues out before the Cortex actually ships.
Starbreeze Studios has just announced the StarVR virtual reality headset. It will have dual 5.5 inch LCD displays, at an astounding 5120 x 1440 resolution. It will include 360-degree head tracking, with a 130-degree vertical FOV, 210-degree horizontal. It’s engine, Valhalla, supports the Steam OpenVR framework, and they expect to publish games for the unit on Steam.
This definitely looks like it will be a high-end system, and those specs are higher than any of the competition that have currently been announced. The first game to be announced for it is The Walking Dead.
Why are These Important
As with many of the sci-fi writers’ staples, virtual reality is indeed virtually becoming a reality. The models on the market now are all either low-powered, or lacking in real capability, but the prototypes that appear at electronic trade show are improving in leaps and bounds.
It is only a matter of months until we have practical, lightweight, effective, and moreover fun, devices available. We will truly be able to see our world from a completely new perspective.
While it is inevitable that the initial focus has been on uses of these virtual reality glasses in gaming, it is only a matter of time until people develop other uses, whether it be virtual travel, virtual schooling or even virtual surgery.