The Future’s Reality…Virtual Reality

Hello everyone and in this post, we take a virtual look…

Virtual Reality Is The Way Forward?

The idea of always making things better, to give the audience an experience, to push beyond the boundaries of what is possible, is still evident today as it was decades ago. We live in a world where the technology we use is continually getting more advanced each day. A prime example of this is the World Wide Web/Internet, which has seen an enormous jump in capabilities since it was established. What I would like to talk about, though, is an area called ‘virtual reality’.

Virtual reality is projected realism. It is not meant to be ‘real’ but it is suppose to be displayed in a way that comes across as real and immersive. This idea has been around for some time as shown in film, TV, music and other immersive art forms. VR is projected by computer to create computer-simulated environments, which are reconstructions of the real world. The way VR works is by playing on the human senses to provide a sensory reaction. The more advanced the VR is, the stronger the reaction. For example, flight simulators are frequently used by pilots in training. The visual of world displayed is clearly projected, but various stimuli give it the feeling of real life. This is often heightened by having extra outputs such as rocking and shaking in the training capsule to give impressions of turbulence.

VR has made an appearance within video gaming. This is perhaps the area which would most benefit, given how games are computer-simulated projections anyway. There had been attempts to create a new VR technology in the form of headgears, but they experienced the same problem. As Peter Rubin explains, ‘It made people want to throw up. This was the problem with virtual reality. It couldn’t just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick’ (2014). This was similar with 3D in cinemas, where the projections became so intense that it made people unwell.

Additionally, attempts back in the 1980/90s to implement VR in games were unsuccessful, not least due to ‘the headsets were too heavy to wear for long, and immersion in the blocky graphics of these early virtual worlds came at a price: a stiff neck, motion sickness and the feeling of wading through treacle’ (Martin, 2013). The issue, then, is to provide a way for people to experience VR without having a sensory overload, and to make this at least comfortable.

Prior to 2014, various companies and individuals in the gaming industry, such as Valve Corporation and John Carmack, had been interested and researching their own ideas of VR. These would be a long way better than those 20 years ago. In 2011, a young Californian student called Palmer Luckey would develop his own version. This would become significant in later years as Luckey’s version would be seen as the most promising design yet. So promising that Facebook purchased his company for roughly $2 billion. It is called the Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift, or Rift, was an idea founded by Palmer Luckey. Without going too much into the history, let’s look at its origins to its development. ‘As Luckey realised, the technology was by then integrated into most decent smartphones. So his prototype Rift used the equivalent of a large smartphone screen to display offset moving images, one for each eye, which the brain combined into an illusion of 3D depth’ (Martin, 2013). It was his own curiosity and interest in hacking and tinkering electronics that led to the Rift.  ‘Virtual-world sci-fi like The Matrix and the anime show Yu-Gi-Oh! intensified the desire. Why, he asked himself, can’t we do that yet? His modding and iPhone repair work had left him with a lot of money, so he bought a $400 Vuzix iWear VR920, then the most cutting-edge consumer VR headset – enthusiasts call them HMDs, for head-mounted displays – on the market. Then he moved on to the more expensive eMagin Z800 3DVisor. And he kept looking’ (Rubin, 2014).

The smartphone market is still fiercely competitive. A result had seen prices being driven down across the range. Project lead Joseph Chen (2013) explains ‘those guys are tearing each other apart trying to get the next best thing. That has basically driven the costs down to where they’re affordable: displays and sensors that used to be hundreds of dollars now cost pennies.’ But what about the Oculus Rift makes it so unique?

Previously before, Luckey was working I.C.T’s Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy program. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder used a VR program called ‘Virtual Iraq’ which simulated a combat zone. This kind of exposure therapy had been in use for several years across America. The program, however, was expensive, costing close to $1500 per unit. The goggles used by veterans was ‘clunky: the helmets’ small viewports give the wearer the impression of looking through a pair of binoculars at a distant scene’ (Johnson 2013).

He then saw an opportunity that many manufacturers missed: cheap smartphones, complete with high-resolution displays and motion sensors. This lead to him modding and experimenting in the garage. Luckey even started a Kickstarter promotion to raise money for development kits of his gear. He exceeded his target of around $250,000. ‘Oculus charges just $300 (£180) for a low resolution ‘developer kit’ – a kit for companies interested in developing software for the device – and has shipped more than 40,000 worldwide, the biggest deployment of virtual reality headsets in history. It has raised $91million (£55.5 million) in investment funding’ (Martin, 2014). There is all the more remarkable when there wasn’t even a product on sale for consumers yet!

The Rift itself is designed to be as lightweight as possible, inspired from its smartphone origins. ‘The development version is about the size of an iPad mini, and it is strapped to your face. It is relatively light, though—I regularly wear it for thirty-minute stretches with no discomfort—and commercial versions will almost certainly be smaller’ (Johnson, 2013). And this is where the Rift starts to become a force of its own. The design of it allowed the user to experience VR without throwing up.

Rubin (2014) remarks a moment from one of the early tests: ‘As (Atman) Binstock continued clicking through the demo, (Brendan) Iribe faded in and out of a series of rooms – bare-bones virtual worlds filled with cubes and spheres. In all of them he took his time, moving, crouching, panning this way and that, taking in his 360-degree surroundings. Eventually he came to the grand finale, in which he floated slowly though a vast structure, its interior walls like some glowing mashup of Tron and a Death Star trench. The demo was at an end. But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. ‘Again,’ he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the prototype. His head felt strange – not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. ‘How long was I in there?’ he asked (Mike) Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.’ Iribe would go on to become CEO of Oculus VR.

The Rift is a piece of headgear with a screen attached, which is attached to a control box, with images displayed through this screen. Without going into the technical details, here’s how it works.

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1. The Display
It uses AMOLED screens, meaning it can switch colour in less than one millisecond. The developers also found out how to deactivate pixels quickly so the image didn’t smear or shake with head movements.

2. The Optics
Using cheap magnifying lenses, the Rift could distort images so that they look right when viewed through the optics, and that they didn’t make anyone sick.

3. Positional Tracking
To fully immersive yourself into VR, the Rift allowed head movements. To do this, it uses small external camera monitors mounted on the headset. This tracks motion and lets you crouch, lean, or approach an in-game object.

4. The Brain
VR owes a lot to tricking your brain into thinking it is real. The big challenge is to create realistic VR images to change with head movements cleanly and without any noticeable lag. To do this, the Rift fuses readings from a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to evaluate head motion. Even better, it takes 1,000 readings a second, allowing it to predict motion and pre-render images, shaving away precious milliseconds of latency.

Luckey was still tinkering and modifying the early prototypes and regularly updating his progress on message boards such as Meant To Be Seen. Coincidentally, one of those users was John Carmack, of Doom and Quake fame. He too had been interested in bringing VR mainstream when he read about Luckey’s reports.

Soon Carmack would become an important part of the process. Acquiring a Rift from Luckey, he set about modifying and coding the Rift using a modified version of Doom 3. But perhaps his biggest contribution, however, was his coding. ‘The Rift’s biggest selling point was its 90-degree field of view, which Luckey accomplished by slapping a cheap magnifying lens on the display‘ (Rubin, 2014). With more tinkering, Carmack achieved the correct view without having to spend on expensive optics. And then he raised the stakes.

Blow Your Mind

In 2012, E3, the biggest ‘festival’ of the video game industry, was taking place in Los Angeles. Carmack had gotten permission from Luckey to showcase the Rift. And what followed was how the Rift became mainstream. ‘Carmack showed the technology to the press running an updated demo of his game Doom 3, which he had modified to work with the new hardware. The response was, to use Luckey’s word, ‘massive.’ What he had presumed would be of niche interest to virtual reality enthusiasts turned out to have broad appeal. Within a month of E3, Luckey’s prototype had become a business. Video game industry veterans Brendan Iribe, Michael Antonov, and Nate Mitchell joined Oculuc VR as CEO, lead software architect, and vice president of product respectively, and an initial development kit production run was planned in China’ (Parkin, 2013). Carmack also joined the company, amongst many others.

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It made waves in Europe, too. ‘The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium’ (Martin, 2013). In an industry that always strives to go to the next level of realism, the Rift was seen to be that step. In a short period of time, Luckey and Oculus VR would be receiving Kickstarter funds of more than $2.4m. ‘What could make the product so compelling is the combination of price and performance. At $300 for a developer kit, studios used to spending thousands of dollars on video game development hardware are likely to see it as a relatively small gamble for a piece of technology that could have a big impact on the tech landscape‘ (Parkin, 2013). And this is not forgetting that Facebook recently purchased the company for a cool $2 billion.

Are We There Yet?

Despite its appeal and success, only time will tell if the Rift and VR will ever become a mainstream reality. The Rift is still in early stages of production, yet even still, to have so many backers and takers so early gives an indication of the waves it has made on the industry. Parkin (2013) writes: ‘Perhaps it’s a question of managing expectations. Arguably where the original VR dream faltered was in failing to live up to the anticipation of its users. We expected to be transported through the helmet into a new dimension, full of restless colour and life, but the virtual reality we experienced fell some way short. Even in its current non-HD version, Oculus Rift seems to deliver.’

The idea of VR is not new, but it has not been successful in the past. Until now, the Rift has really brought the idea back into mainstream amidst a flurry of optimism and expectation. Its success at events like E3 have convinced bigger companies such as Sony to start on their own projects. ‘The reception that the Rift got was rapturous. ‘The level of immersion was unlike any other gaming experience I’ve ever had,’ one site wrote. ‘It transforms the experience of playing a first-person videogame,’ another wrote’ (Rubin, 2014). It seems everybody was wanting a piece of the VR pie.

When Facebook moved to buy Oculus VR, it was their biggest investment to date. Despite the backlash towards this relationship, Mark Zuckerberg hinted at the potential. ‘Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home’ (Rubin, 2014). And that is what VR is: projected realism made to feel real. The Rift does it better than most. It will not win everyone over, but it has plenty of admirers.

Perhaps the last word should be from Palmer Luckey himself. ‘This technology is going to revolutionize the way we live, learn, work, and play.’

Bibliography

Peter Rubin’s article ‘The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality’
http://www.wired.com/2014/05/oculus-rift-4/

Tim Martin’s article ‘The Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality Is No Longer A Joke’
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10540341/The-Oculus-Rift-virtual-reality-is-no-longer-a-joke.html

Joel Johnson’s article ‘A New World, Right In Front Of Your Face’
http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/a-new-world-right-in-front-of-your-face

Simon Parkin’s article ‘Can Oculus Rift Turn Virtual Wonder into Commercial Reality?’
http://www.technologyreview.com/news/519801/can-oculus-rift-turn-virtual-wonder-into-commercial-reality/

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