The term “Virtual Reality” first appeared in Antonin Artuad’s 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double, in a discussion of the stage and the alternative world that it creates. 1982 saw the release of Disney’s Tron, which was, for many, their first exposure to the idea of a computer-generated alternative reality. In 1992, Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash, a novel full of seminal ideas about VR. (The novel’s Metaverse was a direct inspiration for Linden Labs’ Second Life virtual world.) In 1999, the idea exploded into popular culture with the release of the Wachowski’s film The Matrix.
During this whole span, Virtual Reality has remained a fascinating idea, but always seemed just out of reach. 2015, however, stands to be the year where that all starts to change. Why? There are a number of technologies that must come together for VR to become a reality, all of which have been gathering momentum rapidly. Let’s look at them one by one:
The first, and most obvious, is the display required to experience VR — a specialized device that must deliver independent images to each eye, and which needs to track head movements with extraordinary accuracy and speed. The Oculus Rift is the best known example currently available. The company has been making terrific strides technically, with phenomenal improvements between the first and second versions of their development kits, and their acquisition by Facebook means they no longer have any financial constraints on their R&D effort. While there has been no official release date announced for the consumer version, the company has hinted strongly that they expect a 2015 release, and are working to make the device as cheap as possible.
As other companies have seen Oculus’ successes, many have begun to develop their own displays as well, with announced entries from Sony, Samsung, Google (and rumors of similar work going on at Microsoft and Apple as well). We should expect to see several of these come to market this year.
The second requisite for a compelling virtual world experience is appropriate input devices. Virtual environments are most absorbing when you can interact with them, but using a gamepad dramatically weakens the illusion of being immersed in a 3D world. Devices purpose-built to let us interact with our synthetic environments in the same ways that we do the real world will be necessary for VR to take hold.
There’s been lots of experimentation going on in this space, and we’re starting to see some fascinating success stories. Leap Motion provides superb hand tracking capabilities, and is designed to integrate smoothly with the Oculus and other VR headsets. At CES 2015, Sixense demonstrated their own controllers, which work well (and are especially good for lightsaber battles). Ultrahaptics is exploring technlogy to provide force feedback in midair using ultrasound, allowing us to use our hands to get even more information for our virtual environments. Given the amount of work and experimentation going on in this space, we expect to see a number of viable options available this year.
Capturing 3D environments
The third important factor for the success of VR is environment capture technology. While it’s possible to create entirely synthetic environments, applications like virtual tourism and home decor simulation require high quality captures of existing real-world spaces. Immersive Media, Jaunt VR and Giroptic are all now selling soup-to-nuts capture and delivery platforms for 360° stereoptic content, which will make it much easier for content providers to create engrossing VR environments that mirror the real world. This will help overcome the chicken and egg problem of providing the necessary hardware to deliver VR, as well as the content needed to make that hardware valuable.
Better virtual worlds
The last critical technology is the ability to render rich virtual worlds. While first generation multi-user environments like Second Life provided a glimpse into the promise of such technology, more advanced collaborative virtual spaces like High Fidelity are starting to appear. These second generation systems make avatar interactions much richer and more natural by supporting a range of hardware to transmit body language, facial expressions, and directional gazes organically and in real time. Since theorists estimate that 80% of our communication happens non-verbally, supporting these cues will be vital for those using virtual spaces for both business and social purposes.
Companies like Magic Leap are also pioneering methods of adding realistic 3D objects to existing real-world scenes. By mapping light fields of real spaces, they’ll be able to add computer-generated imagery that is virtually indistinguishable from the real objects in a scene. These systems and tools will make the experiences we have in virtual spaces much more dynamic and compelling than would have previously been possible.
As you’d expect from a company with its roots in mobile technology, we’re particularly keen on the implications of VR for phones and other mobile tech. Limited screen real estate has always been a challenge for mobile designers, but moving into virtual space gives us a much larger canvas onto which we can paint captivating, untethered experiences.
The devices we carry now have more graphics horsepower than dedicated game consoles from a couple of years ago. Google has taken advantage of this fact by creating the delightfully low-budget but surprisingly usable Google Cardboard. Cardboard allows one to create a usable VR headset by combining a folded cardboard template, a couple of lenses, and an Android phone. By using the device’s built-in gyros and accelerometers, Google creates a credible virtual experience without any additional tracking hardware needed. While not perfect, it’s cheap, available, and undeniably ingenious.
Samsung has, by joining forces with Oculus, created the best of the current mobile technology with Gear VR, a headset designed with wireless capabilities powered by the Note 4 phone. While it has a lower refresh rate and motion tracking that’s still inferior to the full Oculus Rift, its wireless and portable form factor makes it terrific for “Here, try this out!” experiences (not to mention being able to move through a 720° turn without getting wrapped up in cables).
An exciting year to come
As you can see, we are poised to witness huge advances in Virtual Reality this year as the necessary technologies mature and content authors and designers get the tools they need to create rich experiences. We can only speculate at this point what the practical implications for telepresence, remote medicine, gaming, simulation and training will be, but we’re excited to see the promise of this new technology come to fruition, and to help build the new worlds and opportunities it will open up to us.