Technology seems to come to market in a process kind of like evolution in that the first series of attempts fails repeatedly and then suddenly someone figures out how to make things work. Home automation, for instance, starting really moving into the market with X10 in the ‘70s, video conferencing in the ‘60s, and even color TVs didn’t really go anyplace for well over a decade. We just saw the huge push to 3D TVs sputter and fail after the industry branded it as the “next big thing”. While Virtual Reality’s (VR) conception as an idea dates as far back as 1938, the first real push came in the 1990s when the industry once again learned that no matter the hype, buyers don’t buy garbage.
There is no doubt that VR and its AR variant (to be discussed in greater detail at the upcoming Wearable Tech Expo) will transform how we see the world, and industries ranging from gaming to healthcare, but only if all of the elements are in place. This time it looks like we are close in hardware but the acceptable level of quality and full solution may prove elusive this cycle.
Quality of the Interface
In the name “Virtual Reality,” is the promise that the user will be unable to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual. The goal is to immerse them in a fully rendered world that is high enough in quality that they can suspend disbelief and participate in the experience much like they are actually in that virtual world. This level of quality can be degraded and still be successful for things like telepresence where someone remote has to act remotely using an interface. But telepresence, while it uses VR tools, is a far smaller (for now) and far more business focused effort.
At E3 this year the first no compromise head mounted display was showcased by a little known company called Starbreeze and their Product StarVR. This headset had twin quad HD panels, a 210 degree field of view and highly accurate position tracking. The kind of graphics power the headset required was staggering but the experience was nearly where it needed to be and all other efforts fell short. In addition, Starbreeze showcased real feeling shotguns and pistols that could be used in the zombie game, illustrating that, to make this work, you have to create accessories and/or fully instrument the body so that the interface between the user and the system is complete. The important senses are sight, sound, movement, and hand touch. Eventually we’ll need smell and more general feeling but that is likely a decade or more out from the first three.
One of the most difficult of the initial set is movement that feels like you are actually walking. There are several efforts currently in place to address this from 2D treadmills to large balls you walk inside but nothing that actually feels real has so far been showcased. The Cyberwalk appears to be the most promising but it is wicked expensive. A list of those under development can be found here (the boots also look interesting).
Game controllers can approximate this but they always remind the user that they aren’t really in the world they are seeing while more realistic interfaces and controllers help convince them what they are seeing is real, and allow them to better immerse themselves in the experience.
Without content that looks and feels real you don’t have VR, and real-time rendered content currently falls well short of reality. We are getting closer though and often, in movies, where render farms are used the audience can’t tell what is real and what is virtual. Each generation of graphics technology brings us one big step closer to where we need to be, and gamers are relatively used to a lower level of content and may accept it initially with VR solutions, but they won’t be truly “VR” until the user can’t tell the difference between a real actor and a rendered character or real scene and a virtual one.
This also means you need physics so that objects move properly. Trees sway with the wind, momentum actually works properly, and you have destructible landscapes. The farther away from this the content is, the lower the probability that the user will suspend belief and truly immerse themselves into the experience.
You can make everything look and feel real but if the game generated characters follow scripts mindlessly it still won’t feel real. One of the reasons zombie titles initially look really good is that zombies behave very simply, but as soon as you add real people, pets, and other elements that we know act more independently, if they don’t, the sense of reality is lost and the bar is no longer met. You can offset this in multiplayer games by having more players actively in the game but true VR will have to have game elements that are themselves intelligent so they can help create the believable fiction—one that feels entirely real.
Wrapping Up: Real Enough
What I’m describing is the end game for successful VR, but it can still be successful at a far lower level because games today don’t come close to the video quality bar, yet still they sell very well. If the VR glasses simply give the competitive gamer an edge or make the game immersive enough to justify the purchase then people will pay for the experience. This is a massive opportunity for processor and graphics firms because it will push the envelope for performance and give those with better technology an edge, pushing higher end PCs, game systems, and accessories very hard.
Once in place VR will transform gaming, training, and perhaps replace having to actually travel to meetings (meaning it could replace Video Conferencing and a lot of airplanes) making the potential for this technology massive. So the question isn’t if VR will change the world, but when.
But the company who figures out how to create something like the Star Trek Holodeck, that sets the current expectations for this technology, will likely own this segment. 3D failed because its promise was well ahead of the reality, there was little content, the glasses generally sucked, and initial buyers didn’t see the value and become advocates. For VR to be successful it has to learn from 3D TVs and make sure its initial buyers convert the world of non-users, or VR won’t be the next big thing; it will be the next 3D TV.
Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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