Friday, 23 December 2016

Is VR Finally Becoming A Reality?

Is VR Finally Becoming A Reality?

PlayStation VR units are flying off the shelves while Google Cardboard is a cheap-as-chips VR headset. Sarah Dobbs finds out if this means that virtual reality is finally here

Imagine virtual reality and you probably think of the 90s. You might think of The Lawnmower Man, the daft Pierce Brosnan sci-fi movie. Or maybe you think of the clunky graphics and even clunkier helmets of CITV’s Knightmare. But virtual reality (VR) has moved on, and with some of the biggest names in technology getting behind it, it might finally be its time to shine.

Now Google has made a VR headset, Microsoft has announced a VR headset. Samsung has got one, and so has Sony, whose PlayStation VR headset has been available for a matter of weeks at the time of writing and had already shifted thousands of units, with other 50,000 being sold in Japan in its launch week and stores across America selling out within days. Virtual reality is becoming a hot commodity, with everyone wanting a piece of the action – and it’s now cheaper and more accessible than ever before, with Google’s Cardboard being given away for free to enthusiasts keen to taste the technology via their smartphones.

So should we all be heading out right now to buy a VR headset and anticipating a bold new world where all stories are told in an immersive, interactive environment and static cinema is a thing of the past? What’s really changed since VR failed to catch on last time? Let’s see.

Last Time Around

A version of virtual reality that’s recognisable as the kind of thing we now mean when we use the term was first invented back in 1968: computer scientists Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull built a machine they dubbed The Sword of Damocles, a head-mounted display unit that was too heavy to actually be worn by the user and had to be suspended from the ceiling. Still, you can draw a pretty straight line from that virtual reality machine to the ones you see today.

The next notable VR system was the Aspen Movie Map, developed by Andrew B. Lippman and his team at MIT in 1978; it featured a virtual tour of Aspen, made using the Google StreetView method of having cameras mounted on the top of cars to capture 360 degree footage of the area.

Games makers Atari started work on a VR project in the 80s, but it didn’t come to anything. It took until the 1990s for VR to start moving from an experimental, lab-based technology to something consumers actually used (and wanted). But even then, it didn’t quite work. Sega announced the Sega VR headset for the Mega Drive in 1991, but there were problems with the prototypes and it never ended up being released to the public.

Virtuality Group created virtual reality arcade machines, with early models launched in the UK in 1993, with Sega launching their own VR arcade games in 1994, but despite a flurry of excitement and press coverage, you’d be hard pressed to find one of those machines nowadays.

So why didn’t it work back then? Partly because the technology wasn’t ready. The headsets had to be huge and heavy, uncomfortable for users to wear. They were also expensive, so ended up confined to arcades, rather than being sold directly to consumers. And most damningly, the actual experience wasn’t great. The graphics were mostly pretty low res and chunky, while many users reported feeling sick because of the motion of the camera. Virtual reality seemed like it was set to be consigned to the dustbin of history, stranded in the 90s forever; a nice idea but one that wouldn’t ever catch on.

A whole new world

Fast-forward to the present day and virtual reality has made a massive comeback. The turning point seems to have come in 2010, when Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey built the first version of the Oculus Rift. As he improved his designs, games companies started to get on board, with Guild Software’s Vendetta Online becoming the first, in 2013, to support the VR technology.

And then the floodgates opened. Big technology companies started to get very excited about the possibilities of this almost forgotten tech, with Facebook eventually winning the battle to acquire Oculus VR in 2014 and Sony announcing its own VR project, what would eventually become PlayStation VR, in the same year.

The list goes on from there. HTC has its own VR headset, the HTC Vive. Samsung has the Gear VR. And most interestingly, Google launched Google Cardboard, both a platform and a device designed to make it cheap and easy to access and create VR content via an actual cardboard viewer that incorporates space for a smartphone, on which virtual reality simulations can be played.

So why is it coming back now? Well, it hardly needs saying that technology has advanced hugely since the 1990s. Just look at the difference between the mobile phone you were using then and the one you’re using now. We can pack far more computational power into far smaller devices than we could then.

And look at how computer game graphics have changed! VR mostly had to use blocky, simple graphical simulations back in the 1990s, but now, it’s possible to create incredibly lifelike worlds for users to wander around. So now the virtual world can be more elaborate, and the headsets can be far smaller and lighter. That means VR suddenly seems a much more viable prospect.

Hold Your Horses

Not all of the problems with VR have completely gone away, though. Creating game-like graphics is still expensive, and while the headsets are now more affordable than they were, they’re still not exactly cheap. Google Cardboard might be virtually free, but it’s limited; to move beyond that, you’re looking at buying the PlayStation VR, which retails for £349.99 or the Oculus Rift, which goes for £549. Given that you’ll already need a PlayStation 4 for the PlayStation VR, it’s not cheap, and there isn’t a huge amount of content for it yet, which might make you hesitate before handing over your cash.

And while technology might have come on in leaps and bounds since the 1990s, the human body hasn’t really changed, which means there are some hard limits that VR will find it difficult to overcome. If you wear glasses, for example, you’ll find the headsets might be uncomfortable or even impossible to wear. Oculus VR is working on ways to accommodate glasses wearers, but if you do wear specs, the FAQs for the Gear VR flat-out forbid you to try the headset on, because your glasses might damage the set (or presumably, vice versa).

An even bigger hurdle is movement. Part of the point of VR headsets is that they track the movement of the wearer, so when they move their head, the image they’re looking at shifts in a realistic way, as if they’re actually experiencing a real environment. But in most forms of storytelling, the camera moves. That might be fine in a VR attraction where people wear headsets and walk around a room while seeing a virtual recreation of that room (with added elements, of course) but if you’re at home, you’re not going to be able to explore in the same way. And while some users don’t have this problem, many, many people report feeling a kind of motion sickness when the camera moves in their VR environment while they’re stationary. That might be a real setback for the technology; people who feel sick aren’t going to want to spend a lot of money on the thing sickening them.

VR: What Is It Good For?

So will VR take off properly this time round? Well, maybe. There are a lot of companies investing heavily in it, so if it doesn’t, they stand to lose quite a lot. And this time round, the technology is more available than ever before. Google’s Cardboard platform, plus the availability of 360 cameras, means that it’s now possible for anyone with a few hundred quid to spare to make their own VR content, for their friends to experience on their smartphones.

In terms of wider applications, VR gaming seems like the application that’s likely to take off. (Yes, there are specialist uses, like training for surgeons and soldiers that use VR simulations of dangerous situations to help them learn how to respond in the real world, but those don’t seem likely to go mainstream any time soon, as fun as it would be to practice brain surgery from the comfort of our sofas.)

There’s already a VR version of Minecraft available; a mobile version of Hitman that can be played on a VR headset; and, well, tons of other games and mini-games too. A lot of them feature cartoony or stylised graphics, which makes them run more smoothly than more intensive games would, and some of them even involve playing a game on a console or TV inside the app, which is a level of metatext it’s hard to contemplate for too long, but this seems like an industry that’ll grow – assuming sales of VR hardware continue at the pace they’ve been selling so far.

Cinema owners might be starting to feel nervous here, but VR isn’t really a natural fit for movies, which generally don’t involve storytelling from a static viewpoint (and generally do involve lots of people standing behind a camera, which isn’t possible with the 360 angles most VR environments work with.) Instead, think live events: sports matches, for example or live concerts or plays. Those kinds of things do involve sitting or standing in a fixed spot while things happen in front of you and which you can turn your head to see more of. That’s where VR could potentially excel, by offering front row tickets to people who couldn’t be at an event in person.

Is VR Finally Becoming A Reality?

Augmented Alternatives

As virtual reality has become more and more accessible, so too has a similar but slightly different technology: augmented reality. Or as most people probably know it, Pokémon Go. Augmented reality doesn’t entirely replace, er, reality; it overlays digital content over the top, changing what you see. Although it’s been around for a while and has even been incorporated into games for years – PlayStation’s EyeToy, anyone? – it’s really taken off again due to the incredible popularity of Pokémon Go. Even the kinds of people who aren’t really into games, technology or any kind of VR have been happily becoming obsessed with hunting down monsters that they can see, via their smartphone screens, sitting in the real world.

Augmented reality isn’t as immersive as virtual reality, because it’s usually viewed via a screen, like a TV or phone and not strapped directly to the user’s head. It also incorporates real world objects, so the user isn’t removed from reality, just seeing some additions. So some of the disadvantages of VR are immediately eliminated: you don’t need any new equipment to use it, it doesn’t stop you from wearing glasses and, most importantly, it doesn’t make anyone motion sick. It seems extremely likely that Pokemon Go will inspire further games along the same lines, and that those will begin to use ever more sophisticated techniques to weave together the real and digital worlds.

Back To Reality

Has virtual reality’s moment come? Without access to a magical crystal ball, it’s hard to say for sure, but it seems like the answer might be both yes and no. Through virtual and augmented reality, new ways to experience the digital world are opening up and becoming available to ever more people; that doesn’t seem like it’ll just stop any time soon. The technology will likely continue to improve, and the accessories will probably become more readily available and cheaper.

But will we all be sitting in our homes strapped into VR machines, entirely neglecting the outside world in favour of digital worlds we can control at the push of a button, within the next decade? Probably not. Virtual reality still faces a lot of obstacles that won’t be easy or even, in some cases, possible to overcome, and that means there’s probably a cap on its relevance.

Then again, can hundreds of thousands of PlayStation owners be wrong? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Which Headset Should You Invest In?

Itching to get into a virtual world? There are plenty of headsets to choose from. But which is right for you? Here’s the rundown:

Google Cardboard
Price: £15
As it says on the box, it’s cardboard. You fold it into shape and slot your phone into place, then strap it on and look through the lenses to VR content on your phone. It’s the cheapest way to play with VR, but understandably is also pretty limited. You’ll only be able to see content your phone can handle, and it’s not fully immersive, because the fit is pretty loose, and you’re not getting the sound directly into your ears. But then it is just £15.

PlayStation VR
Price: £349.99
This is more like the real thing. The PlayStation VR works with the PlayStation 4, so the graphics processing is carried out by the console. You can use the dualshock controller to control the game, and rather than staring at your iPhone, you’re looking at a 5.7” OLED screen. The PlayStation VR boasts 3D sound too, so we’re talking total immersion here.

Samsung Gear VR
Price: £84.99
You’ll need a smartphone to use this one too and a specific one: a Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, Note 5, S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge+. So if you’ve got another kind of smartphone, you might want to rule this one out immediately. Again, the kind of VR experience you can have is limited by what the smartphone can process, but the headset is sturdier and meant to be more comfortable than Google’s Cardboard. You can’t wear glasses, but there is a focus-adjusting wheel that might help if your vision isn’t perfect.

Oculus Rift
Price: £549
It’s the one that made VR relevant again, which might make it the one to invest in. It’s pricey but packs some pretty solid tech: it connects to your PC, which will do the heavy lifting on the processing side; it has built-in audio, microphone and camera; and it has motion sensors to track your movement, with more developments on that front promised in the future. It comes with free games and Facebook’s backing, so it’s a strong contender if you’ve got the cash to flash.

HTC Vive
Price: £769.99
If you thought the Oculus Rift was expensive, though, you might be horrified by the price of the HTC Vive. HTC’s offering attempts to deliver the most immersive possible experience, so while it’s mostly pretty similar to the Oculus Rift, specs-wise, it can sense and track a slightly larger area around the wearer and comes with a sophisticated controller that makes interaction with the virtual world easier. The front-facing camera also promises the option to integrate real-world settings with virtual effects, which is interesting. That price, though? Ouch.

Microsoft VR
Price: From $299
Announced literally at the time of writing, the Microsoft VR headset doesn’t have an official name or release date yet or really any other kind of detail except the fact that it’s coming, and it’ll be relatively cheap as these things go. With that in mind, this is an option you might decide to postpone your buying decision for, just to see how it measures up.