Some thoughts and personal answers concerning VR following on from our recent TEG hands-on Virtual Reality sessions.
Is Virtual Reality (VR) really the future?
It’s already here, and being used, for example, to train students in laboratory techniques , to carry out surgical procedures remotely via robotic arms, by the military for battlefield simulation, and by millions of people to enhance everyday activities such as viewing Google Street View or playing videogames. It’s even being used in healthcare, including assisting in the recovery process for stroke patients and as a visual aid to help people who have eyesight impairment.
What makes VR worthwhile?
“Presence” – a perception of being physically present in a non-physical world. The “immersion” in the virtual environment is sufficient to make the brain operate as though it were functioning in a real world. It is far more than just a three-dimensional image presented in front of your eyes – you are IN the environment, not merely viewing it. Once you have tried VR, it immediately becomes clear how this is much more involving than, say, watching a 3-D movie, and how much potential VR has in education. Some people are already producing wonderful content for the educational sector and in the gaming sphere.
People trying the technology at our recent TEG event provided the following reactions after experiencing VR for the first time:
“The experience was amazing! I felt like I was doing real scuba diving!”
“Wonderful – affected my breathing!”
“So much potential”
I know from my own experience with flight simulation software that VR makes the environment so much more immersive. Imagine sitting on a beach on a nice sunny day, with a beautiful blue sky dotted with white, fluffy clouds. One of the clouds drifts in front of the Sun and your mood dips slightly, rising again as cloud moves away and the sunshine returns. I’ve had this type of reaction whilst in the virtual world, flying beneath a cloud and mentally cursing the loss of sunshine. Not something that’s previously happened in 20 years of “simming” in front of a computer screen.
Isn’t it a bit niche, just for geeks?
It’s for everyone.
Business analytics firm Credit Suisse estimate that in 2016 some 5 million headsets will be shipped by just one single supplier (Oculus, a company owned by Facebook). Oculus are not the only game in town, however, as Samsung (with Gear VR), Sony (Playstation VR – previously Project Morpheus), Google (Cardboard), HTC (Vive) and many others all have released or will soon make available VR headsets.
In terms of content, Hollywood studies like Fox and Disney and TV companies like Netflix and Sky are busy creating VR material. David Attenborough has produced a documentary about ancient life. Google has updated Street View to work with Cardboard VR. Valve (a game distribution company with 125 million active customers) is working to produce VR-enabled games and is collaborating with HTC on the Vive headset. The BBC shot some of its “Big Blue Live” series in VR 360 degree format and created a virtual newsroom, complete with a virtual Fiona Bruce.
Other uses for VR abound – Facebook envisage millions of their customers chatting with their friends in a virtual world viewed through an Oculus Rift headset. The local authority in Derby has marketed the town to potential investors by providing a virtual tour of selected development sites. Estate agents are offering virtual property inspections. Marks and Spencer have pop-up virtual reality booths in selected stores to market household products.
What about VR in education?
VR may have a huge impact on education, particularly for distance learning. Student interaction and collaboration may be much more involving when you can sit in the same virtual space as your colleagues rather than posting text to a discussion board. VR may also aid the gamification of certain aspects of education in an effort to improve student motivation. And did we mention the wonderful content already being made for the educational sector?
Are there any problems with VR?
VR content can induce motion sickness in some people, as your eyes will be seeing movement that your inner ears will not be sensing. Clamping a large plastic box to your head can also feel a little uncomfortable after a while.
PC-based headsets currently require a cable to connect them to a computer, making it difficult to move about in the real world, if not the virtual one.
VR needs a lot of computing power, requiring the use of costly hardware (expensive phones for mobile phone-based VR, pricey graphics cards for PC-based systems). This will inevitably slow consumer take-up of VR.
Right now, the images displayed by VR headsets are of noticeably lower resolution that we’re used to seeing on desktop or laptop monitors. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be able to have usable VR systems. It has been estimated that to match the visual fidelity of a full HD monitor or TV (i.e. 1K resolution) being watched at a typical comfortable viewing distance would require sixteen times higher resolution (16K) in a head mounted display – and that means sixteen times the amount of image data calculations that need to be made by the phone or PC. For VR to work successfully we need to output the screen image at around 90 times per second. Today, most domestic PCs cannot even achieve this output figure for a 1K display, let alone for 16K. As graphical computing power improves in our phones and PCs over the next 10 years there will be a corresponding increase in visual quality of VR displays.
Interacting with the virtual environment can be difficult, as we don’t yet have appropriate controllers to allow us to move or fingers and hands to interact with the VR world. Try searching for your keyboard, let alone a specific key, when you have a VR headset covering your eyes. It might take several years for the optimal solution to be identified.
The number of competing, non-compatible systems is large and market fragmentation will be a problem. It will be a more complex situation than the smartphone or video recorder wars and will take some time before we have a clear picture of the system(s) that work best.
Despite these problems VR still has a huge amount to offer with the current state of technology and the prospects are so very, very bright. Having now tried it for a year, I for one certainly would not want to live without it.