Judging by the hype around Facebook VR, you'd think the '90s never happened. Back then, the Social Network™ didn’t exist and it was the era’s video game giants – Sega and Nintendo – rolling out virtual reality with great fanfare.
However, both of the Japanese games giants cancelled their efforts before launch: Sega’s Virtual VR was quickly discontinued after poor reviews and Nintendo Virtual Boy console was canned following weak sales. Those failures killed business appetite for VR – at least for a while.
Back in 1995, the public had no exposure to 3D computer graphics, except in the cinema. Twenty years later, those interactive 3D graphics are everywhere – on our smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions – and videogame consoles. Tools like Unity make it easy for anyone with fairly basic skills to create and publish their own interactive 3D content. Billion of smartphones have driven down the cost of high-density displays and sensors.
Into all of this came a 20-year-old named Palmer Luckey. Taking advantage of this convergence of rendering, tools and smartphone tech, Luckey launched his Oculus Rift on Kickstarter in August 2012. In something of a penny-dropping moment (excuse the pun), the campaign quickly amassed $2.4m in backing - almost 10 times over its target.
VR was back.
That hadn’t gone unnoticed by one of the giants in videogaming, who had its own plans for a VR system built atop its own latest-and-greatest technology. Shortly after Sony signalled Project Morpheus - a Playstation-based VR system - Facebook swooped in and purchased Oculus for $2bn, perhaps the highest price ever paid for a company yet to release any products to the general public.
If anyone had doubts about the renaissance of VR, the Facebook/Oculus tie-up put them to rest. With such a big bet on the table, VR could now spend its way out of the problems that plagued it 20 years ago - slow rendering, laggy sensors, and expensive systems that, more often than not, would make people motion sick.
Facebook was pushing VR again this week at its F8 event and since its plunge into VR tech entrepreneurs and investors flooded into the VR market, every one of them looking for the edge that would help them conquer the virtual world.
Within a few months of Facebook’s plunge, Google changed the game completely, releasing Cardboard at its 2014 I/O conference. The very definition of an “elegant hack”, the Cardboard mounts two cheap lenses in a rigid paper frame above a smartphone screen to create pretty much the same display quality you’d get in a higher-end virtual reality system.
With Cardboard the world went from no modern VR systems to potentially billions - nearly every modern smartphone can run the Cardboard software. App stores for both Android and iOS feature a wealth of titles that produce a range of immersive effects, from the inevitable (and mildly sick-making) ride-on-a-rollercoaster, to the more refined immersive cinema experiences offered by Jaunt and Vrse.
For entry level VR, Cardboard does the job well. More than five million Cardboard-class viewers had shipped by the beginning of 2016, enough to see the birth of an ecosystem of apps driven by “content marketing” and advertising. Expect all the big brands to launch their own Cardboard experiences within the next year, as agencies begin to explore the medium.
For all the simple pleasures of Cardboard, it produces an experience that can at best be called “VR-like.” That’s got nothing to do with Cardboard itself, but with smartphone. Sensors on the smartphone used to track the orientation of the head - keeping the display in sync with head movements, necessary for generating the illusion of immersion in the virtual world - work, but slowly.
A lot of research has been done into just how fast these sensors need to be. Games god John Carmack joined Oculus in 2013, studying precisely how tight the sensor-display feedback needed to be to produce a sense of immersion.
Even more important is the need to reduce motion sickness that can overwhelm VR users as what they’re seeing with their eyes (perception) disagrees with what their inner ears (proprioception) tells them. Perception-proprioception disagreement is a recipe for nausea, but Carmack found that an 11-millisecond delay (90Hz) seemed to produce a comfortable sense of immersion for most people, most of the time.
No smartphone has sensors that accurate, and that’s the essential addition provided by Samsung’s GearVR, a device which is, in all other aspects, little more than a very fancy Cardboard. Designed in partnership with Oculus, Samsung equipped GearVR with accurate and fast orientation sensors, supplying the missing elements that transform a high-end smartphone into a midrange virtual reality system.
Most of the attention – both from developers and the press – has been lavished on the high end of the market, where Oculus’s CV1, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR compete.
The high price of entry is a key factor for each: even the cheapest – Sony’s Playstation VR – costs more than a $1,000 with all of the necessary components. Oculus and HTC require high end PCs to drive the greater-than-megapixel-per-eye displays at the requisite 90Hz while simultaneously rendering the complexity and subtilty of modern virtual worlds.
Another factor is capability, limiting what you really get for your money.
Cardboard and GearVR provide “three degrees of freedom” – they’ll track your head as you look around, but they don’t track your body or its position in space. Move around, and those systems won’t know, and won’t react. This is why so much of the content fixes you to a virtual seat even as it blasts you through the virtual world. You can’t move around because these low-end VR systems can’t detect your movement.
Oculus, HTC and Sony all use sensors - in Oculus and Sony’s case, variations on a camera, while HTC’s Vive uses a laser sensor system (similar to Microsoft’s Kinect) to locate the body, feeding that positional information into the virtual world, providing “six degrees of freedom”: what your head is looking at, plus where your head is positioned. Broad consensus holds that HTC Vive provides the best tracking experience of the three, but at the cost of a system that is more difficult to set up.
HTC Vive creates a virtual space that exactly mirrors the real world, and includes two handheld controllers that are also positionally tracked, effectively giving you hands inside the virtual world. Oculus’ Touch controllers, reported to provide an even more satisfying handheld experience, have been subject to repeated manufacturing delays, and aren’t expected to ship until the later part of this year, requiring early Rift customers to use a not-very-virtual Xbox controller. (Sony plans to use its already released Move controllers with PSVR.)
Markets and money
For HTC, trapped in a smartphone market where most of the profits flow to Apple and Samsung, Vive is a bet-the-company manoeuvre. For Facebook, Oculus is a rounding error, and will remain so until the business has sold millions of units – which raises the question: why does Facebook want to be a hardware company? The margins are horrible, reviewers feral, and customers endlessly demanding.
Then there’s Sony. The initial allocation of Playstation VR is already sold out everywhere in world, six months ahead of its launch, ensuring it will be the hottest of hot toys this Christmas, making Sony the superpower of the virtual world.
That puts Facebook into an interesting position. Facebook didn’t buy Oculus to become a hardware company. Zuckerberg ponied up $2bn to have the inside track on the thing that replaces Facebook Messenger - Facebook Metaverse.
What’s shaping up is a a battle of superpowers that could make the smartphone wars look like a tempest in a teapot.
On one hand, Sony will have millions of kids jacked in through Playstation VR, already online and wanting to hang out. (And they’ve tried this before, with the ill-fated Sony Home.) On the other hand, Oculus will have an inside track not just on Rift but on GearVR, driving all those face-suckers to Facebook-backed virtual social experiences. HTC, the dark horse in this race, has tied up a long-term relationship with Valve, using Steam as both app store and, in the longer term, as its social platform.
Back to reality
Just over the horizon virtual reality loses the virtual, and, with augmented reality (AR), it becomes perfectly integrated with the real world. Augmented reality offers the best of both worlds - virtual and real - and a glimpse of the longer-term future for computing.
The standout here is Microsoft’s Hololens, which pairs Xbox’s Kinect sensor technology - mapping out spaces precisely - with a "holographic processor" capable of “volumetric” rendering of 3D content into the real world.
Augmented reality has a lot of promise, and although Microsoft recently began shipping the Enterprise Edition of Hololens (at a hefty $3,000 per unit), it’ll be a few years until AR applications reach a broad market.
With so much money riding on the success of virtual reality, the hype will be flying fast and thick for some time to come. We don’t know how much bad VR people can tolerate before running for the toilet. There’s going to be a lot of bad VR.
On the upside, the drive toward continuously beefier computers, which had nearly collapsed in the era of netbooks and smartphones, should pick up again if VR continues to grow in popularity. Smartphones will be graded by consumers in part on their capacity to deliver an immersive experience, as will desktops and laptops. It’s a good time to be nVidia, and - possibly - it will again be a good time to be Intel.
But it’s early days. We’ve learned a lot about interactive computer graphics, only to find we’ve forgot everything we’d ever learned about immersion. The virtual world hasn’t had an easy birth, and its first, faltering steps are likely to be queasy and delightful in equal measure. ®