Reality itself is going through a digital transformation thanks to leaps in 3D rendering and the crunch-speed motion feedback data. Although the modern definition of virtual reality (VR) has been making promises for three decades, the emphasis was always on the potential. Now it’s here. This is a tour of the state of VR in 2016 and where developers are taking it as VR spreads far beyond the world of gaming.
The Desert of the Real Before 1900
Taking control of our own “virtual reality” has always played a role in human endeavors, from the first cave paintings 30,000 years ago to the deus ex machina of Greek theater. That concept first crystallized into a stereoscope covering the user’s eyes in 1838 with Charles Wheatstone’s 3D reflecting mirror mask. Take away the photograph holder and Wheatstone’s device looks remarkably like the latest Oculus Rift.
The Origin of Modern VR
Jaron Lanier is credited with creating the virtual reality sector in 1984 and introducing the Visual Programming Language (VPL) to code prototype applications. In addition to the now universal head-mounted display of two video screens, Lanier introduced a data glove to feed positional data on the user’s hand and put it on screen. His further attempt to make the experience more immersive was an AudioSphere unit projecting 3D sounds. Sun Microsystems acquired all of Lanier’s work in 1990 and Sun was acquired 20 years later by Oracle, which put out its first VR headset this year.
Motion capture and redisplay in real time has been the biggest obstacle to viable VR. Over the past few decades, software developers have struggled to deal with the amount of spatial data that has to be fed in and rendered as 3D animation. The biggest breakthroughs in motion capture came from competition in the gaming world among the Xbox Kinect, the PlayStation Move and Wii console with built-in motion capture. It took the combination of this trend with massive graphics cards and affordable HD video to make VR headsets a physical reality.
Top 5 VR Headsets
This year, several firms have taken the lead in marketing their VR headsets and the software defined rendering platforms that support them.
1. HTC Vive
The best part about this headset is that it was developed by the Valve, giving it support for their OpenVR SDK and access to developers worldwide to contribute to. That automatically gives it tight integration with games like Half-Life and all the games on Steam. It pulls in data from 70 head sensors and uses a 90 Hz refresh rate. What has developers excited is that Valve has opened up a royalty-free license for its Lighthouse room-scale tracking technology.
2. Oculus Rift
This is the Kickstarter-funded project that started the current VR funding rage. Facebook acquired this technology with the intent of pushing VR beyond gaming. Mark Zuckerberg announced, “We are here to make VR the next major computing platform. At Facebook, this is something we are committed to do.” The Rift matches the Vive refresh rate, but also boasts twin displays with a 2160 x 1200 resolution at 233 million pixels per second. The Oculus Touch is a VR controller to match the headset and is scheduled to ship before the end of the year.
3. PlayStation VR
It’s no surprise to see the world’s top gaming systems investing heavily in VR. What is a surprise is that PlayStation was able to bring out its VR headset near the end of 2016, while there’s still no word on the Xbox equivalent. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer was quoted as saying, “Would we ever do our own VR device? We could, if we thought we had something unique to add. I don’t think the unique add is to plug into the Xbox One console. That’s not the magic unlock to me.” This headset has been magic for PlayStation, though. Reviewers agree that it’s visuals aren’t as crisp or immersive as games inside the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but access to the PlayStation game ecosystem and low cost makes it a great investment.
4. Samsung Gear VR
VR for smartphones may be the way that most people first come in contact with the tech. This is actually the fourth generation of VR tech, but the first one to come close to the quality of desktop or gaming console VR. The experience depends on the type of phone you have, pushing consumers to the new Note 7 and beyond.
5. Google Daydream View VR
This is the newest headset, released to go with Google’s new Pixel phone. It’s also the lowest priced of the big headsets and resets user expectations by being covered in soft fabric. There aren’t many games that it can run and it can only be used with the latest Android phones, so it’s true value won’t be clear until 2017. However, for game developers who want to reach a huge market with little competition so far, this is your best bet.
Top 5 VR Gaming Companies
VR software, mostly games, are on track to return revenues of $2.8 billion by 2018. Here are the game creators that deserve attention for the immediate future.
The company that is getting all the press for driving VR innovation is going to operate at a significant market advantage. With a $2 billion investment from Facebook and the talents of some of the world’s best developers, Oculus is under tremendous pressure to deliver on its potential.
2. Unity Technologies
This is not a game developer, but the company behind the Unity engine, which already powers more than 238,000 interactive games. It is transforming into the leading platform for building VR games, supported on all headsets.
3. Cloud Games
This company was crowdfunded by Kickstarter. They are the makers of The Gallery, Episode 1: Call of the Starseed, a fantasy exploration game in four parts. It is already out for the HTC Vive and is coming to Oculus Rift. It’s a tiny company now but definitely worth watching in 2017.
4. Electronic Arts
Most developers expected that EA would be leading the charge into VR, even though the company hadn’t made any announcements through the first half of 2016. In June, they posted a job solicitation for software engineers with “strong VR testing” skills. EA’s new Frostbite Labs is rumored to be dedicated to VR games and future tech.
5. Linden Labs
This game developer’s claim to fame is Second Life, a title that could describe the entire VR ecosystem in the near future. They are at work on Sansar, a new social platform they hope will “democratize VR as a creative medium” starting in 2017. So far, at least 6,500 people have applied to start creating this new shared reality using Sansar.
VR Gaming Development Starter Packs
Like the early days of PC game design, VR gaming is now at the wild west stage where anyone could produce the next industry-defining game. Here are a few of the best ways to jump into VR development with no investment.
As noted above, Unity is one of the biggest players in the VR gaming space. You can start with tutorials, online training and plenty of documentation all freely available on their website. If your hardware and software can handle Unity, you can start with a series of blogs that walk you through the creation of a test project.
On the Epic Games site, you can compare quick VR projects for Samsung, Google, Oculus or the SteamVR. This year, Unreal lived up to its name by allowing game developers to build VR experience while in VR.
The Google VR page for developers has ready-built SDKs that link to all of the libraries, API samples and design guidelines that enable you to get started on their simple Cardboard platform or the growing Daydream platform.
4 Use Cases Beyond Gaming
Although gaming is getting all the attention, VR has already started to make itself valuable in many other walks of life, from medical therapies to prototyping.
1. Medical VR
The University of Southern California, in association with the Institute for Creative Technologies, is helping patients deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress. In addition, the promise of VR for more precise surgery came true last year when a surgeon used Google VR to help him operate on a baby.
2. Architectural VR
The new application development firm WorldViz builds interactive 3D programs to help non-profits present more effective visualizations, safety training materials and architecture models. Their aim is to reduce capital expenses at the planning stage by about 90 percent.
3. Space VR
Simulations have always been a big part of the success of NASA’s space preparation, and VR now lets them simulate harsh off-world environments like Mars.
4. Military VR
The U.S. military has always gotten the best technology first, but VR is developing so rapidly that consumer VR has nearly caught up to the quality of the Army’s Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) tech.
VR’s High Performance Bar
One aspect that is not getting as much coverage as it should is the problem of VR performance monitoring. Failure in software can be annoying but a failure in VR takes the user out of the immersive experience. VR performance monitoring will need to more closely emulate the demands of VoIP, where latency equals a dropped call. VR companies are embarking on a journey where more than ever before, the user perception defines the experience in the world of VR.
Whatever the software stack utilized on the device, the remote servers, and everything else in between, the performance of the end-to-end requests are imperative for an optimal VR experience. The emergence of the VR is a strong indicator that not only are we striving for the computation of massive amounts of data, but we’re also nearing real-time computational performance in order to replicate the real-world, which is the obvious ultimate objective of virtual reality.