Is virtual reality becoming a reality?

Is the word ‘Wearables’ the most over-used tech buzzword of this decade so far? As the seemingly unstoppable growth of wearable technology continues I’ve grown to dislike the term. My problem with it is that it describes a multitude of very different technologies that can include anything from biometric wrist-wear to augmented reality glasses to electronic textiles to head mounted displays to… well, pretty much any gizmo with a chip that you can attach to your body. Because of this ambiguity it’s easy to make sweeping predictions about the ubiquity of ‘wearables’. If, for example, the Apple watch is a storming success then what does that tell us about the prospects for the Oculus Rift – not a lot in my opinion. At Corporation Pop we create 3D environments for business, health, education and consumer applications so my particular interest in wearable technology lies with devices, like the Oculus Rift, that promise a more immersive experience for the user. Though virtual reality headsets have been around in one shape or form since the late 1960s it’s only now, with the availability of fast processors, better screen technology and cheaper components that they have the opportunity to succeed as commercial products. There are currently several headsets in development at various stages of market readiness but the one everyone seems to be talking about is Oculus Rift which won’t be commercially available until November of next year. When it does come to market who’s going to buy it and will it revolutionise the way we interact with computer-generated content? The first of these two questions is easy: in the early days at least Oculus Rift will appeal mainly to devotees of first-person shooters. The second question is much harder. I believe we will see some very exciting developments in this space over the coming months and years that will fuel new content generation and discovery beyond the confines of the gaming market. Facebook must have thought this too when they paid $2billion for Oculus earlier this year. However I’m not convinced Zuckerberg’s headset will be the dominant player unless it evolves rapidly from its current form. For me the problem with Oculus (and other head-mounted displays like Sony’s Project Morpheus) is their dependence on additional and often cumbersome hardware. The Oculus Rift is designed to be connected to a desktop PC and, unless you’re content with just moving your head, requires an additional controller to explore the 3D space.

The Cyberith Virtualizer


The Cyberith Virtualizer

There are a number of controllers vying for position right now ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Take, for example, the Cyberith Virtualizer – a behemoth of a machine. I misguidedly showed this to my 14 year old son who drooled over it before I had to quickly assert that it won’t be occupying three-quarters of his bedroom any time soon. His retort? ‘But I’d be getting exercise whilst gaming.’ Hmmm. Rather more practical is the STEM system from Sixense which provides all-body motion sensing and haptic feedback in a neatly designed package a little bigger than a Wii and a couple of nunchuks. However at just under $600 (on pre-order) for the full 5-point tracking system it will be a hefty investment on top of a headset. In terms of price and portability the Leap Motion controller wins hands down. The small motion tracker can be mounted on the front of an Oculus Rift headset and retails for less than £80 (including the mounting kit). Unfortunately it only allows tracking of hand movements so its application is limited. The trouble with all of the above is the price paid (and I don’t just mean financially) for immersion. The technology is intrusive – it gets in the way and requires a dedicated room to house all the hardware. That’s OK for bedroom gamers but it will limit wider uptake. Enter mobile headsets. If anything is going to get this VR thing going it will be the advent of headsets that utilise the computer in your pocket – the smartphone. There’s a host of options either already available or doing the crowd-funding rounds and all of them use the phone’s accelerometer to track head movements. Technology is a limiting factor at the moment with mobile screen resolution, refresh rates and overheating due to demands on the phone’s processors being the biggest problems. But as phones rapidly evolve these issues will no doubt be quickly resolved. Whilst we may to have to wait a little longer for the holy grail of a truly portable and performant headset there are already several trail blazers worth a look. Launched in The States earlier this month is the Gear VR from Samsung (developed in conjunction with Oculus) which is designed to work with the Note 4 providing a completely self-contained system requiring no other devices. When coupled with Samsung’s recently announced ‘Project Beyond’ – a 3D camera that captures everything around it in 3D – the possibilities will be staggering. The Gear VR isn’t cheap at around £180 (on pre-order) and it only works with other Samsung devices so that may limit its appeal.

Zeiss VR One headset


The Zeiss VR One headset

Available commercially from January, the VR-One is a cheaper option from optics specialist Zeiss, which will retail for 99 Euros and currently works with phones with screen sizes between 4.7” and 5.2” (the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5). Whilst content is, at the moment, limited the open source Unity-based SDK will hopefully encourage developers to create engaging applications for the device. Dubbed by one pundit as the ‘Mockulus Thrift’, the ridiculously cheap (retails for under a tenner) ‘Google Cardboard’ is low on technology but high on product innovation. Originally designed as a Google 20% project, Cardboard is the antithesis of Oculus: it requires nothing more than a smartphone, some Blue Peter folding skills and a bit of suspended disbelief. Although Android phones work best there are also several iPhone apps which will work with it. The experience is surprisingly compelling for minimal investment. Sadly the flimsiness of the product makes portability a problem.


The pinc vr headset

 The Pinć VR headset

Lastly I’m intrigued by the Pinć (pronounced ‘pinch’) which is currently on its way to to raising $50,000 on Indiegogo. The awkwardly named device sells itself as ‘an iPhone 6 case that converts into a wearable virtual reality experience’. It comes with two rather clever handheld ‘pinch’ controllers which allow you to interact with content. I hope they make their target – their emphasis on portability is exactly right, though I’m not sure I’d always want to carry my iPhone 6 around in a 2cm thick case no matter how delicate the phone is! So which of these devices will we still be talking about in two years time? I think it will be the ones that meet the following criteria: 1. They must be Useable – remember the gargantuan cyberith controller? 2. They must be Enjoyable – there must be good content available for the hardware 3. They must be Valuable – their use must achieve a genuine goal for the user 4. They must be Affordable – good content won’t be developed unless there is widespread uptake and that won’t happen if the hardware is expensive 5. They must be Portable – we know mobile and tablets are becoming the screens of choice for users. Technology must be available for these devices. Finally a word of warning. One of the great innovations in immersive technology was the development of 3D films. That was in 1915 but it wasn't until nearly a century later that 3D films became commonplace in every cinema, once the hardware became affordable and common standards were established. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until the year 2100 for virtual reality’s day to come.