When you read a book, or watch a movie you escape to a fantasy world. What if you could actually travel and interact with that world? Earlier this year the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets were released and this is now a possibility. These devices let you navigate and interact with a 3D virtual environment in a meaningful way. You no longer are just watching from the outside, you are brought into a new world. I have been playing with the Vive and am blown away by what this technology has to offer. This responsive device gives the user a sense of depth and scale which creates a unique experience. I believe VR can be a solution to many use cases as the technology continues to be adopted.
There are several VR headsets on the market now. The smartphone VR devices like Google Cardboard are the most accessible. These devices use a smartphone to process and display virtual environments. The HTC Vive is on the other end of the spectrum and require a high-performance desktop. The Vive consist of a VR headset, two motion controls and two small square “Lighthouses”. These Lighthouses are placed on opposite ends of the play area. They emit sweeping lasers which sensors on the headset and controllers detect and use to determine their position and orientation. This allows a user to walk around a physical area up to about 15ft x 15ft while they are wearing the headset. Thankfully the Vive has a chaperone system to keep you from leaving the play area and running into walls.
VR is hard to describe in writing, but what it is very good at is giving the user a feeling of presence. When you are standing on a cliff in VR and look down, you feel a fear of the drop. Of course, you are just staring down at your floor, but your mind is tricked. When you put the headset on you are no longer standing in your living room. You are on top of a mountain, floating around the solar system, and have no idea where you are physically in the room. It is so easy to forget the area around you is just a 3D virtual would. A few of my friends have almost fallen over when they tried to lean on a virtual table or wall. This immersion of sight and sounds creates a compelling and engaging user experience.
Field of View Beyond Gaming
Many of the VR experiences available today are video games. Since game engines like Unity and Unreal are already capable of making interactive virtual environments it was relatively easy to add a VR camera to a scene and develop a game. As VR gains prominence, it will expand into other markets and be applicable to more use cases. For example, there are many experiences that use Photogrammetry. This is a process where a person takes a lot of pictures from a lot of different angles of a location or an object. Using a computer algorithm, these pictures are “stitched” or combined into a 3D model that looks like its real-life counterpart. Once this model is created it can be put in an app and viewed in VR. Imagine a virtual school trip that takes students around to world to see the castles in Europe, the Coliseum in Rome, all without even leaving their desks. When you are shopping on Amazon you could be in a virtual market picking up the actual products you are buying. As this technology becomes more accessible the experiences will continue to grow.
Struggles with the Metaverse
While I have personally been enjoying VR, there are some obstacles that still need to be solved. One major issue is movement. While the Vive allows you to walk around a play area, you are limited by the available space. Other headsets only support standing or sitting experiences. Using a game controller instead of motion controls can cause motion sickness, so the de facto solution is to let the user teleport around an environment. This works, but does not feel natural and limits the types of experiences that can be created. Another issue is the headset is tethers to a desktop with a 15-foot cable. Unlike smartphone headsets, more powerful headsets need a computer to render the virtual scenes. This is a tripping hazard and is frequently in the way. This may be solved soon, there are already accessories being sold to make the headset wireless. There are other issues like configuration, graphics and price, but these concerns should be placated through subsequent iterations of VR devices.
Presence is in the Present
There is no other technology that I have tried which had a “wow” factor like VR. This is a field with a lot of potential for growth in the coming years. As the headsets become more affordable I anticipate there being more applications of the technology. Though there are still some problems with the technology I remain hopeful that they will be overcome. The sense of presence the device gives you in a virtual world creates a compelling experience that is unlike anything I have experienced.