Let’s begin with a quick primer on the history of VR. VR was created in 1965 by Ivan Sutherland – he created the”Ultimate Screen”, a system that could overlay wireframe interiors on a room. The military was concurrently investigating and investing in VR’s potential for flight simulation and training.
The VR industry continued to grow over the next couple of decades, but appeal was limited to just the most ambitious engineers and early adapters due to the cost of components, and the computers that powered them. Even in the early 90’s, the cost on a good virtual reality apparatus was over $50,000. The high cost of entry, of course, meant that it was still very much out of the question for the average consumer.
Fast-forward 40 years and Palmer Luckey (the inventor of the Oculus Rift) made his first VR prototype at age 18 in his parents basement. Luckey finally developed the product that would come to be known as the Oculus Rift. Oculus has ushered in the present era of VR development and breathed new life into this promising technology.
The statement of the Oculus was followed closely by tech insiders, developers, and early adopters, all of whom had been chomping at the bit to experience this new frontier in VR development. It was not long before heavy-weights like Facebook, Google, and Samsung took note and started investing heavily in VR with the hopes of producing the initial consumer ready device. Facebook believes so strongly in the Oculus Rift they acquired the company for $2 Billion in March of 2014. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said that he sees the purchase as a”long-term bet on the future of computing.”
TODAY’S CHOICES FOR CONSUMERS
The current lineup of VR products run the gamut in terms of accessibility and price. You can get your feet wet with Google’s product (aptly called Cardboard). Cardboard is extremely inexpensive, roughly $20.00. Rather than a built-in screen like the Oculus Rift, this product is powered with any Android cellphone running 4.1 or higher (just slip your phone into the”headset”). You build it all yourself, following Google’s step-by-step instructions with pictures.
The phone powers the whole encounter with software found in Google’s Cardboard app store). There are no external wires or clunky hardware to deal with… just the Cardboard case along with your Android phone. At Primacy we recently built one to test out at house – the entire build took about 5 minutes from start to finish.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift
Given the present pace of innovation it is a safe bet that both the hardware and software for Facebook’s Oculus technology will only get better in the months ahead. The consumer model, though not currently available, is expected to be released mid 2015. The developer model (DK2) costs $350 and comes loaded with a very low latency screen (the same used at the Samsung Galaxy Note 3). The display delivers a decent 960×1080 resolution per eye with a 75Hz refresh rate. The unit also includes a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnometer and a near infrared camera for head and positional tracking. Applications are run on a computer which is connected directly to the headset via an HDMI and USB cable.
Samsung saw a chance to jump into the VR mix and partnered with Oculus. They have produced a headset that resembles the most consumer-ready device to date. Samsung’s Gear VR Innovator Edition is exactly what you would expect from the established tech giant both in terms of quality and usability. It’s also the most expensive option, coming in at an msrp of $200 for the headset + $750 (off-contract) for the telephone necessary to power it. Unlike Google’s Cardboard, the Gear VR only works with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, so if you are fortunate enough to already own one you can save yourself a significant quantity of money.
The headset itself is very well designed and very intuitive. There’s a volume toggle, touchpad, and”back” button on the right side of the headset which can be used to easily navigate through VR experiences and software. The top of the headset retains a focus wheel that is used to adjust the focus to optimum range for your eyes. Two straps hold the unit firmly on your mind which seals your vision off from the external world to enhance the feeling of immersion. Plus, the absence of any cables tethering you to a computer helps make the experience more pleasurable and portable.
There is no need to take the unit off your head so as to download or switch applications… everything can be done through the Oculus Home menu or Samsung’s program library after the initial setup and configuration. There are a handful of interesting and useful programs included out of the box such as Oculus Cinema – for watching videos and movies in a virtual cinema, Oculus 360 Photos – for viewing panoramic photographs, and Oculus 360 Videos – for viewing panoramic videos. Samsung also recently released a market called Milk VR that’s basically YouTube for VR.
Samsung Gear VR
We’ve found that a lot of the applications available today are graphics heavy and the experience can degrade quickly without a fairly good graphics card. It is worth noting that experiences between 3D graphics and rapid movement can quickly become nauseating to some people because of frame-rate or GPU restrictions and a phenomena called”judder” (when the images become smeared, strobed or otherwise distorted), so it’s really the responsibility of programmers to create”comfortable” experiences which aim to minimize judder. Regardless of the downsides – when used in tandem with a computer which has a high end GPU, the result is a feeling of immersion that 10 years ago would have seemed impossible. The PC SDK is designed for the Rift DK2 where-as the Mobile SDK is meant for Oculus powered devices which leverage mobile phones.
VR – THE FUTURE IS HERE (OR REALLY, REALLY CLOSE)
We’re just starting to crack the surface with VR. The development of panoramic video and photograph is making it effortless to”teleport” audiences to places they could never physically be.
Imagine a front row seat to watch your favorite band play live… with the freedom to look in any direction in real time. Imagine walking (literally… walking) through your favorite national park as if you were really there. Imagine sitting in a seminar room half way around the world and interacting with other people as though you were really there. These are simply a few of the amazing applications that VR devices such as the Oculus Rift enable. So stay tuned – if current progress is any indication, virtual reality is here to stay, and it’ll be invading your living room or office much earlier than you might think.