by Alex Zelensky
Virtual reality (VR) has been a dream for many decades, with films such as The Matrix and eXistenZ showing worlds that the user cannot differentiate from reality. While current VR technology is not quite at that level, it is still leaps and bounds above the first attempts at VR in the 80’s such as Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.
An important distinction must be made between VR and augmented reality (AR). VR is considered the simulation of a completely different environment, while AR focuses on taking a real environment and augmenting it by adding a computer-generated input to the original environment.
Most VR setups being developed now are not like the pods in The Matrix, but are head-mounted displays (HMDs) with two screens that display the same image in order to create a stereoscopic effect, creating the illusion of a 3D environment. Between your eyes and the screens, there are two lenses which creates a rounded field of view, similar to a person’s normal perspective.
One of the most notable VR headsets in development is the HTC Vive, which is being built in a partnership between HTC and Valve. The headset contains two 1080×1200 resolution screens with a 90 Hz refresh rate. The position and orientation of the user’s head within the room are tracked using sensors, called “Lighthouse” base stations, placed around the HMD, which receive input from laser-emitting stations placed throughout the room, in addition to a gyro sensor, and an accelerometer. The tracking system is also meant to establish the boundaries of the room, so that a wall can appear within the virtual reality the user is seeing if they are approaching a wall that is present in reality.
The HTC Vive is designed to be used with wand-shaped controllers, known as the SteamVR controller, similar to the Nintento Wii remotes in form, with one for each hand. The position of the controllers is tracked similarly to the headset. There are also thumbpads that can be used as directional inputs or divided into “buttons” and a trigger on the back of each wand. The controllers are included with the Vive.
There is currently no price listed for the HTC Vive, but it is expected to be more expensive than the Rift. In order to use the Vive, a fairly high-end PC will be required in order to meet the high refresh rate necessary for each screen. In addition, the Vive allows the user to plug their headphones into the HMD, but it is recommended to use high-quality headphones for full immersion. With the cost of the PC necessary to use it, the cost of high-end headphones, and the cost of the Vive itself, using this kind of tech will be a huge investment for some.
One of the other main competitors in the VR race is Facebook’s Oculus Rift. The technical specifications for the Oculus Rift are similar to the HTC Vive with the exception of the controller used for input and the head tracking system.
The Rift uses a system, called Constellation, where infrared LEDs on the HMD will blink in a specific pattern and sensors placed within the room track lights based on the pattern and the configuration of the LEDs on the object of interest to determine the device’s position. The Rift has one sensor included, but an additional sensor is included with the Touch controller, the Oculus Rift specific controller that is sold separately. Both sensors are needed if both the Rift and Touch controller are used since a single sensor could be occluded by the controller and tracking of one of the devices could be blocked.
The Touch controllers are similar to the SteamVR controllers as there is one controller for each hand. Each controller has a joystick, buttons, and two triggers. The controllers are both wireless and are tracked by the Constellation system, with the Rift providing a VR counterpart of their hands, allowing the user to feel as if their hands are present within the virtual space.
The Rift will ship with an Xbox One Wireless Gamepad due to a partnership with Microsoft. The gamepad was included as most VR games have used a gamepad as the controller, with very few games using motions controllers.
The Rift will have to be connected to a PC to work and will require a heavy duty PC that can meet the high refresh rate requirements. The Rift has headphones included as part of the HMD, unlike the Vive. The Rift is adjustable in many ways, allowing the separation of the lenses to be changed using a dial and there will be multiple options for the interface, allowing those with glasses to use the device as well. Oculus has partnered with multiple PC hardware companies in order to provide Oculus Read PCs for $1000 and the Oculus Rift HMD itself will cost $350. If you don’t already have a PC ready for the rift, the whole package, including the Touch controller, will set you back $1500.
Google Cardboard is unique among the other HMDs offered by companies as it is relatively cheap and is meant to be used with a smartphone instead of a high-end PC or gaming console. The Google Cardboard is made out of low-cost components such as cardboard, and can be assembled by anyone as Google released the list of parts, schematics, and assembly instructions to the public. There are some pre-assembled kits being sold for less than $5 from online vendors. With an assembled kit, a user can place their smartphone in the back of the HMD and use an app that splits the display from their phone into two images, creating a stereoscopic effect. A conductive lever that causes a touch effect on the phone’s screen is used to control the phone.
While the Cardboard will never match the capabilities of the Rift, or the Vive, the goal of the Cardboard is to offer consumers and developers a chance to use VR if the alternatives are out of their price range. Since VR is still in its early stages, it is necessary to encourage developers to try it and develop software for it, which is exactly what the Cardboard allows.
At the moment, VR development has focused heavily on video games. Racing games such as Project CARS, and Dirt Rally have added Rift support, allowing the player to get an experience closer to driving if the player uses the cockpit view. Other games such Elite: Dangerous allow you to pilot a ship through the universe in a first-person perspective. New games are being developed with VR as the focus, and older games are even adding VR support as times goes on.
VR also has uses in the military. VR has already been used for years in helping train pilots in the US Air Force by simulating situations where the pilot must eject or the plane is going to crash without the risk or cost of actually destroying expensive aircraft. Recently, the Norwegian Army has been testing the Rift as a means to drive tanks. With cameras mounted on all sides of the tank, the driver is given a 36-degree view of his surroundings which is expected to be useful in situations where the hatch must be closed.
The future of VR is looking very bright as 2016 approaches. Now, we just need to keep our fingers crossed that the prices go down and that it doesn’t cause people to prefer the virtual reality over their physical reality.