Since we got our hands on our Oculus Rift VR headset, we’ve been exploring all manner of virtual experiences; but before we get into too much detail about that, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on how far VR has come in the last few years.
A mainstay of popular science fiction, virtual reality has been on the horizon for decades, but what was experienced during these early years fell short of the fiction. Well short.
We’re still waiting for the commercially viable product, but a lot has been learnt by many companies including Oculus (who made DK2 Rift headset we have).
The principle behind VR is simple enough. Put a couple of TVs in front of each eye to create a stereoscopic image, link these TVs to some gyroscopes, then when someone turns their head, it updates the images accordingly. Voila. Virtual reality.
But, unfortunately it’s not that simple.
The first problem is latency. That is, the time it takes to monitor someone’s movement, update an image and get it back in front of the user’s eye. In short, if it doesn’t happen pretty much instantaneously … you feel sick.
The second problem is sensitivity. For VR to really work, you need to monitor a person’s head movement in three dimensions. This means, if they turn around, or look up or down … and also if they lean forward or backwards. If the developers haven’t got it right … you feel sick.
The third problem is one of refresh rates. That is, how many times a second the image updates. A TV shows images at 25 frames a second; a video game at 30 or 60. VR needs much more in order to fool the brain into believing that what it’s seeing is real. If the refresh rate is too slow or variable … again, you feel sick.
The fourth problem is what happens what you turn your head quickly. What we discovered with our DK2, is that if you don’t see what’s in between the two points, the brain ‘smooshes’ it into a blur. So developers need to simulate that as well. If they’re not successful then … you feel sick.
When John Carmack from Id Software and Palmer Luckey (the inventor of Oculus) crossed paths in 2012, their VR headset was made up of several components and sensors that were gaffer taped together. At the time only the Doom 3 video game was natively supported on the device. The VR headset had a full 90º horizontal field of view and 110º vertical field of view. It just lacked a better resolution and some of the extra motion sensors that would provide users with that intuitive movement required within a virtual environment.
The DK1 was the first official VR headset from Oculus and it was a marked improvement on the prototype showcased at the E3 (Electronic Entertainment) Expo in 2012. The headset had a much more polished look about it, but as a device designed for developers, the technical specifications were a little weak. We used a DK1 before we got delivery of our DK2. We all felt dreadfully unwell after just a few minutes. The resolution for each eye was very low at 640×800, which meant that whilst wearing the headset you could actually see the individual pixels. The other major issue was that it lacked positional tracking.
In comparison to the DK1, our DK2’s resolution has increased to 960×1080 for each eye. The display technology was changed from LCD to OLED, and the latency of the headset was decreased. This effectively means that the display is brighter and crisper, with content appearing more in sync with how you move. More importantly, Oculus have introduced positional tracking by utilising an external camera that tracks an array of infrared LEDs that are built into the headset. As a result, we can really feel the difference of being ‘immersed’ in the virtual environment by being able to lean over a ledge, poke around the corner, and even base bump (virtual reality style of course)!
In April of this year, Oculus Rift demonstrated a new version of their hardware, called ‘Crescent Bay’. This version won’t be made available to developers, but rather was a demonstration of something close to a production model. Specific details on the improvements are scarce, but based on the reports of those lucky enough to test the new device, it’s a giant leap forward over the DK2. Our intel is that it boasts improved optics, improved resolution and full 360º tracking, so you can look completely behind you. It’s far lighter and more comfortable, and has inbuilt headphones. In short, the overwhelming response from those who experienced it was that Oculus has cracked the hardware issues and are super close to a production model. We’re excited to test this out in the near future too.
So, it does appear that the technology might be living up to the hype, but what about the software? It doesn’t matter how slick the technology is, without applications, games and virtual worlds to explore, nobody is going to buy in.
We’ve been busy trying out some of the latest simulations and software, and we’ll report back on their high and lows points next week.
Julian Thomas is BCM’s Digital Technical Director