Jan 02 2018

VR is the Future

I have written about virtual reality (VR) before, but over the break I acquired my first VR headset so now I have experienced it for the first time. It is better than I imagined.

It is still to early to make firm predictions about how the technology will be used, but my personal experience has definitely upgraded my optimism. First let me talk about the experience itself, and then we can delve into possible applications.

In case you are not aware, VR involves wearing a headset that completely covers your vision and fills your visual field with a 360 degree 3D digital reality. In addition there are sensors which can read your location in the room and sense your controllers as well. You have to setup the space so that the system knows where the edges are. You can move about freely in the space, and virtual gridline walls will appear to warn you that you are approaching the edge.

The first thing I noticed when I activated the VR software is how completely natural it felt. I was a little surprised, actually. I had some fear that it would be a bit disorienting and I guess I assumed it would feel artificial, perhaps primed by how the tech is sometimes portrayed in Sci Fi.

I am using an HTC Vive with Steam VR software. You first appear in a room, which is like your digital office. The space is beautiful and very realistic at the definition available. You can, of course, tell it is not real, especially if you look closely at things that require a great deal of detail, like a tree. But at the level of detail it felt completely comfortable, even pleasant.

The overall experience is great. It is nice to be able to simply look at what you want to see, to change your perspective and to move around in the space in order to interact with it. What I think I learned from this is that VR has the potential to simply be a great computer interface.

I had wondered if people would want to use VR instead of just looking at a monitor for basic computer applications. I don’t think we are quite there yet with the tech or the applications available, but its very close, certainly close enough for early adopters.

What is nice about a VR office is that the monitor essentially fills your entire world. You can have applications open on the different walls of your office and interact with them very naturally. You can customize your digital office to optimize its utility – you can have a clock on the wall to monitor the time, other information displayed where you can conveniently look at it but it will not be in your way. You can easily find what you are looking for, because you already have a lifetime of experience living in a 3D world.

You can also easily interact with objects in the real world, because they can be represented in the digital space. I had no problem putting down and picking up my controllers, because I could see them in VR. The controllers could also be skinned with different applications – think about that, the appearance of the controllers can be infinitely modified to fit their current use.

I was amazed at how visceral the experience was. One of the environments you can choose is a space platform in low orbit above the Earth. You are standing on the edge of this open platform, with the globe of the Earth spinning below you. I felt the unease of being at that height.

I have only had time to sample a few applications, but they are amazing. The first thing I did, of course, was play Fallout 4 VR. No surprise here – VR games are fantastic. In the game I can literally peek around a corner and aim my digital gun (it’s a first person shooter), and then see where my bullets are going to adjust my aim. I can swing my digital club at an enemy, and if I hit, I hit. When I want to consult my Pip Boy (a wearable computer on my wrist), I simply raise my wrist and look.

In the other applications, movement was limited and I had no sense of vertigo at all. In the game, however, I had to run through the virtual world. There are essentially two ways to do this. You can make a series of short teleports – use the controller to point to a spot a few feet away and move your character there You can do a series of quick jumps to move fairly quickly. In this mode I had no vertigo.

The other ways is to walk or run more naturally through the environment. In this mode I had almost instant motion sickness. The visual experience of smooth movement is more inducive to motion sickness than the sudden jumps. The jarring disconnect between what your visual system thinks is happening and what your vestibular system feels is exactly what causes motion sickness.

Part of this was my unfamiliarity with the controls – suddenly running sideways, for example. As I got better with the controls I was able to reduce the motion sickness, but not eliminate it. I had to switch back to the short teleports.

There are also some museum applications available, although these are currently limited. This showed me the potential of VR first hand. The Museum of Natural History has a VR display where you are standing in the middle of five exhibits. You can look at them in high res, rotate them, zoom in, and click floating boxes for more information. You can then go to a more detailed experience with that exhibit – pick up the bones and move them around.

Many of the available locations, like the museums, are created through laser scanning. This captures them is high 3D detail. While impressive, you can see the limitations of this technology. It has a hard time separating items that are touching, or filling in crevices.

But even with the current limitations, a virtual museum trip is still worth it. No, it is not as good as the real thing in meat space, but visiting a location, art gallery, or museum in Japan in VR is better than not doing it at all (you know, because it’s in Japan). There are also certain advantages, like the control over information and perspective.

Not surprisingly, we are just scratching the surface as VR (since it is a relative new technology). Already, however, we are at the point where it is a useful technology for interfacing with our computers. I expect (and hope) the applications will explode as adoption increases.

Right now the only fully realized applications are games. If you are into immersive games, VR is awesome. Even simple games, like a shooting gallery, were a great experience in VR.

The rest of the applications I felt were introductory novelties. I still need to do much more exploring, but what I would like to see is an office built to function as your workaday digital office – not a mock up of what such an office could be. I want to see real digital museums and locations.

Also, the social media applications are immense. Steam has rooms you can host, but while there you have a cheesy floating avatar and you can’t do much. A highly functional VR social media space could be incredible. In fact, I predict there will be entire VR conferences. Imagine the possibilities there.

Like many new technologies, at first we figure out how to duplicate more traditional functions in the new media. But then people figure out entirely new functions, optimized to the new technology. So probably the best VR has to offer has not even been imagined yet.

There are also some clear ways the tech needs to improve. The wires are a bit of a hassle. You get used to avoiding tangling yourself up, but still a wireless experience would be better.

The definition will improve incrementally I am sure, and that will enhance the experience. The laser scanning will likely also incrementally improve. Right now I feel like I am looking at raw scans. There needs to be much more post-production where errors are fixed, and holes filled in.

We also need more ways to interact. Typing is OK with the controllers (you point like a laser at a virtual keyboard and select one letter at a time).  Having a glove that allows me to use all 10 of my fingers would be better.

I am not sure how long it will take to eliminate the motion sickness (and to be clear, I am particularly sensitive to this). Any way to match my actual physical movement with my avatar’s movement will help. They are already working on this (like being in a bubble that moves as you physically walk, but keeps you in the same place).

The bottom line is that the current VR tech is ready for prime time, and if you are a gamer I highly recommend it. But I look forward to the improvements in the technology, and await the more fully realized applications.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “VR is the Future”

  1. Nidwin says:

    I’ll keep it all to the real world and RvR mmorpgs on computer screens. So I’ll pass on VR as I don’t trust negative side effects it could have on my long term memory.

    @Steven
    As a neurologist do you see any possible negative side effects between playing a game (non-VR) or being inside the game, physically and emotionally in-game (VR) ?
    VR isn’t StarTrek’s holodesk, yet !?, but it’s one little step in that direction.

  2. alecmmfg says:

    Hey Steve. Another aspect of VR I feel is underreported is the demonstration aspect. The school I attend, El Camino College, is fortunate enough to have a planetarium and observatory, as well as a few former NASA employees as faculty. So naturally, we have a very robust astronomy department. Every semester the astronomy club has an Astro night where I present a tour of the solar system in VR. We started it without having a good idea of how entertaining it would be to watch some person use VR instead of using it yourself, but its become rather popular. I use the Vive along with the game universe sandbox 2 to demonstrate various things like the layout of the solar system, the relative sizes of various objects, and trigger a virtual type 1a supernova. I stand in front while using the Vive with the 2D POV representation projected next to me. It allows you to answer questions and demonstrate concepts in a way only drawing could before, but with much better speed and graphics quality. If you haven’t tried Universe Sandbox I highly recommend it, especially if you want to make Bob even more jelly.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    I worry that some people will have difficulty appreciating that VR is not reality.

    Some people already have difficulty with reality testing.

    People already give up their passwords when phished. In a VR setting, that could be much more problematic. Especially if the VR system delivers subliminal signals, and has enough feedback to know when those subliminal signals are effective.

  4. BaS says:

    I will be interested to see where Steve is at on this in 12 months. So far, everyone I read/listen to who has tried Vive has essentially this exact trajectory. Initial skepticism replaced by ebullient praise for it and predictions of how it will change our lives. And then after a year, they utterly don’t use it any more.

  5. BaS – I will definitely give some follow up. I can see that happening with the current applications. As I said, VR video games are great. I will be surprised if I give up on VR games within a year. But we’ll see.

    Otherwise it is completely contingent on what apps come out. I see the potential of VR as great, but only if it is realized. I would definitely get tired of the gimmicky preview type stuff that is available now.

    Again, except for games, I think we are in the early adopter phase, not the mainstream phase. One killer app can change that. It will take a software company thoughtfully creating an office or production app that leverages the strong points of VR and doesn’t get distracted by the gimmicks.

    We are in a similar place with, for example, 3D printers. They are expensive toys (unless you work in an industry that incorporates them). They have tremendous potential, but until the apps are there people will get bored of the novelty.

  6. MosBen says:

    Steve, I completely agree that we’re still in the early adopter phase, and I think that the fact that the tech has gotten so my hype and also that consumer grade products are available has given people some unrealistic expectations for what to expect, both now and in the near future. I have an Oculus Rift, and my experience is largely similar to yours; it’s fun and surprisingly more compelling than I expected, but it’s not anywhere close to a device that would be integrated into my daily life like my cell phone is. I’m eagerly awaiting the second generation of devices that should be coming out in the next two years. The biggest issues that I think the second generation will address are 1) wireless. Being tethered to a computer sucks; 2) increasing the field of view. The 110 degree FOV of the Rift and Vive is pretty good, but from my limited understanding of how our vision works I think that 160 degrees is going to be the sweet spot that doesn’t feel like looking through a small window but also doesn’t waste computing power on things in our peripheral vision that we can’t see; 3) related to this, there are some techniques in development that will allow a VR headset to track where the user is looking and render those things in high definition, while rendering things that the user isn’t looking at at a lower resolution in order to make VR less demanding on hardware; 4) ergonomics. The Rift and Vive are reasonably comfortable to wear, but it still feels like strapping a big screen to your face. Making future versions smaller, lighter, and easier to slip on and off will go a long way to making them easy to use.

    As for today, here are my recommendations for what you should try, Steve:
    1) The Lab. You’ve probably already tried this since it comes with the Vive free, but it’s a great collection of minigames;
    2) Elite: Dangerous. If you like less arcadey space sims and have a flight stick controller, this one is pretty compelling. I tend to prefer more arcade type experiences, so I haven’t really dug around deeply in the game, but the experience of flying around your spaceship and being able to look around the cockpit is great;
    3) Star Trek: Bridge Crew. Have you ever wanted to be a member of the bridge crew on a Star Trek ship? I know that you have, and this allows you to do that. Seriously, this is a must have;
    4) Google Earth VR. Like regular Google Earth, but you’re in it. You can even zoom down to street level. As with museum experiences, it’s not as good as actually being there, but still really cool;
    5) Giant Cop. I have some ethical issues with the concept, but the gameplay (you’re literally a Godzilla-sized copy working on cases in a tiny city) is great;
    6) Tiltbrush; I’m not an artist, so I haven’t created anything amazing in this, but literally every person that tries it will be impressed by how cool it is to paint in three dimensions;
    7) Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. One of the few VR games that works with a big group of people in the room. The person in VR sees a bomb with a bunch of puzzles to solve. They have to describe what they see to the other people in the room, who have the bomb defusing manual and tell them what to do.

    There are, of course, a variety of 360 video apps that are worth checking out, as well as smaller experiments. The Rift has a number of platform specific things that I like as well that aren’t really relevant to you. Still, I look forward to updates as you try stuff.

  7. zen_arcade says:

    I had a very similar experience last year using Facebook’s latest Oculus prototype. I was wandering through Millennium Park in Chicago and noticed a large Facebook kiosk. A staffer approached me and asked if I wanted to try VR, to which I responded enthusiastically that yes, of course I did.

    The experience was much more immersive and convincing than I had ever suspected it would be. While there were definitely some areas that needed improvement (e.g., sharpness of detail), overall it was very, very impressive. I left thinking of the enormous therapeutic potential this technology might have in the future, in particular for psychotherapy and mental health disorders. Especially once Scott Pruitt and his buddies have turned the planet into a Mad Max hellscape devoid of trees.

  8. Willy says:

    This just in! We interrupt your thread to bring this late breaking news about Donald Trump’s recent Tweet:

    “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

    Ya can’t make this stuff up. Hey, Dr, Egnor, what do you think about this? Is this worthy of a “3-D chess player”?

  9. Nidwin says:

    VR on a global scale will happen. It’s just a matter of time, tech and cost and a couple of folks that can think out of the box.

    With VR we enter an era where we have a “tool” (first time in human history) that doesn’t keep us binded to the laws of the universe and/or the limits of our bodies or homo sapiens sapiens life on earth.

    We aren’t talking anymore about roleplaying or cosplaying an Aes Sedai or the Amyrlin Seat, but becoming them in a virtual world. Riding a worm on Arakis or becoming a Bene Gesserit is just a matter of time and peeps are going to pay for it.

    The irony is that VR is actually a place where all the pseudo crap and quacks will work.

  10. BillyJoe7 says:

    Nidwin, you’re dreaming. 😉

  11. Nidwin says:

    BillyJoe7

    I’m not dreaming.
    A lot of pieces of the VR puzzle are already present, including a probable need in some professional sectors.

    IT dude in the financial sector here. One of the many sectors that moved from core servers hardware to VM’s (virtual machines). This is just the beginning of Virtual x,y,z as the benefits in time, space, flexibility, availability and cost $€£ will outperform the physical limitations of reality in the workspace.

  12. MosBen says:

    Incidentally, Steve. I’m sure that you know this, but just in case, the Steam Winter Sale is ongoing right now, but ends tomorrow. Lots of great VR games on sale.

  13. mumadadd says:

    SN: “I am not sure how long it will take to eliminate the motion sickness (and to be clear, I am particularly sensitive to this). Any way to match my actual physical movement with my avatar’s movement will help. They are already working on this (like being in a bubble that moves as you physically walk, but keeps you in the same place).”

    I don’t think many people could live something as big as a bubble large enough to contain an adult standing and moving around – not something you can stick on the shelf out of the way when not in use. This would limit some applications to arcades and people with a lot of space.

    To what extent can the disconnect between the visual and vestibular systems be overcome by repeated exposure? Would exposure at a younger age help at all? I.e. will kids who grow up with VR be better able to cope? Are there any other theoretical ways to combat this, that could be incorporated into a headset?

  14. MosBen says:

    I’m not a doctor, but my guess is that they’ll never be able to eliminate motion sickness as an issue entirely, at least, not for decades when houses may be reformatted to better integrate things like movement simulators. But that doesn’t mean that motion sickness will be a huge barrier for the technology. A big contributor to motion sickness is a low refresh rate in the displays used in the HMDs (head mounted display). A low refresh rate makes the motion of the displayed scene less smooth, sometimes imperceptibly so, which can be upsetting for people. The modern HMDs have refresh rates at or above 100mhz, and that has helped reduce motion sickness for lots of people. Future panels with even higher refresh rates might improve that further.

    Higher resolution displays also help. The way most HMDS work is by putting a screen near the eyes of the user and then putting a lens between the screen and the eye which stretches the displayed image so that it fills more of the user’s field of view (FOV). The problem is that with lower resolution displays the proximity of the screen and the magnification of the lenses allow the user to see the lines between the pixels in the screen. This creates a sort of grid mesh that appears overlaid on the scene and is known as the “screen door effect”. So the world moves as you look around, but there’s a static screen door in front of you, which I think contributes to some nausea. Again, the Rift and Vive have high enough displays that this effect is dramatically reduced from earlier models, but it’s not gone entirely. Future generations will help with that. Additionally, larger, curved displays or technology which beams the scenes directly into the user’s eyes may make the displayed scenes seem all the more real and reduce nausea.

    And, of course, we’re still in a period where we’re likely to see rapid changes in the tech, so maybe in 10 years, where we should be three or four generations into modern VR, they will have come up with totally different ways to confuse our senses that will make the illusion seem all the more real.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:

    Nidwin,

    Sorry, my reference was too obscure for a non-Australian. 🙁
    But I was also alluding to the fact that we have always had a way of (seemingly) not being bound by the laws of physics – dreaming! (In reality, of course, we are always bound by the laws of physics in whatever situation).

  16. Teaser says:

    Jerry Garcia was talking about this back in 1989!

    ………..LSD was certainly an important part of that for me. I also think there’s an electronic hinge like computer cybernetics that’s going to take us to interesting places and may work the way psychedelics do without the idea of substance.

    Q:What are you talking about?

    A: Have you heard of this stuff called virtual reality? There’s a place here where they have something you put on your head. It’s got like a pair of goggles on it, and the goggles are two little TV screens that give you a 3-D image. There’s something on top of the helmet that tells attitude — whether you are shifting out of center. And then you have this glove you put on your hand.

    When you put on the goggles, you are in this room. It’s a completely fictitious room. But if you turn your head around, your view of the room is 360 degrees. And you have this disembodied hand out in front of you which is the glove. And you can pick up fictitious objects that you “see” in the room.

    You can see where it’s heading: You’re going to be able to put on this thing and be in a completely interactive environment. There is not going to be any story, but there’s going to be the way you and it react. As they add sounds and improve the image, you’re going to be able to walk around in that building, fly through the air, all that stuff. And it’s going to take you to those places as convincingly as any other sensory input.

    These are the remnants of the Sixties. Nobody stopped thinking about those psychedelic experiences. Once you’ve been to some of those places, you think, “How can I get back there again but make it a little easier on myself?”

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/the-rolling-stone-interview-jerry-garcia-19891130

  17. chadzok says:

    I was buzzing listening to your Vive review on Skeptic’s Guide. VR was so incredible to me, I’ve started tertiary education to hopefully be involved in content creation. I see amazing things in the future. But there’s also many amazing things already!

    In your quest to sample different applications, don’t miss out on what’s in the Oculus store. You’ll need to download ‘ReVive’ (https://github.com/LibreVR/Revive) which is the very user-friendly oculus ’emulator’ for the vive. Then you’ve got a whole new storefront of apps/games to try out!

    Two you MUST try:

    Lone Echo / Echo Arena: Weightless ‘spacewalk’ movement works really well in VR. The Echo singleplayer/multiplayer pairing are the best applications of this locomotion method yet. Great storyline and breathtaking scenery for the singleplayer, and compelling and accessible ‘ultimate frisbee in space’ for the multiplayer. Words can’t do either justice.

    Oculus Medium: Sculpting in VR. The controls will take a little bit of getting used to, the translation from the oculus controllers is not perfect, but the sensation of creating and manipulating matter is incredible and addictive.

    Oh, and this will sound like I’m peddling woo but.. munch on crystallised ginger if you have issues with motion sickness. I was skeptical to try it but the difference it has made for me is crazy.

  18. morphinius says:

    My friend bought the PS4 VR headset for Christmas. Although it has a lower resolution that the Vive, it was a far more immersive experience that I anticipated even with all the pixels. Frankly, I was shocked at how well it worked. However, both times I have played around with the VR headset I ended up with a headache and felt nauseated for nearly twenty hours. It was similar to a migraine. For full disclosure, there were sections of Half-Life 2 that I barely got through due to a similar, but shorter lasting, experience even in 2D. If I am not mistake, for 2D games this used to be called the “bob” effect due to the simulated head bob motion within the games. I do not know what percent of people are affected, but it made me glad I learned that I was susceptible before I bought a VR system. Please let us know if the nausea you experience decreases over time.

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