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.

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