Probably the hottest news in the IT industry at the moment is Virtual Reality (VR) related. Basically, every IT news portal is being swarmed with articles about VR development hardware and software wise. One might find themselves caught off guard when it comes to the new technology and with so much information being released, you might as well feel overwhelmed by it. That is the reason for the creation of this article. To get yourself acquainted with the new 'hot stuff', giving you an overview as to why VR is so popular right now.
What are VR headsets?
So what is VR exactly? Well, the short version, a computer-simulated reality. Elaborating it a bit further, a replication of an environment that simulates a real or imaginary world for the purpose of interaction and immersion. The concept is not new and has been around since the mid 1950's, while reaching its climax in the 80's and the 90's of the previous century. Most of us will remember a person with a helmet-like device on its head and corresponding gloves with ‘hundreds’ of wires connecting to the device and standing on an elevated podium surrounded with a railing. The aforementioned descr
Photo courtesy by HTC
So what does the 21st century have to offer? It offers a lot, but the most interesting come under the names like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR. And these four will be the main focus of this article. VR headsets are often referred to as HMDs which is a short way of saying, Head Mounted Displays. What it does is, it creates a 3D virtual environment in such a way that the screen mounted before your eyes follows you. This is different to TV's or PC monitors where you have to be looking straight at the device, otherwise if you turn your head you lose sight of the screen and miss all the action.
To get the video to your HMD you have to connect it to a computer or a console via HDMI, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR being the examples. On the other hand, Samsung has found a simpler solution, which comes in a form of a slot for your Samsung smartphone making all those HDMI and USB cables redundant. That video has to be projected on something and that something is usually one display or two LCD displays, therefore requiring two feeds, one per eye. There are also lenses present which are placed between your eyes and the pixels, giving you the option of adjusting the distance between your eyes which is different from person to person. The 3D image is created by angling two 2D images on the lenses that in return focus and reshape the picture for each eye. To be fully immersed in the virtual world you need a wide field of view. That comes down to 100 or 110 degrees of viewing pleasure. Another important component to make the VR experience enjoyable is the refresh rate. A minimum fr
Photo courtesy by Oculus
As mentioned before TV's or monitors are for the most part 2D devices and there's no obvious way of 'looking around' the picture displayed. This is where things become interesting with HMD's, who feature head tracking. Head tracking means that when you move your head while wearing a VR headset, the picture in front of you shifts or tilts as you look up, down and side to side or angle your head. These three motions are registered by a 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) system which measures all three axis x, y and z. This allows the system to track all head movements forward and backwards, side to side and shoulder to shoulder.
Photo courtesy by Sony PS
Different manufactures use different internal components which can be used in a head tracking system. Mostly it comes down to gyroscopes, accelerometer and a magnetometer. Sony PS VR uses nine LED's dotted around the headset to provide a 360 degree head tracking thanks to its PS4 external camera. Low latency is the main concern when it comes to head tracking. It needs to be as low as possible which means 50ms or less. That way it is assured that the user doesn't detect any lag between motions. The Oculus Rift excels here with its 30ms performance making it very responsive and very real-life like. Audio also plays a part in the immersion process and there are 3D audio solutions in the works, also one is already included with the Oculus Rift in form of integrated headphones.
Photo courtesy by Samsung
All of that mentioned so far sounds great but it mainly focuses on our heads. What about interaction? Yes, clever people at VR development thought of our needs to interact so what they came up with is called motion tracking. But it is easier said than done. Most manufacturers are still battling with this feature. Oculus is developing hand strap-on devices that look like small joysticks which wirelessly track your hand movements. Featuring buttons, it allows the user to fire guns or to 'point' or wave. All the while HTC is working on something completely different under the name Lighthouse which was actually invented by Valve. The Lighthouse system features two stations placed somewhere in the room who track your body movements with lasers. According to HTC this solution is very precise and gives you the freedom of moving your entire body, not just your hands as it is with the Oculus Rift. Standard and most simple use of interaction sees using hand held controllers like the Xbox controller or joysticks.
Now that we got the basics covered let's take a look at the following specification comparisons table:
What we have here is actually three categories of VR devices. Meaning, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are PC oriented devices, PlayStation VR console and Samsung Gear VR smartphone oriented. Since we (ESReality) are mostly a PC user community the two VR headsets that interest us the most are, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Looking at the table they are not that different spec wise. Both offer the same resolution, refresh rate and field of view. As previously mentioned in the article, Oculus Rift features more responsive head tracking system, 30ms, but HTC Vive is working on more promising motion tracking system, the Lighthouse. The price is a bit higher on the HTC side and that is not something to be overlooked easily since the $200 could be spent on beefing up your computer. More on that subject later in the article. Other than that it is difficult to recommend one over the other, especially since both haven't even been released yet. Oculus is set to be released at the end of March while the Vive sometime in April, but these dates tend to change.
Games for VR
What can we expect game wise when it comes to VR? There are literally hundreds of games being developed with VR in mind but what is happening to our most favorite games that we currently play? Valve was the first to pick up on that and went on to adapt all Steam games for VR. What it actually means is that any Steam game that supports Steam Broadcast could be used with a VR headset. Let's use this moment and pause for a moment. Let's take a step back and take a look at what VR means to gaming. There are certain games that will benefit from VR and also bring a great immersive experience. But there are some that simply, for the time being, won't work with VR. Take a look at any FPS game. Mouse and keyboard are the means of controlling your view and positioning in game and that is done with lightning-fast reflexes. Now, imagine moving your head to actually 'see' your opponent, the amount of precious time that has been lost while turning your head and clicking on a controller is not neglectable. There are Team Fortress 2 videos of people playing with VR and it definitely doesn't look like there is any kind of advantage in using VR, actually quite the opposite. And that is only mentioning the practical side, what about the tech? VR runs only at 90 fps, furthermore the delay between movements is 30ms at best. When you add all that up competitive FPS gaming, at this stage, done on VR will set you in a big disadvantage over the classical keyboard & mouse approach. As for other genre of games, there is certainly a bright future ahead. Any flight simulations will benefit greatly from VR, looking around the cockpit and clicking buttons and switches would bring the flying experience to a whole new level. That must be one of the reasons Oculus Rift is shipping with a free copy of EVE: Valkyrie, a space simulation featuring multipla
Some notable upcoming VR games:
EVE: Valkyrie for Oculus Rift
Bullet Train for Oculus Rift
Elite: Dangerous for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive
Portal: Aperture for HTC Vive
Star Citizen for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive