There's been talk for a while about virtual reality becoming the next indispensable medium, right alongside the computer and the smartphone. But while those two devices are already integral parts of our lives, the concept of virtual reality holding the same level of importance may raise a few eyebrows. In fact, for those unfamiliar with the VR landscape, the sudden interest in virtual reality may seem downright odd. But knowing why it's garnered that interest and what the future holds can help designers get an early start on a market that's due to erupt.
Though there have been virtual reality consoles and headsets for years, the evidence of VR's enormity was manifested in March of 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. It was a peculiar move for the world's most expensive website, and caused no end of speculation among users. According to Mark Zuckerberg himself, the Oculus is, "...really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures." In otherwords, Facebook is going to shortly move from computers and mobile devices to virtual reality. And it has enough capital to be a formidable competitor.
The FOVE Headset bills itself as the first virtual reality eye tracking headset, so users can select menus and trigger movements in games simply by focusing on them. The FOVE also detects head movements, which reduces motion sickness and allows the wearer a more comfortable experience. The limitations, however, are that the user needs to remain near a relatively powerful PC to process information from FOVE. However, the possibilities in eye tracking integration are exciting and especially pertinent to those with disabilities: quadriplegics, for example, would be able to fully manipulate a computer or even play a game simply by wearing the headset. Formally, they were limited to voice recognition software.
HTC's Vive Headset includes a gyrosensor, accelerometer, and laser position sensor to track the rotation of the head on both axes to an accuracy of 1/10th of a degree. While to track the user's physical location the headset relies on two Steam VR base stations that limit detection to spaces up to 15 square feet, the Vive has still gained a loyal following of gamers eager to walk inside the games they enjoy, and that includes shelling out roughly $500 (though the exact price hasn't yet been announced) to own a headset. The ability of VR to sense the wearer's movements is a primary pull in the virtual reality industry and makes it particularly tantalizing to gamers.
Sony is naturally in the ring with its Playstation VR headset, one that promises a 120Hz refresh rate, better than the 90Hz of the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The high refresh rate decreases latency, helps with a more immersive experience, and reduces nausea. The Playstation VR is a natural extension of Sony's beloved Playstation and has hordes of gamers eager to try it out, especially if the price point is more around $300 or $400 as opposed to the higher-priced Vive. The downside, however, is that the VR still requires being wired to a Playstation and also requires wired controllers. It's difficult to experience true virtual reality if actual reality is trying to make you fall on your face.
While headsets with built-in electronics are the wearable VR du jour, a number of companies have opted to capitalize on pre-existing technology. Young-Joon Park, the CTO of Noon, a VR headset that relies on your smartphone to provide an immersive VR experience, explained why low tech has its advantages: "We focused on smartphone-based VR, because we thought it has the biggest potential for widespread of VR. However, sensor latency, power consumption, frame rate were the major issues for the development of VR software in mobile platforms. During the development, we used existing VR headsets we can get from the market but there were few of them, and their quality were not satisfactory. Soon we came to a conclusion that for maximizing the immersive experience in mobile platform, it would be better to create our own VR headset."
VR headsets are out of the price range for many consumers; Young-Joon's company solved that problem by focusing on software instead of hardware and capitalizing on equipment the consumer already owns.
Google's Cardboard is another example of low tech, which seems strange for a company that is very much about high tech. Google started handing out the folded cardboard viewers at Sundance and then made them available to buy for around $15. The Cardboard is a primer--in other words, it got people excited about the possibilities of virtual reality, but Google didn't plan on making any money off it. It was more to show that Google's set out to be a player in the VR game (and it is....but more on that in our upcoming augmented reality article).
When major tech and gaming companies invest millions in making virtual reality headsets, it's a clear sign that designers should be paying attention. Whether it's capitalizing on current technologies or inventing entirely new devices, virtual reality is going to change the landscape of technology forever. It's time to get onboard now while the wave is still poised to break.