Tackling the ‘Reality’ of Virtual Reality

Split between the reality and the virtual
Credit: virtualworldsland.com

VR is an experiential medium. The first thing people express in their first VR experience is surprise at how ‘real’ it seems. Once you don the Head Mounted Display (HMD) and headphones, you really do experience another reality.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this. Chief for me is scale. Like the TARDIS in Dr Who, it is bigger on the inside. Staring into the eye of a Blue Whale,

or on a plank balanced out the window of an apartment 50 floors up, is simply something you cannot experience as viscerally looking at a screen.

And we haven’t even begun yet.

Right now two factors constrain the ‘reality’ part of Virtual Reality:

Resolution

The first is the resolution of the display. This itself is a function of the display technology, the processor, and power. If you’re using standard display techniques, pixel density becomes a real problem. As you add more pixels to a display, you exponentially increase processor performance requirements, in turn needing more power.

This is why the two leading VR headset manufacturers (Oculus and HTC) still tether their HMD’s to a powerful computer.

Fidelity

The second challenge to neuropsychological quality VR is the actual fidelity of the artefacts. No matter how good the rendering, we all can discern the difference between an animated character and a ‘real’ person. Within VR this effect is amplified.

Dilemma

This presents us with a dilemma: Create a discernibly unreal computer animated avatar that can respond appropriately to us as a being within VR. Or capture realistic video of people we can watch but not interact with.

Right now various producers are using both approaches powerfully. Spectating a Syrian Refugee camp through VR video is as powerful as experiencing dementia through VR animation.

Producers can create enough videos to cater for a simply decision tree, somewhat like an IVR call system. But this is clunky, unwieldy and easy to game. Equally the game engines of modern First Person Shooters and simulators are remarkably sophisticated, but the graphics are still not real enough.

It’s the melding of the two that will truly change VR. The inability to discern the authenticity of people within the simulation, combined with the ability to interact.

One thing that is certain, however, is how powerful this new medium is, and that it will change everything.

Watch this space.

Why Your Next Display will be VR Glasses

Anyone who has been in IT for the last few decades has seen a steady progression in displays. When I started as a programmer in 1988 I was in the first group of programmers at our company that was issued a terminal.

True story.

The programmer’s job was to read a specification, design a program, then code the program on handwritten coding sheets, which were transcribed by (punch card) operators onto punch cards, and fed into the (mainframe) computer.

As n00bs, we were considered quite privileged to get an 80 char wide, green, monochrome terminal, so we could code our program directly into the machine.

Roll forward 28 years and we’ve seen the advent of the PC originally with 14″ monochrome (green or orange) CRT monitors, through various iterations of colour CRT monitors (CGA, VGA, XGA etc), to the introduction of LCD flat panel displays (originally only on laptops), to the LED and OLED screens of today. At some juncture in the last decade, these displays have made their way onto increasingly small devices like phones and watches, and increasingly large devices like TV’s.

HMD

And now we’ve come to a nexus. The Head Mounted Display or HMD.

Hardly a new concept I know. But finally the technology is advanced and minituarised enough for reasonable resolution, and portability.

This is crucial technology for Virtual Reality (VR). The general idea is to wear a headset that provides a display to the user (hence the name) and immerse them inside a 360 virtual environment. This could be a ‘real’ environment captured via videography – think 360 degree movie – or a simulated environment that is created by computer graphics – think 360 degree video game.

This year, Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear, are all releasing consumer VR HMD’s.

Until now, I’ve only been thinking about use cases for a virtual world. But I’ve been remiss.

The Portability/Usability Dilemma

For at least a decade I’ve been talking about the next logical leap for mobile computing. Split I/O peripherals like screen & keyboard from the device. Here’s why:

When you make a computer mobile there are two tensions:

  • For portability you want as small a display as possible. The smaller the display, the smaller & lighter the device. Not to mention less power needed to run the thing, so longer battery life.
  • For usability you want as large a display as possible. The larger the display, the more information and insight you can manipulate and present.

The most logical solution is to split the display from the device. Then you can connect to large displays when you need them, and small displays when you’re on the move in a cab, on an aeroplane etc. The battery life of the device will improve significantly, and the size can decrease along with Moore’s Law.

Note: Continuum on the new Windows 10 Mobile devices provides a good compromise here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oi1B9fjVs4&w=800&h=480]

So why hasn’t this happened yet? (After all I can’t be the only smart person thinking this through) Probably a couple of reasons:

  • Vendors have a vested revenue interest to sell you expensive screens 🙂
  • The technology to connect to any display, at least wirelessly, is still pretty nascent
  • Most displays are already connected to computers, so not available

What If?

But what if you could have a display as large as you want, whilst still portable?

What if the display was physically no larger than a pair of headphones?

Roll in VR glasses.

Both at work and at home I have multiple 24″ monitors that I dock the 12″ laptop, to give me 3 displays. This is not ideal from a power, wasted physical space, and cost perspective. Even so, there are times I simply still do not have enough screen real estate, so on the Mac I run multiple desktops which I can swap to at any time.

Added to this there are some times you simply don’t want to advertise what you’re working on to the world. Confidential reports, company secrets, and the like.

But what if I simply connected to a VR headset, or HMV. Then I could have multiple 80″ monitors arrayed around me. And I could have this single device for all of the places I work: On public transport, in an airline lounge, at home, in the office, in a park.

This would save significant dollars. This would save power. This would redesign offices and homes to more collaborative, functionally aesthetic environments. Sharing a presentation would be a simple as broadcasting to multiple HMD’s.

Challenges

Of course there’s still a reason why we aren’t all sitting in the office with HMD’s attached to our heads. Quite apart from the social awkwardness, although I suspect that will pass given already people in an open plan office wear noise cancelling headphones to avoid being interrupted.

No, the biggest challenges right now include:

  • The artificiality of the display on our eyes can cause fatigue and even nausea
  • The weight of HMD’s could cause head, neck, and shoulder injuries with long use
  • The resolution of the HMD’s is still not quite there yet.

The Avegant Glyph

Today I saw a new HMD, apparently released last year, but updated for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show for the consumer market.

This uses ‘micromirrors’ to reflect light onto the retina in much the same way we actually see reflected light in the real world. This:

  • Removes the fatigue and nausea issue.
  • Makes the device much lighter than competitive devices, and
  • Totally removes the resolution issue because of the different display technology

In short, this could be the device, or the beginning of such devices that could replace displays in the workplace.

This isn’t just about the new things you could do, this is about replacing the old.

It will be interesting to see the first workplace that replaces monitors with HMD’s

[vimeo 148902651 w=800&h=480]