Throughout the 20th century, visual recorded media has always (both literally and figuratively) placed a physical constraint between its consumer and its creator. Shows, movies, and video games have always been consumed at an arm’s-length. Although their respective artistic manifestations allowed you to forget this fact from time to time—seated in your couch, you were always just looking at a flat panel lying against a wall. It's a model so deeply ingrained in our society that entire living rooms are built around this concept. All around the world, living room couches are all pointed at one single ubiquitous piece of furniture, the television screen. However, after a few false starts in the 80's and 90's, this paradigm is finally set to change. With the mainstream release of the Oculus Rift, the TV's days may be numbered.
A game changer.
I recently got my hands on a Samsung Gear VR, a paired down version of the Oculus. Safe to say, this is definitely a game changer. On paper, this futuristic headset is just a small, 2560 x 1440 pixel Super AMOLED screen that gets strapped extremely close to your face. In practice, however, wearing it feels like being surrounded by the biggest monitor you’ve ever used. By tracking your head’s position and angle and changing the image to reflect your new view at 60 times per second, this baby simulates an edgeless, spherical screen that surrounds you in 360 degrees—up and down and side to side!
"During my first experiences with the device, I found myself actually flinching away from objects as they flew at my face, and audibly gasping at the scale of expansive renders of vast space station vistas."
Bringing the device with me to a party, everyone shared the same, if not more viscerally intense, reactions (in particular at virtual jump scares in the Ocean Rift app). Being a millennial, new experiences in technology are often just slight variations on an existing model. The first time you put that headset on, was something that none of us had ever experienced before.
Every geek's dream.
The consumer release of fully functioning VR is really the coming to fruition of every single geek's dreams, and the first generation applications for it reflect that—leaning more heavily towards gaming as its killer feature. But with Facebook's purchase of Oculus, one can only speculate the future for the medium. Imagine being seated courtside during game 7 of the NBA finals. Better yet, imagine seeing the game from a first-person point of view via a headband mounted camera on Lebron James. Pretty insane, right?
Working out the kinks.
Of course, being a first generation product, there are a few kinks to work out. Motion sickness is often talked about in the online discussion boards. Headset comfort is another. How long one can wear the device remains to be seen. However, these are all issues which will be solved iteratively. The important thing is, this tech is finally here and the hardware actually allows for feasible and workable applications. Even more important, is that with all the advances in development processes, being on the creator side is easier than ever.
Challenges with VR
- Motion sickness or "cybersickness"
- Headset ergonomics
- Headset choices
- App and gaming choices
- Build time for apps
Man with turkey.
Game development with both the open source Unity engine as well as the amazingly full featured (and freemium) Unreal Engine is as easy as can be. I was able to create a fully rendered Unity scene, a little afternoon project I called “Man with Turkey,” in a little under three hours. The mass production of spherical, 360 cameras will further burst open the floodgates for those of us more inclined towards real world immersive experiences. For those of us who crave more professional levels of fidelity, Nokia and GoPro are releasing professional models of their respective 360 cameras as well.
The first generation of apps seem to skew heavily in the gaming category, and rightly so. With the fully featured Rift and Vive retailing between $600-$800 USD, it would make sense for those with only the highest end rigs to be the beta testers for this new frontier.
I expect subsequent generations to be cheaper, and more mainstream in category distribution. Live events will be a major space for VR to play in, with sports, concerts, and a host of other, ticket-based events all waiting in the wings to be a part of the revolution. With VR, you can have one seat in the house selling millions of tickets, beaming completely immersive feeds to people sitting on their couches. And think of the therapeutic applications. With all the trapeze/jumping/roller coaster simulations, would it be far-fetched to foresee a future where people with fears of heights no longer exist?
Barriers to entry for content creation are almost nil, and as cliché as it may seem, the only limitation is your imagination (and computing science knowledge). In terms of technology, I haven’t been as excited for a new era as I have for the VR era.