The Age of Virtual Reality is Here


oculus-riftIf you’ve been focused on the ongoing tragedy that is the American political system, you may not have realized that we are about to experience a new technological revolution, one that has the possibility of changing the way we interact with each other, share information, learn, and play.

Next week, hundreds of thousands of people will begin receiving their consumer versions of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, two competing systems for transporting people into a computer-generated reality. These systems consist of headsets with high-resolution, wide field of view 3D displays, coupled with tracking systems to measure your head and body movements. The HTC Vive also comes with hand controllers that can be tracked with sub-millimeter accuracy, and room sensors that will track your entire body, also with sub-millimeter accuracy.

The holy grail of VR is to instil a sense of “presence” in the user; i.e., to trick your brain and senses into believing that you are actually in the world projected in front of your eyes, and not just watching a 3D screen. Achieving presence requires a lot of tricks: The displays must respond instantly, with extremely low “latency” and high refresh rates; The resolution must be high enough for your eyes to perceive the scene as real; And the field of view wide enough to encompass your peripheral vision. Body and head tracking has to be accurate below a millimeter. Sounds have to be positional, and change as you move your head. All of these techniques trick your brain into accepting the virtual reality as though it were real.

This level of presence only became technically feasible in the last couple of years. Until now, virtual reality was a nauseating, pixelated potential technology waiting for the requisite advances in sensor, display, and computing technology. That time is now here. I have used this hardware and, believe, me it delivers.

It’s hard to explain what this is like. There seems to be two types of people: Those who have not tried VR and roll their eyes at the hype. They will point out that 3D TV flopped, and this is no different. They believe VR is a passing fad, or at best a niche product.

Then there are the people who have actually tried it, and almost to a person they become instant converts. It’s very hard to describe the first experience of being in a VR world with one of these devices. If you are familiar with the holodeck from Star Trek, that’s probably the closet analogue I can think of. You honestly believe that you are standing in the world the computer has generated for you. It’s unbelievably cool.

Here is an example: This is a video shows Sony’s The Deep demonstration for its Morpheus headset. In this demo, you are teleported into a shark cage and descend into the depths:

Remember, if you are wearing the headset you’re not just seeing this as a video, or even a surround video – it’s all happening in 3D space, and you feel like you are there. Everything has the correct sense of depth.

The applications for virtual reality are unfathomable. Obviously, in the beginning we will be playing a lot of games. Imagine a flight simulator where you are in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang – look around, and it’s the real thing. With a proper joystick and throttle setup, it will even feel real. A car racing game with a force feedback wheel will be the closest you’ll ever get to actually racing in a real car without being there. Role playing games, first person shooters, and other games will be transformed.

Here’s another good video that shows several VR demos: standing on a sunken ship, climbing Mount Everest, Flying a space fighter , and Portal VR, which teleports you into the universe of the Portal game. (It also contains some zombie carnage starting around the three-minute mark.)

By the way, the accuracy of the controllers is so good that shooting a virtual gun feels like shooting a real one: you aim with your eyes through the sights, and if your aim is true, you’ll hit the target. It’s amazing. Archery games feel like shooting a real bow, and you aim the same way you would in real life.

But games are just the beginning. VR gives us the ability to share experiences the way we share photos today. Manufacturers are now building cameras that shoot entire 360 degree spheres of image. That 360 degree image can then be used to create whatever view you should be seeing when you move your head around. Imagine a camera like this recording the superbowl from the 50 yard line. When you watch that video, your view isn’t locked to the camera as it is today – you can swivel your head around and look anywhere you’d like, just as if you were there. You will feel like you are sitting on the 50 yard line.

These cameras are becoming available as “action cams.” The International Space Station has a 360 degree camera mounted on it. Viewing that video stream, you will feel like you are sitting in space looking around – in near real time. Imagine new landers going to other worlds with such cameras on them. In the future, instead of seeing photos from Mars, you’ll be able to transport yourself to Mars and just look around at whatever you would like.

On a more mundane level, imagine shooting family vacation video using a 360 camera, and then years later being able to re-live the experience as if you were there – even to the point where you can look around and see things you never saw the first time. Sharing a vacation experience with friends will let them see it just as you did – as if they were there with you at the time.

Training and education may be revolutionized. Imagine learning archaeology by being able to virtually transport yourself to real dig sites and walk around them. Imagine being able to learn auto mechanics by having a 3D model of an auto engine right in front of you, with virtual tools to disassemble it, and exploded views that show you the parts. Just “start” the virtual engine, and you’ll be able to see how it all works.

Here is a video of a game where you carry out surgery on a space alien, but it give you an idea of how we can represent and interact with 3D objects in a training environment. It also shows the sub-millimeter accuracy of the controllers that come with the HTC Vive:

Telecommuting just got a whole lot more useful. Today’s corporate telecommuting systems sometimes have cameras that can track to look at the speaker in a room, and there may be large-screen TVs connecting distant locations. Or, we simply connect using Webex or some other tool that creates audio conferences and exposes computer desktops for sharing slides and such. With VR, you can telecommute into a virtual room where multiple people can be sharing information on different whiteboards, where side conversations can take place just by “walking” over to someone, where quick notes can be jotted on boards that everyone can see, and in general where almost all the advantages of being in person are intact.

Virtual Reality is going to be great for the poor. Want to see the Louvre? Or climb Mt. Everest? Or walk along the top of the Great Wall of China? Experiences that were only available to the wealthy will be available for everyone, and for cheap. Travel costs will decline. The need for living and working space may be reduced if people spend more of their time in VR.

These are just some of the obvious things that will come from VR. The truly exciting stuff will only be known once these devices land in the hands of millions and the engine of capitalism and competition causes the kind of advancement we’ve seen with personal computers and smart phones. We don’t know what the future is bringing, but it’s going to be fantastic.

If you want to get started in VR, it’s still fairly pricey. You need a computer powerful enough to render the graphics, which will set you back about $1,000 if you don’t already have one (no Macs have this ability, so it’s a PC-0nly thing right now), or about $350 for a graphics upgrade if you have a powerful PC but not a powerful graphics card. The headsets themselves run from $599 to $799.

There are less expensive options if you want to get your feet wet. If you have a Samsung smartphone, you can buy a Samsung ‘Gear VR’ – a headset that allows you to slide your phone inside to use as the display. It’s only about $100, and doesn’t require a PC at all. Or, if you have a PlayStation 4, Sony has announced a VR headset for it, so no PC required. That will ship in the fall. You can even get a $10 cardboard headset from Google that holds your phone and gives you a similar experience as the Gear VR. These cheaper options have lower resolution and lack some features such as body movement tracking, and the sense of presence may be fleeting, but they’ll let you get familiar with the technology and they are great platforms for watching 360 degree videos and other simple VR experiences.

I’m traditionally a skeptic of sweeping claims made for new technologies. I never thought we’d see widespread flying cars. I knew the Segway wasn’t going to transform our cities. I think high speed rail is a boondoggle in most cases. Attempting to switch our energy infrastructure to renewables is a pipe dream in the short term.

But VR is the real deal. It’s here, and it’s going to be transformative. It might take an additional hardware generation or two before all the features are in place and the cost comes down to where the mass market can afford it, but it holds the potential for changing the way we live at least as much as the smart phone revolution did. If you get the chance, you really need to try it out. Until then, you won’t know what you’re missing.

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane

    Viewing Ricochet in 3D, not 2D, would blow my mind – into 3D bits mind you.

    Keep us up to date won’t you?  Now I have to go off and learn about these, what did you call them, “smart phones”.

    • #1
  2. Weeping Inactive

    I’m not sure whether I should be terrified by this or look forward to it.

    • #2
  3. Al Sparks Coolidge
    Al Sparks

    It seems that VR is affordable to me. I’ll still wait until it becomes more mainstream, and there are more applications built around it.

    • #3
  4. Mike Rapkoch Member
    Mike Rapkoch

    Oh Great! Another excuse to sit on the couch and eat chips(-:

    • #4
  5. Weeping Inactive

    I do wonder how it works for people who don’t have a good sense of depth in their vision.

    • #5
  6. Belt Inactive

    I’m ambivalent about this.  I’ve not yet seen any reason to invest that much money into something that just augments an existing experience.  I usually wait for the early adopters to work out the bugs, and for the price points to drop down.  In a few years, I could see myself dropping a few hundred dollars to get to VR rig, but as yet there’s no appeal for me.  We’ll see what the market comes up with.

    One big issue is developing a user interface for a VR environment.  The guys at Penny Arcade have been fooling around with some prototypes, and have some thoughts on it.

    The cynic in me says that it will only take off once the porn industry figures out how to capitalize off it.  And I may not even be cynical enough…

    • #6
  7. Roberto Inactive

    Yes I have been following.

    This is the technology which will destroy civilization. I am not joking.

    • #7
  8. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane

    Roberto:Yes I have been following.

    This is the technology which will destroy civilization. I am not joking.


    • #8
  9. Weeping Inactive

    Roberto:Yes I have been following.

    This is the technology which will destroy civilization. I am not joking.

    I can see that as a possible result of it. I’m not saying that will absolutely be the outcome, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was – at least civilization as we currently know it.

    • #9
  10. Roberto Inactive

    Manfred Arcane:

    Roberto:Yes I have been following.

    This is the technology which will destroy civilization. I am not joking.


    You seem unfamiliar with how immersive this technology can be.

    Fantasy always trumps reality. Given the choice between fantasy and reality the majority will always, always choose fantasy.

    Current iterations are merely visual and auditory yet participants already rave. There are some impressive strides being made in this field, only a complete fool would consider this the new version of the Xbox. This will change everything.

    • #10
  11. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson

    I wouldn’t think of it as fantasy vs reality,  but rather as a way to use computers to expand our perception and our perceptual bandwidth.

    There are huge potential advantages to virtual reality.  Education is about to be revolutionized.  Wait until companies like the Great Courses produce geography courses that actually transport you to various locations.  Science programs that let you carry out virtual experiments and play with 3D models to really understand how things work.  Scientists will be able to visualize data in novel ways,  and 360 degree cameras on space probes would give everyone a very real perspective on what it would really be like to be out there.

    There’s going to be new categories of art.  The Vive ships with a painting application that allows you to paint in high resolution in 3D virtual space.  It’s pretty amazing.

    Economically,  virtual reality dramatically increases the perceptual bandwidth capable of being transmitted between people.  This is going to open whole new ways to collaborate and trade,  and lower the cost of meetings between distant places.  Distributed engineering teams will be much more effective, which can increase specialization.  Online shopping will allow us to look at products in VR and see them much more realistically than looking at a static picture or a flat video.

    Amazing experiences are scarce resources, and generally unavailable to the poor.  Perhaps the best thing about virtual reality is that it is going to allow scarce experiential resources to be shared among a lot more people,  lowering the cost for everyone.    A VR Smithsonian will bring the essence of the experience to people who would otherwise never have a chance to see it.

    VR also promises huge lifestyle improvements for handicapped people, aged retired people in nursing homes,  and other people incapable of fully experiencing life.

    Sure,  there will be people addicted to VR porn, and people who waste far too much time in the virtual reality.  But the benefits of this far, far outweigh the potential problems.

    • #11
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    ‘American dream 2.0: The poor will be virtually rich!’

    • #12
  13. Owen Findy Inactive
    Owen Findy

    E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops may not be entirely inappropriate here.

    • #13
  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    By the way, does anyone know any movie or book or any other kind of story where super-technology does not bring about the end of humanity one way or the other?

    • #14
  15. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn

    Does this tech require stereoscopic vision?

    • #15
  16. I Walton Member
    I Walton

    This is cool, just make sure there is a new porn release just before or on election day, so the enthusiasts stay home.

    • #16
  17. Israel P. Inactive
    Israel P.

    Can this be made useful for people who cannot turn their heads and therefore can only see what is directly in front them?

    • #17
  18. Commodore BTC Inactive
    Commodore BTC

    Weeping:I’m not sure whether I should be terrified by this or look forward to it.


    • #18
  19. 1967mustangman Inactive

    I think this nicely summarizes the end of civilization:

    • #19
  20. Metalheaddoc Member

    Lots of extra work for the chiropractors who have to fix everybody’s necks from wearing those things.

    Every new technology promises to revolutionize education, but the vast majority of people will use it for entertainment.

    Will VR survive the first round of class action lawsuits for neck pain, headaches, seizures etc.? Wherever someone is making big money, some lawyer is waiting to find a way to milk it.

    • #20
  21. Commodore BTC Inactive
    Commodore BTC

    that Futurama video is absolutely true, and this emerging VR technology will bring about that dynamic

    • #21
  22. Polyphemus Inactive

    Hat tip to the Futurama clip. Spot on for this discussion and it’s always great to see the best TV comedy of all time (in my humble opinion of course).

    One significant problem is the nausea problem. VR can encompass all of the input and stimuli that the OP mentions except for the human vestibular sense. No way to simulate that until you can create artificial gravity or bypass the inner ear. As a result, the disconnect between what your eyes and ears are telling you and what your body is experiencing can create motion sickness and nausea in a significant number of people, maybe enough to limit the spread of VR.

    The one time I tried the Oculus, I felt this disorientation right away and I am not prone to motion sickness. To be fair, it was a fairly low quality indie game demo.

    That is why something that may have more impact than VR is Augmented Reality. Devices such as Microsoft Hololens avoid the nausea problem by anchoring the artificial elements in the real world. This (Hololens Demo) to me shows more potential for revolutionizing our world than pure VR.

    (Not sure of the secret to embedding video. Only help on Ricochet was a post but it doesn’t seem to work for me.)

    • #22
  23. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron


    VR has tremendous potential as a training device. Any skill that requires 3D interaction can be much more rapidly transmitted using the simulation.

    After that, we’d better look out. DON’T DATE ROBOTS.



    • #23
  24. Sidehill Gouger Inactive
    Sidehill Gouger

    As someone who needs to lose some weight, this would be great for the treadmill. Instead of staring at the wall or tv you could be hiking somewhere you have never been or could never go.

    • #24
  25. Commodore BTC Inactive
    Commodore BTC

    Imagine capturing your family reunion on 360 degree video, and then your relatives hundred of years later can virtually walk around and experience it.

    also, DON’T DATE ROBOTS!

    • #25
  26. C. U. Douglas Coolidge
    C. U. Douglas

    All things in moderation …

    I’m actually curious how this will change my profession. When I started designing, drafting was primarily done by hand. Then AutoCAD picked up steam. The office I now work in does about 75% of our work in BIM — that is Building Information Modeling — the best known program for this right now is Revit. 3D modelling is gaining steam. A virtual reality program would expand the capabilities of BIM greatly.

    I can imagine walking through an Architect’s model and placing light fixtures, receptacles, fire alarm equipment, and so forth. Right now it’s still a clumsy process, but a virtual reality environment could change this process exponentially. It’s pretty exciting, really.

    • #26
  27. Tom Meyer, Ed. Member
    Tom Meyer, Ed.

    Owen Findy:E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops may not be entirely inappropriate here.

    Hey, somebody else read that!

    • #27
  28. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller

    Nice write-up. I have been following news about this new VR tech for months now, and I’m cautiously optimistic.

    Here is an interesting panel on VR from the perspective of VR hardware and software developers.

    To summarize, software developers for this new generation of VR hardware have discovered through experience that VR is a fundamentally different experience from traditional 3D simulations. They are having to learn how to design games and utility software all over again. The nausea and other problems some VR users have experienced is caused by situations developers are only beginning to learn how to design around (meaning these problems become less common as developers learn “the rules” of VR software design).

    For now, Playstation VR might be the most cost-efficient for entertainment-focused consumers ($400 for the console, $400 for the VR, another $100 or so for peripherals). But hardware prices will fall quickly if the medium becomes popular, as occurred with other media technologies. Producers will gradually learn more efficient ways to design and manufacture their hardware.

    • #28
  29. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks

    I can’t wait. This is a medium as revolutionary as the birth of cinema, and the way it will change storytelling will be fascinating to watch.

    • #29
  30. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson

    Titus Techera:‘American dream 2.0: The poor will be virtually rich!’

    What’s wrong with that?  The problem with being poor is not access to rectangular pieces of currency,  and in a western democracy it’s not about access to basic sustenance or living space.  Being poor in the west is pretty comfortable, physically speaking.

    When you think of the problems of the poor,  it comes down to things like inability to travel easily, the high cost of entertainment,  access to good educational facilities, cramped living spaces, and being cut off from the kind of physical, mental social experiences the more wealthy can enjoy.

    Virtual reality helps all of this.  Soon you will be able to get a better education at home than you will in a classroom.   You will be able to virtually visit all the great museums and landmarks of the world in ways that make you feel you are really there.   You will be able to enter social spaces that feel real and in which your socioeconomic status doesn’t matter.

    We make a big mistake when thinking about income or wealth inequality as being the primary problem for the poor.  The problem is lifestyle inequality.  Wealth is just a means for getting there.  The more we move our social and recreational lives into VR space,  the more we destroy experiential inequality.  That’s a very good thing.

    • #30
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