It’s the end of July 2014, if you watch any programs like Computer Chronicles or Tomorrows world from the early 90’s, you’d have believed that by now, we’d all have VR headsets and gloves, and we’d use them in our every day lives. Most of us would go to work in VR, in our virtual offices, holding virtual meetings and then attending virtual parties in the evenings, we’d also regularly visit other places using virtual reality. this was the promise of the early 1990’s, when the company Virtuality were selling $20,000 VR rigs powered by juiced up Amiga 3000 computers to arcades, and showing them off at trade shows. I actually got to try one out, playing the game Dactyl nightmare at the 7th International Computer Show in London, I think I was 12 so it would have been 1992. The game was really jerky by todays standards and the lag on the headset was awful, I had a massive headset on with a thick cable running into the big plastic ring around me, I held a plastic controller which made it look like I had a crossbow in my hand. I had no body, just a hand. The world was a low polygon area, around 50 meters by 50 meters, no texture mapping, just flat polygons without even any lighting. There were several other players visible and some pterodactyls flying around my head. The aim of the game was to shoot at the birds and hope they don’t grab you and carry you away. I don’t remember how good the 3D effect was, we are talking 22 years ago here, and it was only a five minute experience. After that day, I expected home VR to arrive pretty quickly. But as we all know, that never happened.
there have been glimpses of the VR industry touching people’s home lives over the years, a few years after my VR experience, Atari announced a VR headset for their Jaguar games console, the console hadn’t sold well, partly due to the bad selection of games, but probably more because of the weird looking controller that had what looked like a telephone number pad for some unknown reason. Then around six years ago, I bought an Emagin Z800 VR headset on Ebay for £300, I’d heard it was very good so I wanted to try it out. I got it working with Half Life, it was okay. The tracking was pretty good, but had massive drift and the viewing angle felt tiny, probably around 25 to 30 degrees. It did give a sense of being somewhere else, but the software let it down as no games officially supported it that I knew of. I resold it on Ebay and decided to wait for the technology to catch up with my expectations.
It looks like that time may have finally arrived. Two years ago, rumours began of a company looking for funding to produce a consumer level VR headset, and the biggest news of the rumour, was that it was actually good. Before anyone knew it, John Carmack (of Doom fame) was shown demoing the headset, held together with black packing tape at a games show. We’re no two years later, thousands of developers and enthusiasts own the first Oculus Development kit, giving them a 90 degree field of view with a 720p display. This is already much better than the Z800 headset I had some years ago, but it gets better, the second dev kit (named DK2) is beginning to ship out to developers this week, it has a 1080p display, split down the middle so each eye gets half the screen, no motion blue due to low latency display, 1000hz head tracking and an optic positional tracking system to track you heads movements sideways, forwards, backwards and up and down. The headset tracks the angle of your head to let you look around. Demos at recent trade shows have impressed users and there’s hundreds of videos on YouTube of people being blown away by the experience.
there are also a number of other companies getting in on the action, the biggest one’s being Sony with their Playstation 4 powered Morpheus headset, a 1080p headset using the Playstation move camera and controllers for positional tracking and hand movements. Samsung are also known to be producing a VR headset for use with their high end Galaxy Android phones, by placing the phone into a holder that you strap to your head, the phone provides the display and the phone’s sensors are used to detect where you’re looking. It’s not known whether positional tracking will be possible with the Samsung solution, but it’s possible the accelerometers in the phone could be used for this, buttons on the outside of the headset allow the user to control the phone, as obviously the phone’s touch screen will be out of reach. Other smaller companies are also getting in on the action, a German company are producing a phone adaptor called the Durovis Dive, another phone holder that you put your phone into and strap it to your head. the last company to mention that’s producing some kind of VR “hardware” is Google.
Google has what’s called “Google Time”, this is where Google employees are allowed to spend 20% of their working time on personal projects, many well know Google services have been born from this, including Google news and GMail. The Google time born VR solution is called Cardboard. Cardboard is literally and phone holder made out of folded cardboard to allow the user to view Virtual reality using any supported Android phone. A magnet on the side of the holder allows the user to interact with the phone software, by flicking the magnet up and down, the phone’s magnetometer detects this change in the magnetic field as a button push (this sensor is normally used for the compass for navigation). Google gave out the cardboard kits at their IO conference in 2014. They then made the template available online for free as a PDF for anyone to print out and make their own headset, the lenses and magnet only cost a few dollars to buy and Google provide the details to buy these. I’ve ordered two premade kits from a Chinese seller on Ebay, as Google are open sourcing it you can expect to see sellers popping up all over. Demo software is available on the Android play store and the SDK developer files are available to download with samples for anyone to program their own Google cardboard programs, so expect an explosion of Cardboard VR programs soon.
Back to the main player, Oculus, the most promising and well developed of the solutions so far. Many big name games are taking it seriously, Elite Dangerous, Race, Alien Isolation to name a few. The Game of Thrones production comnpany used the Oculus Rift DK1 headset to make an interactive exhibit, and the people who make X-Men have just done the same for Comic-con 2014.