You can be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the latest round of promises that virtual reality has finally arrived for the masses. Tech companies have been hanging their hats on that one for decades without much success, due to high prices and poorly rendered graphics that have given people headaches—literally.
Despite these missteps, a new generation of virtual-reality tech targeted at consumers has begun to hit the market, most prominently with Samsung’s $100 Gear VR visor released in late November. Both Gear VR and Google Cardboard—which starts at less than $20 and was launched in 2014—rely on a smartphone clipped or slid into their respective visors. The headset’s binocularlike lenses—between the phone and wearer—help deliver a 3-D VR experience. That makes the gadgets a relatively low-risk investment for consumers and enables tech companies to gauge public demand for virtual reality in advance of devices such as ones from Oculus, Sony and HTC slated for next year that feature more sophisticated embedded sensors and displays.
The X factor, as always, is content. The “Wow!” that had encouraged science fiction writers and filmmakers to feature virtual reality in their works has faded over the years. What’s needed now are compelling reasons to strap on a visor and step into a virtual world that doesn’t involve a flight simulator or video game with a high body count. Now that VR headsets no longer cost tens of thousands of dollars the door is open for educational and social applications that are true to virtual reality’s roots, allowing people to learn and interact in digital classrooms and playgrounds. (See video below.)
Sword of Damocles
Those roots make the current VR technology crop’s pricing and potential all the more intriguing. In 1960s computer scientist Ivan Sutherland was looking for “a way to visualize scientific and mathematical objects and walk around them as though they were part of the experience of the real world,” says Ken Perlin, a computer science professor at the New York University Media Research Lab. In 1968 Sutherland and then-student Bob Sproull built their “Sword of Damocles,” a very large device “that hung over your head and carried a headset with it as it moved around on a giant boom.” (Science Talk podcast with Perlin.)
Unlike the mythical weapon—suspended by a single hair of a horse’s tail—that the Sicilian King Dionysius II used to teach the envious Damocles about the perils of power, Sutherland’s headset was bolted tightly to his laboratory’s ceiling. The contraption measured head movement as its wearer turned. The device then used that data to render crude sketches of chemical compounds floating in the air from different angles, giving that person the feeling of being surrounded by three-dimensional information.
For the most part, virtual reality remained in the research environment until the 1980s, when computer scientist Jaron Lanier launched a company called VPL Research to develop virtual-reality equipment, including a headset dubbed the EyePhone and the DataGlove, designed to enable the manipulation of virtual objects. VPL’s products failed to attract a wide audience and the company filed for bankruptcy. Nintendo, Virtual I/O and a handful of other companies tried their hand at consumer VR in the 1990s but failed to gain traction because their products were overpriced, underwhelming or both.
In addition to these devices, VR-enabled browsers lingered on the Web almost since its inception but, despite backing from Google and Firefox, also failed to gain traction because there were no affordable headsets to view the content. That began to change in 2011 when an 18-year-old named Palmer Luckey put together his first prototype for the Oculus Rift. Within about three years Facebook bought Luckey’s company Oculus VR for $2 billion. Consumer VR was back in business.
Since its inception Oculus has already produced versions of the Rift for software developers to test drive as they developed games and other apps for the headset. The consumer version of the Rift is expected early next year, although the company has yet to announce a specific release date or price. The Oculus Rift visor receives its content by plugging into a PC and is expected to come with built-in (but removable) headphones, handheld controllers and a tripod-mountable sensor that relays movement information to the headset.
Oculus also developed the app Samsung’s smartphones use to make Gear VR come to life. November’s Gear VR release was Samsung’s first aimed squarely at consumers and is compatible with the company’s Galaxy Note5, S6, S6 edge and S6 edge+ devices. (Two previous “Innovator Edition” versions cost twice as much and targeted developers and tech-savvy early adopters). These handsets slot into a micro USB dock and display the phone’s content on an advanced organic LED screen inside the visor.
On the downside, iPhone users will have little use for Gear VR. Their best option for smartphone-based VR in the near future is Google’s Cardboard, whose basic premise of a cardboard box with eyeholes and a slot for any smartphone actually comes in a variety of flavors from a number of different makers. The most basic version costs $15 but more advanced models come in aluminum for $85 and the copolymer material ethylene vinyl acetate at $25. One other notable smartphone-based visor is the $120 VR ONE from Zeiss, a Germany-based company known for making high-quality precision lenses.
Other consumer VR offerings expected in early 2016 are the HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR—which plug into a PC or gaming system—as well as the Microsoft Hololens, which will run on a Windows 10 computer built into the headset that responds to gestures and voice commands. Hololens is also notable because it will combine virtual reality with augmented reality‑the latter allows wearers to view information and graphics superimposed over what their eyes are seeing through the device’s lenses. One of Vive’s strengths is its ability to create the perception of moving around a virtual space. This is done via a pair of base stations that come with the Vive and track sensors on both the headset and wireless hand controllers. PlayStation VR (formerly known as Project Morpheus) obviously has Sony’s popular gaming platform working in its favor.
Perhaps the most significant advance in this new round of VR technology is its ability to deliver an immersive experience without the nausea its predecessors caused. “Motion sickness was a problem when the delay between my head movement and the graphics I saw exceeded a certain threshold, generally about a tenth of a second,” N.Y.U.’s Perlin says. “Modern technologies that make use of these inertial trackers in the headset have pretty much gotten rid of that.” One exception would be Google Cardboard, which relies on the smartphone’s built-in inertial-movement sensor and has to share resources with the rest of the phone, causing what some describe as a noticeable latency. Dedicated sensors in the other headsets measure head orientation a thousand times per second, significantly cutting down on image latency, Perlin adds.
All these advancements targeted at creating high-quality VR experiences on a dime (so to speak) mean that Perlin and his students have a lot more tools at their disposal for creating their ultimate goal: a Star Trek–like “holodeck.” “Ideally, as in our research at N.Y.U., you want people to be able to walk around freely, as though they’re walking around in the real world,” he says. To do this Perlin set up a studio at the N.Y.U. Media Research Lab that features motion-sensing cameras around its perimeter. These cameras pick up signals from sensors mounted on students’ feet and hands as well as their Gear VR headsets. Such sensor fusion enables the Gear VR to receive detailed data about each student’s position in the studio, allowing them to have a virtual experience together, he adds.
Perlin and his students have already demonstrated what a shared virtual-reality experience might look like through their “Holojam” experiments. Participants in these exercises wear VR headsets and other sensors that enable them to interact both physically and virtually in an area surrounded by motion-capture cameras. In one specific experiment, called “Dia de los Holos,” participants wearing VR headsets and motion-capture sensors had the perception of walking in a virtual parade down a city street. “The eventual vision is that we will not call it virtual reality—we will call it reality,” he adds.
Considering the enormous impact on society the Web had after two decades and smartphones have had in less than half that time, predictions about virtual reality’s role in the future seem less far-fetched. But go ahead and roll your eyes if you want, most of these promises are still more forecast than fact.