Virtual Reality: The Promise Now Delivers
Spoiler Alert: February 11, 2016 at CRASH+SUES we are hosting a demo of HTC Vive No Cost!
Please contact James if you, or anyone from your team, wants to test it out! firstname.lastname@example.org
The hype surrounding virtual reality this year is explosive: the technology and gaming community is filled with enthusiastic visionaries and skeptical realists. Over the past 60 years a pattern has emerged where VR surges into public consciousness with lofty promises of immersive experiences, then slowly fades away when technology fails to deliver. Is 2016 any different that 1956?
A brief history
VR has its roots in a device dreamed up by Morton Heilig in the 1950’s . The Sensorama had stereo vision, stereo sound, smell, vibrations and wind that provided an immersive movie-watching experience. It was a large, clunky contraption similar to an arcade game that you sat inside resulting in only a few Sensorama films ever created, due to exceptionally high costs of production.
A few years after the release of the Sensorama, a wearable VR headset was invented by Ivan Sutherland . Named the ‘Sword of Damocles’ due to its large, imposing presence, this system presented a simple wireframe image of a cube that changed perspectives as a user moved their head. The entire system was so bulky that it had to be mounted to the ceiling, and the wearer’s head mechanically strapped to a metal arm.
The possibilities presented by VR during the 60’s were compelling, but the technology was not adequate to support commercial systems. So VR fell out of the public’s eye and back to the research labs and universities from whence it came.
The late 80’s and early 90’s saw a resurgence in public interest in VR with the release films like TRON and The Lawnmower Man, as well as the release of the Sega Master System 3d and Nintendo Virtual Boy . VR had transitioned from the multi-thousand-dollar price range to the multi-hundred-dollar price range (thus making consumer units feasible) but digital graphics and display technology was still in its infancy. The Master System suffered from obnoxious flickering and the Virtual Boy had an off-putting red-only display. Neither of these systems would track your head movement – only providing basic stereoscopic images to the user. Eventually, VR once again fell out of the public consciousness because of an underwhelming consumer response.
The limiting factor of VR has always been how immersive the experience is; is the experience able to fool your brain into thinking what it’s seeing is real? Over the past two decades, improvements in computing power and display technology have solved some of the problems that crippled VR systems in the 1990’s. PC graphics cards are able to generate nearly-photorealistic game images in real-time, and advances in processing power have allowed clunky hardware-based tracking systems to be replaced by complex software algorithms.
The Promise vs The Product
We had the opportunity to try out a developer version of the HTV Vive (kindly orchestrated by our friend Paul Eckhardt). The system is a bit more complex than the Oculus Rift and bulkier (due to it being a Dev. kit) but the extra technology pays off in better performance.
I was the first one up to try out the VR system, and the experience was surprisingly immersive. I loved it. Even the simple ‘loading’ environment (a white expanse similar to The Matrix) was enough to wow me. The visual tracking was very snappy – there was no perceptible lag until I started really whipping my head around. I felt none of the motion sickness common in older VR systems. Overall it was incredible – and here’s why I think it has lasting power:
Good enough for my gut
I’ll preface this story by saying I’m not afraid of heights. I was the kid growing up that found the tallest tree and wouldn’t stop climbing until I reached the top. There is a mini-game called Vertigo that we loaded up. It had a very simple environment: a small walking bridge surrounded by an endless pit on either side. I navigated back and forth across the bridge quite easily, but then Paul told me to jump off the bridge. I hesitated, tentatively wagged my foot over the dark expanse below. As I was about to leap into the endless abyss, my instinctual self-preservation responses kicked in. My heart was racing and I felt a wave of fear and compulsion to put both feet safely on the ground. I had to cognitively focus on the fact that I was in a fake environment before my heart rate slowed again. The fact that a VR system can elicit such a visceral response is a huge sign that it will be sticking around.
(this image is a screen-capture of a low-resolution live-stream. It does not reflect the true quality of the VR system)
Another game that was showcased to us was Ninja Trainer – essentially it was Fruit Ninja updated for VR. In the classic Fruit Ninja™ game, you swipe your finger across a touchscreen to cut up flying pieces of fruit (simple concept, but trust me, it’s addicting). In the VR version of Fruit Ninja you grab a controller (much like a Wii controller) and actually slice the fruit exactly like you had a samurai sword in your hands. There was no learning curve – the only skill needed to play the game was the same hand-eye coordination you use every day. And HTC Vive’s™ great tracking system meant the sword motion lined up perfectly with where I was aiming the controller. We managed to snag a quick video of our producer Kara trying out Ninja Trainer for the first time.
The last demo I got to try was of a 3d painting system (see Glen Keen, Disney Animator try out the same software here – skip to 2:40 to see it in action). This particular demo was fantastic due to the potential impact it could have on the creative workflow. Imagine if Zbrush™ sculpting could be done in VR. Mind-blowing.
Now that VR has finally lived up to the hype after all these years, the public won’t be far behind in keeping it alive. But if it is destined to be a fad once more, it will hopefully be a longer-lasting and more enjoyable one. The technology breakthroughs that allow for more realistic graphics, better motion tracking, expanded creativity and reduction in price point means that there is a strong chance this technology is sticking around.
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