With the recent arrival of the first consumer VR head mounted display the Samsung Gear VR and the wide use of the development kit Oculus Rift, Virtual Reality (VR) is poised for a revival since the early 90s release of the consumer SEGA VR. However, in light of limitations with current technology and no established monetary outlet for those producing VR experiences, the present climate is a mixed bag and not showing off the full potential of VR applications – most notably in the gaming sector. At present, devices are tailored towards enthusiasts rather than the wider masses, where entry into VR is a somewhat disjointed experience. Samsung aims to rectify this with the release of a proper store front for its Note 4 driven Gear VR, but this hasn’t materialized yet, and Rift users have the option to correlate software via the official Oculus Share website which is freely open to all who own a DK1 or DK2 head mounted display unit. The VR integration with the Rift for example provides no uniformity, although the DK 2 attempts to address this somewhat with its direct to rift display mode which sadly isn’t supported by a lot of the available content. Ultimately this leaves users jumping through hoops to get applications running properly. It’s certainly not as user friendly as one would expect, although with the Rift being a non-consumer device is understandable at this stage. But what of those VR experiences and whether they are good enough to warrant exposure to the masses as a saleable addition to conventional methods? Take a look at our impressions from within the DK2 of VR in its current form which highlights the pros and cons.
The Head Mounted Device
To recap from the video, VR experiences are very much an evolution of conventional 3D viewing, except rather than donning a pair of lightweight throwaway passive 3D glasses like you would use at the cinema, users are required to strap on a fairly chunky and expensive – in comparison – head mounted display device. It might seem to be an unreasonable trade off, but the benefits are clear to see. With accomplished head tracking and the focused view of the Rift, external influences are almost completed eliminated leaving the user totally enveloped in the VR content as opposed to simply viewing from the outside. However, there are drawbacks aside from the obvious discomfort after extended use and the field of view being bordered by dark goggle like edges of the display device. The experience in terms of field of view is akin to wearing ski goggles or a crash helmet and is something users have to get used to much as you would if you were a skier or cyclist. It’s expected the consumer version of the Rift will be much lighter in weight, yet no matter how much Oculus can reduce the mass, users are still going to be strapping something to their heads which feels a lot more unnatural than wearing glasses. That said, and it has to be emphasized here, the overall weight isn’t that bad and something most people should be able to forgive easily as we’re not talking about attaching bricks here.
The VR Display
Using the Rift DK 2 and it’s clear VR taps effortlessly into the notion of putting players within the gaming experience to the extent where scale is accurately represented and the feeling of mobility accentuated way beyond conventional 2D approaches. The first feeling VR users experience is a sense of presence within the games or applications which when coupled with accurate head-tracking means players are fully immersed in the virtual environment. Being able to look behind, to the side and below without hindrance is the biggest draw and in most of the demos available this is well accomplished whether that’s riding a VR roller coaster, flying through the air like a bird, or entering vents in Alien Isolation. VR does work and genuinely transports users to new places, despite obvious limitations with the hardware. There’s a bit of imagination required from the user though – something gamers are perhaps more naturally predisposed to – as the VR worlds at present are a far cry from mimicking reality and with no actual movement in the real world the experiences can feel like riding a fairground attraction or using a motorized wheelchair. There’s a huge step backwards in terms of visual acuity with the DK2 offering a less focused field of view when not looking directly at the centre of the lenses. This could be rectified using more refined lenses or via software manipulation, but at present is something that’s an issue. For anyone jumping in expecting a crystal clear view will sadly be disappointed in this regard as the nature of the Rift by design encourages users to move their head in a more unnatural way to retain clarity.
There’s also the issue of the screen door effect where individual pixels can be seen and the spaces between them putting the experience similar to looking at an SD TV set up-close. Whilst initially distracting, like everything else VR it’s something users have to ignore or get used to. Sadly, in most of the applications the further an object the more noticeable the pixels and is something that needs to be addressed either by clever design choices in the software, or via tailoring of the hardware. The Gear VR benefits from a higher resolution screen when compared to the Rift, but it’s said that merely increasing the pixel density is not the way forward in eliminating the screen door effect entirely. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as it’s expected over time, that these issues will be overcome, but the fact they are still present in the readily available Gear VR means a practical solution isn’t available taking into consideration the cost of manufacture versus the projected RRP.
The Hardware Requirement
One of the biggest inhibitors of the perfect VR experience are the resources required to run the applications. The Gear VR has a distinct advantage for would be developers in that it’s a closed system where every unit is essentially the same which means better optimization resulting in perfect experiences across the board. However, the Rift has bigger issues and such is the nature of PC software, there’s a greater expectation for visual fidelity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bode well for the Rift due to the fact that for many coming from crystal clear 1080p and upwards resolutions in 2D, the downgrade is quite severe. A lot of the content visually harks back to simpler days, with low resolution textures and limited assets being the norm, making the VR experiences more of a novelty than genuine alternatives to 2D involvement. When playing supported games, they tend to be something expected from lower end systems and even return to visuals seen on the original Xbox and PS2. The more accomplished games and those which offer VR support such as Euro Truck Simulator 2, Star Galaxy or the unofficial Alien Isolation fair better in terms of overall looks, but there’s an obvious toning down of visual effects to maintain a required 75 frames per second output – remembering the hardware is essentially doubling up on the display output. The truth is, it’s simply not that good in comparison to 2D viewing especially as gamers slowly shift into 2K and 4K viewing now and over the next few years. Again, users have to let go of pre-baked expectations and accept that VR today is a more simplified vision of computer generated content within the outside world – very similar to how 3D content looked on last gen systems such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 when compared to the 2D version. Sacrifices had to be made on consoles, and that same ideal is here on PC as well regardless of the user set up. Even using a high end card around the £300 mark such as the GTX 970 feels like a bare minimum in some cases where opting for SLI (dual GPU) setup can result in less performance problems. But, this doesn’t mean those that do, can ramp up the visuals beyond the capabilities of the display. Unfortunately if the constant 75 fps isn’t maintained, then there’s distortion in the display resulting in nauseating judder when looking around.
It’s early days right now and as we speak, developers are likely working on ways to improve the system requirements for their future wares. However, it’s a big issue, and if VR is to become mainstream, there needs to be a more uniform set of requirements. Or a least a concise way to cater towards varying set ups. Not everyone is going to own a top end PC to play VR experiences, and if it’s a requirement from the start, could possibly hinder the advancement of VR on the PC platform. As mentioned, for the Gear VR and forthcoming PS4 Morpheus this is less of a problem, yet developers will be limited by the power of the Note 4 and PS4 driving the display, keeping the experiences simple.
The Motion Sickness
As with viewing regular 3D content at home or in cinemas, there are a number of people who find the viewing experience uncomfortable and as such VR is likely to exacerbate the numbers due to the added ingredient of motion sickness, or simulated sickness. Some people are susceptible to motion sickness when playing first person shooters on 2D screens, and VR expands this by quite a bit. To the extent where those who are predominantly not affected by motion sickness becoming afflicted. Ultimately it’s the design of the software and control method which can induce motion sickness from VR experiences but there’s also an element of training one’s body to become acclimatized to it. Unfortunately making this a requirement doesn’t work well in a consumer environment placing the onus on the end user to figure it out by trial and error. If many first time VR experiences result in poor reception from those suffering, the sale of VR could be greatly diminished – not an ideal scenario for mass adoption. In this regard there needs to be clear guidelines of use, beyond pop up text warnings during boot up and perhaps specific software tailored to making the introduction of VR into the home more gradual. There’s no doubt a distinctive yearning for shorter VR experiences to reduce the risk, and this in itself brings more challenges against firmly rooted expectations.
What will drive the VR revolution into the home aside from the obvious overall cost, will be the available software. At present, there’s little content – albeit regularly updated – on the Gear VR and as mentioned no actual store front. What is available, and this equally applies to the Rift are miniature experiences and demonstrations rather than fully fledged games. The support for full games on the Rift is limited at present and in light of this 3rd party software such as Tridef Ignition or VorpX can be used on a number of unofficially supported titles. However, what really shines in VR and has a more obtainable rooting is the use of movie and image playback. There are several options for Rift users and Gear VR also supports playback via its own VR Cinema and 360 degree movie streaming Milk app. The results are a lot more tangible than current gaming applications with users being less likely to succumb to motion sickness as a result. With the Rift, the issues of display clarity recur but are less impacting on movie playback where the recreation of viewing a giant cinema screen takes precedence over the finer details being lost. There’s simply huge potential for fairly comfortable movie viewing using the VR environment where there’s even experimentation with shared experiences as seen with the Riftmax Theater application which replicates a cinema experience complete with character interactions, virtual washrooms and props.
The implication of adult entertainment is also huge and being experimented with via the Rift using 3rd party software dedicated to adult VR content. However in its basic form of 2D or 3D playback the experience is unrivalled and places the viewer at the camera focal point during scenes making them far more engaging than regular 2D/3D viewing.
One thing that remains clear, is there’s a lot of interest in VR experiences from the development community, and once there’s a consumer version available beyond the pioneering Gear VR moving into a marketable Rift and console friendly PS4 Morpheus amongst others, the marketplace will inevitably begin to grow as profitability is accounted for. As with 3D movies at the cinema, content specifically created with VR in mind is largely more preferable than those which are merely converted, but, in this instance there’s potential for great things if software like Vorpx is expanded offering users a variety of content from their existing libraries. Something more official could do wonders for early adopters of the Rift as with any hardware launches, the day one software is usually very limited. There’s much room to grow here as bespoke VR content is created and if these early experiences are anything to go by, then the future is certainly bright as there’s no lack of imagination.
VR has certainly come a long way to the point where regardless of mass adoption it will resonate well with enthusiasts and core gamers as the current devices present great overall potential in a number of applications. However, until some truly big budget dedicated content rears its head, it’s not clear how feasible VR will be as a replacement for traditional gaming or whether it ever will be as the experiences are quite different. In many ways, the current technology doesn’t lend itself well to prolonged play sessions, and in this regard a rethink of the ways in which users approach games is possibly required from the get go. That said, as a novel and highly entertaining medium regardless of the systemic inadequacies, VR can and will break down the barriers between the player and player character bringing games and their environments into new and exciting pastures. The only real issue with marketing VR at present is the fact that there’s perhaps no uniformity between systems making personal choices more complicated than they should be. Once more VR devices hit the market in the next year or so, the playground might become over exposed to lesser overall quality and as a result could hamper any advancement in the public eye. As long as there are leaders in the field, presenting concise and accomplished experiences that suit the hardware, then the possibilities are not only enticing, but potentially revolutionary at the same time. Current devices do feel like windows into something bigger and better in the future, making the prospect of VR becoming mainstream incredibly appetizing but just not quite on the precipice of instant mass acceptance.