Real Innovation for VR’s Next Wave
With use cases spanning the gaming, healthcare, business and education sectors, is VR set to pick up steam?
We’re seeing an increase in venture capital investment in young VR startups all around the world. In a year when many ideas/startups are finding it increasingly difficult to get funded, startups focused on Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have managed to draw investments of over $2 billion in the last 12 months and as much as $1.1 billion in Q1 of 2016 alone according to Digi-Capital. This increase in funds is allowing for more product companies to innovate with form, fit and function for VR devices.
Although some of the earliest VR efforts happened as far back as 1950, the technology trudged along until it picked up steam again with companies such as Oculus and Google putting VR prototypes out in the market about five years ago. This would explain why VR does not fall anywhere near the peak of the hype cycle in Gartner’s latest “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” graph (Figure 2).
While it is uncertain how much VR will disrupt industries and business models, it is clear that major tech companies are investing in this technology at a large scale, with Facebook’s Oculus, Sony, and HTC all announcing VR products that are available to consumers.
There are many diverse use cases around VR, and more are being invented and tested regularly to truly understand consumer adoption challenges. Some of the most popular use cases include:
Gaming and Entertainment: Devices such as the Sony PSVR are designed to operate with Sony’s PlayStation VR to allow gamers to experience games in a new dimension. Gaming along with other forms of entertainment such as movies, live sports, theme parks, and concerts are likely to benefit from VR.
Healthcare: Potentially one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality is the healthcare industry, which will have the ability to leverage surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery, and skills training capabilities with the technology.
Education: For teaching and learning situations, VR can present complex data in an accessible way that is fun and makes it easy for students to learn. Students cannot only interact with each other, but also with the three dimensional environment.
Business: The business community has applications for VR as well, including virtual tours for business environments, training of new employees, and developing 360-degree views of products.
The VR Headset System
At its core, a VR system requires an input source that is capable of rendering content, a method to transfer the data from the source onto a display, a display device for users to consume the VR content, and controllers for users to interact with the virtual environment. While the first generation of VR products (Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR) used smartphones as the source of content, this is rapidly changing with standalone consoles and PCs designed to render VR content at higher resolutions, making the experience a lot better. In the case of gaming applications, specially designed VR games serve as content whereas in other applications, VR content must be specially shot with cameras designed for VR. This is then transmitted via a physical cable to a display headset designed to give the user an immersive experience in which he or she can use controllers to interact with the virtual environment.
VR Headset Design: Tethered versus Untethered
Most VR headsets today, including Rift from Oculus, HTC’s Vive, and the Sony PSVR have a tethered design. What this means is that the content is generated outside of the headset in a VR-capable console or PC and then transferred onto the headset that the user is wearing through a physical cable. While this physical cable limits the distance that the user can move while inside the virtual environment, the cable is required to render content at a minimum of 60 frames per second (60fps) and latencies of less than 50ms to avoid VR sickness for the user. The burden of processing the data is not in the headset, residing instead on the gaming PC or console. A typical VR experience requires a processor that is anywhere between 4-7x more powerful than processors used in a regular gaming PC. This is because VR experiences are delivered on screens with a resolution of 2100×1200 or higher and at 90fps as against a conventional gaming experience that is delivered on a screen with a typical resolution of 1920×1020 and at 30fps.
At Intel’s IDF 2016 conference, Intel unveiled a wireless or untethered VR device called ‘Project Alloy’ which eliminates the cable and moves the computing to the headset itself (Figure 3). An untethered design will have to not only accommodate the computing needs of a VR experience but should also address concerns of excess heat that will be generated as well as the battery life of a wireless device. But, given the advantages of having a fully contained system—no dragging of a physical cable, buying a separate console, or taking the PC or console with you if you wish to move, an untethered design for a VR headset seems like the way of the future.
Good to Great
Irrespective of a tethered or untethered design, there are a few things that can enhance the user experience and help with greater adoption of the technology:
- More VR Content: As more content gets developed, more users will be drawn in and headset use will increase.
- Accurate Eye Tracking: Most headsets today do not possess an eye tracking mechanism that can track the position of your eye and accurately set the depth of focus in your virtual environment. FOVE’s VR headset has a version of eye tracking built into it, but most other headsets lack it.
- Headphone Technology: The ability to deliver 3D sound without having to use bulky headphones in addition to using the headset for video will make the user’s experience more convenient and enjoyable.
Memory Choices in VR Headsets
Current generation VR headsets, which are mostly tethered, do not have much processing power because much of the processing actually resides in a gaming PC or console, which in turn have about 4-8GB of RAM built into them. Although power consumption is not a concern in plugged-in devices such as PCs and consoles, the performance advantages of a low power mobile DRAM (LPDDR) might influence some designers to choose LPDDR over standard DRAM. Today’s VR headsets, however, have small amounts of non-volatile memory, ranging from 4-256 Mb Serial NOR and from 1-2 Gb Serial NAND. This non-volatile memory is required for the operation of various sensor modules and controllers inside the headset.
Future VR headsets are more likely to be untethered devices with all the processing power built right into them. These processors are more likely to resemble chipsets in high-end smartphones (high performance and efficient power use) than the processors used in PCs and servers with a minimum of 8GB of LPDDR in order to deliver high quality VR experiences. In addition, storage in the form of eMMC, SD cards, or SSDs will be necessary to store data locally on the headset. Various SLC/MLC NAND options, LPDDR2/3/4 options, eMMC, or Multi-Chip Package (MCP)) options that combine NAND and LPDDR in the same package for effective integration and space savings could serve the memory needs of such untethered VR headsets.
Harsha Nagaraju is Segment Marketing Manager for the Embedded Business Unit in Micron Technologies (www.micron.com). Mr. Nagaraju has over 10 years of experience in Engineering and Marketing in the embedded market. He currently specializes in understanding the evolution of the consumer electronics market with specific focus on the burgeoning wearables market and influences the memory product decisions inside of Micron. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from RV College of Engineering, Bangalore, a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia and an MBA from the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.