The Future of VR Depends on Lessons from Its Past
Why we need to reset our expectations of what technology can deliver today if we want VR to be successful tomorrow.
Virtual reality (VR) stands at a critical juncture. Down one path are consumers clamoring for powerful, transformative devices that will open up a new age of virtual immersion. On the other, developers, designers, and engineers continue to grapple with a long list of technology limitations that frustrate the ideal wearable headset design.
What We Need to Make VR Successful
VR requires a highly complex blueprint of features and functions, mimicking the human brain—the most complicated of which is spatiotemporal orientation. VR must persuade our minds in multiple ways (visually, aurally, with scale and context) to believe that the digital is reality, or at least a very good simulation of reality.
To be clear, VR will transform our world. According to Orbis Research, spending on VR technology (independent from augmented reality) is expected to surpass $40 billion by 2020. Research firm IDC also reports that spending on VR systems is forecast to be greater than AR-related spending in 2017 and 2018. VR will transform how we learn, play, create, build, manage, market and interact. Even how we compete.
A Candid Assessment of Virtual Reality Today
We can trace the modern concept of consumer VR technology to the 1990s, when the Sega VR-1 motion simulator was released. It was (by today’s standards) a crude mash-up of visor, stereo headphones and sensors that roughly tracked and responded to the wearer’s head movements.
Fast forward to 2010, when the first personal virtual reality headset prototype, the Oculus Rift, emerged on Kickstarter. It featured a breakthrough 90-degree field of vision (FOV) and was later purchased by Facebook, setting off an avalanche of VR investment and developments by competitive technology companies. This came with projections that the ultimate consumer VR experience was mere months away.
So, what keeps us from delivering a mass consumer, high-end standalone VR experience? Three key issues:
- Tethered headset and latency. A robust and immersive VR system demands a powerful computer with a fast graphic card, which today is only possible via a physical connection to a PC. But, our relationship with mobile phones, tablets, laptops and more has resulted in a consumer market that considers stationary technology archaic. Additionally, wearing a headset while tethered to anything, as you try to move within your virtual environment, is annoying at best—an immersion-killer at worst. In addition, latency—image lag following a head motion—can be a real cause for a flawed VR experience and the oft-mentioned (and never popular) issue of VR motion-sickness.
- Form factor. Never underestimate the importance of comfort, fit and style—particularly in a product worn on the face. Lenses need to align with every set of eyes; headphones need to fit comfortably in the ear, and weight distribution, calculated for comfort and overall size, all need to be taken into account. Right now, 360-degree, fully occlusive VR headsets are very heavy. We are essentially trying to package a high-powered computer with rapid processing speed, high-resolution graphics, positional audio, motion tracking and reasonable battery life into a cool-looking pair of glasses.
- Price. No VR system comes cheap. Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset is currently $400, not counting the added cost of the computer needed to power its virtual reality experiences and games—that’s expensive, especially for the casual VR user (although the Oculus Go costs $200). The highly touted HTC Vive runs about $600, and the console Sony PlayStation VR about $400. The most widely used mobile option (for those who already own a new Samsung phone) is the Samsung Gear VR at about $130.
Then there’s the accessories. For about $299 (pre-order), TPCast’s wireless adapter for HTC Vive establishes a wireless connection capable of transmitting a 2K resolution between the Vive’s hardware and host PC, with less than two milliseconds latency. Also gathering steam (and crowdfunding on Kickstarter) is the $800, Shanghai-based Pimax 8K VR headset, which features two 4K screens and a wireless transmission add-on similar to the TPCast wireless upgrade kit.
Solving the Issues: Lessons from Technologies Past
As always, past technology evolutions and milestones may influence the future of mass consumer VR adoption.
First, consider the impacts of overcomplicated design. Consumers assume that a completely immersive experience can be crammed into a sleek pair of sunglasses. Not true—yet. The reality is that features and functionality come at the expense of size and weight. If we are to look at technology from a practical perspective, the military is a prime example of delivering highly functional, yet stripped-down, devices designed to serve specific needs. Similarly, by scaling back the bells and whistles, and delivering disciplined products—manufacturers can ease consumers into VR.
And by compromising some features, VR can still deliver an adequately immersive experience. This is not to say that VR doesn’t have essential requirements, but some functionality is more ‘luxurious’ than others.
One example is the emphasis on wide FOV, which makes the user feel more present in the experience. But wide FOV requires designers to use bigger displays and bigger optics, making the headset very bulky. In addition, magnifying display images with insufficient resolution in pursuit of wide FOV aggravates the “screen door effect” (where individual pixels become so amplified as to be distracting to the experience).
At Kopin, we offer smaller size, but higher resolution (2048 x 2048) OLED displays with greater pixel density (3000 pixels per inch) to mitigate the dreaded “screen door effect.” Images are magnified and exaggerated using stronger—but much thinner—lenses to allow a very compact headset.
And while weight, comfort, and style will make or break VR adoption and public acceptance—don’t forget price. For those of us old enough to remember the Motorola DynaTAC (brick) cell phone, you’ll also recall the ‘cringe’ factor associated with a device so large it was obvious and obnoxious. But it was the price—$3,995 ($9600 in 2016 dollars)—that kept it from being a mass-market product. In 1996 Motorola unveiled the flip clamshell StarTAC at the cost of $1000, and widespread consumer adoption of the cell phone was born.
The Future of VR
So, how does the industry extend the appeal of existing VR technology to the masses while encouraging innovation?
First, consumer onboarding to VR must be made as easy and affordable as possible. While the most immersive and hyper-realistic experiences are still the domain of gamers, securing a sophisticated VR system will set them back $1000-1500.00. However, since gamers are most likely to already possess the core equipment, they are usually the first to adopt VR technology. Luckily, most technologies go through natural price adjustments as computer and device specs evolve to accommodate desired features.
Another lesson from the past is that, eventually, dominant platforms emerge, streamlining both hardware and software development over time.
Critical to VR’s future success is form. Knowing that today’s consumer expects their communication and entertainment devices to be portable and universally accessible likely means standalone headsets will win. But at the same time, wireless headsets will need to be comfortable on many levels, so weight, size and style will factor significantly in whether a device becomes a novelty or an integral part of everyday life.
So, although the tech limitations of today are clear, VR is on the path to eventual mass adoption. And while challenges like price, ergonomics, low resolution, latency and even a shortage of content, have slowed VRs integration into the mainstream, acknowledging these obstacles assures us that fixes will surface. When the stakes are this high, winners will emerge in the race to transform how people interact with the digital and physical worlds.