Let’s start with a quick introduction to the history of virtual reality. Virtual reality was created in 1965 by Ivan Sutherland: he created the “Definitive Screen”, a device that could superimpose metallic structure interiors in a room. The military was simultaneously researching and investing in the potential of virtual reality for simulation and flight training.
The VR industry continued to develop for the next two decades, but the appeal was limited to only the most ambitious engineers and early adapters due to the cost of the components and the computers that powered them. Even in the early 1990s, the price tag for a decent VR headset was over $ 50,000. The high cost of entry, of course, meant it was still out of the question for the average consumer.
PALMER LUCKEY AND OCULUS RIFT CHANGE THE GAME
Fast forward 40 years and Palmer Luckey (the inventor of Oculus Rift) created his first virtual reality prototype at age 18 in his parents’ basement. Luckey eventually developed the product that would become known as the Oculus Rift. Oculus has ushered in today’s era of virtual reality development and breathed new life into this promising technology.
The Oculus announcement was closely followed by tech experts, developers, and early adopters, all of whom had been eager to experience this new frontier in VR development. It wasn’t long before heavyweights like Facebook, Google, and Samsung caught on and started investing heavily in virtual reality in hopes of producing the first consumer-ready device. Facebook believes so strongly in Oculus Rift that it acquired the company for $ 2 billion in March 2014. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that he sees the acquisition as a “long-term gamble on the future of computing.”
TODAY’S CHOICES FOR CONSUMERS
The current line of virtual reality products covers the entire gamut in terms of price and accessibility. You can get your feet wet with Google’s product (aptly named Cardboard). The cardboard is very inexpensive, approximately $ 20.00. Use easy-to-get components like cardboard, biconvex lenses, a pair of magnets, Velcro, and a rubber band. Instead of a built-in screen like the Oculus Rift, this product works with any Android phone running 4.1 or higher (just slide your phone into the “earpiece”). You assemble everything yourself, following Google’s step-by-step instructions with images.
Your phone powers the entire app experience found in Google’s Cardboard app store.) There are no external cables or clunky hardware to deal with … just the cardboard box and your Android phone. At Primacy, we recently built one to test at home – the entire build took about 5 minutes from start to finish.
Oculus Rift from Facebook
Given the current pace of innovation, it’s a safe bet that both the hardware and software for Facebook’s Oculus technology will only get better in the coming months. The consumer model, although not currently available, is expected to launch in mid-2015. The developer model (DK2) costs $ 350 and comes loaded with a low latency screen (the same one used in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3). The display offers a respectable 960 × 1080 resolution per eye with a 75 Hz refresh rate. The unit also includes a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnometer, and a near-infrared camera for head and position tracking. The applications run on a computer that is connected directly to the headset via an HDMI and USB cable.
Samsung’s Groundbreaking Gear VR Edition
Samsung saw an opportunity to jump into the virtual reality mix and partnered with Oculus. They have produced a headset that looks like the most consumer ready device to date. Samsung’s Gear VR Innovator Edition is exactly what you would expect from the established tech giant both in terms of quality and usability. It’s also the most expensive option, with a retail price of $ 200 for the headset + $ 750 (no contract) for the phone needed to power it. Unlike Google’s Cardboard, the Gear VR only works with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, so if you’re lucky enough to own one, you can save yourself a significant amount of money.
The headset itself is very well designed and quite intuitive. There is a volume, touchpad and “back” toggle button on the right side of the headset that can be used to easily navigate through virtual reality experiences and applications. The top of the headset has a focus wheel that is used to adjust the focus to the optimal range for your eyes. Two straps hold the unit firmly on your head, sealing your view of the outside world to enhance the feeling of immersion. Also, the absence of cables connecting it to a computer helps make the experience more pleasant and portable.
No need to remove the head unit to download or switch apps … it can all be done through the Oculus home menu or Samsung’s app library after initial installation and setup. There are a handful of cool and useful apps included out of the box, such as Oculus Cinema, for watching movies and videos in a virtual theater, Oculus 360 Photos, for viewing panoramic photos, and Oculus 360 Videos, for viewing panoramic videos. Samsung also recently launched a marketplace called Milk VR which is basically YouTube for virtual reality.
Samsung Gear VR
THE DOWN SIDE – A CASE OF JUDDERS
We have found that many of the applications available now are graphics intensive and the experience can degrade quickly without a fairly good graphics card. It is worth noting that experiences involving 3D graphics and fast motion can quickly become nauseating to some people due to GPU or frame rate restrictions and a phenomenon known as “jitter” (when images are smeared, marred, or distorted). It is truly the responsibility of developers to create “comfortable” experiences that aim to minimize vibration. Despite the drawbacks, when used in conjunction with a computer that has a high-end GPU, the result is an immersive feeling that 10 years ago would have seemed impossible. The Oculus developer site currently includes a PC SDK and a Mobile SDK that include integrations for the Unity and Unreal game engines. The PC SDK is designed for the Rift DK2, while the Mobile SDK is designed for Oculus-powered devices that take advantage of mobile phones.
VR – THE FUTURE IS HERE (OR REALLY, VERY CLOSE)
We are just beginning to break the surface with virtual reality. The emergence of panoramic video and photography is facilitating the “teleportation” of viewers to places where they could never physically be.
Imagine a front row seat to watch your favorite band perform live … with the freedom to look in any direction in real time. Imagine yourself walking (literally … walking) through your favorite national park as if you were really there. Imagine sitting in a conference room on the other side of the world and interacting with others as if you were really there. These are just a few of the amazing apps that virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift enable. So stay tuned: If current progress is any indication, VR is here to stay and will invade your living room or office long before you think.