Augmented vs. Virtual Part 1 – Virtual Reality
Technologically enhanced vision has been with us for many hundreds of years, with eyeglasses having been in use since at least the 14th century. Without effective sight, living has of course remained possible during this era, but it is a meaningful disadvantage. Now, new technologies are offering the promise to not only make our lives easier, but to also give us new capabilities that we never thought possible.
This idea, enhancing our vision using technology, encompasses a range of technologies, including the two promising arena of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The names are fairly self-explanatory; augmented reality supplements and enhances your visual reality, while virtual reality by contrast creates a whole new reality that you can explore independently of the physical world. Technically, AR hardware generally consists of a pair of glasses, or see-through panes of glass attached to hardware, which runs software that projects translucent content onto the glass in front of you. VR, on the other hand, is almost always a shoebox/goggle-like headset, with two lenses allowing two different screens in front of your eyes to blend into one, using head motion-tracking to make you feel like you are in the virtual world. Both are very cool to experience, as I experienced while attending the Augmented World Expo last week in Silicon Valley, where I have able to demo a host of AR and VR products. This article focuses on my experiences with Virtual Reality gear; next week I will follow-up with thoughts on Augmented Realty.
Virtual reality, when combined with well-calibrated head-tracking technology, allows you to be transported into a whole new world. You can turn your head, look around, and the software responds as if this world is actually around you, mimicking real life. This world can be interactive, or it can be a sit-back-and-relax type experience. Both are equally astounding to experience, as the technology is advanced enough so that you can temporarily leave this world and enter whatever world is being shown on your head mounted display (HMD). I wrote about a great use-case of VR at the AWE Expo recently, which involved being suspended horizontally and strapped into a flight-simulation VR game.
Despite what you might think, the optics no longer seem to be a problem, as the engineers at early leaders including Oculus and Gear VR have designed headsets that don’t bother our eyes during use, a problem that plagued early models. That said, complaints persist about vertigo and eye-strain from long periods of use. Even Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO, got motion sickness from their first Dev kit. Luckily, but his company and others have been making improvements to the software. Personally, I didn’t get sick the least bit while at the conference.
Uses for VR, among many, tend to fall in one major category thus far: entertainment. Video games are set to be transformed by virtual reality, which promises to bring a new dimension into what could be possible in a gaming experience. First-person shooters and games of that like were already trying to become as real and immersive as possible on a flat screen, but with a 360-degree view around the player, and interactive head-tracking… well, it’s surprising that games like Halo, Destiny and Call Of Duty don’t already have VR adaptations. And games with a more artistic themes and play will also benefit greatly in using VR rather than 2D screens, as adding the ability to look around and feel like you are in the game will surely spark ideas in many developer’s heads. At E3 2015, which took place this week in Los Angeles, many commented that virtual reality was an obvious trend in gaming this year, and excitement was starting to build about VR’s potential in gaming. While hardly a gaming exclusive environment, VR appears to be a promising tool for immersive military training as well. Nothing prepares a soldier or a pilot better for an on the battlefield or in the air situation better than already pseudo-experiencing it. The possibilities for gaming and military training are endless in terms of VR, and it really is exciting to see what developers are coming up with.
One thing that may hold VR back is the hardware. Despite having mitigated the vertigo issues, another hardware complaint has been weight. While the Oculus Dev Kit 2 is a little less than 1 pound, which isn’t much, but can be strenuous when wearing for a long period of time. Still, if we have learned anything from the growth of smartphones it’s that technology marches in one clear direction: smaller, lighter, and faster. And that’s one thing that I believe separates AR and VR: VR is already to the point that the only changes needed to be made will be upgrades to the existing hardware. The pixel density, the graphics speed, the weight, the size. Not to mention that in a few years, many of the major problems with VR will be solved, and this is something that I think separates it from AR.
Whereas all VR has to do is get the hardware right and then integrate head tracking software into their 3D games or movies, AR has a ways to go until has perfected its hardware to the same level as VR has. AR is frankly just harder for the developers. Not only do they have to worry about the pixel density, head-tracking, weight, and size like VR, but they have to worry about depth, the screen transparency, object recognition, 3D mapping, and much more. Currently, there isn’t one big AR player, like Oculus, that small developer teams can use as a platform for their own AR software, and that might also be limiting the growth of the technology. A big player may emerge in the next could years, with candidates including Google Glass and Microsoft’s upcoming AR headset HoloLens leading the race, but for now, AR isn’t really an area where small developing teams can just jump in.
In the grand scheme of things, AR and VR are at similar stages of development. Within a decade or two, these problems will vanish, and the technologies will be face-to-face, the only thing separating them is their inherent utility in particular situations. For VR, it is a technology that was made for entertainment and gaming. The idea of transporting yourself to another world, especially when the tech is fully developed and you can’t tell the difference between VR and real life, is as exciting as it is terrifying. Still, we can’t help but try to create these amazing games and experiences, as they very well may expand humanity into virtual world we never could have dreamed of. As developers start meddling with the technology, and consumers start buying units, VR will grow into many more markets, but for now, entertainment, gaming, and military training are the main uses. It really is a technology out of the future, and I can’t wait to see what amazing experiences and tools that VR will bring to the world next.
This is the first piece in a two-part series on AR vs. VR. Check back here soon for the second article!