Virtual Reality is on its Way

After years of showing off development systems and demoing intricate virtual environments, some of the industry's biggest hitters are closer than ever to releasing commercially-available products.

by Andrew Fraser, St. Cloud Times / March 23, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- Virtual reality is on the cusp of becoming ... well, reality.

After years of showing off development systems and demoing intricate virtual environments, some of V.R.'s biggest hitters are closer than ever to releasing commercially-available products.

There are two types of virtual reality setups on the way: dedicated systems and mobile-centric solutions.

Dedicated systems

The modern application of virtual reality isn't too different from that depicted in sci-fi lore. The experience isn't as seamless (or comfortable) as the fictional Holodeck or Danger Room might be, but the head-mounted displays common in today's V.R. do succeed on their promise of transporting the wearer to digital worlds.

While a head-mounted display is usually the centerpiece of a dedicated system, these setups generally employ a variety of devices and technology to enhance the user's V.R. experience.

Along with head tracking, systems might use a camera or laser array and several positional sensors to track a user's movement. Other systems add controllers or wand-type devices to track a user's hand movements or gestures.

These parts of the system work together to keep the user immersed in a virtual world.

Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus, two of the biggest players in virtual reality, were joined this spring by HTC Vive, a device collaboration between HTC and gaming giant Valve.

While there are other companies in V.R. (and more entering all the time), these three devices appear to be best poised to make major waves when consumer V.R. products start releasing.

No official release dates have been announced for any of the three dedicated devices, but HTC and Valve are looking to get the Vive out this year, while Sony has targeted 2016 for Project Morpheus.

Oculus has a development version of the Rift available now, but hasn't announced an official launch window for the Rift's consumer version.

Mobile solutions

Mobile virtual reality systems offer a taste of V.R., but on a smaller scale. These headsets contain no screen, but use a docked-in smartphone as the display.

The first commercial mobile V.R. headset was last year's Samsung's Gear VR. The result of a partnership with Oculus, the $200 device was intriguing and functional, but was only compatible with one smartphone: Samsung's Galaxy Note 4.

Samsung and Oculus recently announced an updated Gear VR compatible with Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, but unless some killer apps are added to the experience, I imagine the device will be limited by audience again. Which is sort of the point, since the setup is heavily marketed to developers and early adopters, not consumers looking for the best overall V.R. setup.

Those interested in virtual reality that find themselves without an approved Samsung phone or a little less scratch might go for Google Cardboard (google.com/get/cardboard/).

Cardboard is literally that, a put-it-together-yourself cardboard kit that when assembled, houses a supported Android phone, which acts as the setup's display. Google doesn't sell the kits, but points users to vendors or plans to acquire or build their own.

The cardboard option is super-DIY, but might be a good way to inexpensively check out some content without purchasing a full setup.

I don't see any of the mobile solutions taking off big, but they might provide a fun diversion to owners of supported devices.

Challenges

As with any nascent technology, the dive into virtual reality isn't going to be without some challenges.

For one, users with certain vision or depth of field issues may not be able to fully enjoy the 3-D presented by V.R. Also, motion sickness has been an issue for some users. Companies are doing their best to accommodate those affected, so hopefully the technology to help deal with this improves as more users are able to interact with and report issues with the various platforms.

Dedicated setups also have space and ease-of-use issues that need to be addressed before commercial release. Most of the systems seem to involve a lot of wires, so finding a way to package the different cables together or make some of the systems wireless would help.

The systems that track position also require some physical moving space. I don't think people will need to dedicate rooms to using this (yet), but any sort of free movement is going to require an area set aside to avoid cable-catching, running into walls, that sort of thing.

We also don't know how much the best systems are going to cost. Oculus Rift's Development Kit 2 headset costs $350, but it's unknown if the consumer version will come in at or near that price point. Also, while the headsets might be in the affordable range, the cost of positional trackers, controllers and other input devices will add up quickly for users that want the whole setup.

Fragmentation is also going to be an issue. Users are going to want to know that their system works with most of the best virtual reality hardware and software. The Rift and Vive will likely work with computers, but will they work with the same types of games or programs? Morpheus will work on Sony platforms, like PS4, but will it work anywhere else? I can't see most people buying multiple setups, so fragmentation could hurt early adoption if the best experiences are spread out across platforms.

At this point, one of the big players needs to pull up their trunks and jump off the diving board. Oculus, Valve and Sony all have great tech guys that will solve issues as virtual reality matures. We're close to the moment where someone takes the leap and gets the technology out there for the world to experience, pick apart and improve.

©2015 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC