I spent last week in Las Vegas at the 2018 Consumer Electronics show. There were hundreds of different technologies on display but one of the biggest trends was Virtual Reality.
A lot of Companies Trying to Capitalize on the Popularity
The first thing I noticed was a lot of people using the term Virtual Reality and I don't think they understand it, or they are just using it to get on the bandwagon like other buzzwords. In reality, most of these applications are simply a set of cameras that capture 360 degree photos and videos and can be played back on inexpensive headsets. These are the VR devices powered by smartphones that are basically being pressed against your face. Nearly every vendor is calling that Virtual Reality, but I disagree. It's an interesting experience, but it's not convincing or immersive. Unless you can actually map out a physical space, move through that space and interact with objects, it's not VR. I like to call these pseudo VR experiences modern day View Masters. My biggest concern with these devices is, although they provide a low entry cost, they may be inoculating consumers to the idea of VR with their unsophisticated delivery.
Complete Immersion Isn't Quite Possible Yet
Regardless, organizations are still trying to push the more robust VR experience forward. There was a company called Pimax who showed a prototype of an 8k VR headset that promised high resolution and a larger field of view. They accomplished both of those things, but at the cost of immersion into the environment. The push to improve the peripheral vision actually created more distortion at the edges of the field of view and your brain knows that you're not actually in that environment.
I think they neglected the idea that in order to achieve immersion, it's not necessarily about the field of view or pure-resolution or latency. It's all of these things and more working together. Once you start sacrificing one of the components that create realistic proprioception you lose the immersion and everything falls apart into the uncanny valley. This is why VR is much less forgiving than other mediums.
The other thing that showcased development in the VR sphere was tactile feedback. There were several companies raising the bar to provide methods of action that allowed the user to feel the environment. I participated in a demo where I could feel pressure on my fingertips with a finger clamp that was similar to those used to check your heart rate. As I gripped in the virtual environment there was a little rubber component that would squeeze my fingertips at different pressures. It's interesting technology, but the latency was off. I would squeeze something and then I would feel it a half second later, which throws the immersion right out the window. Right now, the technology is certainly interesting but definitely not prime time. The one thing I wish I could have tested were tactile vests that were on display but not set up for demos. I want to be able to play a boxing game and feel a punch hit my body at the right moment. That experience (once it's honed) will be incredibly powerful, but the technology isn't quite there yet.
HTC Vive Is Still The Leader
When looking at the VR market, there is HTC Vive, Occulus Rift, and then everyone else. HTC just announced the Vive Pro which is wireless, greatly increases resolution and can support multiple sets of lighthouses which increases the area in which the user can move. All of these innovations will help with immersion and will keep HTC at the top.
Locomotion remains a problem. While some companies are trying to resolve this with additional controllers (some that you control with your feet), HTC is addressing it with an enlarged play area as well as new interaction approaches to replace the typical teleportation often found in VR software. Personally, I like teleportation, but they don't so they have a new option similar to flight mode where you push and the world slides under your feet. I don't like that because I try to compensate for it and the perception gets weird.
Another option they're trying is a jogging method where you do 5 micro teleportation steps toward something. As great as the Vive is, locomotion is a problem in any VR environment. Right now, you have to break the immersion. So, they're trying to find a way to stop breaking the fourth wall, but no one has yet. The best option is how Vive allows multiple lighthouses to work together so we can be in a warehouse and work with half of a football field to feel the real immersion. Still no one has found that killer solution that will make that type of experience available to people working with a small footprint.
The main takeaway is that Virtual Reality is real, and is becoming more real. Just be careful not to judge VR by phone-based View Masters.