Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Barriers for Consumer Virtual Reality may not be What You Think

I'm back from the IEEE VR conference in Orlando, FL, where I've had a chance to speak with many experts regarding perceived barriers to virtual reality adoption in the consumer market.

The need has always been there and almost any person has ideas on what virtual reality goggles can be used for: games, architecture, relaxation, entertainment, rehabilitation and many others. For many years, movies have depicted this as well.

So what is the barrier? Why has it not happened until 2013 and given recent developments, what are the current barriers?

For a long time, the barrier was assumed to be hardware. Solutions such as this, this, this and this were hurt by some combination of low resolution, narrow field of view, lack of head tracking and price. Not every product suffered from every deficiency, but taken as a whole, the experience was just not compelling enough to justify the price for many people. I remember buying one of these products and bringing it home for my kids. After a few minutes of "wow, it's cool!", they put it down and never used it again. The experience was not compelling enough for them, even though they did not have to pay a dime to get it. From what I've learned since, this was typical.

Then, high-resolution smartphone displays came along and VR goggles with wide field of view can be easily created, even as DIY project. Granted, the resolution of these goggles is currently low, and given the wide field of view the pixel density is bad (e.g. grainy pixels unless blurred by so-so optics), but still they are good for games and other applications where such a goggle can provide the thrill of immersion. Over time, higher and higher smartphone displays will become available, overcoming the grainy image. Improved optical designs might also choose to increase pixel density be somewhat lowering the field of view, so alternatives would exist.

Let's thus assume the hardware issue is either solved or at least on the path to being solved. Would the next barrier be content or software? Probably not. There are plenty of 3D videos and an increasing number of games and game engines that support 3D stereo viewing on such smartphone-based goggles. Sure, there are some adjustments to be made such as location and size of menus, but these are tactical and not strategic problems.

A bigger problem is the one of how a user - a gamer in this example - interacts with the game. An immersive goggle hides the outside world. Now you need to find the game controller or keyboard, make sure your hands stay on them and hope that you don't become sea-sick from the disconnect between what your brain and eyes experience and what your body feels. First-person shooter games need to change different aspects of the interaction and come up with a comfortable control mode. These are still unclear. For instance, when Valve launched a version of Team Fortress 2 for VR, they offered various control modes:

  • 0: aiming and steering with your face, the mouse just rotates your “hips”. This is a good mode for use with a control pad.
  • 1: aiming with your face, steering only with the mouse. This mode may be buggy and “drift” after a while.
  • 2, 3, 4: slightly different versions of aiming with the mouse within a “keyhole” in your view. 3 is the default that TF2 ships with.
  • 5, 6, 7: assorted other experiments.

There is a lot to still figure out and, for myself and others that want to see consumer VR succeed, this is both an opportunity as well as a concern. If too many people become sick using VR games, that would not be good.

One of the speakers at the conference, David A. Smith of Lockheed Martin made the analogy between these early days of consumer VR and the early days of making movies. Initially, he said, movies were made by putting a camera at the first row of a theater and then filming the play as if you had a really good seat in the audience. Only later did the camera start playing a role in the movie - following characters around, changing angles, zooming in/out and more. Even the notion of cutting from one scene to the other came at a later time. Similarly, game control methods that were very effective in the mouse/keyboard/control pad era will need to evolve to provide effective and natural game control in the consumer VR world.

It might be that existing games simply cannot be ported well to a VR experience and that new games will have to be created. Which existing XBOX games have an effective port to using the Kinect? Are popular Kinect games those that were created specifically for the Kinect or those that were successfully morphed into Kinect games? The former, I think.

Good game control is not just about figuring out how it needs to be done. Look at the list above: it uses mouse, head, control pad. How about steering with your hands, for instance? The control scheme is only as good as the sensors that are available to it. If it was possible to sense body motion and posture, identify surrounding objects or people, integrate gestures, understand voice commands, then a more comprehensive and perhaps more successful control scheme could be developed. Thus, I believe the  barrier to consumer VR is no longer hardware but rather it is the available sensors and the way to use them to create a compelling user experience. As we've learned from the success of the Nintendo Wii, people buy experiences, not product, and in the case of the Wii, the experience was fueled by innovative sensors and an ingenious game design that took advantage of these sensors.


Anonymous said...

Can't sell headsets so blaming lack of game controls? Elementary.

VRGuy said...

Selling headsets just fine to the professional market - thank you much for asking. Concerned that absent good sensing and control mechanisms, the initial enthusiasm for consumer VR will fade and VR will continue to be over-hyped. We write and speak about these issues to raise awareness and help clear roadblocks.