Immersive technology is poised to reshape digital media consumption — if the price is right.
It is the stuff of science fiction and of science fact: Total and believable sensory immersion into a virtual world, known as “presence,” is the future of media consumption, as well as the future of engineering and medicine, education, combat, real estate, tourism — even porn and sex itself. In short, this rapidly evolving technology holds no less than a full promise of revolutionizing human existence, our daily lives, and our livelihoods.
For now, however, it’s a gimmick that is as likely to make you physically nauseous from using it, as it is to convincingly transport you to another realm. Think of it akin to 3D video, which after nearly 100 years of development, remains an immature technology that still leaves much to be desired. While the current crop of immersive devices remain more idea than ideal, the development of this technology is such a big deal for so many stakeholders that it is not a matter of if, but of when — and of how convincing a user’s perception of presence will ultimately be.
Pursuing Virtual Reality is Nothing New
While younger generations may want to claim the concept of virtual reality (VR) and augmented sensory displays as their own, the fact is that the predecessors of today’s prototypes can trace their lineage back 60 years or so — to devices such as the Sensorama of the mid-1950’s — think of an old arcade size- and style machine, where the user sits down and places his or her head into a viewing hood. The Sensorama featured a vibrating chair, plus a pair of stereo speakers, fans to provide airflow intended to simulate wind, and odor emitters for added realism, while the Sensorama engaged its users by mimicking motorcycle and helicopter rides.
A decade later, towards the end of the 1960’s, the first 3D head-mounted displays that altered the user’s view and perspective based on head movements emerged. These units were so bulky that they wore the user as much as the user wore them — requiring an articulated mount to suspend the hefty “headset” from the development lab’s ceiling.
Fast forward 15 years to 1984’s release of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which dealt with a virtual realm that users could immerse themselves in. Fifteen years later, “The Matrix” popularized the notion of a Borg-like collective consciousness, where individuals interfaced with machines as their sole existence — conceptually similar to the “Man-Machine” — a modern corollary to Fritz Lang’s silent film masterpiece, “Metropolis,” which so powerfully warned of an invasive merging of man and machine, back in 1927.
Although we have not yet entered the era of “The Matrix” as Hollywood envisions it, the boundaries of technology are continually pushed — with the U.S. military on the forefront of immersive technology. This is exemplified by the new generation of helmets being developed for F-35 pilots, which will provide jet jockeys with an all-encompassing 360 degree view of the aircraft’s immediate battle space, by using advanced sensor integration — a far cry from when pilots would jury-rig an automobile’s rear-view mirror in their cockpit, in hopes of grabbing a glance at any enemy aircraft approaching from the rear…
Closer to home, and much less expensive (unless you are Facebook, which paid $2 billion for it), is the much ballyhooed Oculus Rift — which the social media giant wants you to have in your home next year.
Oculus Rift: The New Standard Bearer
Beyond effective presence and an inherent “cool factor,” headsets such as Oculus Rift, which will be first marketed to the gaming community, will need a low price point, simply due to its target demographic —a factor that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey concedes, while noting that the retail price of Oculus Rift has yet to be determined.
“I’ve always said is that if VR isn’t affordable it might as well not exist for most people,” Luckey stated. “We’re not looking to make a rich person’s toy, we’re not looking to make a research tool. We want to make a consumer VR headset that pretty much anyone can afford.”
Luckey explains that available content is the commodity that sells hardware, and if the hardware is too expensive, then developers will shy away from supporting it.
“You can’t sell an expensive piece of hardware and expect tons of content to show up,” Luckey said. “We’re not doing market research around what’s the breaking point for people to buy a VR headset; we’re just trying to sell it as cheap as we can while still existing as a company.”
According to Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe, the company hopes to bring Rift to market at around $300 — the same price as the development kit — but Iribe wants the device to eventually be free to acquire, noting that “the lower the price point, the wider the audience.”
“Obviously it won’t be [free] in the beginning,” Iribe says. “We’re targeting the $300 price point right now but there’s the potential that it could get much less expensive with a few different relationships and strategies.”
The company’s focus on finances goes beyond considerations of product price, however. Originally funded through Kickstarter donations, many early Oculus supporters reportedly felt “betrayed” when the company “sold out” to mega-brand Facebook — so a free or low cost offering could placate frayed community feelings and lead to a resurgence of support for the company.
For its part, Facebook believes that virtual reality could be the next great evolution in computing.
“Oculus has the potential to be the most social platform ever,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated.
“Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
The persistent problem of reconciling potential with profitability extends to Oculus Rift as well, with Facebook noting that while it has yet to develop a solid business model for the device, it hopes that revenues will not depend on selling headsets or other hardware — with Zuckerberg envisioning people visiting virtual worlds that are supported by advertisements and that have a retail shopping component (think visiting a shopping mall without leaving home, where social inputs influence purchase decisions).
“We feel like we should be looking ahead and thinking about what the next platforms are going to be,” Zuckerberg said, adding that “We think vision is going to be the next really big platform.”
With a reported 75,000 Oculus Rift developer kits already shipped, Zuckerberg’s hunch seems to be on the right track — but Oculus Rift is not the only freight train roaring down the track to virtual reality…
Google’s “Mockulus Thrift”
For all the fanfare surrounding Oculus Rift as being a technological marvel, the basic premise of it is a simple one, with an example familiar to old-school film photographers: who despite investing countless dollars into high-end gear, still marveled at the images made with “pinhole” cameras, which were often constructed for free, using an old shoe box.
Google took this into the digital age, when it gave Google I/O event attendees a slab of cardboard, which when folded, tabbed, and an Android phone inserted inside, became what some call “Mockulus Thrift.”
A small magnet on the device’s outside acts as a control switch, while a pair of plastic lenses provides the big-screen illusion of other wearable vision devices. No audio component was included.
Officially known as “Project Cardboard,” Google’s Mockulus app offers seven “experiences,” including a YouTube theater simulator; a Street Vue function that provides a VR version of the company’s street view mapping, and a Photo Sphere Viewer that lets users examine images produced using Android’s 360 degree panorama function.
Although some observers characterize Google’s ploy as a joke, others see it as a declaration that the tech giant could easily wade into this arena with its own technology and disrupt everything.
What About Google Glass?
To use the well-worn “Star Trek” analogy, the promise of total sensory immersion is akin to the idealistic vision of Star Trek’s Holodeck — whereas Google Glass is more akin to character Geordi La Forge’s visor, which not only gave him sight, but also informational overlays that provide a more comprehensive view of the world(s) around him.
Perhaps best illustrative of the ideal of “stylish” functionality for everyday usage (it is easier to imagine consumers wanting to wear a Google Glass style device out in public, than wandering about with a big helmet on their heads), the capabilities of the two product types is too divergent to compare as equals.
While an immersive headset could do what Google Glass does, the streamlined device may not be able to emulate the isolative presence of a full headset; so today, it is an apples versus oranges comparison.
Perhaps the most “finished” of the commercial options (although not expected to be released this year), Sony’s Morpheus shows the technology powerhouse is not relinquishing the virtual reality space without a fight.
“We really focused a lot on technology in the past, and [now] we really want to focus more on the new experiences that technology enables,” PlayStation’s Magic Lab Director, Richard Marks, says. “One of the things that we believe strongly in is actually prototyping things; we call it: experiencing engineering.”
One of the biggest engineering challenges in bringing virtual reality to market is to affordably deliver a consistently high frame rate along with low-latency, which with today’s technology, requires compromises; but this is not the only technical challenge facing device developers.
“There’s a trade-off. There’s a fixed amount of resolution. So you can either give that to a really wide field of view or you can make [the resolution] feel higher, but the [field of view] narrower,” Marks adds. “We’re trying to get a good balance of that.”
“Right now we’re still working on the issue of the display,” Marks intimates. “Right now we have a great prototype system for our developers … [but] for the commercial system, we’re still working on that.”
Two of the unique aspects differentiating Morpheus from Rift are concept and completion. The former is illustrated by the company’s move from using traditional eye tracking, to focus on “gaze tracking” and the ability to sense non-verbal communication cues, as humans do when communicating face-to-face.
“A lot of different people are looking at how to track your eyes,” Marks offers. “Our focus is more on, if you can track your eyes, what do you do with it?”
“Where someone is looking conveys a lot of information about what the person is interested in, what they intend to do, and it’s a very unconscious thing that people do,” Marks concludes. “You can make the characters smarter because they kind of react in a way that is more intelligent because they know what you’re looking at.”
As for the latter differentiator, completion, Sony has a display device on sale now that will give users a glimpse of tomorrow’s technology today: the $999.99 HMZ-T3W Wearable HDTV. Boasting 2D and 3D video capability along with 7.1 surround sound, the device uses a pair of OLED displays to give users the perception that they are viewing a whopping 750 inch screen from a distance of 65 feet — emulating a real world theatre experience.
Eying Oculus’ pricing trend, Sony claims that while Morpheus will use similar hardware, it won’t cost a thousand dollars — and given the company’s massive content library (an asset not shared by Oculus), back-end monetization is a much more realistic option for the firm.
While the future of these devices is tantalizing, their current reality is one of providing a better viewing experience for users — but the promise is not one of watching, but of doing.
Immersive Interactivity: “The Killer App”
“Up until now, the most immersive medium on the planet has been a five-story IMAX screen,” 3D filmmaker D.J. Roller says. “Now it’s a phone-size, head-mounted screen.”
Consumers really don’t need just a new way to watch videos, however — so it is not only a matter of size or form factor — these “phone-sized” personal devices have buttons so that users can control them.
For better or worse, immersion and interactivity have been tied at the hip. After all, there is little value in entering a virtual world if you are unable to interact with it. Back to the 3D movie analogy, today’s tech may provide “depth” to a scene (with an occasional butterfly or other element seeming to flutter past and behind you), but without the ability to change the movie’s outcome, or to involve yourself with any of its elements, then you are merely an observer in the story, rather than a participant.
Additionally, actively participating in a virtual realm is better when you can do it anywhere, at any time.
This tie in to mobility is perhaps the most important next step for these devices, as this evolution will offer several benefits: For example, by providing a “big screen” alternative to the current small screen of mobile devices, these platforms will take a step toward being integrated personal communications, data and entertainment hubs for consumers — and perhaps ring the death-knell for traditional in-home PCs. This next generation tech model envisions the use of a headset as a remote display for a smartphone, tablet or other device — a personal theatre, if you will.
Another milestone will arrive when immersive wearables shed their wires (as well as their reliance on an additional computer or other device to power and feed media to them) — evolving into “IP headsets” — similar to the way webcams evolved from PC-dependence to IP-addressable, connected self-sufficiency.
An ironic aspects of immersive interactivity is that videogamers, utilizing the technology as a toy, may likely be the mass-market segment the provides the commercial traction needed to develop mankind’s greatest tool, to be used for more “serious” applications. Given the half-plus century scientists have already put into immersive technology, expecting perfection in the near term is wishful thinking; but the palpable sense of presence is improving with each generation and the long term promise is bolstered by the benefits that immersive interactivity will bring to mankind. It really is just too big a deal to ignore…