Talking virtual reality with David Haynes

Last year we released a virtual Ben Nevis to explore on Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. David Haynes was one our developers working on the project and shares his views on VR.

Ben Nevis shown in VR

Ben Nevis shown in VR

What expectations do you have for VR in the near future?

2016 is going to see two big consumer releases on desktop in the Rift and the HTC Vive. Google have announced a new generation of Cardboard, and Samsung will likely release an updated GearVR later in the year to take full advantage of the upgraded hardware in their new S7 range phones (due to be released later this month).

Currently I see desktop and mobile VR as two overlapping but somewhat distinct markets:

  1. Mobile – GearVR and Cardboard

If/when Samsung and Oculus get full position tracking working later this year – Oculus are working on this in the form of John Carmack (the genius behind the groundbraking videogame engines for Doom, Quake, etc.) then this will be a key differentiator for them, and will increase the immersive experience of the GearVR substantially. It currently only does rotation/orientation tracking, not position.

Google might have something up their sleeve also with Cardboard 2.0 but it is difficult to envisage a product that is as well polished at that delivered by the tight integration between Oculus and Samsung on the GearVR.

Mobile will initially mostly be used for 360 video and other immersive ‘experiences’ (see, for example, Titans of Space – and educational astronomy app). This is the ‘mass market’ appeal of VR as it currently stands.

  1. Desktop – Rift and Vive

The initial appeal of the more powerful, more immersive desktop VR market is focused heavily on gaming. Hardcore gamers will be the early adopters.

Other niche uses of desktop VR will become more common – architectural visualisation and design being one of the most obvious examples.

Oculus are partnering with Unity the game technology company to offer all Rift owners 4 free months of their game development platform Unity 3d. HTC and Valve (partners on the Vive headset) are working closely with both Unity and Epic Games (makers of the Unreal game engine – the other major offering in the market alongside Unity).

It is clear from this that this initial wave of consumer devices is being pushed heavily by the companies involved into the hands of content creators. Both Oculus and Valve/HTC have a vested interest in people being able to create compelling experiences for these devices, which will definitely be required for them to reach ‘critical mass’ in the marketplace.

Why do you think VR has become as big as it has, or is about to be?

Once you have tried a low-latency, high-framerate experience, such as that offered by the Vive, Rift or GearVR, you will see that this technology changes the way we think about interaction with computers and information. Instead of staring at content on a flat 2d screen, you are suddenly transported to a different world, and immersed inside it.

You can travel instantly to other places; experience things that you would never be able to otherwise; and visualise things in a more realistic and compelling way than ever before.

Humans love escapism, and this is the cutting edge of technology that can provide that. When people try a VR experience they are inspired by the posssibilities.

Beyond escapism, I think there are potential uses that can benefit humanity also. Already surgery has been successfully planned and executed with the assistance of VR, for example.

How separate is 360-degree photography from VR?

360 photography has been around for a long time, and isn’t necessarily tied to VR in any way. One of the biggest uses of it that people are aware of is Google Streetview – where a vehicle captures photographs in 360 which can then be viewed in Google Maps.
In the same way that 2d photos are separate from the monitors or screens we currently use to view them, 360 photography is separate from VR.

How much of stepping stone is it to VR?

360 photography and VR are a natural fit. VR is a natural way to consume 360 photographic content. You can look around and the photo (or video) surrounds you.

If by stepping stone, you mean a path to mass adoption, then I think 360 photographic content will help with that. Already there are experiences on the GearVR that demonstrate how compelling this can be.

Where is this heading in the short, medium and long-term?

Short term – 360 video still has challenges to overcome, notably resolution, which is limited by the resolution of available VR displays, and challenges with capturing 3d content.

Medium term, I think we will see more 360 content produced. GoPro will need to release a 360 camera to stay relevant. Indie and short film makers will produce 360 videos to be consumed on more VR hardware.

Long term perhaps a large, feature-length Hollywood film. We may in the future look back on non-360 photos like we look back on black and white photos today.

Are there any challenges with today’s VR technology?

Definitely. The top three off the top of my head:

Motion sickness: This is mostly solved on the Rift and Vive, but is still a big issue on mobile, and often ruins not only the experience for people, but also their willingness to ever try VR again. To avoid this, you require several factors: positional tracking; sub 20ms latency when moving; and a high framerate (90 frames per second ideally). None of the current generation mobile hardware is designed with these requirements in mind, but no doubt the next generation (i.e. this years’) will be.

Mobile performance and battery life: Currently a Samsumg GearVR will burn through a full charge in less than an hour of intense use. It is difficult to envisage a neat solution to this problem that doesn’t involve the invention of a new battery technology. The physical limits are just too great otherwise. Perhaps in the short to medium term mobile VR users will get used to carrying around an extra external battery pack for periods of extended use.

Environmental dangers when wearing a VR headset: Vive offer a solution to this in the form of the ‘Chaperone’ system – which overlays the real world on the virtual one if it detects the user is in danger of colliding with an object in the room. In theory this can also be provided on mobile by using the device’s rear facing camera, and additional processing power or dedicated hardware.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 17.00.00

Take a look at our virtual Ben Nevis and explore on Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

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