Recently, virtual reality has grown to become one of the most exciting areas in consumer technology. From Facebook to Google, from Samsung to Sony, almost every major tech giant has something in the pipeline.
In this article, we explore virtual reality technology. We’ll look at how it could change the world of gaming and entertainment. We’ll also discuss some of the virtual reality headsets currently in development.
In the past few years, virtual reality has grown to become one of the most exciting areas in consumer technology. Although the concept has been around for nearly 50 years, it’s only now the actual technology has reached a stage where it’s ready for consumers.
In the past 12 months, we’ve already seen virtual reality headsets from Samsung and Google. Imminently, Facebook’s Oculus Rift will open for pre-orders with the first virtual reality headsets shipping early next year. We’ve also got virtual reality headsets from Sony and HTC: both are due to be released in early 2016.
The new virtual reality headsets promise a highly-immersive experience in gaming and entertainment. Imagine being able to watch a 360° video and feeling like you’re really there in the middle of all the action. Imagine playing a virtual reality game where you’re able to interact with all the objects around you. Imagine, also, the possibilities for education: learning to fly a plane without any real risk or designing a 3D object whilst also being able to see it.
There are several reasons why virtual reality is only now becoming ready for the prime-time:
Undoubtedly, Oculus is the biggest name in virtual reality at the moment. Though the company has only been around for three years so far, it’s already on the verge of becoming a well-known household name.
The company launched their first prototype headset in 2012 with a high-profile crowdfunding campaign run on Kickstarter. After raising nearly $2.5 million, they went on to make the DK1 and DK2 prototype for developers. In March of last year, Oculus was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. And of course, this is all before they’ve even sold their first headset to consumers.
For Oculus, the first consumer headset is due to go on pre-order later this year. The Oculus Rift, which is due to ship in Q1 2016, is a “next-generation virtual reality” headset which connects to a computer running on Windows. It has a high-resolution 2160x1200 pixel OLED display (1080x1200 pixels per eye). There’s a 90Hz refresh rate for smooth visuals and also a field of view exceeding 110°. Inside the headset, Oculus has added sensors for super-precise, low-latency tracking of position and orientation.
At present, pricing for the Oculus Rift is still to be confirmed. We’d expect it to be broadly in line with the Oculus DK2 pricing so expect to pay in the region of £230. With the headset, Oculus will provide an Xbox One controller free of charge (the controller is used for playing games on the headset). For a virtual reality experience that’s even more immersive, the Oculus Touch motion-based controller will be sold as an additional accessory.
The Oculus Rift headset shown with the optional Oculus Touch controller.
Sony is another major tech giant that’s also on the verge of launching a virtual reality headset.
As history goes, Sony actually has a fair bit of history making virtual reality headsets. In 1997, they released the Glasstron headset. Unfortunately, it had only a limited release and few units were actually sold. Much of this was because the Glasstron was well ahead of its time: it had two low-resolution LCD displays giving 800x225 pixels per eye and a super-narrow horizontal viewing angle of only 30°.
With Project Morpheus, which will be sold next year as a PlayStation 4 accessory, Sony has a vastly more impressive headset to show to the world. The Project Morpheus headset has a full HD OLED display (this gives 960x1080 pixels per eye). The screen can output images at 120Hz and has a 100° field of view. They’re working with a number of developers to make content for the system: more than 30 games are currently in the pipeline for the Project Morpheus headset.
The Project Morpheus headset is expected to be priced at “several hundred dollars”.
Sony’s Project Morpheus will be sold as a PlayStation 4 accessory.
The third major competitor in the area of virtual reality is the HTC Vive, powered by SteamVR.
Built in conjunction with Valve (the developers of Steam) the HTC Vive works in a similar way to Facebook’s Oculus Rift. The headset is attached to a computer and works as an accessory when playing games. It has two OLED displays giving 1080x1200 pixels per eye at a 90Hz refresh rate and a 110° field of view (it has similar specifications to the Oculus Rift).
The main difference compared to the Oculus Rift is you can use the HTC Vive whilst moving around the room. The headset has a built-in safety system known as Chaperone (sensors in the front of the headset will automatically alert you about nearly obstacles and walls). The front-loaded sensors make this a much bulkier headset but the flipside is you get the possibility of moving about.
The HTC Vive also has support for Mac and Linux computers but unfortunately lacks a set of built-in headphones. Ultimately, competition between the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is likely to come down to the set of games on each platform. With backing with Valve and the SteamVR platform, the HTC Vive is likely to be a fairly strong contender.
The HTC Vive is fairly similar to Facebook’s Oculus Rift. It’s built in conjunction with Valve and is able to play games from the SteamVR platform.
Samsung’s Gear VR is a virtual reality headset for the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S6. Built in conjunction with Oculus, the headset contains a slot to hold your Galaxy smartphone and has more accurate sensors for tracking your movement.
Compared with the three headsets already mentioned in this article, a major benefit of the Gear VR is ‘untethered’ virtual reality. With a headset such as the Oculus Rift, there’s a wire connecting your headset to a computer (this is because all processing is done on the PC). With the Gear VR, all processing happens directly on your smartphone. This means there isn’t a need for external connections or wires. However, the compromise is you get a slightly reduced experience: images have a 60Hz refresh rate and the field of view is limited to only 96°. The Gear VR also lacks depth tracking support making it a more basic experience than found on other headsets.
The Gear VR was released earlier this year and is available to buy for around £186.
Samsung’s Gear VR is a virtual reality headset for the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S6.
For a more rudimentary and low-cost way to experience virtual reality, a Google Cardboard viewer is available to buy for less than £10.
The Google Cardboard is essentially a pair of aspherical lenses housed in a cardboard construction. Google has open-sourced the design so anyone is able to build their own viewer: it’s why numerous companies sell a pre-made viewer online for less than £10.
Being such a low-cost accessory, it’s important not to expect too much from the Google Cardboard viewer. Firstly, Cardboard doesn’t have any straps to attach to your head: you’ll need to manually hold it to your face when using the viewer. Secondly, Cardboard also lacks specialist sensors: everything is done directly by your smartphone. Because of this, it’s not something you’re able to use for an extended amount of time. It is, however, a super-cheap way of dipping your toes in the world of virtual reality.
If you’ve bought a Google Cardboard viewer, you can try it out with the free apps for iPhone and Android. It’s also worth having a look at the Cardboard Design Lab and at the list of applications recommended by Google.
The Google Cardboard is a low-cost way of experiencing virtual reality. It’s possible to buy a viewer for less than £10.
At the moment, virtual reality is one of the most exciting areas in consumer technology. Numerous companies including Facebook, Sony, HTC, Samsung and Google are working on their own viewers and virtual reality products. Many of these will start hitting the market in the next 12 months.
What do you think of virtual reality technology? Which virtual reality viewer is currently your favourite? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments: please drop us a message below and let us know what you think!
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