Virtual Reality: a new Technology Frontier

Welcome to MaxBrain.it,

I’d like to kick-off this blog with an article on a topic of growing interest in these days: Virtual Reality.
Before delving into it, I’d like to stress that my intention is not to go through things as a guru could do, this is more about sharing my thoughts and my own experiences.

There’ s a place here in Italy where art meets technology: it’s the art shop of a friend of mine in Jesolo, near Venice. Every year during the summertime I use to spend some time enjoying the paintings there, while sharing thoughts on video games technologies with my friend: we went through the Golden Age , when video games became popular on teens’ houses thanks to the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum and today we can enjoy thoroughly the improvements that Technology deploys.

 

Virtual Reality What is Commodore 64Virtual Reality What is ZX Spectrum
C64 – Di Bill Bertram – Opera propr., CC BY-SA 2.5, Collegamento
ZX Spectrum – Di Bill BertramOpera propria, CC BY-SA 2.5, Collegamento

 

When I first saw an iPhone, I thought: “Wow, this will change lives of people and will open up a new video games market!”, I was right.

This summer I tried for the first time Virtual Reality with my friend’s Samsung Gear VR and I was impressed. I had the same feeling that VR could have a huge impact in the future. Clearly not the same as smartphones had (I don’t imagine multitudes of people with a Virtual Reality viewer in their pockets), but something important in some way as the application context is very wide.

I decided therefore to go deeper, I read several articles on Internet, I bought a viewer, wrote some code and created some personal app to understand better. Finally I added Virtual Reality libraries to the videogame I’m developing. And it’s not bad.

The following thoughts will recap what I found on Virtual Reality:

 

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a trip of the mind, an illusion that can become real thanks to a software layer and a physical viewer to wear on your head. It’s a simulation of a parallel reality in which you can simply watch or interact in different ways.

With Virtual Reality you can enter infinite worlds created for the sake of playing, simulating or exploring environments. With a good viewer and a well tweaked software you will feel completely immersed into the virtual reality produced by the running program. It’s completely different from the 3D glasses cinema where you can see objects floating out of the screen: with Virtual Reality your brain will be definitely deceived and you will have the impression to be “inside” what you’re looking at. Moving your head around, up or down, you’ll see the virtual world as you were there. Very intriguing, isn’t it?
Virtual Reality can be classified in active or passive, depending on the type of experience the software allows you: if no interaction with the environment, it will be passive (you’ll only observe the virtual world), if you can interact by moving, aiming or grabbing object in some ways, it’s active.

Virtual Reality What Is

 

Virtual Reality (VR) Technologies

So, in order to enter Virtual Reality you’ll need at least a viewer, at the time being my search for a VR solution lead me to three main categories:

 

Entry Level (Smartphone + Viewer)


  • Universal Viewer 
  • Google Cardboard &  Daydream Platform
  • Samsung Gear VR

 

Mid Level (Console + Viewer)


  • PlayStation VR

 

High Level (PC + Viewer)


  • Oculus Rift
  • HTC Vive

 

Let’s see them in details, applying five evaluation parameters: Price, Image Quality, FOV, Apps Library, Interaction Level.

Price. Being a new world, we need firstly to understand if we like it, so the price is the first aspect to evaluate as the range can vary in a wide spectrum. I deem it’s important been aware of what to buy and the type of expected experience.

Image Quality is very important to get a real immersive trip into Virtual Reality, so lens quality, display size and resolution, its pixel density and refresh rate are the rationals to consider. In order to avoid motion sickness a good refresh rate is required, better if between 90-120 Mhz (90-120 frame rate per second). I tried apps with a refresh rate around 60 Mhz and they were not bad for my gut. There are also other parameters you can hear of (such as latency) but I won’t deal them in this recap.

FOV (Field of View) is an important parameter for an immersive experience: considering the standard human-eye field of view between 160°-200°, the wider the viewer FOV is, the more immersive will be the world depicted in front of you.

Apps Library means the chance to get dedicated software to exploit thoroughly your viewer.

There are solutions that lets you interact deeper with the environment, starting from a basic object interaction (the chance to click on something through a button on your controller) or grabbing objects, up to the chance to walk on the physical space around you, replicating the movement into the virtual space. The viewer Interaction Level define that.

 

Universal Viewer

Virtual Reality Universal Viewer

Nowadays the easiest solution to enter Virtual Reality is to buy a universal viewer and insert into it your smartphone (if it fits the minimum technical requirements needed). Generally your smartphone should have a display between 3.5-6.0 inches and most important of all a gyroscope (gyro sensor) that will allow the software sensing your head turning (accelerometers will take care instead of side and front rotations). The larger the display, the more immersive will be your experience. To check your phone features you can go to www.gsmarena.com.
There are plenty of viewers you surely can afford in a range of 10-40$/€. Prices are really low because a basic viewer has no Electronic,  it’s made of plastic and a pair of lens that will ensure the stereoscopic 3D vision of the dual image the app on the smartphone will show. In order to work for Virtual Reality, an app should be added a specific Virtual Reality library that will double the output into two cameras (one per eye) and the viewer will put the images together, showing you a vivid 3D world.
So basically, you buy the viewer, download a VR-ready app from your App, Android or Windows Store, start it, put the smartphone into the viewer and wear the viewer. Don’t forget to sit down because you won’t see the physical world around you and you could also experience motion sickness. The voyage begins: If it’s a passive Virtual Reality app, all you have to do is looking around, up and down, if it’s an active Virtual Reality app, you will interact with your head and either a dedicated button (featured by some viewer, usually known as “magnetic trigger” -it usually works only on some smartphone-) or a controller that could be a gamepad (a common controller for games) or a dedicated bluetooth controller.

 

Google Cardboard &
Daydream Platform

Virtual Reality - Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard is Big G’s VR project made of a set of specifications, its compatible viewers and a development kit that allows developers to deploy apps for it. The specific Cardboard viewer is the less expensive one on the market and it’s made of carton plus a couple of lens, it’s very cheap, but the downside is the poor quality. Let’s say we’re still speaking about an universal viewer (a viewer where you can insert compatible smartphones). On the other hand you can also find several universal viewers compatible with the Cardboard apps and games (they should have the logo “works with Google Cardboard”, that means they meet the Google Cardboard specifications, ensuring quality standards and basically a trigger input button and a QR Code that will allow the App to automatically configure its display parameters to provide the best vision with the viewer (as an example adapting its output in order to minimize the lens distortion effect).

google-daydream

Daydream is the second step of the Big G’s Virtual Reality project and it extends the CardBoard project with a specific, higher quality and dedicated viewer made of lightweight fabric (Google’s idea is to provide users with something made the same stuff they usually would wear). Apps have to comply with its standards and it comes with a dedicated controller (that will take care of pointing objects and menu management and will be the main input for Daydream, likely excluding gamepad controllers) . The aim is to reach a high level of experience in Virtual Reality and prices here begin to raise as it costs around 79$/€ and it requires a compatible phone with Android Nougat, so you’ll need to get a recent compatible phone such as Google Pixel or one of those suggested on the Daydream portal. We’re speaking about a bundle around 700-900$/€. It’s true the smartphone is not dedicated to VR, but if you will have to buy the viewer and the smartphone the investment is important.
I didn’t find a clear specification for the Field of View and it doesn’t have a focus adjustment wheel, something I deem really a problem, because the most important thing in Virtual Reality is to have a clear vision and focus is different for everyone.

For the Universal Viewer, Cardboard and Daydream the display resolution is  the one of your smartphone (i.e. 640 x 1136 that means 640 x 568 pixels per eye(*) with iPhone 5 / 750 x 667 pixels per eye with iPhone 6), image quality discrete (with apps up to 60 Mhz), Apps Library rather wide (you can find many apps on the AppStore, Google Play or Microsoft Store), Interaction Level very basic (only the game controller in your hand for Universal & Cardboard, the dedicated controller for Daydream that senses your hand movements).

(*): in order to get the 3D depth field, the apps reproduce a doubled rendering of the screen, showing the output divided into two images (stereoscopic view, see image below) that are then put together by the lenses of the viewer.

Virtual Reality What Is Double Screen

 

Samsung Gear VR

samsung-gear-vr

The Samsung Gear VR is probably the best solution for Virtual Reality in the Entry-Level set if you already own a Samsung Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6 edge+, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. Its cost is around 100$ (129€ in Italy) and it’s a good quality device. It features a wide Apps Library and I deem it an advanced solution. The FOV (Field of View) of the 2016 model is 101° and the immersive feeling is exciting. I tried it with MineCraft and I was really impressed.

The display resolution again is  the one of your smartphone (i.e. 1440 x 2560 pixels for Galaxy S7 edge, 1440 x 1280 per eye), image quality discrete (with apps up to 60 Mhz), Apps Library rather wide (you can find many apps on the AppStore, Google Play or Microsoft Store), Interaction Level very basic (only the game controller in your hand).

 

PlayStation VR

Virtual Reality ps4-vr

PlayStation VR is the first attempt to bring the Virtual Reality to the mass, exploiting the wide-spread PlayStation 4 console.
I classified it in the Mid Level range because the main difference is related to the fact that it brings its own hardware onboard and it doesn’t need a smartphone to cater for the electronic and the quality is surely of higher level.
You can buy the viewer for 399$/€ but you’ll need also a PS4 Camera (around 60$/€) which is not contained in the package (Sony assumes you already have it). You will interact with the DUALSHOCK 4 controller and optionally with the Playstation Move (99/150$/€) you can buy separately that will track your hands movement. With Camera and Move the Playstation VR is able to track your movement, definitely improving the interaction with the virtual world.

Playstation VR offers a 5.7″ display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (960 x 1080 per eye) and a refresh rate between 90Mhz and 120Mhz, besides a Field Of View around 100°.

With this solution you will be tied to the PS4 with cables and you can rely on several contents released and under development. The Apps Library is not currently huge, but it will improve quickly.

 

Oculus Rift & HTC Vive

Virtual Reality Oculus Rift

I think HTC Vive and Oculus Rift should be evaluated together as they are currently in competition for the best mass-VR High Level solution. And the price raises accordingly. We’re speaking about a cost of 799$/899€ for HTC Vive and 599$/699€ (+ Touch sensors 199$/€) for the Oculus Rift.

Both of them deploy a dedicated hardware inside the viewer with an OLED screen and the same screen resolution (2160 x 1200 pixels, that means 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye), with the same FOV (Field of View) of 110° and a refresh rate of 90 Mhz.

In order to work they need an High Performance PC (powered by Windows 7 or up, see full tech specs @ their respective Internet site), so if you don’t own a compatible one, you should add that cost to your Virtual Reality solution.

With their sensors your hands movements will be finely reproduced into the virtual world. The HTC Vive also lets you walk inside a clean room in order to track your movement and give you the feeling to walk inside the virtual world, and it’s widely considered slightly above the Oculus Rift. With both viewers you will have plenty of cables around, but that the cost for a low latency (the answer of the software that manages the virtual world as an answer to your head/body movement).

Apps Library is wide, well forged and increasing for both the viewers.

Virtual Reality htc-vive

 

Conclusions

Does high level solution worth the spend? It depends. In my opinion only if you’re a professional or you can afford such an expense for something that will evolve shortly. The medium solution could be very interesting if already own a PS4. I deemed the best solution for me was the Entry Level: I bought a Virtoba X5 Viewer (also known as BOBOVR). I think it would be wise for everyone trying with and entry-level solution, understanding if Virtual Reality is for you (mainly you don’t feel sickness) and then decide for an hardware of higher level.

Things to consider in buying an entry-level viewer:

1. Price: the less is better obviously, but how much should you pay for a good deal? 30-40$/€

5. Resiliency: how many types of smartphones it supports

2. Lens quality

3. Focal plan adjustment, inter pupillary distance adjustment, in order to ensure a proper vision.

4. FOV (considering horizontal human sight has a FOV between 160°-200°)

5. Wearable with glasses (you can keep them on)

6. Overall quality (plastic and foam in contact with the face skin)

7. Think about a controller (I bought two: one for Android and one for the iOS)

 

Let’s think about the possible exploiting fields of Virtual Reality (education, cinema, video 360°, Medical Science, video games, virtual shops), it’s clear the future for Virtual Reality will be important. I found it very useful during my videogame development, because I can enter the virtual worlds of the game level under creation and exploring them “on site” almost touching the 3D objects created with Blender. Fantastic.

In the next future I’ll write about how to create an app VR-ready with GoogleVR and Unity3D and how to update an existing Unity3D app for Virtual Reality.

Ciao,
MaX