New VR devices waiting to enable the next experience

By Artis Birzins, on

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In my previously published article on how virtual reality (VR) devices are expanding customer experiences, we saw real-life scenarios of the technology bringing innovation to various industries. Now, let’s have a look at which types of hardware are out there to enable the magic. Most reviews classify devices by vendors, but we will look at this rapidly evolving landscape by type of interaction and depth of immersion delivered to consumers.

Headsets

VR headsets allow users to see and be present in VR while moving their head or whole bodies. This is achieved by displaying images separately to both eyes and using 3D tracking and other features. Depending on system capabilities, headsets may provide the experience of moving the head forward, backward, side-to-side, standing up, moving around and more.

  • Entry-level or smartphone VR headsets and viewers

This is a broad category from homemade, hand-held VR viewers prepared from cardboard to head-mounted display (HMD) headsets. Users place smartphones with running VR apps into headsets for viewing. Though the price is relatively affordable for everyone, it’s not yet mainstream. It may not be rare to see some shoppers in large electronics stores trying on VR headsets without any devices inside and expecting a movie. The experiences achieved by hand-held viewers are the most limited and are recommended for short sessions of films or simple games. HMD headsets are made to offer more freedom of movement and functionality, so developers can create more advanced apps. Users can also use hand-held controllers if they’re available.

  • High-end or base station powered VR headsets

Headsets built to run on PCs are often described as “high-end.” Enabled by computer resources, they may deliver more immersion and advanced VR capabilities. According to TechAdvisor, the large storage space, higher graphics processing power and app quality are all higher for PC-based headsets, allowing for quality textures, longer games and more immersive experiences. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive may require a Nvidia GTX 970 graphic card at a minimum along with other resources not found in PCs or smartphones. The higher frame rate enables smoother viewing than simpler smartphone headsets. These high-end headsets also provide a higher field of view — around 110 degrees for Vive and Rift, while human eyes use 180 degrees. Combining with other VR system components can provide more immersion, with location sensing, hand-held controllers, 3-D audio and more.

Sony launched its VR headset in October 2016. It’s powered by PlayStation 4, which is currently the most popular game console in the world, according to Statista. The PlayStation can display an image on a VR headset and TV screen simultaneously or show separate images for collaborative scenarios. The Fove headset, while still under development, is expected to be able to read eye movements and react faster than any other VR controller, while rendering a superior depth of field.

VR touch and hand-held controllers

Though real-touch simulation is still in lab prototypes, the concept of VR touch is already in commercialization. For instance, Oculus Touch controllers are convenient hand-held devices for each hand. In combination with location tracking, these controllers add real conscious movements to the hands of a user’s avatar and ease interaction in virtual environments. Users can interact by waving, pointing, giving a thumbs-up or gripping something.

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Location sensors and tracking

We are used to moving freely in all directions. VR technology may support a user’s physical movements around the room so he or she is simultaneously in both environments. This is often referred to as a room-scale tracking system, and it’s only available in base station powered architecture. Once a user extends beyond a designated area, a virtual wall or other measures may appear to represent the edge of the available space.

In the case of Vive, this is achieved by lighthouse base stations. These sweep out invisible lasers across the room, tracking the headset and the hand-held controllers through little built-in sensors. Other vendors can apply similar approaches using tracking cameras. Depending on the available number and placement of the sensors, tracking can be performed on an 180- or 360-degree basis.

3D audio in VR devices

Sound in VR may enhance the perception of size, space, distance and a sense of motion. Using built-in 3D audio, Sony PlayStation allows users to perceive distances and directions of sounds in virtual environments. Though audio systems may be built into VR headsets, leading vendors would likely offer specialized earphones as part of the total solution. Amazing 3D immersion might also be achieved with good-quality stereo headphones, creating illusions of space in VR similar to what’s in this YouTube video from Two Big Ears, which highlights its 3Dception and 3D audio engine.

The nearest neighbor: AR glasses

Augmented reality (AR), or more nuanced mixed reality, blends real-life and virtual reality into one. It’s not classified as VR, but it shares similarities and is often included under the same umbrella, especially when it comes to glasses, which may look similar to VR headsets. AR doesn’t totally immerse users into virtual environments, but it allows them to interact with virtual objects or holograms on top of the physical environment.

This interaction is often achieved with special glasses, which allow users to see both worlds. One of the latest offerings from a large industry player is Sony’s Smart Eyeglasses, which are available to developers. The glasses have a gyroscope, accelerometer, ambient light sensor and a built-in camera with a special hand-held controller. In fact, most of the high-end VR headsets include external cameras, which allow users to see the real world. According to Business Insider, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been talking about AR as the next major computing platform to become a part of daily life. Bloomberg reported that Apple has been looking into developing consumer AR glasses and might release them in 2018 at the earliest.

There have been many new VR devices released this past year, with many more in the pipeline. The landscape is rapidly evolving, with exciting things to come.

About The Author

Artis Birzins

Senior Architect, IBM Japan

From start-up while at school to corporate ventures, from coding of a mobile app to software innovation, Artis Birzins spent many years in global business, entrepreneurship and technology. Artis is keen in connecting the dots among people, organizations and latest technology to enable complex enterprises as well as consumer markets for success and making the world a better place.

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