The long talked about technology could be on the horizon if the stars align. They are nudging closer, writes Scott Bartley

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that seems to have been just around the corner forever. Now, after years of unfulfilled promises, the VR stars may be finally aligning. 

The world’s largest tech companies certainly think so. Over the past few years, big players with bulging wallets such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Sony have piled into VR. 

Facebook famously spent US$2billion buying Oculus Rift two years ago and plans to spend more again. Microsoft has a foot in two camps with its augmented reality HoloLens device and VR. Meanwhile, Sony has been one of the first to bring a commercial headset to market, by way of PlayStation VR. 

Virtual reality – a refresher

For the uninitiated, virtual reality requires a user to don a headset and use some kind of control system. The headset could be a dedicated device such as the HTC Vive or the PlayStation VR, or it could be a folded cardboard contraption with plastic lenses that literally came out of a cereal box. 

In either case, the headset will feature dual high-resolution displays (or a mobile phone acting in its place for the cereal box version) that creates a 360 degree, 3D world. You look around the VR world simply by turning your head. 

If you haven’t tried it, it’s an amazing experience. However, there is more to VR success than simply creating a headset that works. 

For VR to succeed, a number of conditions must exist. The devices must be affordable; the content needs to be abundant and of high quality (both technically and narratively speaking) and it needs enough bandwidth to deliver these immersive, highly detailed environments on demand over the internet. Above all, it needs buy-in from consumers.

Affordability

Buy-in covers many aspects of the VR world, not least of which is the price of headsets.

Headset prices are dropping, but they’re still a significant purchase. For example, at over $1400 the HTC Vive can’t really be considered affordable. Sony’s PlayStation VR at $630 is better, but add the cost of a PlayStation 4 (at least $449), ‘Move’ controllers ($60 a pop) and the PlayStation Camera ($100) and it comes in at over the $1000 mark. 

The Samsung Gear VR will only set you back around $200. However, this headset requires a compatible (and expensive) Samsung Galaxy phone to use it. Google’s Daydream View headset takes an identical approach to Samsung (it needs a mobile phone) and costs about $150.

Microsoft New Zealand’s Director of Developer Experience, Chris Auld, offers some hope on the affordability front.

“In the next six to 12 months, we’re going to see a significant change in the price point at which VR solutions are available across Windows Holographic and across gaming consoles,” says Auld. 

“Several OEM partners are working on VR headsets that will cost just a few hundred dollars.” 

Content is still king

Getting the price down means scaling up, and good content is always the key to doing this. The problem is that, from a technical point of view, producing VR content is hard. Not only that, once the novelty of using a headset has worn off, are the stories themselves any good? Who is going to produce this content? And why would they bother?

The games industry is an obvious fit for VR. These people have been building immersive 3D worlds for decades. PC-based digital game and application platform, Steam, knows this and is pushing Vive and Rift-compatible VR games heavily. 

Broadcasters in the UK and the US have begun experimenting with VR capturing of live sports events.

And education, engineering, medicine all hold promise as places where VR and AR (augmented reality) can really come into their own.

For consumers, movies and TV are more obvious targets.

Film-makers have already begun experimenting with ways to turn their medium into virtual reality. The biggest mind-shift for this industry is in the way audiences can essentially frame their own shots simply by turning their heads. How will that work in terms of a story?

The answer isn’t yet clear, but they’re giving it a shot. 

Earlier this year, several short VR films were screened at the Sundance Film Festival. They’ll be released later this year, when anyone with a VR headset will be able to experience this new take on film-making for themselves.

So far, the content we’ve looked at has revolved around an evolution of traditional forms – games, movies and sport. However, social networks could hold the key to true success for VR. 

The Facebook factor

Mark Zuckerberg has said publicly that he plans to spend US$3billion on blending VR and social networking. Recently, the Facebook CEO showcased a demo of Oculus being used to take a group photo of him, his wife and his dog – even though he was at work and she was at home. This technology is some way off becoming mainstream – Zuckerberg mentioned a time-frame of five to 10 years. However, it’s clearly important. Given Facebook’s clout, it’s likely to influence the entire VR scene.

Locally, Microsoft has partnered with ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development), Datacom, HP and other organisations to develop the VR/AR Garage – an incubator for VR and AR development.

Enthusiastic developers

Microsoft’s Auld says this provides a way for the company to work directly with enthusiastic developers to help achieve that all-important supply of VR and AR content. 

But it’s not just the big players making headway, a New Zealand company, Realityvirtual.co, has created and licensed a photo-realistic VR content production platform with the goal of significantly lowering the cost of producing VR content. 

The company specialises in capturing real-world scenes in an ultra-realistic way using a photographic technique called photogrammetry. For us at the end of the chain, this means we can explore an art gallery, a church, nature scenes, even fly in the sky, and more, down to the minutest detail, using a VR headset.

Simon Che de Boer is the creative director and founder of Realityvirtual.co and firmly believes that content, and simplifying the way that content is produced, is the only way forward for VR. 

“Our pipeline is all about quick, efficient capture of an environment at a granular level. We’re extrapolating details like roughness of materials right down to individual fibres in a painting. You look at these objects in a headset and you’ll go cross-eyed before you see a single pixel.”

The technology the company has built already has a few big name customers in the works who want to use it to capture priceless art works and artifacts, all with the end goal of letting ordinary people enjoy them as if they were actually there.

Building a VR pipeline

Whatever the format, creating VR and AR content is significantly more challenging than traditional content and requires additional support from the platform builders. 

“One of the things we’ve done at Microsoft is build an API (application programming interface) into Windows through something called Windows Holographic,” says Auld. “What we’re trying to do with Windows Holographic is to lower the barriers to entry, to allow people to more easily build content and have it work with a broad range of VR and AR type devices that plug into a PC.” 

Fast internet is essential 

The final part of the equation is the delivery mechanism for all this content – the internet. Such extremely high resolution content is going to need a lot of bandwidth. Auld says high speed, low latency fibre is critical to unlocking a truly collaborative experience within VR.

“Having to deliver content onto two quad-HD screens [these have four times the definition of standard HD], streaming in real time, with full freedom of movement – it’s not like downloading a movie where you know exactly what you’re going to see. Two hours in an interactive VR environment would require significantly more data,” says Auld.

With decreasing prices, better hardware, content pipelines being built and gigabit internet, the pieces are falling into place. So, it looks like there is no escaping the VR-laden future. It is now on our doorstep.