Neither the tempting nor terrifying VR futures painted by Hollywood are likely, writes Scott Bartley. However, coming developments promise to be quite as interesting

For years Hollywood has tempted – or terrified – us with visions of a future where virtual reality (VR) becomes part of everyday life. From The Matrix to Ready Player One we have seen a variety of interesting predictions of how VR might impact on our world. As creative as these movies are, it’s likely real-world usage will prove far more interesting as VR and its siblings, AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality), infiltrate our society more fully.

FACEBOOK’S $2 BILLION BET

Big tech companies are betting big on VR doing just that. Facebook took a US$2.3 billion punt on VR in 2014 when it bought VR headset-maker Oculus. Microsoft has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into a product it calls HoloLens – a mixed-reality headset targeted at enterprise users. And Sony has sold more than four million PlayStation VR (PSVR) headsets for its PlayStation 4 gaming console. Google, Samsung, Hewlett Packard and Lenovo have all dabbled in the market too, launching a variety of VR products over the past few years.

GAMING LEADS THE WAY

On the software side, gaming is the driving force in the consumer VR space. Wired magazine reported in August this year that a survey of attendees to the annual XRDC conference (for AR and VR developers) found 59 percent of developers’ current or potential AR and VR projects were in the gaming space.

EDUCATION, TRAINING AND THE ARTS

There is more to VR than blockbuster entertainment, however. Analyst firm Gartner said earlier this year that it expects 100 million consumers to be shopping using AR and VR as early as 2020. In addition, education and training markets are soaking up significant chunks of the VR industry’s development resources.

For a slightly more cultured take, artists have been experimenting with VR. One such example is an exhibition called ‘Terminus’. A collaboration by former Tauranga artist Jess Johnson and video artist Simon Ward, it has been on exhibition at Tauranga Art Gallery for part of this year. It combines real-world art pieces with a virtual environment and requires people to don an Oculus Rift headset to experience the strange universe the two have created.

VR HEADSETS – STANDALONE VS PC-POWERED

VR hardware varies greatly, but in general it can be broken down into two broad categories: standalone and PC-powered (we include the PlayStation-powered PSVR in this category).

Standalone VR headsets are just that – standalone. They require no further hardware to enjoy them other than an internet connection to download games and apps. The beauty of a standalone headset is there are no clunky cables to get in the way. Overall costs can be lower too, since you don’t need to splash out on a fancy gaming PC. Smartphone and VR-headset maker HTC recently launched a brand-new standalone Vive headset, called the Cosmos. It costs $1299 and comes with two wireless hand controllers.

PC-POWERED VR

PC-powered headsets are generally more expensive. However, they also tend to be more flexible in terms of apps and accessories. The realm of these high-end PC-powered VR headsets is dominated by two names – HTC Vive and Oculus. Since the Oculus devices aren’t officially available in New Zealand, this means Vive is, realistically, the only option for local VR fans.

PC-powered headsets like the Vive outsource processing duties to a PC, but not just any old PC will do. You need to pair it with a reasonably high-end PC capable of playing the latest games, meaning at least another $2000 on top.

HTC VIVE – A CLOSER LOOK

The basic $1019 HTC Vive kit (the Pro version costs around $2300) comes with a headset, two controllers and two base stations. The headset contains the display and motion sensors that detect head movement, while the controllers introduce ‘hand presence’ – in other words, your real-world hand movements are mimicked in the game. The two base stations, meanwhile, add still more tracking options, this time by enabling the system to track your entire body for an even greater range of movement that can be transferred into the game.

PLAYSTATION VR

Perhaps the most accessible of all the VR kits is the one made by Sony for the PlayStation 4. At a shade under $500 for a starter kit (the PlayStation Move hand-controllers are an optional extra), PSVR makes it possible to get into VR for around half the price of a PC-powered device.

NO VR FOR XBOX

Interestingly, for all the success Microsoft has had with Xbox over the years, it is not making a VR headset for the Xbox. Instead, the company seems to be putting all its VR eggs in the $3500-a-pop HoloLens basket – great for enterprise users, but not so good for Xbox gamers. More salt in the wound for Xbox owners comes by way of Microsoft’s very own Windows 10 operating system being fully kitted up to support VR on PCs.

VR SOFTWARE

All the fancy hardware in the world is no good without the software to go with it. Complicating matters is the fact that software and games need to be written to specifically support virtual reality headsets and controllers. Sony has a healthy library of VR-enabled games available for PlayStation gamers, while HTC headsets take advantage of the well-stocked online store, Steam. 

A VR FUTURE?

The upshot of all this means it is now easier than ever for VR-curious types to experiment with off-the-shelf set ups that cost anywhere from a handful of dollars for something basic, through to several thousand for the latest and greatest, which are readily available at any appliance store. 

However, for all the advances in VR technology and content, the march toward a VR future hasn’t proved to be quite the display of world-changing technology some thought it would be. Pundits point out that this is down to a variety of factors. For instance, not everyone wants to strap a clunky headset to their face and jump around the living room. Decent headsets are expensive, and getting the best experience requires plunking down a hefty wad of cash.

The situation in New Zealand is made worse thanks to our being left out of the loop. Oculus, for example, isn’t sold here officially, neither is the brand-new competing ‘Index’ headset from Valve. While importing an Oculus privately isn’t all that difficult to do, the fact remains that for New Zealand VR fans the only truly viable options right now are the HTC Vive and the PSVR.

WHAT IS VR, AR AND MR?

Generally speaking, when people talk about virtual reality (VR) these days, they are referring to consumer-level headsets aimed squarely at the entertainment market. These are designed with the exploration of games and other similarly immersive interactive environments in mind. To this end, VR usually refers to a motion-sensing headset of some kind. These will have two built-in displays – one for each eye –  that entirely block out the real world. Some VR headsets have an external camera that can be used to navigate your living room without having to remove the headset. Higher end units come with one or two hand controllers, to add another layer of interactivity.

In comparison, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) technologies are broadly similar to consumer-grade VR, but with a few crucial differences.

Mixed-reality headsets, such as the HoloLens from Microsoft, don’t block out the real world, instead they add a virtual layer over the top – one that can interact with objects in the real world. For example, picture a game with elements that can change depending on the furniture in your living room and you get some idea of how mixed reality can work. Other uses might include live training manuals that can overlay instructions on top of, say, a car engine that needs repair.

AR, like MR, adds visual layers to the real world, but it doesn’t interact with real-world objects or require a headset – a smartphone with a camera will do. One often cited example is the ability to point your phone’s camera at a shop shelf and have the prices of the goods displayed pop up.