Virtual Reality Gets Real

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Virtual Reality Gets Real
November 13, 2016

You can find the Google cardboard viewer on eBay for as little as $2.95. VR with a smartphone is still hobbled by low frame rates, but that’s about to change.

 

The broad range of things we call Virtual Reality are rapidly maturing following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus. As if a switch were flipped, the tech world recognized (or re-recognized) the potential for VR to disrupt computing, gaming, and social media. Hackers, entrepreneurs, journalists and venture capitalists have created a virtual VR explosion. Computing and the internet have changed the world over the past 25 years, but we don’t yet have the juice to power a high def, real time, massive multi-user virtual world where we can interact with each other and AI characters. There is no question that we will, perhaps sooner than anyone thinks.

 

To navigate the rapidly expanding VR universe, you need to move at 90 FPS to avoid nauseating lag users often experience wearing a headset with insufficient frame rates. By comparison, movies require 24 frames per second, video 30 fps, and IMAX 60 fps. Users with a high end PC can almost get there today, and Google and Facebook engineers are working to address the lag issue for smaller PCs, laptops and smart phones. Promising solutions seem close at hand. The beginning of the beginning of the VR revolution is already receding, and the implications are profound. Imagine shopping in a virtual store, or walking around virtual Paris, or being the QB of an NFL team. As VR reaches it potential to provide experiences, the commercial VR gold rush will reach the tipping point. Perhaps it already has. Investment banker Goldman-Sachs estimates VR hardware sales will reach 25 billion dollars by 2025 (that’s just 8 years from now!), eclipsing the market for both desktop computers and video games.

Virtuality was the first true 3D VR experience offered to the public. At 65K the machines were just too expensive and the games weren’t very good. The company went out of business in 1997.

 

In the 90s, I was Chief Operating Office of VR gaming pioneer, Virtual World Entertainment (VWE), which used flight simulator technology to network customers (we called them “pilots”) into a three dimensional world (like a desert planet, or the canals of Mars) where they could compete and co-operate with one another. Customers paid a dollar a minute to play these games in our themed futuristic arcade. Location Based Entertainment (LBE) was an emerging industry that never emerged, despite efforts from giants like Disney, which invested tens of millions of dollars in the effort. Virtual World had thirteen locations around the country when the retail group was sold to adult entertainment venue Dave & Busters (their flagship is in Times Square) which operated the simulators until 2005. The software team went to Microsoft to work on Xbox along with our genius founder, Jordan Weisman. Jordan created the world famous role playing game, BattleTech, which was a multiplayer cash cow for the mega game company Blizzard/Activision, and was the main attraction at our futuristic arcades. He taught me you have to have a mission in the virtual world. To simply wander around exploring would get boring quickly. Role playing will be a very big element of the virtual reality experiences to come.

Virtual World Entertainment simulators with Battletech pilots Houston, 2015. Still in use 20 years later, the experiences offered by this immersive multiplayer virtual world continues to enthrall competitive gamers.

Images on the Houston outpost bulletin board give you a sense of how crude the Virtual World graphics are. Developers had to strike a balance between rendering, responsiveness and graphics. Fortunately, suspension of disbelief is easy when you’re running around shooting your friends.

 

LBE is staging something of a comeback, and provides some interesting clues about where VR in the home may be headed. A new entrant, The Void, of Salt Lake City, is seeking to revive the public space VR business. Imax is developing VR attractions for it’s theaters. Theoretically, consumers should have access to much better technology in public spaces than at home. I wish them luck, because the economics are extremely challenging. You simply can’t put enough people through the system when they want to go there.

The Void is deploying some amazing VR technology is suburban Salt Lake City. Mall developers are dying to see LBE’s succeed but build out costs, hardware, software and operating expenses make it very hard to recoup. The issue with public space VR is that there simply isn’t an audience except on the weekend, when there isn’t enough capacity to make up for slow weekdays.

 

There are six kinds of media trying to co-opt the term “virtual reality”, and journalists have been happy to use the short hand, though the differences between them are actually huge.

     * Mutiplayer games

     * 360 degree video

     * Telepresence

     * Augmented Reality

     * Full Immersion VR

     * Social VR

 

I plan a series of posts on Medium about each of these, but let me briefly summarize my thoughts on each.

Multiplayer video games have been with us for some time. My kids loved to play “Goldeneye” on their N64 fifteen years ago. It was a classic hallway shooter, sort of a cyber game of tag. The world was a maze where the other kids lurked. It gave players a remarkable level of freedom to move within it. Hilarious side note: after your brother ambushes you, be sure to throw your controller aside and give him a pummeling IRL. Another favorite among the boys in my house was the morally reprehensible 3D “Grand Theft Auto”, a remarkably successfully role playing game in which players carried out deadly underworld missions, sometime with good reasons, sometimes not. The graphics are somewhat crude, and the AI characters comically limited, but the universe, the virtual world, in which players are free to move and act is huge.

Game graphics from “Grand Theft Auto 5”. Running around LA and killing people with no consequences has proven remarkably popular. The fifth installment of the game made one billion dollars (not a typo) in the first three days of its release.

 

For gamers, as we see, immersion good enough to suspend disbelief is already here, and it’s about to get a lot better. Immersive VR, using headsets, hand controllers, and motion sensors will make these virtual places increasingly real. You can move at will and interact with objects and people in ways currently reserved to our physical world. The potential for this kind of experience can already be seen in the motion sensor based Nintendo Wii. Once the frame rate issue is resolved, the physical immersion of the Wii will be enhanced by a headset’s visual immersion. Clearly, there are insanely great things to come.

Headsets are cheap. Systems are not. The Oculus Rift System retails for $3,200 at Best Buy. Playstation VR is $400. Google Daydream is just $79 but requires the new Pixel smart phone.

 

VR headsets are really the simplest and cheapest way to be immersed in three dimensional media, but simply using a gyroscopic headset to observe 360 degrees of live-action video is not virtual reality. Pioneers exploring the newly enhanced medium of 360 video, like Zeality, RYOT VR (Huffington Post), NYTVR (NY Times), to name but three, are desperate to co-opt the sexy name of the medium to better attract an audience and investors. 360 videos are suitably immersive, at least until you get used to the effect, but they do not happen in real time (critical to my definition of VR). Viewers get a better view of a real place, but can’t do anything else. You can’t move around. You’re lashed to the tripod. Google street view provides way more choice (zoom, pan, tilt) than a 360 documentary video. Definitions aside, this is an exciting development in the technology of live action documentary. It is not yet truly Virtual Reality, with freedom to move and interact, but it’s implications are profound. The D.W. Griffith of 360 video may yet emerge, but from what I’ve seen so far I don’t think 360 video will become a viable platform for narrative storytelling anytime soon. More on this very big, very controversial topic later.

Entry level price for those making 360 documentaries

 

Micro cameras and instruments have revolutionized medicine, making invasive procedures much less necessary. Pilots in Nevada control drone missile platforms over middle east targets, undersea ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) explore depths submersibles can’t, and the Mars Lander gives us a window on Mars, and wheels and arms to help us explore that distant, forbidding world. We call this telepresence. It can be greatly enhanced by the use of headset but it is not VR. The places we visit are real. We can interact with them by moving around and controlling real devices.

Underwater ROV exploring a wreck

 

Augmented Reality is similar to VR because of its emphasis on a headset but that is not its minimum requirement. Heads-up display have been projecting critical data onto car and cockpit windshields for some time now. Google glass promised to augment reality but never delivered, as it was just a head mounted camera, but it would have been a great tool for players of Pokeman Go, who could use geolocation and the built in camera to identify and capture (photograph) characters.

At $129 Snap’s stylish, boldly colored Spectacles are made for action sports and other youthful adventures. You can bet GoPro is paying close attention.

 

Perhaps still closer to science fiction than science fact is Full Immersion VR. The example commonly cited is the “holodeck” from the “Star Trek” series. The holodeck provides R&R for crew members who need to walk through meadows, swim in lakes, play tennis and do other earth things to relieve the monotony of space travel.

Similarly, the HBO Series “Westworld” is set in a man made fantasy land where rich humans (it costs $80,000 a day to visit) cavort with cyborgs in an old West setting. Visitors fully inhabit in this fictional world where life and death have no meaning (like in a video game). The AI characters are so good you don’t know if you’re dealing with an android or human. The robots, or “hosts”, are programmed with stories to engage the human guests. The computing power isn’t here yet, but one day we will be able to play in a virtual “Westworld”.

Facebook’s billion dollar acquisition of Oculus set off this gold rush because suddenly everyone saw the big winner in the mass market VR sweepstakes could be one of the world’s most valuable companies. They will do this by creating a world where we can do everything we do in real life, only easier, better and more quickly. You’ll choose an avatar which may look like you, or your cartoon bitmoji, or maybe you want to be Brad Pitt, or a talking dog. In this new, penultimate Fully Immersive VR universe, you will work. Play. Shop. Exercise. Learn. Meet relatives, friends, or new people. Date. Touch someone. Visit new and favorite places. Play games. Attend a play or watch a movie. The only thing we probably won’t or can’t do is eat and visit the bathroom although you never know, there could be an app for that. The Social VR platform will ultimately be the clothesline from which all your VR apps will hang. Facebook has no intention of sitting there like the old TV networks, helplessly watching all its users shift their time to a more compelling platforms. Remember Friendster and MySpace?

Mark Zuckerberg nails social VR with this amazing demo at Oculus Connect.

 

In subsequent articles I look forward to taking a deeper dive into each of these immersive new media platforms. I haven’t even mentioned tele-dildonics ;) Like the formative days of the Internet in the early 90s, opportunities seem endless. Entrepreneurs and big companies alike can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and wait.

 

Charlie Fink is an award winning entrepreneur and producer. http://charliefink.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Fink_(producer).

Learn more about him author at : http://www.charliefink.com/ and twitter @charliefink 

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