A Whole New (Virtual) World: The Future of Virtual Reality

virtual-reality

I recently got the latest Samsung phone, the Galaxy S7 Edge, and with it came a promotion for a free Samsung Gear VR. Now, I’ve always been excited about the prospect of Virtual Reality, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to see blossom into a commercially viable and widely available medium. But up until now, I always tried to lower my hopes and assumed that it would take decades or longer to get a really great VR experience, and even then I thought it would cost Bruce Wayne levels of expendable income.

I’ve done some research, but before I get into that I thought I’d share with you the idea I had in my head for what I personally thought would equate to the perfect Virtual Reality Experience:

My one major idea for VR was to have a full suit to wear and a way to move around without walking in the real world so that your movement feels real. The suit would simulate every sensation you can feel, from temperature to impact to texture, smells and sounds and wind and everything else. There would obviously also be a VR headset and some way to access menus and do all that stuff. For the latter, my idea was to have the controls built into the gloves of the suit, so that specific gestures could bring up menus and pause and quick save and change weapons or items through a quick-select wheel and so on, Minority Report style. My other thought about the suit is to have a sort of exoskeleton system lining the suit which can become rigid at the joints in certain situations to simulate obstacles and objects and resistance. So basically you’d be able to move freely, and then if there’s a wall or a table in front of you the joints of all the parts of the suit that are in contact with the edge of that wall or table would lock up if you try to keep moving, thus making the virtual object a real physical presence. The same principle could be applied to the gloves, meaning you’d be able to hold any item and actually feel the resistance you would feel if you had a real item in your hand. You could pick up a ball, a sword or gun, clothing, potions and upgrades, any in-game item you would pick up in a video game you’d be able to literally hold in your hands. I’m not sure of how that would work, but if it could be done it would be insanely cool.

So that’s what I had in mind, and now let’s discuss what’s actually really available and/or in development right now, and how closely it compares to my ideal fantasy VR experience:

We’ll start with the obvious, which it the VR Headset itself:

There are a lot of these available right now, and a lot more being developed, and it’s in a stage of constant growth already, so I don’t think there’s much to discuss here as it’s something a lot of people either have already experienced or have the option of experiencing one way or the other. But just for this article’s sake, I will list a few of the headsets available and in development now:

-Oculus Rift:
https://www.oculus.com/en-us/rift/
So this one is the obvious choice at the moment as they’ve been developing them for a while, compatibility seems great, and for an industry still in its infancy they’ve already made a name and reputation for themselves which is impressive. As I said at the beginning of the article, I’m getting a Samsung Gear VR for free, but once I properly start to invest in VR and get better hardware, I’m absolutely going to be getting one of these. (Price: $835 AUD, available now)

oculus-rift-vr-headset-1200x698

-Samsung Gear VR:
http://www.samsung.com/global/galaxy/wearables/gear-vr/
This is a great option, but is very specific to Samsung smartphone owners. One thing I’ve heard about this in its favour is that it’s one of the only headsets available now which is wireless. Since it’s designed for use with a phone instead of a computer or console, it doesn’t need to be plugged into anything. Unfortunately though, this means you’re relying on the battery life of the phone, so you can really only use the Gear for as long as the battery lasts. (Price: $250 AUD, available now)

-PSVR:
https://www.playstation.com/en-au/explore/playstation-vr/
The PSVR is something I feel a little conflicted about. It’s built to be immediately usable with PS4 systems, so there are no compatibility issues, and any game Sony release for the VR will work without issue, but at the same time that means it’s not compatible with any other hardware. Now personally, I would spend any amount of money on the PSVR just for the Playstation Exclusive Batman: Arkham VR game, because I am the biggest Batman fan I know and it looks insanely amazing. But I’m also nervous about not being able to play other games I want to play if they haven’t been released specifically for PSVR. The Oculus seems to have the best compatibility with other games and hardware, so I think that’s my preference, but seriously, Batman VR! (Price: $550 AUD, available October 2016)

batman-arkham-vr

There’s also a more immersive auditory option, which is noise-cancelling headphones. A few of the VR Headsets available (most notably the Rift) come with headphones of their own but I feel like noise-cancelling headphones of a higher quality are a must for people who really want to experience Virtual Reality on another level. I don’t know too much about the range available but I do know that Bose is insanely good quality, and I’ll be getting a pair of Bose QuietComfort 25s for my VR set-up, available here.

Bose-QuietComfort-25-Review-1940x1306

As I said before, these probably aren’t technically necessary, but they will provide a much more immersive experience which is the whole point of VR after all. (Price: $400 AUD, available now)


Now, this next option is something I’m really excited about, and something that mimics my original idea of being able to walk without actually needing walking space. The Virtuix Omni is an omni-directional walking platform with a harness, allowing the user to move in any direction while using a VR Headset, opening up new possibilities for immersion which would otherwise be completely off the table. It allows unrestrained walking, running, strafing, back-tracking, jumping, and even sitting due to the harness. It’s compatible with any PC that can take standard game controls and is also currently compatible with a fair few amazing video games on PC including Skyrim, Fallout 4, Minecraft, and I believe one of the Battlefield games but I’m not 100% sure. Check it out:

http://www.virtuix.com/products/

omni_product

The Virtuix Omni only needs about 150cm x 150cm to be fully set up, and honestly is about 10 million times more exciting and useful than a treadmill, as you can use it for video games as well as exercise. I think when I get one of these with Skyrim, I will be Olympic Athlete-level fit within about a month. Just imagine going for a run, but teleporting yourself to the surface of the moon, or the Jedi Temple, or Middle Earth, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This’ll give Zombie Run some serious competition. Instead of syncing your playlist to the sounds of zombies, you’ll be right in the middle of a ruined street with actual zombies running right at you. You could get into a Podracer or X-Wing (through the harness’ ability to allow for seated positions) and have a full-on VR race through the Star Wars Galaxy. GTA would be ten times more fun, running around and getting into any car and driving anywhere you want. Super exciting. (Price: $1,500 AUD including shipping to Australia, available estimated Q3 2016)

OKAY GUYS… Are you ready?

This is the one thing that I honestly didn’t think was going to be possible for a long, long time. This is something that I have been obsessing over in my head for ages now, even contemplating studying engineering and computer science just to get involved in the research and development of this type of technology. But, after a little Googling, I realised that is unnecessary, as some absolute geniuses have already read my mind and have started developing them. What I’m talking about is a full-on haptic feedback suit. Check this shit OUT:

http://www.teslasuit.com/

Anrt_tsuit_02-teslasuit1

GOD DAMN SON. It even looks like something Iron Man would wear! So this suit has motion capture sensors to accurately track your movement within the game and control the game. It has tactile feedback throughout the entire suit, allowing it to simulate a huge range of sensations. It has temperature control. It has a control unit in the belt which is basically a built-in computer that allows control of all of the components of the suit. Other than the exoskeleton idea I had, this thing is basically word-for-word my exact description of the perfect VR suit. It’s insane how amazing this technology is. Now, granted, I haven’t actually seen this suit in action and there’s not even a price point yet that I’m aware of, but as long as they’ve done their thing and haven’t made any major mistakes, this thing is gonna change the world. This is what VR was made for, a real, tangible simulation of any fictional virtual world. You’ll be able to feel the world you’re standing in for real, and really interact with everything in it. The possibilities from here on a basically limitless, this is just the first generation of Virtual Reality haptic feedback suits. every subsequent iteration will be better, smoother, more realistic, cheaper, more compatible. We’re standing right in the doorway of endless virtual worlds, and every year they’ll get more and more real. (Price: Unknown, availability unknown)

The other thing I’m really excited about is sort of an extension of the last entry, as it’s very similar but just a bit more specific. They are controller gloves, still using haptic feedback technology but focused on the hands and with a primary goal of being control mechanisms. They allow for the feeling of really picking up items, and can simulate not only texture but weight as well, which is insanely cool. At the moment they’re still in the Kickstarter phase, but relatively soon they’ll be commercially available and will hopefully start to get a bit cheaper. The problem is that I can’t find any information on their compatibility with other VR hardware and software, and for such a new medium, that kind of ambiguity is not very helpful. And since the price is around $200 per glove, they’ll need to provide some more info before I’m willing to invest. Don’t get me wrong, considering the technology and what you can do with it, the price is very reasonable, it’s just not knowing exactly what I can use them with and how they work makes it difficult to make that financial commitment.

GloveOne-Glove-Wearables_1

I’m not at all discouraging anyone from investing in these, but I think I’ll be waiting until more information is out and maybe until some reviews have been released. (Price: $525 AUD, available through their Kickstarter here, ETA unknown)

So, to recap:

1: VR Headset:
-Available right now
-Immersive video playback
-Motion tracking for 360 degree field of view
-Compatible with most hardware and consoles (depending on the model/manufacturer)

2: Noise-cancelling headphones
-Available right now
-Allows for complete auditory immersion
-No compatibility issues (chorded)

3: Omni-directional walking platform with Harness:
-Available later this year
-Allows for walking, running and strafing in 360 degrees and even sitting
-Compatible with all VR Headsets and all PC Video Games with standard controller inputs

4: Haptic Feedback Suit:
-In development
-Control Unit in Belt with VR Headset compatibility
-Motion Capture sensors,
-Tactile feedback through electrode pulses
-Climate Control System

5: Haptic feedback controller gloves:
-Available this year
-Compatibility unknown
-Tactile feedback through electrode pulses
-Allows for sensing of weight, texture and size and manipulation of in-game virtual items
There’s a crazy amount of VR Headsets and noise-cancelling headphones (for those who want them). Then we have an omni-directional walking platform, a full haptic feedback suit, haptic controller gloves and a bunch of hardware and games already compatible with this kind of tech. So we are just steps away from a complete, 100% Virtual Reality immersion system.

All up for the products I’ve ranted about in this article, you could have an almost 100% immersion experience for about $3,200 AUD. That’s not including the Teslasuit, but if you assume the price for that at around $1,500, you’re still spending under $5,000. I understand that’s a lot of money, but if you think about the kind of technology at work here, and what you’re really paying for, that’s insanely cheap. You’re paying for essentially a doorway into countless alternate realities, a literal platform through which you can explore landscapes and situations that look and feel 100% real but which are physically impossible. I can’t even express how excited I am at this technology and what it means for the future. This is not just about video games, this can be used in countless contexts; you can use it for:

-Fitness (with the Virtuix);

-Exploration (imagine a 360° camera attached to an orbiting satellite or rover on the surface of a distant planet, where you can connect to it and see the planet for yourself);

Movies (there are already real narrative movies being filmed with 360° cameras, but I want to go further than that. Imagine an ensemble movie like the Avengers where you can swap between each character’s point of view at will, and they’re all doing different things and sometimes they’re in different places, so the movie is completely different each time you watch it. Imagine a survival/horror movie like Alien or Nightmare on Elm Street from the character’s POV. Imagine a TV show like 24 where the whole thing is in real time and you have a mystery to solve or an attack to stop. Sherlock or NCIS with 360° camera footage, so you can see the whole crime scene from every angle and follow along with the clues the characters see; the possibilities go on and on);

-Education (online courses? what about VR lectures, practical VR training, seminars and TED talks and educational films all ready to go through Google Play and/or 360° cameras set up at the events);

-Communication and social media (imagine being able to pick any setting like the Death Star or Rivendell or the Tower from Destiny or the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise and just hang out with your friends there, watch a movie together in that setting or play crazy virtual games);

-Tourism (3D 360° cameras could be set up at key tourist attractions or attached to touring vehicles like tour buses, helicopters and controllable drones and anyone could log in and look anywhere they want, and capture screenshots from their own perspective);

-Shopping (this sounds insane, but I’m thinking of that scene in Futurama where the internet is actually a digital landscape that the characters walk around in after putting on VR suits, and each website is a separate building. Online shopping could be like that, where you show up and there’s a long street and each building is a different place to shop like eBay or Etsy or whatever, and you can fill your cart by grabbing stuff on the shelves, and if the program can save your measurements, imagine being able to select the exact right size for you by resizing the clothing the way you’d resize an open window on your desktop, pulling at the corners or something. It would not only be really fun and interactive, but you’d actually be more confidant that what you’re buying fits).

That’s just what I can think of right now, imagine a decade or two in the future, we will be able to do anything from the comfort of our own homes.

I would make a conservative prediction that within the next 5 years we’ll have those components consolidated into a complete VR set, compatible with PC and hopefully consoles. It’s a matter of either the current manufacturers working together, or one (or more) of the manufacturers building their own hardware with the same specs and abilities. So, so close!

I’m so Keen For It!

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