Wish list for virtual reality headsets

Having tried more than a dozen virtual reality headsets over the past few months, there are a few features that I now consider to be must-haves — but which seem to be rare to find.

If any manufacturers are paying attention, please considering including more of the following in your next resign.

1. Wide enough for glasses

When passing around the Gear VR headset to friends and family members at various holiday parties recently, one of the best features was that it would fit easily over glasses.

Very few other headsets can do that. But if the Gear VR can, then certainly all other headsets can, as well.

If you’re a headset manufacturer, pick up a Gear VR set and see how they do it.

My glasses fit comfortably inside the Gear VR headset.

My glasses fit comfortably inside the Gear VR headset.

2. Can fit phone cases

When choosing which headset to give someone as a gift, it’s not enough to just know what kind of smartphone they have. You also have to know what kind of case they typically have on their phone.

The Gear VR, for example, not only fits a small number of late-model Samsung phones, but also requires that all protective cases and covers are removed.

This gets extremely burdensome for some people. Otter cases, for example, are really hard to take off and put back on again.

But some headsets have more flexible cell phone holders. For example, the Freefly VR headset has a very flexible holder, and was able to fit my friend’s Otter case.

The Dscvr headset's stretchy band can fit over a variety of smartphones -- and their protective cases.

The Dscvr headset’s stretchy band can fit over a variety of smartphones — and their protective cases.

There are multiple approaches out there for holding smartphones in place. Merge VR has a very flexible drop-in pocket. The Dscvr has a silicone band to hold the phone in place.

The more difficult the holder is to use, the less likely users are to casually pick up and use their virtual reality headsets. And if they have to take off their smartphone cases, that means the headset is going to be that much less likely to be used. Please take this into account when updating your headset or building a new one.

3. QR Codes

 

Today, Google Cardboard headsets often have different shapes, use different lenses, and have varying input mechanisms. To allow virtual reality apps to work with any headset, each manufacturer is supposed to create a Google Cardboard QR Code that fully specifies its configuration.

The application then combines that with what it knows about the smartphone itself — its size, screen resolution, and so forth — in order to create a three-dimensional, accurately focused image.

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Not all manufacturers create QR codes for their headsets, or make them easy to find. I’m assembling a list of all the Google Cardboard QR Codes here, but it’s not exactly as convenient as if they were on a sticker on the headset itself. If you do have a QR Code, and have more than one headset — or are sharing the headset with others — then you have to load up the Google Cardboard app and load that QR Code, which isn’t particularly convenient.

And then it might not work. Either the QR Code has errors, or your headset is adjusted differently, or you have weird eyes, or something.

And sometimes there’s no QR code at all.

I want to be able to actually change the calibration from within the virtual reality headset itself, either to adjust an existing QR Code to work better, or create a new profile from scratch. And I’d like to be able to save it, so I don’t have to go and find the QR code each time I switch between headsets.

 

4. Headset recognition

The Gear VR headset knows when you’ve put in a smartphone, and automatically switches to virtual reality mode. I want all headsets to do that.

There’s some kind of NFC chip that’s supposed to do this, but I have not yet seen one in the wild. Do these things even exist? Do any headsets have them?

Better yet, I want the smartphone to know which headset it is, and automatically do all the configuration steps.

Plus, once you drop the smartphone into the headset, I want it to automatically launch a virtual reality browser. One that shows you all the virtual reality apps you have on your device, and lets you launch apps, and even download new ones. Like the Gear VR has.

 

And I want it to have voice control, so that if you had to, you could quickly reply to a text message, or post a Facebook status update, or do a Google search, all without taking off your headset.

 

5. Use the front facing camera

Every phone has a front facing camera, but most headsets don’t use it

I think that the front facing camera could be used for better positioning controls to make sure that the phone doesn’t go off center. And it could be used for gesture control — to navigate menus, for example, or interact with objects.

This might involve upgrading the camera sensors to have better distance recognition.

6. A default avatar

The Gear VR home area doesn’t offer you anything in terms of a body. You’re just a disembodied camera hanging in the air. It’s creepy.

The same is true of many apps out there.

But personally, I want to be able to look down and see my legs. Or move my hands in front of me and see my actual hands in the virtual world. Sure, some apps will require customized avatars. Games, for example, usually require particular costumes.

But many apps don’t care what you look like. How difficult would it be to have the operating system itself let you configure a personal default avatar that any app can use if it doesn’t have its own custom avatar system?

 

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Great list! I would add IPD (Inter Pupil distance) adjustments to it. While I don’t personally have this issue I get asked a lot about what headsets do have it. I guess about 5% of adults have an IPD outside of the general 54–68 mm range (most HMD have a fixed IPD of 60-64mm) and if the lenses can’t be adjusted it can cause eyestrain and exacerbate VR nausea. I usually recommend UC 2.0+ Cardboard VR Viewer from Unofficial Cardboard or the Homido Virtual Reality Headset

    • I’m divided about this. On the one hand, the more adjustments, the better. So, in theory, you’d want a three-way adjustment — distance between the lenses, and the distance between each lens and the smartphone. But when passing around a headset in a large group, the ones that DON’T offer the adjustments, but are set up in such a way as to work with the maximum number of people possible — some claim they use special lenses, etc… — these are easier to pass around and use.

      So it’s a question of ease-of-use versus customization. If someone could figure out a way to combine both, that would be great!

  • I have a little different list…
    -fully integrated system: 2 screens, headphone, mike, sensors.
    -adjustable to our sight and face
    -confortable to wear, with the weight of electronics rear of the head to balance the weight of the optics
    -normalised software API, so that we can start integration to the current viewers
    -detection of the positions of our hands, so that we can type text on a virtual keyboard, use virtual menus, build, etc.

    I think we all agree now that the concept works. So we need to get past the “demonstrations” and other fancyful/unusable gadgets, and start developping real VR headsets. The first realisation will certainly be more expensive than the gadgets, but with volume the price should not be much higher than a cellphone+headphone+mike+box

    • You would like the Gameface headset — I think that’s what they’re planning to do. Have ALL the electronics right in the headset — no mobile phone or external computer needed.

      The problem I see, in the immediate future at least, is that you want the highest-end technology possible, because virtual reality needs the best possible screens, the fastest computers. So if you’re going to have the equivalent of $600 or so of smartphone parts inside your headset anyway, you might as well just use the $600 smartphone you’ve already got.

      And our smartphones are STILL not good enough for VR, to be honest. We need them to at least, oh, quadruple in power and graphics. That means, in four years, we’ll have a $600 smartphone that is actually good at VR. And another six years or so before it’s under $100 and we can afford to put one inside low-priced headsets.

      • if smartphones have not yet enough power to run a classical viewer, then logically then cannot run a headset, where they need the DOUBLE of power and screen (one for each eye). So that today the choice is between cheap but unusable gadgets, and good stuff but pricey. Mass market adoption is not yet possible. But who knows what will happen in four years.
        Anyway a smartphone is not intended for such an use: it is intended to display concise information on a small screen.

        • Yichad —

          Mobile VR headsets currently cannot do the following well: Complex physics and other dynamically changing environments, complex, large-scale games, multi-user environments, console-style games.

          But they CAN do the following just fine: show traditional videos on large virtual screens, play 360-degree and virtual videos, do virtual walk-throughs of real estate properties or museums, do virtual tours of cities or college campuses or historic sites, play casual one-player games.

          In a recent user survey, half of the respondents said they were just as interested in media consumption as they were in gaming.

          Conflating “virtual reality” with “high-end gaming” is a mistake a lot of people make. But that just leads to missing out on potentially giant market opportunities. (Microsoft and mobile, anyone?)

          But it also creates market opportunities for small indie studios who see the potential and are willing to invest the time early (Angry Birds).

          Don’t forget that we replace our phones every year or two — and we replace PCs and consoles once in five years. So smartphones are getting better, cheaper, faster. Plus a phone is a primary must-have for pretty much every single person on the planet, so the market competition is HUGE. That is also driving development.

          • quote:l “Mobile VR headsets currently cannot do the following well: Complex physics and other dynamically changing environments, complex, large-scale games, multi-user environments, console-style games.”

            Most of this is server side, so it works as well on a headset as on a screen. The only blocking point in this list is the “console”, that is the user interface. We have none for now. What many people think is a virtual keyboard and virtual menus, where we can click and type with our hands.

          • Yichard — The problem is that if it’s server-side, you’ve got a lot of lag. With videos, say, you can buffer them so that the lag isn’t obvious. And with casual games, you download the whole game at once and you only need to get limited info from a server. With an environment like OpenSim, which changes all the time, you’ve got a lot of information that needs to be sent over.

            You can send over less information, and have the viewer do the rendering (like viewers do now) or you can have the rendering done on a server, and stream out the finished graphics — like, say, Bright Canopy does (and charges for) – and deal with the lag. You don’t notice the lag when it’s on a computer screen. Well, you don’t notice it as much. But you really notice it in VR, and it will make you sick.

            Same thing for multi-user environments — the local processing requirements are just half the problem. The other half is the communication lag.

            It will be solved over time, of course, as connections get faster and smartphone get smarter, but right now it still seems to be a significant issue.

          • Rene

            There is no HMD to date except for HoloLens that does physics client-side. Now Oculus client-side software does perform frame interpolation to blend movements, but that’s not physics simulation in the least.
            By far the biggest requirement toward immersive VR acceptance is very low inter-frame latency. You need frame rates around 90Hz to prevent the nausea inducing effect of turning your head. Some of that can be mitigated with frame interpolation but that causes other problems, notably scene blurring when movement occurs.
            To achieve that level of consistent frame rate with arbitrary scenes, it takes some hefty graphics processors. This is why for Oculus, the minimum requirement is a GTX960. The high end GTX980 is the preferred chipset.
            It is possible to get away with more modest hardware for VR surround movies, and that will be fun, but that is not general virtual world VR.

  • justjc

    About wish number 6 you should take a look at Leap Motion and their Orion project.
    Sadly their current solution just works with Oculus Rift, as it requires the PC connection, but it does give you VR with the ability to see a body and use it to interact with the virtual worlds, without having to wear special clothes or adding to much weight to the headset.