Oculus Rift at forefront of wave of new VR technology

The promise of virtual reality was all the rage in the 90s, but didn’t go anywhere because the headsets were laggy, low-resolution, had small fields of view, and made their users sick.

Today, the Oculus Rift is ushering in a new wave of virtual reality technology, with over 17,000 development kits already in the hands of video game designers. The Rift has been receiving rave reviews from everyone in the gaming industry, and from folks outside it, as well, like our own architect Jon Brouchoud.

In fact, the only bad review I’ve read so far was from one guy complaining about the “screen door effect” caused by the low resolution in the development version of the Oculus Rift, a problem which has been fixed in the latest, higher-resolution version.

I used to think that the mobile trend was a distraction from the move to virtual reality. A quick side trip. But it turns out that, in fact, mobile devices were a key stepping stone. The mass production of smartphones has created an all-out war for the best screens and accelerometers, both of which are key components for successful virtual reality goggles. Previously, the screens were too slow, too big, and too expensive, as were the accelerometers, resulting in headsets that were heavy and cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

The Oculus Rift, by comparison, costs just $300 for the development version, and prices will likely drop with mass production, competition, and continuous improvement of the technology.

The Rift seems set to usher in a new age of virtual reality.

But it’s also ushering in a new age of experimentation with interface hardware design. Not minor improvements to a mouse or joystick, but dramatic new types of hardware.

Motion detectors

Microsoft’s Kinect actually preceded the Oculus Rift, but it hasn’t been particularly successful with users. Part of the reason is that hand gestures and body motions are less precise than traditional controls, slower, and tire players out very quickly.

Sure, you get more exercise if you move around, but there’s little or no actual improvement to the gaming experience itself.

The Oculus Rift changes this equation. Physical movement offers dramatic benefits to the game experience, including better immersion. And when your physical movement matches what your eyes show you, there’s also less nausea.

This means that controllers like the Kinect, like Sony’s Move and the Leap Motion for the PC now have a reason for existing beyond dancing games.

Users can walk around inside virtual environments, such as in this vertigo simulator. When was the last time a video game actually scared you?

Walking in a virtual world

Many virtual environments just beg to be explored, but it’s weird to be physically sitting down while you’re walking or running in-world.

The first major product to address this issue was the Virtuix Omni omnidirectional treadmill. Its Kickstarter campaign finished a little over a week ago, and brought in more than $1 million — of a $150,000 goal.

To see why, check out the video below, in which a player uses the Omni to walk around in Skyrim.

Watch more Oculus Rift and Omni videos here.

The Omni isn’t the only game in town. There’s the Wizdish, for example, which also had a Kickstarter but didn’t meet its goals.

The Atlas system, with a Kickstarter that started about a week ago and is currently a tenth of the way to its goal, takes a different approach. All you need is a large open area — an empty room, garage, tennis court or a high school gym — where you can drop little vinyl or printed out paper markers on the floor. Then you take your iPhone, download the Atlas app, scan the room with it, and stick it on a holder on your chest.

The Atlas app maps your virtual environment to your room, and then you can literally walk around in the virtual space.

As the Oculus Rift itself gets cheaper, lighter, and smarter, I can see it including its own built-in camera to track a player’s position.

Of course, sitting down is going to be a problem. If you come across a virtual chair in-world and try to sit on it, you’ll wind up falling to the floor. Unless future iterations of this kind of system make note of where you have actual chairs located in your room, and integrate them into the virtual world experience in some manner.

Which gives me another thought — if you have an office desk and keyboard in your house, Atlas can scan your keyboard, so that you can type on it as you would normally. So, say, you’re sitting, working at your desk. Instead of being surrounded by your own house or cubicle, you’re located in an office on a beach on a tropical island. Or in an office in your company headquarters in New York City or Shanghai. Or at a desk in your company offices located on a tropical island. You get all the benefits of telecommuting, plus the joy of interacting with your coworkers and attending boring meetings.

Another sit-down option is sitting on a stationary bike, as seen in this PaperDude VR demo. It uses an Oculus Rift, a Kinect, and the Bluetooth-enabled Wahoo Kickr bike trainer.

I would love to see more biking-related virtual reality simulations. Or simulations for other types of exercise equipment, such as rowing machines or skiing machines. The market here would be gyms more than individual users, but Unity, OpenSim, and other low-cost 3D environments could allow developers to create customer simulations at a low cost for the manufacturers to ship with the products, or the device manufacturers could set up app stores where independent third-party developers could sell their apps.

Other approaches to solving the moving around problem are actual giant treadmills, such as the circular MSE Weibull omnidirectional treadmill,  the square CyberWalk omnidirectional treadmill, or the CyberCarpet, where you walk on a bunch of ball bearings.

Another approach is the giant hamster wheel, such as the Virtusphere.

Virtusphere. (Image courtesy Virtusphere, Inc.)
Virtusphere. (Image courtesy Virtusphere, Inc.)

The older approaches — the giant treadmills and spheres — are expensive and cumbersome, but make sense for a military or enterprise environment where the they’re already spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology and software.

The new crop of devices, like the Virtuix Omni and the WizDish and the Atlas are low-cost alternatives meant for use in private homes, schools, small companies, or video game arcades. In other words, they’re meant for mass adoption, and have a price point that works.

Other devices

One major beneficiary of the new explosion of interest in virtual reality is the Razer Hydra, which allows you to use your hands to interact with in-world objects. You can pick things up, wave them around, and throw them.

Check out the video below, from Razer Hydra maker Sixense Entertainment Inc. to see how it works.

The demo video uses the Unity 3D-based Tuscan Villa sample environment that ships with the Oculus Rift. The same approach can be used for any Unity-based virtual world, such as ReactionGrid’s Jibe.

And it’s coming, according to ReactionGrid’s Chief Learning Officer John Lester.

“We’ll be building on their fantastic work to integrate the Razer Hydra and Oculus Rift with our Jibe platform in the coming months, Lester told Hypergrid Business.

In the above video, the hands are disembodied, and just float in the air without any arms being attached to them. According to Lester, it “remains to be seen” whether there will be arms in the Jibe version.

“I can see different use cases where sometimes you might want disembodied hands and others where you might want them attached to arms,” he said.

As of this time, he hasn’t yet responded to my question about the situations where you would want to see disembodied hands. I’m curious, but also a little creeped out by them.

If you’re playing a first-person shooter, you want to do more than wave your hands around — you want to wave a gun around. Fortunately, there’s a Kickstarter for that, too. Kotkin Enterprises raised almost $200,000 last month — twice its original goal — for its Delta Six controller, which will be designed to work with the Oculus Rift and the Virtuix Omni.

The Delta Six controller. (Image courtesy Kotkin Enterprises.)
The Delta Six controller. (Image courtesy Kotkin Enterprises.)

Meanwhile, the Japanese company behind the Ju-C Air penis-operated controller has come out with Oculus Rift support for its Custom Maid 3D adult video game. (That page is in Japanese, but here’s an English-language write up from Destroictoid.) I really don’t know what to say about this one.

Maria Korolov