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Virtual Reality: In the Eye of the Beholder

Aug 31, 2016 02:07PM ● Published by Jason Huddle

Virtual Reality: In the Eye of the Beholder

One of the most exciting technologies breaking barriers in 2016 is virtual reality (VR). Barriers have included price, availability to the consumer and the sophistication of the technology itself.

But virtual reality isn’t new. It actually has a notable history in the U.S. military. In the 1920s and ‘30s, VR was used in flight training simulation. “These trainers looked like sawed-off coffins mounted on a pedestal, and were used to teach instrument flying,” hitl.washington.edu says. “The darkness inside the trainer cockpit, the realistic readings on the instrument panel, and the motion of the trainer on the pedestal combined to produce a sensation similar to actually flying on instruments at night. The Link trainers were very effective tools for their intended purpose, teaching thousands of pilots the night-flying skills they needed before and during World War II.”

So, what exactly is virtual reality? Wikipedia defines it as, “A computer technology that replicates an environment – real or imagined – and simulates a user’s physical presence and environment to allow for user interaction. Virtual realities artificially create sensory experience, which can include sight, touch, hearing and smell.”

And wareable.com explains that a virtual reality set-up needs three things: “A PC, console or smartphone to run the app or game, a headset which secures a display in front of your eyes (which could be the phone’s display) and some kind of input – head tracking, controllers, hand tracking, voice, on-device buttons or touchpads.” FYI: Tracking refers to an app being able to recognize and identify a user’s movements.

Likely, the segment of the population watching advancements in VR most closely is the gamer. Another is the computer geek, and Todd Ostrander might fall into that latter category.

As owner of Carolina CompuTech on Union Street, Ostrander grew up around computers. “My dad worked for IBM when I was growing up in Kingston, NY. He was part of the great migration south in

1980. I worked for a graphics company here, then realized 16 years ago that computers will break, and migrated into computer repair.”

So it stands to reason that Ostrander is a keen observer of the latest in computer technology. When asked what he sees as the new wave, he becomes animated and dives into virtual reality.

“There is a whole new technology on the cusp,” he says. “Three-D took off in the ‘70s, then there was IMAX and the new 3-D. It took off better, but didn’t really pop. Google has killed the glasses – now you pop on a mask and you’re suddenly walking through a game like you’re in the game.”

Google Glass, which Ostrander refers to, was introduced to the U.S. consumer in 2013. Designed to look like a pair of eyeglasses, the optical display was meant to be a hands-free computer that responded to voice commands. At $1,500 each, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) got involved over privacy and safety issues and Google stopped production of the glasses in January 2015. But I digress.

“Virtual reality hardware offers visual (and sometimes audio) immersion via a head-mounted display that shows a stereo image in 3-D. Sensors in the headset track the user’s movements and change the user’s view accordingly. A VR version of scuba diving allows you to feel as if real fish are swimming toward you. If you look up, you see a realistically rendered sky. When you glance down, you are shown the ocean floor. The soundtrack adjusts accordingly, enhancing the perception of being elsewhere. All other things being equal, the higher the screen resolution and the faster the screen refresh (updating data), the more convincing the simulation.”

This is according to Deloitte Global, who, at the beginning of the year, predicted that virtual reality would make a billion dollars in 2016, predominantly in video games. They estimated the sale of about 2.5 million VR headsets and 10 million games.

“We would expect the majority of spending on VR to be by core rather than casual gamers,” the company says. “This implies that while anyone with a smartphone could try out a variant of VR, the majority of VR’s revenues in 2016 will likely be driven by a base of tens of millions of core gamers rather than the hundreds of millions of occasional console or PC gamers, or the billions who play casual games.”

Core gamers are those who spend a lot of time and money on video games, their primary hobby. But it’s an expensive hobby, especially if integrated with VR. That’s because optimal viewing needs high-

resolution monitors (more than 500 dots per inch), as well as refresh rates of 75 frames per second and robust computer processors (electronic circuitry that runs a computer’s programs). Not until recently have these products become available to the average consumer.

Depending on the depth of one’s wallet, there’s a variety of VR headsets on the market. The cheapest is the cardboard variety at $10 to $20, and called mobile VR. Cardboard kits are available through companies like Google, I Am Cardboard and Unofficial Cardboard. These kits provide a cardboard template that, when folded, holds adjustable eye lenses. A smartphone fits inside, against your face, and, voila, you have virtual reality via apps downloaded to the phone. The drawbacks are no head strap, typically, so the user has to hold the headset in place, and phone battery life. VR can deaden a battery in 30 minutes.

There are more sophisticated – and expensive – VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) available and Ostrander says that the Oculus Rift “is the biggest one out there.”

With a hefty price tag of $599, these headsets are still flying off retail shelves. And the company is due to launch its Touch motion controllers – which allow you to have “hands” in VR – by the end of the year. Then there’s

the HTC Vive ($799); Samsung Gear VR ($99); Sony PlayStation VR ($399), which is being released on October 13; and the Microsoft Scorpio VR-compatible console (no release date yet), and more.

Taking VR a step further, there are advanced haptic (tactile) systems that bring the sense of touch – or force feedback – into the fields of gaming, medical and military. Gloves with built-in sensors bring users’ hands into the picture and mimic their actual physical gestures, like playing a piano or picking up objects.

Currently, in gaming, the Oculus Rift Touch motion controllers and the HTC Vive wand link controllers – among others – enable gamers to feel action through vibrations – like an explosion, for example. They can also use buttons, thumbsticks and triggers to, say, squeeze the hand trigger and shoot a gun in a video game. However, you cannot see your hands within the game.

Wikipedia.com explains more: “Furthermore, virtual reality covers remote communication environments which provide virtual presence of users with the concepts of telepresence and telexistence or a virtual artifact (VA), either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal devices such as a wired glove or omnidirectional treadmills. The immersive environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience – for example, in simulations for pilot or combat training – or it can differ significantly from reality, such as in VR games.”

To hit back at the high prices and to lure consumers into spending their money on VR, Canada-based Tek Gear has launched a campaign called VR For Everyone. As part of it they’re offering FreeHMD, a free VR headset available at www.FreeHMD.com.

“The promise of a low-cost HMD has faded with the recent launch of entry-level consumer VR headsets. With starting prices of $600 and as high as $1,200, this is well out of reach of the average consumer,” Tony Havelka, Tek Gear president, says. “Our experience in the VR industry has shown us that, in order to get a consumer-grade VR headset to market, it must have a much lower cost. There’s nothing lower than $0 – so that’s where we set the price.”

“I’ve been in technology long enough that I don’t play until it’s

mainstream,” Ostrander adds. “There’s a disposability to electronics today. In five years, the $300 Apple watch will be worth zero. Obsolete. I catch products when they come halfway down in price.”

So, if virtual reality can be used in video games, why not television movies? There are legitimate reasons. “Little VR content exists, with a fundamental constraint being the lack of broadcast-grade or even hobbyist cameras capable of capturing VR content,” deloitte.com explains. “VR apps will be available, but we expect these typically to offer a view of a virtualized living room, which includes a virtual television set, displaying regular TV programs in 2-D.

“Furthermore, as was the case with 3-D filming for television, there is likely to be a learning curve in determining best practices for shooting for VR. Regular filming places the set in front of the camera, and the production crew to the rear and out of shot. VR filming may require the crew to disappear entirely, which may complicate the directing of the shots. For VR sports, it is not yet certain where best to place the camera: placing it in the center of a field and in the mid-point of the action would likely constrain players’ movements.”

Even after shooting there will, in all probability, be questions about how to edit, transmit and store these huge files. “One production-level camera features 42 cameras capable of 4K resolution. This captures a gigapixel image (about 500 times the size of a standard smartphone image), and shoots at 30 frames a second,” deloitte.com adds.

There is value in utilizing virtual reality in other fields. In medicine, VR is working its way into areas like telepresence surgical training, pain management, and treatment of phantom limb pain and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

With regard to PTSD, “Clinics and hospitals are using virtual reality simulations of warfare akin to Iraq and Afghanistan to help veterans who are, in many ways, continually reliving the traumatic events they experienced,” according to techrepublic.com. “In a safe and controlled environment, they can learn how to deal with instances that might otherwise be triggers to behavior that could be destructive to themselves and others.”

The future of an ever-growing digital reality goes hand-in-hand with VR. “Doctors’ offices are now required to have all their forms electronic. Timewarner generates online bills. And there’s Google Fiber,” Ostrander says.

Google Fiber is just now being introduced to the Charlotte region. Google says it will allow the consumer to download a full-length movie in under two minutes, providing “an Internet connection speed of up to one gigabit per second (1,000 Mbit/s) for both download and upload, which is roughly 100 times faster access than what most Americans have.”

“At some point, we all will be streaming,” Ostrander adds. “Amazon Prime, Hulu…there are already no more VCRs and someday there will be no DVDs. Think about it – we order food online; copy machines have automatic toner ordering; cursive is no longer being taught because we’ll have fingerprints and palm prints (now in doctors’ offices). We see robotics in automatic doors, cars that park themselves and devices that vacuum our houses. They’re pushing more into everyday life.”

He also mentions home automation, which gives people control of their home’s devices and appliances while they’re away...from a mobile device…anywhere.

“Hardware used to drive software,” he says. “Now software drives hardware and we’re no longer held back by software. The digital age came about in one generation, and when it comes to technology, the big guys are five to 10 years ahead of where we are now.”

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