Digital Trends – Virtual Reality

Posted on Posted in Tech & Gadgets

I’ve recently written an article regarding the recent Virtual Reality Conference here in the Philippines. And while I was writing that piece, I knew that I needed to do a follow-up article discussing more on what virtual reality really is all about, and on what stage is it currently set.

Virtual Reality is no longer fiction; its here and its reality. And as we pursue our dreams of living in a Matrix-like world, the development and user adaption of the technology will only gradually improve, befitting as a digital trend this 2016.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality, or VR, as defined in Wikipedia, “is a computer technology that replicates an environment, real or imagined, and simulates a user’s physical presence and environment to allow for user interaction”.

It basically transfers its users into a simulated world, either on a fictional or non-fictional setting, and for a moment in time, gives users a notion that the simulated world they are transferred on is reality, rather that the one we currently live on.

The key factor here is immersion; the ability of a game or any other media content to feel as real as possible.

And although we’ve now just began to grasp the full potential of VR as a technology, the concept behind it is nothing new. In fact, earlier applications of Virtual Reality can be seen in our history, most prominent with the introduction of stereoscopes.

Stereoscopes are a type of device that shows separate images for both eyes to view, resulting in 3D imagery. A very popular type of stereoscopes back in the day were the ViewMaster.

ViewMaster, first introduced in 1962, is a special type of stereoscope that contains interchangeable reels that lets you view 3D images. This could be considered one of the earlier implementations and basis for the modern VR stereoscopes today

ViewMasters were certainly popular at some point, but now more modern and functional implementations of stereoscopes comes from VR headsets.  The principal idea remains the same; A stereoscope, now powered by a modern device (either a high-performance computer or a smartphone) that feeds it the necessary digital media (games, movies, simulations) for the users to operate.

Today, there are several implementations of VR headsets that are readily available in the market. Here are some of my personal recommendations for aspiring enthusiasts:

1. Google Cardboard

If you’re just getting started with VR, and don’t want to spend any crazy money to experience it, then consider getting a Google Cardboard.

Google Cardboard, as its name suggest, is literally a cardboard shaped into a stereoscope where you can mount your mobile smartphone and use it as the principal media provider for VR.

It looks silly for such a revolutionary and sci-fi-ish technology, but it works, and it’s cheap. Google Cardboard was such a huge success that it began the trend of using smartphones as a viable VR medium as opposed to using a more high-speced computers like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive uses. A perfect example of this trend is the Samsung Gear VR, which by concept, works the same way as the Cardboard.

Thousands of other 3rd party VR Gear manufacturers has also made its way into the market in case you’re looking for something made with higher quality as opposed to a cardboard.

The downside of this approach is the quality of the VR experience. Smartphones still isn’t on par with high-end computers when it comes to graphical performance, not to mention the availability of exclusive VR contents and media in such devices.

Luckily, the success of this project has lead Google to the development of Daydream, a Virtual Reality platform built into Android. With this, we can expect more quality VR media to come in future Android releases. Hopefully, Apple also answers back with a VR platform on its own in the future to compete with Google’s.

2. HTC Vive

If you want to have one of most advance and immersive VR experience available in the market today, with price not being an issue, then the HTC Vive is guaranteed to provide just that.

Co-developed with Valve, one of the leading gaming studios out there. The Vive has won multiple awards this CES 2016, as well as from other tech firm reviewers, the Vive has positioned itself in the VR market as one of the best out there, if not currently the best, and for a good reason. It currently is the only product right now that gives the full-package VR experience.

Equipped with two (2) wireless controllers specifically catered for VR use, two (2) Lighthouse laser base stations that enables it to track your movement (so you can actually move using the Vive) and the headset itself, no other VR products today gives such an immersive experience as the HTC Vive.

Also, with Valve’s experience in the gaming industry, as well as the availability of a solid gaming platform in the form of SteamVR, ensures Vive is standing on equal ground in terms of content availability, which is equally as important as is with its hardware innovations, considering the fact that HTC is up against other giants in the gaming industry.

The HTC Vive is available in the market for $800, the priciest amongst all available VR products. As mentioned though, if you have the money to spare, this is arguably the best VR device you can get today – that is until its competitors even out the field, which they intent to do so.

3. Oculus Rift

The VR craze is now everywhere. It could even be considered as the next “big thing” after smartphones, but who really did start this trend in the tech industry? For many, that honor is considered to be taken by Oculus, with its inspiring Kickstarter project back in 2012, the Oculus Rift.

Despite starting only as a Kickstarter project, the Oculus has garnered a lot of attention, from enthusiasts, to business investors and even rivaling industries. The Kickstarter project has garnered $2.5 million for the project, leading to the creation of two (2) successful prototypes in both 2012 and 2014. Eventually in 2014, Facebook would purchase Oculus for $2 billion, officially making the tech giant a major player in the emerging VR industry.

Like the Vive, the Oculus Rift relies on high-performance computers instead of smartphones for its media content, ensuring better performance that its mobile counterpart.

In terms of specs, the Rift doesn’t differ greatly from the Vive. Both has 2k resolution display with 90Hz refresh rate, along with the other components necessary for proper VR experience like accelerometers and gyroscopes. Full specs difference can be checked out here.

And although the Rift has its own gaming platform, the Oculus Home, users of the device do have access to other gaming platforms, most notably SteamVR. So if you’d rather use Steam games rather Oculus’ own native platform, with some minor setup, that is indeed possible.

The Oculus Rift consumer version was released early this 2016 for $600. Upon purchase, you would get both the VR headset as well as a Xbox One controller, in partnership with Microsoft.

Oculus Touch will also be available later this year, a direct response to the HTC Vive’s controllers. This is intended to be purchased separately from the Rift, but a bundle purchase may come available upon it’s arrival.

For now, Oculus Rift comes as a great alternative to HTC Vive if you want to spend less and is not too keen on using VR controllers and/or moving around.

4. Playstation VR

More of a PlayStation guy? Would you rather play VR games on a PS4 rather than build a beefed-up custom rig that could cost you almost a thousand dollars? (not to mention the technically demanding task of actually assembling one if you’re not too familiar with it).

I’m sure you’re not alone in sharing these sentiments; and for those that do, then PlayStation VR may be a more appealing purchase for you rather that Vive or the Rift.

PlayStation VR, as if the name doesn’t make it obvious enough, is Sony’s answer to the now emerging market of VR. Specifically designed to be used alongside the PS4, Sony’s VR offering could prove to be more attractive to users heavily ingrained in the PlayStation ecosystem.

The PlayStation VR makes use of the advantages that comes with owning a PS4, like exclusive games, optimized performance and hassle-free gaming experience (on PC you’d have to install gaming platforms like Steam, make sure drivers are properly installed, not to mention securing a licensed Windows OS and making sure it’s malware-free).

There are also rumors of PC compatibility in the future for the PlayStation VR, but with the Vive and Rift’s now established presence in the PC gaming industry (not to mention PlayStation’s lack of it in the said market), this move makes little sense for the company. Still, users who’d want a taste of PlayStation VR’s offerings in the PC could remain hopeful, but not too much.

The PlayStation VR is expected to arrive in the market this October for $399. This will include just the VR headset, since it is safe to assume that users of this would already have a controller from PS4. Still, other VR exclusive accessories such as VR Controllers (or “wands” in this case)  motion tracking cameras and even a VR gun controller will be available as a separate purchase, so a full-package VR experience definitely should be possible for future PlayStation VR owners.

5. Microsoft Hololens

Microsoft takes a slightly different approach for its VR offerings. Rather than just having another VR headpiece, the Microsoft HoloLens takes it a step further – it mixes Virtual Reality (VR) with Augmented Reality (AR).

Augmented Reality showcases real-world environment (as opposed to Virtual Reality where it supplements its own simulated worlds) and augments, or adds digital contents within it. A very popular example of an AR game today is Pokemon Go.

Microsoft hopes to leverage itself from other competitors with this technology, and indeed, mixing VR and AR makes a lot of sense. For one, Microsoft’s approach would no longer require users to have motion tracking cameras like the ones you have in the HTC Vive, saving users the cost and setup of having one when it becomes available in the market.

And second, as good as graphic rendering gets today, and even in the future, no simulation could perfectly mimic real-life environment. This feature could make the HoloLens experience much more immersive than its competitors, although this also in a way limits present HoloLens applications to real-life settings, since we can’t very well do a space app simulation with your room as a background now, can’t we.

Still, the technology is very promising, and its refreshing that Microsoft has taken a different approach to VR compared to its rivals. It also has the advantage on being part of the Xbox platform, so users of the said platform can be hopeful on what VR has in store for them in the upcoming future.

Microsft HoloLens is not yet available in the consumer market today. A development version is available, but for a price of $3000, its currently not worth it, save for the major tech enthusiasts out there.

A consumer product pricing and release date is yet to be given by Microsoft. Given that most of its competitors have already released a consumer product this 2016, we can be hopeful that Microsoft will make its announcement sometime soon, else they risk being late in the VR party.

It’s an amazing time to be alive; smartphones, tablets, wearables, self-driving vehicles, drones, and even virtual reality. The amount of innovation being done at this age far exceeds ones that were done a few decades ago.

It is worth noting that the Virtual Reality industry is still blooming. We have yet to see what the technology really is capable of. Still, the potential can already be seen, and we can only hope that the use of this technology will only better the living standards that we have right now.

Disclaimer:  All products showcased above are of my personal recommendations based on my reviews – and in no part will I claim any responsibility for any mischieving provided by any of the showcased devices above.

All YouTube video credit goes to CNET respectively. You can check out more on their content on the link provided here.