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How to solve the Oculus Rift’s biggest 'problem'

10 December 2015

Colin Yellowley explores the barriers and challenges around headsets like the Oculus Rift, and how companies can protect their VR investment.

Colin Yellowley

Facebook’s US$2bn acquisition of Oculus has given a massive boost to the nascent Virtual Reality (VR) industry. Since the deal was completed in July 2014, every big tech company has piled in, and the widespread adoption of VR is feeling a lot like an inevitability.

But, for all the promise, there is one big problem that headsets like the Oculus Rift have not solved – and maybe never will. It’s what we call the Oculus blind spot.

If you are planning to develop or use VR content, you should make yourself aware of this problem and the way it could sabotage your plans. The good news is that there is a simple workaround – which could also make your VR content more useful and accessible than you ever imagined.

For the past five years, Igloo Vision has been developing 360-degree projection technologies and building immersive environments, which allow entire teams to interact with VR content. Initially it was a long, hard slog. Then Facebook acquired Oculus VR and, suddenly, everything changed.

It seemed like the entire world had opened its eyes to the potential of VR – which gave a similar boost to many of VR’s close cousins, like Building Information Modelling (BIM), Computer Aided Design (CAD), and immersive visualisations and simulations.

Finally, here was the Oculus Rift, a high-quality, low-cost way to bring immersive content to life. All those issues that had plagued VR back in the 90s had been put to rest. And the applications are seemingly endless - immersive gaming, obviously; VR films and videos, of course; but also a whole host of business applications, like immersive architectural and engineering visualisations, immersive training solutions, immersive brand experiences, stakeholder engagement programmes, and so the list goes on.

Of course, it’s not just Facebook and Oculus. The potential of VR is being championed by an unlikely allegiance of start-ups, technology giants and media companies.
Sony’s response, originally code-named Morpheus and now disappointingly re-named PlayStation VR, is due for launch in early-2016. Meanwhile, Samsung is already out of the blocks with its Gear VR headset. And HTC has teamed up with the online gaming company Valve to develop Vive.

And we shouldn’t forget Google. The company is supporting VR in several of its products and also backing a secretive new venture called Magic Leap. But its masterstroke has to be Google Cardboard, which, for an outlay of a couple of pounds, turns any smartphone into a basic yet eminently usable VR headset.

Taking VR to the masses
By making it available at giveaway prices, Google Cardboard is truly taking VR to the masses. For example, in a new promotion for its digital content, The New York Times recently distributed more than a million Google Cardboard devices to its subscribers – a move which, according to WIRED magazine, “just hooked a generation on VR”.

Admittedly, today’s VR experience is far from perfect. But, when this much money and attention is lavished on a technology, it does tend to take root. As a recent editorial in The Economist puts it: “VR today is where smartphones were in 2001. Back then it was clear that mobile phones connected to the internet and armed with cameras and colour screens were going to be the Internet and the smartphone, [VR] promises to touch every field of human endeavour.” 

But what I find mystifying is the way that so many people are blind to the inherent limitations of VR headsets – limitations which, to me, should be blindingly obvious. Irresolvable problems or short-term glitches? So what’s the problem? Where’s the blind spot? Is it the puke problem?

Motion sickness does continue to be an issue with VR headsets. It’s way better than it used to be, and getting better all the time. But, especially with some types of content, glitches still occur, the brain gets confused, and sudden (sometimes uncontrollable) waves of nausea are the unfortunate consequence. Yes, this is something to be aware of. But it’s not a deal-breaker.

So is it then the fidelity foul up? When miniature screens are placed just a few centimetres from the eye, even the highest resolution images can become pixelated, and the sense of presence that is so essential to VR can be forfeited. But, honestly, with upwards of 2 million pixels per image, refreshed around 100 times a second, the fidelity of today’s VR solutions usually stands up to scrutiny.

So is it the field-of-view furore? The human eye perceives its surroundings with incredible clarity, depth, and a wide field of view. Without even moving our eyes, our field of view can stretch to 180 degrees. Then, by glancing around, yet keeping our head still, we can see up to 270 degrees.

By comparison, the very best performing VR headsets have a 210-degree field of view, and the norms are closer to 100 degrees. As a consequence, when donning a VR headset, you often get the dreaded ‘snorkel mask’ or ‘horse-in-blinkers’ effect. It can feel a little odd at first, but we have only come across a few instances where it is truly debilitating. 

Actually, it’s none of these things. Don’t get me wrong; they are all real considerations. There are also a few related ones, like the need to be tethered to a computer, the discomfort of wearing a relatively heavy slab of technology on your face, and the tricky issue of donning a pair of glasses and a VR headset simultaneously.

So, as you plot your move into VR, you should make yourself aware of the limitations - not everyone will have a great experience, for example, and headsets will have to be used in moderation. But, in my view, these are relatively arcane issues, which are likely to be eliminated, one-by-one, as the technology improves.

Instead, my problem is more fundamental. It started to reveal itself, little-by-little in our conversations with clients – often in hushed tones, when exasperated managers reveal that their leadership teams have got excited by VR, but not thought through the details.

In many ways, the experience has been reminiscent of watching the movie Limitless. A magic pill opens up a new world of possibility. Suddenly, every conceivable problem can be solved. Then the side effects begin to become apparent.

A solitary, isolating experience?
By its very nature, wearing a VR headset is a solitary experience. When you put it on, you block out the real world and everything in it. It is more akin to a blindfold than a TV. And this renders it next-to-useless for many situations where VR could otherwise be a perfect fit. This is why we call it the Oculus blind spot, and it is a tremendous issue for our clients. Why? For a range of reasons.

For example, we work with some clients in the stakeholder engagement business. They use our technology in public consultations, and their job involves making and reading eye contact.  But you can’t make eye contact in an Oculus; some people will shout me down and say that you can. And, yes, you can get a virtual person to look directly into your eyes… but it is still virtual.

We also work with clients in the events industry. Their raison d’etre is to create shared experiences. Yet they are being asked to fly hundreds of people across the world only to strap a screen to their faces.

Then there is the virtual prototyping of products and places. Clients in this line of work constantly report that headsets just get in the way. They want to see each other, in person. They also want to see their own body, because when judging dimensions, they often use their own body as a scale. And they need to be able to grab a pen and paper, or switch between the context of a meeting and the virtuality of a 3D model.

Clients in the engineering industry are often tasked with showing design concepts to clients and counterparts, discussing details and reaching collective decisions. But how do they do that when everyone is wearing a headset, and no one can see what anyone else is looking at?

So, the bottom line is this; if the reason to use VR is to engage people singly and individually, there is no better way to do it than with the new generation of VR headsets. But, if you are looking for a shared or collective response, then you need to look beyond the Oculus blind spot, and make use of other delivery mechanisms – like immersive projection environments. We would even go so far as to suggest that two sub-sets of VR will begin to emerge – Personal VR and Shared VR.

It’s not a case of either/or
In truth, we seldom encounter situations where there is a stark choice between headsets and immersive environments. More and more often, we see them being used in parallel, with clients seeking to get the best results from each medium. For example, even the highest-spec immersive environment could never match the ‘immersivity’ of a full-on Oculus-type experience. 

But the flip side is that a headset is not conducive to collaboration, consultation and shared experiences. So there are definite synergies between the two. And it helps that, with a common game engine like Unity, content created for VR systems like the Oculus can be ported directly into some immersive projection systems.

What I would caution against, is to revert to a simple flat screen experience whenever the use of a headset becomes inappropriate. The whole idea of using VR is to induce a sense of presence (that is, tricking your mind into believing in that the virtual is reality). If you don’t want to induce presence, there is really no point in working in VR.

The fact is, you don’t get presence on a flat or even a concave screen, no matter what size you make it. By contrast, the beauty of today’s immersive projection environments is that they are so presence inducing.

So, am I anti-Oculus? No way. It’s given an incredible boost to our own business. And, if you want a truly immersive experience, it is difficult to conceive of a better way of delivering it than through a headset like the Oculus Rift.

All I am saying is that it has its limitations. By definition, it is a solitary experience that can inadvertently block out your colleagues, clients and counterparts. And by exploring complementary ways to experience VR, like immersive projection environments, you can actually make your content more useful and accessible than you had ever imagined.

Colin Yellowley is managing director, Igloo Vision

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