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VR: The Current State of the Art

7 minute read

SamsungGear VR: right here, right now

The new era of wearable imaging tech is almost here. Mark Ramshaw provides a comprehensive round-up of the main players in the field to date, from the very public Oculus to the very secretive Magic Leap.

Any lingering suspicions that Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality would, at worst fail to materialise, or - like stereo 3D TV before it - arrive with fanfare and a hard industry push only to be met with customer indifference, have all but evaporated. Analysts are now predicting the VR and AR businesses will be worth $30 billion and $120 billion by 2020, respectively. That may be a little optimistic, but after a fresh round of announcements and pronouncements from key players the future is looking ever brighter for augmented and virtual reality shades.


On the VR front, the biggest fresh push has come from Oculus, the company that effectively kickstarted everything when founder Palmer Luckey began hacking together prototypes in his parents’ garage back in 2011. Since then company has acquired the services of game coding legend John Carmack, along with crowdfunding backing and a $2 billion buyout from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

The technology, meanwhile, has gotten lighter and more responsive, with lowered latency (crucial to avoid inducing nausea) and better 360-degree stereo image quality, with the latest demo units deemed as easy to wear ‘as a baseball cap’. It also finally has a solid release date, the first quarter of 2016, with a price tag expected to be around $1500 (though that includes a the cost of a high-spec PC). Some sources pitch a standalone unit at around $200 (against the $350 tag for the current developer’s kit version).

Oculus has also busied itself courting the games industry while wisely expands its reach elsewhere. $10 million funding has being announced to accelerate indie game development, with major studio signings including CCP and Epic Games. Crucially a deal has also been announced with Microsoft. The Rift will come boxed with an Xbox One controller, and — in addition to PC connectivity, — will also be capable of streaming Xbox One games.

Meanwhile, Oculus VR’s own own Story Studio is spearheading a drive for immersive movie content, with numerous other filmmakers and studios such as vfx powerhouse Framestore committing to the 360 format. And then, of course, there’s the Facebook connection. Zuckerberg invested in Oculus not for its gaming potential but for the communication possibilities that immersive, 360-degree content can bring to the Internet. In a wide-ranging online Q&A that included questions from Stephen Hawking and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Facebook founder and CEO took the opportunity to extol the virtues of the new technology to his 32 million FB followers, telling them that “immersive experiences like VR will become the norm” for rich online content.


In the world of augmented reality, it’s Microsoft that leads the mainstream adoption charge. Like Oculus, the tech giant is pitching its HoloLens as much as a serious tool as a gaming device, though the nature of augmented reality (‘holographic’ images seemingly placed into a real space view rather than a closed-off all-digital environment) suggest HoloLens is less viable than VR as a device for filmmaking and instead more likely to find uses in business, engineering and communication.

On the gaming front, Microsoft made good on the promise of its earlier teaser videos with two key live demos at June’s E3 event. Frustratingly, the one for Halo 5 was conducted behind closed doors, but one for Minecraft (the result of a $2.5 billion buyout of original developer Mojang) finally showed the system in action and proved the viability of ‘mixed reality’ interaction. That said, some have pointed out that what the live feed the audience was able to view didn’t quite correspond to the more limited field of view experienced when actually wearing the device, which has been likened to a 60-inch television viewed from six-to-eight feet away. Microsoft has also yet to confirm either a price or release date for HoloLens. A late 2015/early 2016 launch has been mooted, but the pricing rumours range all the way from £300 to the rather less attractive £600.

With the Minecraft demo enthralling the gaming sector, Microsoft intended taking a giant leap into more serious territory at the end of June, via its ongoing collaboration with NASA. Two pairs of HoloLens headsets were set for use aboard the International Space Station. Unfortunately that plan went up in smoke when the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the cargo exploded during lift-off. The aim had been to use the augmented reality device, in conjunction with a software suite dubbed Sidekick, to allow NASA ground operators to effectively look through the eyes of space station crew members as well as to transmit animated instructions to the headsets to enable crew members carry out specialised tasks. No word yet on when Sidekick will get a second launch window.


HoloLens isn’t the only augmented reality system on the block. castAR comes from Technical Illiusions, a company founded by two programmers fresh out of Valve, the developer behind the Half-Life games and Steam, the ubiquitous online games platform. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, castAR developer kits are already doing the rounds. Unlike HoloLens, the consumer version also has a solid price tag, $400, though not a confirmed release date. It remains to be seen whether a startup can compete against Microsoft, though castAR is noteworthy for its ability to operate as both an AR and VR device.


HoloLens will also indirectly compete with Sony’s headmounted Morpheus VR device, which hits in early 2016. At this year’s E3 event the company unveiled a wealth of new game titles, while also stressing that that the device will be a ‘platform’ rather than a mere PS4 peripheral. The latest iteration of the device sports a larger screen (a 5.7” OLED with a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels), a wider 100-degree field of view, and refresh up to 120 frames per second. Testers report that a device sleeker and lighter than the Oculus Rift, though some did note that there are still some tracking and graphical issues. Given its reliance on PS4 and Sony’s focus it currently looks like Morpheus will be of primary interest to VR-hungry gamers.


Though a late entry to the party (it was only announced in February) the HTC Vive is already being eyed as a serious rival for both the Oculus and Morpheus, not least because the telecommunications giant has partnered with the aforementioned Valve. Vive also the advantage of a definite Christmas 2015 release, not to mention 1/10th degree head movement accuracy and stereo tracking via a multitude of sensors and two remote laser basestations. This will allow users to move around and interact more naturally with virtual environments. The 90fps display will send 1200 x 1080 pixels to each eye. No games have been announced yet, but promisingly content partners signed up by HTC include Google and HBO, and HTC is committed to giving developers development kits free of charge.


Samsung is the other mobile heavyweight with designs on the VR sector. Its GearVR also has the virtue of being the only solution currently available for public consumption, albeit in ‘Innovator Edition’ form. Given that the GearVR works in conjunction with the user’s mobile phone to provide the stereo display, the upcoming ‘Consumer Edition’ will presumably be launched in tandem with a future phone release, such as the Galaxy Note 5. Such a bolt-together design naturally results in a more modest VR offering (with greater pixellation, a lower field of view, worse latency and also reports of screen fogging issues), but GearVR is being created on conjunction with Oculus, and Samsung has indicated a desire to push for video content.


Razor is a company enamoured with the DIY approach to VR, in this case via the creation of an open source VR platform for game creation, dubbed OSVR. Thus, while its Hacker Dev Kit v1.2 can operate purely as an entry-level ($299) VR solution, it’s intended more as a baseline device for developing content across multiple VR technologies. And because the hardware itself is open source the truly dedicated can use Razor’s hardware design to build their own device.


Over at Google it’s all about content and content creation - the wearable tech they’re (currently) all but leaving to others. Production of Google Glass has been halted, the Google Cardboard is essentially an ultra-low budget DIY hack (a cut-and-foldout mount to turn Android phones into VR viewers), and the VR for G3 project a free extra to be offered in many territories to LG phone users. Like GearVR the latter is another system built around a mobile phone, so a step up from Cardboard but likely nothing to trouble higher end solutions like Morpheus, Rift and HoloLens.

Instead Google is focused on developing VR filmmaking. For the consumer market, it’s teamed up with GoPro. The result is Jump, a circular array of 16 GoPro Hero4 cameras that capture footage across 360 degrees. Captured footage is fed to the Jump Assembler, with the results output in stereo at a resolution equivalent to five 4K TVs. Google has already developed software to enable Jump content to stream via Youtube, and is currently shipping to the system free to a number of top Youtube content creators to help foster this new VR filmmaking scene.

Google is also backing Jaunt, a new venture aiming to cater for professional filmmakers developing for Oculus and other devices. First out of the block is Neo, a high-end multi-camera system sporting custom lenses and support for high-frame rate capture, time lapse photography and low-light conditions. The catch is that there’s no price tag and the company only currently intends to supply to current clients and partners, including the likes of North Face and Paul McCartney.

While both Jaunt and Neo offer ways to capture 360 degrees via circular camera setups, only one company is currently pitching a camera system to capture ultra-high resolution footage over a whole sphere. That company is Sphericam, and its second Kickstarter-based launch promises backers a tennis-ball sized rig with a ‘Global Shutter’ capture system, offering 4K spherical vision via six cameras recording at 60fps in RAW format. Interestingly, the fully synchronised output from the lenses is stitched together in real-time, negating the need for laborious post-shoot data crunching. Early backers are able to pre-order the Sphericam 2 for $1,399.

Magic Leap

Perhaps the most intriguing player in this emerging market is also currently the most secretive. The rumours surrounding augmented reality device Magic Leap have thus far bordered on the hysterical, but with $592 million funding from the likes of Qualcomm, Legendary Pictures and (yet again) Google, plus a development team including renowned coder Graeme Devine, scj-fi author Neal Stephenson and members of Weta Workshop (along with various physicists, biologists and optics experts) the magical is increasingly looking real.

While other AR and VR solutions rely on stereoscopy to trick the viewer into perceiving CG in 3D, Magic Leap will instead utilise silicon photonics, fibre optics, light fields and transparent lenses to beam images directly into the wearer’s eyes. The aim is for the projected image and the view of the real world to blend seamlessly, making it near-impossible to distinguish between the two. Throwing in advanced eye-tracking and iris recognition for good measure, the company intends to deliver a fully portable glasses-like device rather than some clumsy head-mounted unit.

Initially, Magic Leap will be pitched as a gaming device, but the company ultimately hopes to engage artists, app developers, writers and filmmakers. “We think it can be used throughout the day,” proclaims Devine. “Going forward in time, we can develop software that makes you better and smarter as a human.”

The product is now apparently out of the prototype phase, and developers can now sign up to receive a Unity and Unreal Engine-compatible dev kit at some unspecified date. As with almost everything Magic Leap-related there’s no concrete information on release date, though some estimate it’ll be ready for market within the next two or three years and the company has at least indicated that its price tag will be comparable to that of a mobile phone. When it does finally arrive, Magic Leap will likely either be a laughably overambitious and overhyped Johnny Come Lately, or else something that will raise the bar so spectacularly that it resets the entire fledgling industry.

<video link - HoloLens Minecraft>


Tags: VR & AR