Virtual Reality

Ferenc Haraszti

3 May 2017

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality or VR describes a computer generated three-dimensional environment which can be explored or interacted with by a person. VR-goggles are the means to experience and interact with environments through a first-person view. These goggles use displays and lenses to project two separate images into the user’s eyes. Since the two images are rendered as different points of view, this technique enables a sense of depth that is far more accurate than the effect in 3D-movies. Additionally, the goggles use accelerometers, gyroscopes and various laser- or IR-based tracking methods to determine the user’s position and viewing angle in the virtual environment. The screens in these goggles work at a high refresh rate and fill out most of your field of view. The sub-millimeter-accurate tracking and high field of view creates a sense of immersion that goes far beyond conventional screens and enables a new form of media. Basically, this enables the user to not only look at an object, but to view it in perfect 3D, stand next to it and even walk around it.

The idea of virtual reality has been around for quite a while: Stereoscopic photo viewers in 1938, early military flight simulators and the Nintendo Virtual Boy are early examples of the technology. Up until the 21th century, VR was not much more than prototypes and nice ideas for movies like The Matrix. However, the interest in this concept and the rapid advancement in processing power and display technology enabled the first steps towards usable virtual reality. Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign for their development kit resulted in widespread interest and a lot of funding. This forced other companies to respond with their own devices. VR is still in its infancy: For the most part it is expensive and lacks in consumable media, but it is growing steadily.

Today there is a large array of upcoming VR-goggles by well-known manufacturers. Some of them are targeting the high-end market and provide “six degrees of freedom” tracking that enables the user to literally walk around the room and translate the movement to VR. Additionally, these headsets can track motion controllers and enable complex interactions with the environment. Others, like Google’s Cardboard and Daydream, use a smartphone’s screen and gyroscope to track only the viewing-angle of the user.

Private use

VR is new, immersive, exciting and available, but what can you really do with it?

There is already a lot of content on the market. Some of it is free and merely a “first try” at VR by some unknown developer. Others are full-fledged pieces of software or content that are very enjoyable or even useful. Most of the content can be sorted into either of these categories: movies, experiences, tools and games.

Movies are a great way to get accustomed to VR. These can mostly be viewed on any kind of VR-goggles since they expect you to sit or at least not to move much while watching. Samsung’s GearVR or Google Cardboard/Daydream are comfortable to wear and cell phones are usually powerful enough to show these kinds of movies. There are a few free ones I can recommend: “Invasion” is a great animation movie that is in full stereoscopic 3D and it plays in 360° around you. It is available for free for all devices. “Henry” by Oculus is another free short movie. It is lovely and worth watching, but is only available for Oculus devices. Since a VR-movie does not have control about the way you are facing, it needs to grab your attention by other means. Little audio cues or changes in lighting affect the user and guide his gaze into the direction the movie wants. However, since you do not need to face a particular way all the time, there is a reason to watch these movies multiple times. Often there are little details you did not see the first time or maybe you see the movie’s hero doing something bad while no one watches.

The concept of a movie is clear: You sit there and watch it. But what happens if you are supposed to interact with it? There are a lot of these interactive experiences on the VR-market and most of them are free. They are not meant to be movies, since your actions inside the environment influence the experience. They cannot be described as games either since there is no apparent goal or reason you are doing anything. Still, these experiences aim to be much more entertaining than movies. Some of them are made by well-known writers and producers who are trying to work with interactivity. One of the best experiences I can recommend is “Accounting”. Justin Roiland, the voice actor, writer and co-creator of “Rick and Morty”, teamed up with the creator of “The Stanley Parable” to create this strangely funny VR experience.

The gaming market for VR is steadily growing. Every day is filled with new releases, but the small available player base and high-risk investment the developers have to make result in high prices for these games. Most of them are short or unpolished. Some of them are great and fun for a while, but they lack depth. There are some games that have added VR-support as an afterthought and have done well, but a wave of really nice games has yet to come. Large developers and publishers have already stated that they are working on titles, but those need at least three years of work until they are ready. For now, I can recommend some of the top selling games like “Space Pirate Trainer”, “Audioshield” and the usual simulation games that support VR like “Project Cars” or “Elite”.

Tools is a very generic name for a category, but there is a lot of different software to be covered under this term. These tools use VR to enable a completely new way to interact with models, data, pictures, workspaces and code. Some of these applications are made by a small team or just one person, while others are made by giants like Google. However, most of these tools are incredibly useful to work with. Since these applications need a lot of work to create them, most of these are not free.

Google’s “Tilt Brush” is often being described as “Paint for VR” and I would agree with that statement. It seems very simple and easy to get into: If you own one of the high-end headsets, you can use your room and your motion tracked controllers to paint in 3D space. The interesting bit is the sheer amount of options you have: Painting with light, fire, regular paint and much more.
Their promotional video does a good job of representing “Tilt Brush” and VR in general.

If you are more into modeling, I can recommend “MasterpieceVR”. It is entirely free and has a lot going for it. It features collaboration over the internet, which enables multiple people working on the same model at the same time. You can see each other working on it, wave at each other and talk to each other while working. You can even export those models and print them using a 3D-printer. The software is currently in beta phase and there are a lot of features still planned. Oculus “Medium” is a more professional modeling software for VR, but as the name implies it requires the Oculus Rift to be used. If you want to have a closer look at modelling, check out this video of Oculus “medium”.

There are a lot more of these tools: “Bigscreen”, which lets you hang out with your friends, who own VR-goggles, and watch movies on a gigantic screen. “Virtual Desktop”, which enables you to have resizable screens all around you if you need to monitor something. There is a program for almost anything you could imagine yourself doing in VR.

Last, but not least there is “Google Earth VR”, which must be one of the most amazing applications I used in VR. You can fly around the earth and have a look at all the 3D-modelled buildings. You can change the time of day by moving the sun around the globe. It feels amazing to wander around in front of the 3D modeled ETH main building and then suddenly fly away towards the sky like superman. It is free and definitely worth your time.

Professional use

Since the idea for VR has been around for quite a while, corporations and institutions have been experimenting with it for a long time. Since the devices are more readily available now, a lot more professional software is showing up. There are too many use cases for VR in the market to list them all, but let us take a look at just a few of them:

One of the most obvious use cases for VR is 3D animation. While you animate, you are looking at the scene from different angles, moving joints and skeletons around with the mouse in 3D. Afterwards, you can look at the scene again to check if everything is in place as it should be. In VR, you can animate characters by placing them in the way you like them, jumping ahead a few frames and then adjusting their position by literally grabbing them and moving them with your hands. This can be far more accurate and much faster than doing it on an ordinary screen.

If you are interested in animation, check out this video of someone comparing both methods.

VR enables you to walk around in and experience artificial environments. Which profession is known for creating environments? Architects. I have talked with a few architect friends and the thing I heard most was: “It feels like cheating, when you stand in the house you designed before it is even built”. Drawing a concept, modeling it in 3D and creating a real-life model are steps to visualize your ideas, but standing in the building you designed and experiencing it in scale gives you confirmation about room sizes, angles and the general layout you otherwise cannot get.

Likewise, you can use VR in engineering and design. Doing assemblies in VR is currently not supported by conventional CAD software, but there are a lot of applications to view your parts and animations in VR. It is a great tool to check assemblies understanding other’s works and previewing your creations in the correct scale. No matter what you are designing the usefulness of VR is undeniable.

The advances of VR in the past years have resulted in many new uses in the medical field. Pain management is one of these applications. The University of Washington has released a VR game called “SnowWorld”, which aims to be a form of distraction therapy. Studies performed by the US military confirm that this simple game yields the same or even better results in pain reduction than morphine. VR is also being used in therapeutic applications as a primary tool to combat unnecessary anxiety and irrational fears. There is a wide range of articles about the therapeutic effects of VR that mostly focus on PTSD and social anxiety.

A lot of time in medical examinations is taken up by the analysis of “magnetic resonance imaging”-scans. These layer-scans need to be converted into 3D models and then need to be examined quite unintuitively by looking at cross sections. Highlighting and annotating in those scans is vital for a correct diagnosis. VR can be used to quickly examine these models and identify anomalies. There are professional tools out there, which do an excellent job. However, if you want to catch a glimpse of what you can do with those, check out “Anatomy Viewer”. Usually, after undergoing a MRI-scan, you get a CD with your scan data on it. This little software reads that data, creates 3D volumes and lets you examine them very easily. In case you are curious, here is a video showcasing it.

Final words

VR is in its infancy. There is no doubt about that. Even the modern goggles and high end devices are struggling with resolution, tracking or performance. For casual users, the price tag is still too high and the content is not worth the investment yet. However, in the professional field, costs are not an issue and the usefulness massively outweighs the cost to develop new VR-software.

VR is definitely worth experiencing. I have demoed VR to a lot of people. No matter how skeptical someone was before trying VR, it never failed to amaze them.

Yes, there is room for improvement with the current devices, but I believe that VR is going to grow a lot in the years to come and I am looking forward to it.