Virtual Reality (VR) is the technology that allows you to immerse yourself in an environment of synthetic 3D images. Cut from reality, this virtual world is a universe in itself with which the user can interact. Contrary to what one might think, this technology is not new. Without going back on all the milestones of its history, here are some highlights that should allow you to understand better where it currently is, and what it promises.
From immersive cinema to virtual travel
It was in the 1960s that the fundamentals of VR were first laid down when Morton Heilig designed the Sensorama, an individual immersive cinema that required implication of all five senses, and when Ivan Sutherland created the first functional VR headset, the Ultimate Display HMD. A mechanical arm fixing it above the head of the user, hence its nickname “sword of Damocles,” supported this hyper-heavy helmet.
During the next decade, the Aspen Movie Map, ancestor of Google Earth VR, was developed, while an immersive flight simulator, the SuperCockpit, started its development. The latter, which will be used by the US military, inspired NASA, which created in 1985 a VR helmet compatible with a DataGlove. These first virtual gloves were designed by VPL Research. One of the founders of this pioneering VR company, Jarron Lanier, introduced the term “virtual reality.”
VR enters the world of video games in 1989 when the Japanese multinational Nintendo presents its Power Glove. In 1993, it was Sega’s VR turn, the first VR headset, dedicated to video games, to be launched on the market; note that this one was designed as an accessory for the Sega Genesis game console.
In 2007, Google launched Google Street View, an application available in Google Earth and Google Maps that allows users to navigate virtually by viewing high-precision 360-degree panoramas and 3D buildings.
The 2010s: the renewal of the VR
After a plunge, the VR is enjoying a revival in the 2010 decade. In 2012, the start-up Oculus VR collected more than 2 million dollars via Kickstarter—a record for the crowdfunding platform—to develop the Oculus Rift, a new-generation VR helmet. In 2014, a sudden blow: Facebook buys Oculus and its headset, the final version of which will be released two years later, one month before the release of the HTC Vive headset. The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are the first two high-end consumer-grade VR headsets.
The year 2014 is also marked by the release of the Google Cardboard, a folding cardboard headset (or “mask”), very affordable, which works by inserting a smartphone with the appropriate application installed. Seeing the pulse of the moment, other giants in the technology sector are entering this race for innovation. In the process, we see the development of both high-end VR addressing a niche market and entry-level VR that aims to conquer the large public. If the release of Google Cardboard and its aggressive marketing campaign—carried out in collaboration with the New York Times—helped to democratize the VR, many have criticized Google for propagating an image that does not do justice to the experience that this technology at its best can offer. Note that before the arrival of the Samsung Galaxy S8 in 2017, the processors and screens of smartphones were not yet able to provide a satisfying experience…, which has not stopped, meanwhile, the headsets that allowed smartphones integration to multiply.
The year 2018 marks another turning point in the world of VR with the arrival of “standalone” headsets, more sophisticated than smartphones, wireless and not requiring to be connected to a computer (powerful and expensive!).
Other advances in recent years include improvements in screen quality (high resolution, high-quality image, and high refresh rate), and accuracy of the motion capture system (internal and external headset sensors, and the capture of the direction of the gaze on the screen). Further, the field of vision (greater in some cases), the quality of the audio system, and the degree of freedom offered by controllers (controllers, remote controls, etc.) were also improved.
In fact, on this last point, we should rather speak of “degrees of freedom” in the plural, since we are referring to the number of different movements captured by the VR system. Thus, the controllers of a helmet “DOF 3” or “3 degrees of freedom” detect the movements of the head which leans from right to left, forward or backward, and which turns from left to right and vice versa. Those of a “DOF 6” or “6 degrees of freedom” detect, in addition to these three movements, the three movements of the body in rotation: moving forward or back, right, left, and down or up. The first consumer models to offer the 6 degrees of freedom were the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive in 2014. However, the Oculus Quest, whose release is scheduled for this spring, will be the first helmet “DOF 6” totally autonomous.
Extended Reality: Beyond Virtual Reality
We can not talk about VR without saying a word about the related technologies of augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) which, along with VR, are part of what is called extended reality (or XR).
Whereas with the VR the user is immersed in a digital universe, in AR the real world remains the frame of reference, but it is enriched by virtual elements, which are superimposed on it: images, texts, objects, etc. A sister technology to VR, AR can be tested on some VR headsets (also known as “hybrid” headsets), but also on headsets or glasses designed for it, or on mobile devices—smartphones or tablets with an AR application.
With a mobile device, simply point the camera at an area or an object so that the application triggers the display of virtual elements on the screen. With a headset or glasses, the virtual elements are projected through the screen of the device when the user arrives in a specific area, interacts with the device or with different accessories with sensors.
Like VR, AR has multiple applications: from the world of games—the Pokémon GO game being the best known—to that of tourism—think of visits to museums—to the construction industry, medicine, training, and many others. Present so far mostly in professional environments, AR started to reach the public more and more, as is the case with the IKEA Place app, which since autumn 2017 allows placing virtual IKEA furniture in one’s home. The AR boomed during the 2010s. In terms of the most innovative models—however, aimed at a niche market of developers, given their use and price (more than $ 2,000)—let us mention the Microsoft HoloLens and the Magic Leap One, the first versions of which were released in 2017 and 2018 respectively. These two years also mark the release of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore platforms, which offer designers tools to create new applications integrating AR.
Mixed Reality (RM) is sometimes used to refer to the improved version of the AR, which, thanks to its sensors, takes into account the real space and the position of the user, allowing him to have a physical interaction with the virtual elements that add to its real environment. The term “mixed reality” is also used for some VR headsets that are developed on the Windows Mixed Reality platform. However, these headsets do provide a VR experience and not an AR.
What future for VR?
The dynamism shown by VR manufacturers since the beginning of the 2010s has stimulated innovation in this field and has begun to bring this technology to a level more affordable to the public. In return, the large number of manufacturers led the market to fragment, with the most substantial part of the cake being shared between the three giants: HTC, Oculus, and Sony. Moreover, since they each have developed a separate computer language for the VR content they produce, other content developers and publishers are forced to adapt their code, i.e., to produce in three versions each of their games or interactive experiences.
The opinions are divided as to the VR’s ability to get out of its niche. While Mark Zuckerberg hoped in 2014 that he could conquer a day a billion users, we are still far from that level. Several stakeholders, including the Facebook boss, however, consider normal that its adoption follows a slow cycle, from 5 to 10 years, similar to what has been the case with the smartphone. The still relatively high price (a few hundred dollars) of the most attractive models and the lack of quality content likely to interest Mr. and Mrs. Everybody seems to be two major obstacles to its massive adoption.
For the moment, unlike the smartphone, the VR market is primarily formed by a majority of consumers of entertainment technology. In this regard, the domination of the Sony PlayStation VR sales record in 2018 led some to deduce that it is “increasingly considered to be dedicated to video games.” Others, on the contrary, find that VR is carving out a good stronghold in various sectors. Examples abound in training—to update a large number of workers as Walmart or Volkswagen do; in real estate—for the virtual tour of properties; or in medicine—to treat phobias or to help different professionals practice as is the case in nursing studies at UdeM and as it will be done at UQAR.
Will the VR eventually democratize, or lead a revolution? To find out more clearly, Radio-Canada technologies editor Karl-Philippe Vallée spoke with the American Kent Buy, creator of Voices of VR podcast, who interviewed more than 750 pioneers of VR and closed all his interviews by the question “What is the greatest potential of virtual reality?” “By chatting with Kent Bye, explains Mr. Vallé, we quickly understand why he does not budge from his question: no one has the same opinion on this subject. However, when he talks to doctors, architects, video game designers or journalists, everyone sees a small revolution, a shake-up in their field. As for Mr. Bye, his idea is made: “I think it will change society as Gutenberg’s press did […].”
Time will tell if VR has a place in our everyday reality. If it still has challenges to overcome, it would nevertheless be surprising to see it die down, given the pace of innovation in digital technology and the fact that it has already begun to demonstrate its usefulness in highly diversified areas. Thus, if it does not become a massive entertainment technology, there is a good chance that VR will enter our lives by the back door: by improving our quality of life indirectly, but not less important.