Come with me to a world of pure (virtual) imagination.
It’s always exciting, but always a letdown. I’ve had nothing but negative experiences when strapping a virtual reality headset to my face. Sure, it might be fun to try something new and exciting for a few minutes, but every time I’ve left the experience with strained eyes, a headache, and a sense of dissatisfaction. Things lagged, the technology couldn’t keep up with my brain.
This belief was reaffirmed when I first started working at Myjive in 2013. At the time, we had recently received a development model of the Oculus Rift. Since Myjive is a future-thinking company, we always have our eye on newly available and emerging technology. I was eager to try the gizmo but disappointed once again. The seed of an idea was there, but the technological limitations of the hardware were prevalent and the experience just wasn’t there.
I was shocked when I heard Facebook acquired Oculus VR in March of 2014 for more than $2 billion. There was also a strong push to see mainstream public acceptance of VR technology when in June of 2014, Google (not Facebook) launched Google Cardboard, a way for people to experience virtual reality in “a simple, fun, and affordable way.” Simply put, you can order a cardboard kit that folds into a headset shape, and allows users to insert their smartphones into the front of the headset to be used as the brains and display of the cardboard device. The push to get VR out there was apparent. But was this introduction to a broader audience premature? Was the technology ready? To keep tabs on this emerging tech, we soon ordered a Google Cardboard of our very own to give it a spin. The results were similar to what we experienced with the development version of the Oculus rift, just in a less expensive and more readily available package, without the obvious PC connectivity features of course.
Here we go again.
In 2014, Oculus partnered with Samsung to help with development. Oculus VR development continued to move forward but retreated from the public limelight and into the shadows, making the tech seemly disappear as a blip on the tech radar or a passing fad. However, in November of 2015, Samsung released the consumer version of the Samsung Gear VR; “Powered by Oculus” prominently stamped on its side. At this point, it had been a over a year for me since investigating the technology. Intrigued, we ordered one. If it didn’t meet the standard of expectation, it was just a small investment. Worth it in order to keep tabs on the development of the tech. Only few weeks ago, our Gear VR arrived at Untold HQ, the most up-to-date, publicly available iteration of the VR 360 technology craze.
Needless to say, I had very low expectations before trying the Gear VR for the first time. I was hesitant to think somehow this time it would all be different. To my surprise, this was the first time that it “just felt right”. And I’m not alone in this assessment. I happily paraded the headset around the office eager to share the VR experience with coworkers and to see their amusement and delight as they wandered through various VR content.
It’s nice when things come together.
So what happened? What sets the Samsung product apart from the Google Cardboard competitor or all of the other VR products before it? After all, they both fundamentally do the same thing and the Samsung Gear VR uses a phone’s display as the brain and display for the device, much like Google Cardboard. What changed? For me, there are five specific things that make it work this time around:
- Less latency – The hardware reduces the rate at which the display responds to your head’s movement and is currently at a point where the immersion feels seamless.
- Optics – The Gear VR has a layer (albeit, not a very good one) between the user’s eyes and the phone’s display. It’s something consumer VR headsets have generally omitted, and still has a long way until it’s perfect, but this product represents a good start.
- Intuitive Controls – You can now control the device using a combination of touch via a touch-sensitive control pad, physical buttons and software which allows the user’s center-most field of view act as a pointer in the various 360 virtual environments. All of these are available on the headset itself, and don’t require direct interface with the mobile phone or an external controller/remote. I’m sure voice activated commands are one the way in V2.
- Advancements in Mobile Technology – Phones have come a long way in the last couple of years, some rivaling entry-level laptops. The horsepower under the hood is immediately apparent when comparing the experience to products powered by phones from even a year ago.
- The Headset – It’s lightweight and well designed. The adjustable headbands allow users to snugly fit the device to their head in order to provide a tight seal, blocking any external light and creating the illusion of total immersion.
For a tech-junkie like myself, following the slow incremental progress of VR products over the last couple of years but has been merely akin to a spectator sport that I really didn’t care about to begin with. My most recent experience with the Samsung Gear VR, however, has made me a believer. The technology as it stands now seems to have some teeth beyond a pure novelty. While still in its infancy, the future for technological advancements in VR seems very bright. Many, if not all, of the fundamental barriers that have prevented previous implementations of VR technology have been addressed in some meaningful way and the race for marketshare is about to begin! Youtube and Facebook are actively and vigorously promoting their platforms as the best place to house newly created VR content. Oculus (Facebook) will release the retail version of the Oculus Rift in March of this year, and rumor has it that Apple has a team working on a VR headset of their own. Others will follow suit.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Content consumers can expect this technology to make a bigger splash this year than ever before. The tech may even stick around this time! But what implications will the emergence and continued development of this medium have for content creators? In my next blog post, I’ll be exploring unknown territory and reflecting on my initial findings as I take my first steps towards creating something new for the fascinating medium of virtual reality. Comments and questions are welcome!