VR – is it ready yet?

Virtual reality (VR) is hardly new, nor experimental. Aircraft pilots and ships’ crews have been training in VR simulators for years. What would be new would be serious VR as a consumer product, something you could reasonably expect to be able to use at home, or in ordinary businesses.

If you have ever used a proper commercial cockpit or bridge simulator, you will know that there is more to them than a head-mounted display can provide. So far though, most attention in the potential consumer area has been concentrated on such systems. I still have an old pair of ‘display specs’, the coolest thing in their day, which simply provided each eye with a screen image. They were fun for watching movies, but hardly immersive or suitable for VR output. The current state of the art is the Oculus Rift, which has evolved suitably since it Kickstarter initiation, and as a developer kit seems priced within reach of many consumers.

Augmented reality (AR), which mixes VR with reality, looked to be going Google’s way with its Glass, despite jibes about ‘glassholes’, but this nerd’s badge of pride has suddenly been dropped. Microsoft’s HoloLens looks a long way from becoming a consumer product, but might eventually restore some sexiness to its corporate image.

The biggest known problem with such head-mounted displays, other than their cost, remains motion illness. Currently this is made worse by lags inherent between head motion and content tracking on the displays, and their lack of sensory integration. Oculus seems to be addressing the first of those, although further improvements are required before the Rift can face its brave new world.

Mismatch between visual and other sensory stimuli is one of the most common causes of motion illness, and in consumer systems is not likely to be soluble in the foreseeable future. For example, when playing a VR game in which you travel in a vehicle which corners at speed – a not uncommon scenario – the only way of generating the stimuli to the semi-circular canals in the inner ear to simulate motion and G forces is to invest huge sums in hydraulic rams and the like, as used in cockpit simulators. The day may come when there is a cheap wearable solution, but that is unlikely for some years to come, if ever. Even the droopiest brewers are circumspect about selling products which make a significant proportion of their customers vomit.

A Mattel Power Glove, vintage 1989 (Evan-Amos, via Wikimedia Commons).
A Mattel Power Glove, vintage 1989 (Evan-Amos, via Wikimedia Commons).

But for anyone who has experimented with existing VR or AR systems, their biggest problems are with input, not output. Twenty-five years ago I bought an interface which allowed me to connect a Mattel Power Glove (intended for Nintendo Entertainment Systems) to a Mac using its ADB port, and until recently that remained near state of the art.

For large-scale motion input, Microsoft’s Kinect and other similar systems have shown how this can be packaged in a cheap, usable manner, but have seen limited use beyond games and entertainment. Mac nerds who want to try it with OS X can do so through Glen McPherson’s detailed instructions, and Skanect lets you use a Kinect as a 3D scanner under OS X.

Leap Motion. © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Leap Motion. © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Leap Motion now offers a cross-platform high-resolution input device which has great promise for fine manual control, which is more relevant to many VR and AR systems. It is small, cheap (£55 inclusive of VAT), and has extensive software support across OS X, Windows, and Linux. Although it works excellently, and with a little training most users should be capable of achieving tasks requiring quite fine dexterity, application support remains weak and kludgy. Trying to achieve fine control over Google Earth or sculpt 3D objects is far from intuitive, and most users still struggle after several hours of frustrating effort. This is probably a result of the challenges that such devices pose to the interface designer, and not inherent in the Leap Motion device itself.

Hand positions and motion precisely visualised from a Leap Motion, in its Visualiser tool. © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Hand positions and motion precisely visualised from a Leap Motion, in its Visualiser tool. © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.

As the Oculus Rift nears release specification and performance, some bold attempts have been made to integrate Leap Motion with the Rift, and further development here could achieve much greater success. We are still a long way from being able to throw some virtual clay onto a virtual potter’s wheel, turn a virtual pot from it, and send the resulting model to our 3D printer to be realised for us, without a splash of dirty water on the desktop. This may not quite be the teledildonics of science fiction, but that sort of capability could make VR attractive to craft and industry, rather than mere entertainment.

If I have not mentioned Apple yet, it is simply because no-one knows what it is exploring in terms of VR or AR. I would be shocked and disappointed if some of its billion dollar annual spend on R&D is not going into consumer VR/AR systems, and I would not be surprised to see it ship exciting products in this area in the next couple of years. But for the moment, it is keeping its cards very close to its chest.

In the coming weeks I will be exploring VR systems further, remembering to keep the puke bowl within easy, not virtual, reach.