There has been an increasing amount of attention and excitement around VR in recent years. Since the largest social media company in the world, Facebook, spent $2 Billion on acquiring Oculus in 2016 we’ve seen a massive amount of consumers who are curious to see what is so exciting about this new space.
And with the introduction of untethered standalone VR Headsets, like the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go – Both From Facebook’s Oculus – millions of individuals who would not have been able to experience VR are now invited with opened arms and affordable price points.
What this means for developers of software, and specifically VR Developers, is there are new market opportunities with new customers anxious to try new games, experiences, and make new purchases.
In Part 1 of Introduction to VR we are going to take a step back and explore the origins of VR and see where it came from. Then, in Part 2 of Introduction to VR we’re going to look deeper into where we VR is today, what technology is required for VR to work, and who are the industry players and what their offerings are in the market.
The VR industry is growing from many different angles. There are hardware companies, software companies of all varieties and scale, and platform companies who work to connect you to everything you could possibly need (plus things your probably don’t). We’ll explore all these different corners of the industry as we explore getting started in VR with Introduction to VR Part 1 and Part 2.
What is virtual reality?
VR is the simulation of a user’s physical presence inside a 3D computer-generated environment. When a user is experiencing Virtual Realty they can interact with and manipulate the digital world and the digital objects inside of the virtual world. These experiences and interactions are enabled by special devices like headsets, controllers, gloves, treadmills, rudders, and even haptic body suits. There are new ways of experiencing virtual reality announced just about every week!
History of Virtual Reality
It might seem like virtual reality is only as old as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, or the PSVR. Some might think that the concept of VR is only as old as science fiction references from the 1980’s where it was mentioned and fantasied about. Promises of living in an immersive virtual world were popular in several movies dating back to the 80’s and continue to be a big part of cinema today. But, VR as conceptualized and fundamentally implemented today was conceived of as far back as the 1800’s! Although practical applications didn’t come along until much later in the mid 1900’s
Scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone was doing research on how the eye and the brain work together. In 1838, Weatstone discovered that the brain is capable of binocular vision. Binocular vision is the ability of the brain to process two different 2D images from two different sources and then composite them together. In our experience of the world, our brains are taking two different images from our two eyes and compositing them into one continuous 3D image. It’s pretty miraculous! It might seem obvious that our eyes allow us to see in 3D – but this discovery by Charles Wheatstone enable new types of viewing experiences for people.
With this new knowledge – viewing independent images, one for each eye – you are able to see depth and experience a greater degree of immersion than was possible before when looking at a simple 2D image.
A good example of this technology being applied is the old popular toy called The View-Master. The View-Master had two eyepieces that a user would look through to see a stereo image. The stereo image was produced by letting light through the back of The View-Master onto
two transparent image slides. The slides sat on a rotating disk that a user could flip through to see different stereo pictures. There were hundreds of these disks with 7 different stereo images that a user could view and enjoy.
Recent claims that we are all living in a simulation are echoes of the same argument made by a French playwright in the 1860s. Antonin Artuad strongly argued that illusion was not districted from reality. He insisted that the guests at his plays should consider what was happening on stage to be real, and not a performance. I think we need to get Antonin Artaud a VR Headset that isn’t collaborated properly and see if he still things illusion is not distinct from reality. I’m sure the motion sickness will give him a reason to update his perspective.
Author Laurence Manning wrote stories in the 1930’s about people having their normal sensory input replaced by electrical charges and impulses coming from machines. This idea isn’t too dissimilar from actual devices being developed today by Facebook for sending sensations directly into the nerves in your arms. Or the technology being invented by Elon Musk’s Neurolink that sends electrical stimulation directly into a person’s brain to send and receive information to individual neurons.
This type of full-body immersion and illusion was also depicted in the hit movie series The Matrix. You’ll recall in The Matrix people lived our their lives inside of a virtual world that was simulated in a computer and presented to the persons brain while their body lay motionless – suspended inside of individual pods filled with amniotic-like fluid. The illusion and immersion were so convincing that the people in the Matrix didn’t know their lives were a simulation and not real at all.
In the 1950 at the hands of a brilliant inventor named Morton Heilig, we saw the beginnings of VR Devices as we know them today. The work he started culminated in the development of the Sensorama Simulator. The Sensorama Simulator was accompanied by five 3D files that were produced by Morton himself and his wife Marianne. The technology that was included inside of the Sensorama Simulator were quite impressive for the time. A user could expect to experience stereoscopic 3D images with wide-angle view, the ability to tilt their body to change the viewing angle, stereo and spacial sound, and the ability to have additional sensory experience from wind and aromas. These technology are being re-introduced today by many tech startups that are working toward a more immersive and convincing VR illusion.
Heilig attempted several different approaches to bring the Sensorama Simulator to market, including as a coin-operated attraction at Universal Studios. He looked for investors to help further develop the product and broaden the deployment. But because of the complexity of the devices and the difficulty to mass produce it and repair it when it broke, the Sensorama Simulator didn’t achieve wide adoption. As a result, mass VR would have to wait until the age of Robo Recall and Beat Saber.
But, the impressive attempt and ultimate failure of Heilig didn’t stop him or others from continuing to develop the beginnings of VR technology. They continued to push the envelop that would allow people to experience immersive stories and worlds.
Others who were working on immersive technology, like Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull, created the first real Head Mounted Display (HMD) called “The Sword of Damocles”.
FOR FUN: The Sword of Damocles is “used to refer to a precarious situation”. Damocles was “ a legendary courtier who extravagantly praised the happiness of Dionysius I, ruler of Syracuse. To show him how precarious this happiness was, Dionysius seated him at a banquet with a sword hung by a single hair over his head.”
It’s not clear why the first HMD was called The Sword of Damcoles, but there have been a good number of technologies that have had interesting names that had hidden or no meaning at all. So, we’ll just accept the name as is and move on.
While Sutherland and Sproull created the first HMD, it should be noted that a patent issued to Heilig 8 years earlier included the Telesphere Mask. The Telesphere Mask was described in the patent as a “telescopic television for individual use”. The device would use two television tubes that would display stereoscopic images to create 3D images in a wide-angle viewer.
The Sword of Damocles also had features that are cutting edge today. It had stereo sound as well as nozzles capable of discharging aromas that would enable the wearer to smell where they are as well as hear and see. The most impressive aspect of The Sword of Damocles is the form factor was similar in size to the Oculus Quest that is available today!
Things in the VR headset market started to really heat up after Sutherland and Sproull’s HMD. In 1987, Jaron Lanier, the founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VLP), coined the term “Virtual Reality” – apparently for the first time – and started the work of developing a whole range of VR devices. His work included development of the Dataglove and the EyePhone HMD (pre-dating the iPhone by 30 years).
It wasn’t too long until VR HMDs were starting to be made for the general consumer. In the 1990’s we started to see attempts by companies like Sega. To goal was to make a consumer VR Headset that had mass appeal similar to the consoles of the day – Sega Genesis, Nintendo, and gameboy. The plan was to release a VR Headset that would be an add-on to the home consoles that customers already had – similar to buying the plastic shotgun that enabled duck-hunt or the running pad that connected to the Super Nintendo for the Track & Field game.
Unfortunately, the VR Headset from Sega never saw the light of day. Toward the end of product development, the product testers reported an unacceptably high rate of motion sickness when using the headset. Unable to correct the issue, the VR project at Sega was shelved.
A few years later, in 1995, Nintendo tried its hand at releasing a VR Headset called Virtual Boy. Virtual Boy was touted as the first table-top console capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D graphics. Unlike a traditional VR Display that is head-mounted, the Virtual Boy would sit stationary and the user would lean into the display to align their eyes with the eyepieces. They would see a monochrome display that a would use the parallax effect to create the illusion of depth.
Unlike the VR Headset from Sega, the Virtual Boy headset was successfully launched to the public. However, the market didn’t give Virtual Boy and the nascent VR technology enough attention (or sales) to justify Nintendo keeping it on the market. Nintendo stopped shipping the Virtual Boy one year after launch and shifted their focus back to traditional gaming consoles. Soon after, Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 (N64) which achieved mass-adoption and sold out in every market at prices higher than MSRP.
As a comparison, Nintendo sold our of the initial inventory of 300,000 Nintendo 64 units on the same day it launched. Nintendo solid out of the N64 again in when another batch 200,000 units became available, and this trend continued for some time as the N64 console was regarded as being better than Playstation. The Virtual Boy, between July and December (6 months), sold a total of 350,000 units and was eventually canceled with a lifetime unit sales number of 700,000.
The Early 2000’s
The VR industry suffered for a number of years after the failure of big players like Sega and Nintendo. It would take more than a decade for the industry to regroup and retool sufficiently to take another stab at bring Virtual Reality to the general public.
Fortunately, there were advances in several independent and crucial computer components that enabled the first computer-tethered VR experiences that we would recognized today. These advances have paged the pay to overcome the technical limitations that both Sega and Nintendo faced. Some of the most important technologic advancements that enabled modern-day virtual reality hardware include the following:
- Bluetooth/Wireless data transmission: A key component to any usable consumer VR headset is the ability for the controllers to be wireless. Tethered headsets are still around, which is marginally acceptable, but tethered controllers in VR would be a deal breaker. Imagine playing Beat Saber in VR with wired Oculus Touch Controllers. Or Swords of Gargantua, or Racket Furry, etc. etc. etc. Wireless technology is central and crucial to VR Hardware.
- Dedicated GPUs: The GPU (Graphics Processing Units) continues to play a crucial role in the rendering of 3D objects and scenes to be displayed on computers. While the GPU isn’t new technology – it was created in the 1970’s – a consumer-accessible standalone and dedicated GPU that was affordable and available to the average consumer wasn’t available until the early 21st century. It was around this time that personal computers started being capable of rendering complex 3D scenes. Rolling forward to today, computers invariably ship with dedicated GPUs and many include wether or not they are VR-Ready. Even more impressive is recently laptop computers now include GPUs powerful enough to run full VR Experiences.
- Faster CPUs: While the GPU is dedicated to processing all the graphics that need to be computed and displayed to the user via the HMD, the CPU is also central for processing large amounts of data that supports the updating of the images that will be displayed. Much of the data that a CPU is responsible for in a VR system relates to the positional tracking and updated visuals that will then need to be handed off and processed by the GPU before the user see it. The CPU is also responsible for computing the impact of inaction in VR between the person and virtual objects.
- Broadband Cellular Connectivity: Cellular connectivity has been utilized less by the VR industry for much more than content delivery. The currently cellular networks have high enough bandwidth to deliver several gigabytes with of data in short amounts of time. However, the latency of the current cellular technology prevents it from being used for real-time VR experiences which often include sub 10ms pings to avoid serious lag and degraded experiences. Fortunately, with the announcement of 5G and it’s imminent release world-wide, we are going to see Broadband cellular connectivity play a much bigger role in the VR industry going forward.
- Digital Distribution Platforms: The development of digital distribution platforms has done wonders for how content is consumed. Recent estimations put digital delivery of VR content to continue dot 90% of all content consumed on VR Headsets. App stores, digital asset marketplaces, and streaming services all play a big role in popularizing massive digital content libraries that allow anyone anywhere to get a hold of the latest and greatest content!
- LCD Displays: Just like the GPU, the LCD display was invented in the 1970 but the technology was nothing close to what we have today. The resolution, refresh rate, and color profile was far from something we would consider acceptable today. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century when LCD displays past CRT displays in quality that we started to see the type of displays that would qualify for the intent demands of a VR Headset.
- Smartphones: The phones that we carry in our pocket are many times more powerful than the computers that filled entire rooms in the 70s and 80s. Those small computers in our pockets are also capable of doing what the console-class Sega and Nintendo VR Headsets never could. The smartphones of today come with GPUs powerful enough to enable Mobile VR for the first time, brooding the market for VR customers to every person who carries a mobile phone. Gone are the days where a PC is required for a consumer to experience Virtual Reality.
The Modern Day – Oculus and Beyond
The most notable story and one that will likely be regarded as the turning point for consumer level VR is the story about a boy named Palmer Luckey. In 2011, Luckey was a tinkerer in his parents garage, trying to do what scientists in labs and gaming console developers with millions of dollars have a failed to achieve in decades of trying. Palmer Luckey was trying to build a VR headset from common components he could find online or build himself.
Luckey would post his progress in online forums and connected with several industry veterans who started to follow and admire his ingenuity and skill. John Carmack , from ID Software, was able to test one of the first Oculus prototypes and favored the approach Luckey was taking over that of other industry players who were considering a VR Headset for release.
With a growing audience of interested fans and potential investors, Palmer Luckey launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to further develop the Oculus VR Headset. The $300 pledges for the headset would be rewarded with the delivery of an early development kit version of the Oculus, the Oculus Rift DK1.
The Kickster Campaign was funded in record time and the pledges were indeed answered with the Rift DK1 on March 29, 2013. In a little more than a year, the DK2 was released and sole an impressive 100,000 units before a final prototype of the rift codenamed Crescent Bay was released.
To the great excitement of the non-developer consumers who wanted to try ‘Real VR’ for the first time, on May 6, 2015, Oculus announced that pre-orders for the Oculus Rift CV1 (Consumer Version) would be available in the beginning of 2016. Oculus made good on their commitment and the first batch of the Oculus CV1 shipped to consumers on March 25, 2016.
After seeing the success of a garage-based VR headset team, HTC quickly came to the VR Headset party with a partnership announcement with Valve, the owners of the worlds largest digital gaming platform (Steam).
At the Mobile World Congress in March 2015, HTC announced their Oculus Rift competitor, the HTC Vive. Developer kits were available 6 months after the announcement and consumer versions followed 6 months later.
Since 2015 and the announcement of the HTC Vive, the market has seen massive increase in the number VR Headsets available to consumers. And they hit at just about every price point imaginable.