Stepping into Valve’s full-room virtual reality experience resulted in a nervous excitement that's rare to come by. Seated quietly in the center of the room, HTC’s “Vive” HMD, a pair of controllers, and a headset all awaited my arrival.
The Oculus Rift is one of the most anticipated PC peripherals in recent years. Oculus VR received $2 million in crowd funding for the virtual reality device during an initial pass of its Kickstarter campaign, overshadowed only by a multi-billion dollar acquisition by Facebook earlier this year. The virtual reality headset already has development kits in the hands of early supporters and game developers – the likes of Star Citizen included – though gamers have yet to hear potential release dates for the final product.
The video games industry has regularly taken steps toward virtual reality and motion-controlled gameplay. Virtuix, developers of the Omni multidirectional treadmill, have furthered gameplay without the press of a button by uniting player-controlled motions and camera controls with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
Some of our readers out there have likely seen games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Battlefield 4 being demoed on the Omni. This time, Virtuix has taken a Nintendo Wii Remote peripheral designed as a sword and shield, and they have mapped them to the Omni to enjoy a player-vs-player (PVP) experience with Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.
Following technological and monetary hindrances, one of virtual reality's biggest impediments to market has been usability. We worked with Sixense and Oculus VR after PAX Prime to write an article detailing the history and future of VR & AR technology, where some of these difficulties were discussed; since this posting, Oculus VR has engineered a 1080p, relatively low-latency version of their headset and facebook has acquired the company and its Rift. A lot has changed in a few months.
At ECGC 2014 -- the same place we filmed our interview with Morrowind's Ken Rolston -- we managed to catch a virtual reality panel hosted by NextGen Interactions' Jason Jerald. The panel discussed usability and input hurdles in virtual reality, information conveyance, fun VR experiments featuring virtual pits and scared players, and the future of VR. A video of the panel can be found below, but I've picked out a few key highlights for those who'd rather read a quick recap.
Using an Occulus Rift headset, a 3D-printed bracket, and a Creative 3D camera (shown previously), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are taking another step in the right direction. SoftKinetic, a company that specializes in 3D depth-sensing and gesture recognition, allowed us to use our hands for what they called "natural interaction in a convincingly smooth 3D demonstration." In other words, furthering of perceptual input technology and movement away from traditional input devices.
Before getting too deep in this post, you might be interested to learn about the history of virtual reality & augmented reality, which we recently explored with companies Oculus VR, Sixense, and Virtuix.
The concept of a "virtual" reality has existed for decades and has nebulous origins, but the first technological steps can be pinpointed to Ivan Sutherland's head-mounted display (HMD); the device, lovingly-dubbed the Sword of Damocles for its massive size and imposing demeanor, was built in 1968 and placed the user into wireframe rooms. The term itself, "Virtual Reality," didn't even popularly exist until 1985.
Since Sutherland's pioneering innovations, the industry has had disorienting cycles of ups-and-downs for Augmented & Virtual Reality tech. There were holes in the yet-unfolding plot: Missing technology (we'd only just moved from tubes to transistors), a smaller pool of talent, and the interest and funding were primarily in medical or military-industrial fields.
The equipment that was purpose-built for those fields made tremendous technological leaps, but would by-and-large never be faced with a consumer. And, as with many technologies that started in the military, much of the early VR/AR equipment was classified.
The timing for this advancement in augmented reality is particularly convenient, given our content plan to publish a large virtual reality article in the next day or two. Ramping into this article, though, we'll talk briefly about Technical Illusions' castAR glasses.
As opposed to the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-mounted display (HMD) that enhances gaming experiences by improving player immersion, castAR takes the augmented reality approach. Augmented & Virtual Reality are similar in their dedication to immersion and fidelity, but differentiate themselves in implementation; AR devices generally augment the real world (already used in psychiatry and psychology), while VR tends to stick with digitally-rendered environments.
Up until castAR, there wasn't a whole lot out there in terms of modern AR on the consumer-level. Technical Illusions' kickstarter video offers insight as to what the pair of glasses could be used for, showing two of its developers playing chess in "real life" without use of any physical pieces:
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