Are We reAdy For Vir­tuAl re­Al­ity?

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE - Ra­jiv Makhni

IN 2012, the term VR started to ap­pear. Af­ter a very dis­ap­point­ing run for 3D, fol­lowed by an even worse lineup of AR (Aug­mented Re­al­ity) de­vices, VR seemed like an­other tech­nol­ogy that would gen­er­ate hype and buzz and then die a slow, fiery death. Vir­tual re­al­ity turned out to be far more solid. In fact VR head­sets, VR cams that can shoot 360 de­grees, and VR con­trollers are sup­posed to be the next big things. It’s made head­lines, an­a­lysts have gushed over pro­to­types, ev­ery tech jour­nal­ist worth his salt has writ­ten a minimum of three col­umns on it and video re­views of peo­ple strapped up to VR hel­mets bob­bing their heads up and down have be­come vi­ral hits. The prob­lem is that it is 2016. That’s four years of wait­ing for the next big thing to be­come the now big thing!

In 2012, a Kick­starter project called Ocu­lus be­came a sen­sa­tion. About 2.4 mil­lion dol­lars poured in from peo­ple want­ing to be the first to es­cape real life and go vir­tual. This was also the start of an all-new vir­tual re­al­ity rev­o­lu­tion. This would be the next cat­e­gory to set the mar­ket on fire. It would give a new lease of life to gam­ing, movies and photography; be­sides, more peo­ple would own a VR head­set than a smart­phone in the next five years. These were some of the pre­dic­tions from the tech pun­dits. Well, four years are al­ready over and with just one year left for the rev­o­lu­tion to flower, here’s a real-time sta­tus up­date.

Un­like a few other tech­nolo­gies, vir­tual re­al­ity seemed promis­ing and path­break­ing. But the best is yet to come

GOOGLE CARDBOARD AND ITS BROTHERS

If there is one de­vice that has truly been at the fore­front of screw­ing VR bru­tally, Google Cardboard would be right on top. Yes, I can feel the hush that has de­scended upon all af­ter read­ing this one line. And yes, I know that I have just com­mit­ted sac­ri­lege by abus­ing the god of VR, and yes, I know that Google Cardboard has been re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing VR to the masses. And yet, in do­ing so, it has made sure that ev­ery­one who tries it comes away dis­ap­pointed and con­fused. “That’s it, that’s VR?” is the first thing that most peo­ple say. What else can you ex­pect from two cheap lenses fit­ted into a crappy piece of cardboard that has to bal­ance on your head and also sup­port a phone in­side? In bring­ing VR for all at al­most no cost, Google Cardboard has done a huge dis­ser­vice to both the po­ten­tial and the abil­i­ties of re­ally good VR. Not ev­ery piece of tech­nol­ogy needs to be made into an econ­omy mass prod­uct. Re­ally good tech­nol­ogy should some­times be left alone to ma­ture at the high­est level and then per­co­late slowly to all. To any­one who is plan­ning to use GC or any of its other clones: don’t!

SAM­SUNG VR AND ITS BROTHERS

This is an­other cat­e­gory that is a bit of an up­per and downer, at the same time. The de­vice is well-made, looks good, has bet­ter tech­nol­ogy in­side, a more ro­bust plat­form and con­tent, but still needs you to in­sert a phone into it. And therein lies the rub. The weight of the de­vice plus the phone is a pain in the neck (lit­er­ally), the phone be­ing so close to the eyes gives se­ri­ous pix­e­la­tion prob­lems. Since the con­tent plays on the phone, it lim­its the level of graph­ics it can churn out. Most con­tent is sim­plis­tic to the point of be­ing bor­ing within min­utes. And the sen­sors on the phone are used for track­ing your move­ments and that leads to all kinds of prob­lems like lag and tim­ing blowouts. All in all, if Google Cardboard is a zero, then ‘Phone In­sert’ VR head­sets are a five. The only ex­cep­tion would be the LG VR head­set, which has its own dis­play and is light at 118 grams.

OCU­LUS RIFT AND HTC VIVE

This is the gold stan­dard. The big dons of the VR game. The men amongst the boys. Ocu­lus started it all, got ac­quired by Face­book for $2 bil­lion and cur­rently sits on top of the pile. It’s a very nicely built head­set, has great con­tent, a very well-thought-out in­ter­face, fan­tas­tic re­sponse time, no lag and bril­liant ex­e­cu­tion. Ex­cept it may make you want to vomit. Be­cause this VR head­set works with you seated while it takes you into vir­tual worlds with fast mo­ments and lots of ac­tiv­ity all around. The dis­con­nect makes most peo­ple go white-faced fairly quickly. It also needs a big fat ma­chine to con­nect and still has se­ri­ous pix­e­la­tion prob­lems. This is a se­ri­ous is­sue in all VR as the screen sits an inch away from your eyes and even cur­rent res­o­lu­tions like 2160x1200 pix­els lead to a screen-door ef­fect. It is es­ti­mated that we need a res­o­lu­tion of about 110 megapix­els for smooth VR and that isn’t go­ing to hap­pen any­time soon. On the other hand, the HTC Vive has turned out to be the silent hero. Very fu­tur­is­tic look­ing, great con­tent, sits well on the face and then kills it with the fact that you can move around. Plus it has hand-con­trollers and sen­sors to make sure you don’t bump into any­thing. Any­one who has ever tried an HTC Vive has to be dragged away from it kick­ing and scream­ing as they want more.

Still, thick ca­bles, se­ri­ous pixel pop-up and a very pow­er­ful com­puter needed to run the Vive are se­ri­ous damp­en­ers. The Vive is eas­ily the best ex­am­ple of where VR can even­tu­ally take us.

So here we are in vir­tual re­al­ity land with re­al­ity dawn­ing on us that VR was sup­posed to be the holy grail. It isn’t! Maybe an­other five years?

Ra­jiv Makhni is man­ag­ing ed­i­tor, Tech­nol­ogy, NDTV, and the an­chor of Gad­getGuru, Cel­lGuru and News­net3

THE SILENT HERO

HTC Vive is fu­tur­is­tic look­ing, of­fers great con­tent, sits well on the face and even al­lows one to move around

VALUE FOR MONEY?

By do­ing things on a mass scale, the Google Cardboard has ac­tu­ally harmed the VR tech­nol­ogy

BIT OF A HEADACHE

Though Ocu­lus Rift is nicely built with great con­tent, yet it has pix­e­la­tion prob­lems

LIGHT TO HAN­DLE

The LG VR head­set has its own dis­play and is very light too

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