How virtual is

Posted: 08.25.15

AR lets you move; VR is restricted because you can’t see the real world and so you bump into things. Sitting still in a planetarium or movie is not VR just because things are in 3D, or offer a 180-degree FOV (field of vision). To be VR it has to be interactive. And yet, the VR we have today is only interactive via an avatar. However, the Oculus Half Moon Touch system, Magic Leap’s system, and startup Usens’ Impression Pi (see story, page 11) offer the potential to allow people to interact more naturally in a virtual reality environment. Oculus’ Half Moon tracks your fingers to tell if you’re pointing, or giving a thumbs up, and the trigger lets you grip virtual objects by closing your hand. Steam and HTC have allowed users to get out of their chairs, and Samsung has unteth¬ered the users. These are all positive and encouraging developments, and at the same time, they show the limitations of the state of the art and the consumerism of VR today. 

Chief promoter and VR enthusiast Palmer Luckey has steadfastly cautioned the industry to not get ahead of itself, but no one really wants to hear that— they want it now. The list of problems to be solved is generally well known. And as formidable as the problems are, the meme of VR is so exciting that new application ideas are springing up every day. VR will cure PTSD, loneliness, psychosomatic disorders, boredom; take us to new heights in adventure, exploration, home buying, and travel; and let us visit places that are uninhabitable. 

But do we have to wear those head-mounted contraptions? Remember when Second Life was introduced by Linden Lab in 2003? Remember the hopes and plans for what it would do for us? A million active users still log on and inhabit the world every month, and 13,000 newbies drop into the community every day to see what Second Life is about. When was the last time you visited it? What is nice about Second Life is you can wander through the worlds, imaginary or real (like London, or Tokyo), but without being isolated in an HMD (head-mounted device). And with a tablet you don’t have to stay in your chair. You can, of course, strap an HMD on and visit places in a new game, code-named Project Sansar, in Second Life. 

There’s also a newish VR domain, High Fidelity, which doesn’t require a HMD. 

A few lightweight passive stereo 3D glasses used with a large (>27-inch) 4K display, or maybe a glasses-free 3D display wrapped around like a mini CAVE, will be a better solution than an HMD. However, that might not be practical in terms of space or costs. 

ROOMALIVE IS a hive of really smart projectors.

Another approach is a 360-projector that makes the walls of your room a virtual world. Lightweight AR glasses could then be used to create the things in the world. You’d be able to see yourself, your hands, feet, etc., and interact with the characters and objects in the world in a more natural way. CastAR gets close to this idea, and Microsoft has experimented with it too with RoomAlive and Hololens. 

Lots of smart people are thinking about these things, and I think it’s only a question of time until something emerges that will free us from using an HMD, give us a 360-degree virtual world we can interact with. Maybe the first instance will be in an arcade to offset the costs and provide a suitable room. 
One of the other benefits of being free of an HMD will be less VR sickness. Just as you can spin around in a room and fall down or feel nauseous, even a holodeck-like room won’t keep you from confusing your inner ear.