To adopt the language of Gartner’s brilliantly preposterous Hype Cycle, it has seemed for the last few years that virtual reality was doomed to endlessly revolve between the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ and the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, as promised breakthroughs either failed to reach the market or didn’t deliver on their promises.
So far, 2016 has seen fortunes shift drastically for the VR industry. The HTC Vive – one of two devices currently at the forefront of the sector – has reached 100,000 headset sales, while Samsung’s mid-level Gear VR hit 300,000 by May this year. Google’s super-budget Cardboard, meanwhile, numbered a colossal five million units as of January this year, bringing a means of low-budget VR to the masses. The evidence suggests that virtual reality is tentatively to meander towards an upward sales curve towards mass adoption or, as Gartner would have it, the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’.
Even if investment management firm Piper Jaffrey’s estimation that the Oculus Rift could shift 3.6 million headsets this year is slightly on the optimistic side, the fact remains that virtual reality will soon be a technology that a substantial proportion of homeowners are looking to incorporate into their homes. This will bring with it a host of design considerations for ensuring that any set-up fits comfortably into a residence.
Getting going with VR
There are a number of benefits to a VR device, such as the Samsung Gear or Google Cardboard, that uses a mobile phone to play and display content. These devices are reasonably priced and come without the trailing wires physical footprint of their more powerful high end rivals such as the Vive or the Rift, which makes them easy to use anywhere in the house.
They will deliver significantly less powerful performance, however, and by and large will come with reduced image quality, making them less desirable for extended use. The build quality, field of view and performance will vary massively from device to device, so it is advisable that users try a few headsets out to work out which delivers the least compromise when in operation.
While this type of device is perfect for infrequent, casual use (i.e. a couple of times a month), then they will not be suitable for use over prolonged periods or for extended applications, such as gaming, watching films or simulations. These types of experiences need a much more complete set-up, not only from a quality perspective but also in terms of the hardware and peripherals employed.
Let’s get serious
The two most powerful headsets on the market are The HTC Vive (created in partnership with Steam) and the Oculus Rift (backed by Facebook). Both come with hefty price tags and significant hardware requirements, although they counteract this by offering support the vast majority of the fully-fledged games and scenarios that have been created to date. This makes them by far the most sensible options for hardcore gamers looking to improve their gaming experience.
These will be joined in October 2016 by the cheaper but less powerful Sony PlayStation VR, which will require a current generation PlayStation console to provide the raw power for what is set to be an impressive line-up of titles. That said, additional hardware costs will be significant no matter which platform is elected for, as all require additional sensors and controllers alongside the headsets. As the Rift and Vive place phenomenal specification demands on the PCs that power them and –particularly in the case of the Rift – having the best possible set-up is crucial to avoid triggering motion sickness mid-experience. This means that overall costs can be significant.
Constructing the Holodeck
The fundamental difference between these high end headsets lies in the amount of space that each demands in order for the user to experience the full room-scale experience. The most critical for this is the HTC Vive. It needs a minimum of 2m x 1.5m for programs that involve movement (and sometimes up to 3m x 3m), although it also supports seated VR, which has much less stringent spatial requirements. Two base stations placed at either end of the room track the player’s movement; these have a 120° field of view and can be placed up to 5m apart, which means that more than one player can be tracked at the same time (although this can be tricky to set up correctly). These can be placed on stand-alone tripods, although wall-mounted base stations are a much more visually pleasing solution.
Owners of an HTC Vive will likely not want to set up and take down their set-up between playing experiences, as this is a cumbersome process. Instead, a creative stowage solution might be required to keep the headset and computer out of sight when not in use, perhaps including some in-wall wiring to permanently hide certain cables from view.
When it comes to a Rift-based room, the set-up requirements are slightly less stringent. There is currently only a single tracking camera (for measuring headset movement), although Oculus has recently announced support for up to four cameras, which will allow for more extensive body tracking – and potentially greater content crossover between the two platforms. This will be particularly useful when Oculus’ Touch controllers are finally released but, until then, users will be restricted to an Xbox controller or handheld remote for input, which substantially restricts how it can be used.
Having only one tracking camera means that the majority of the Rift’s games will take place with players either sitting or standing still (although Oculus has specified that its tracking area extends to 3.4m x 1.5m in total). Despite having a smaller size and less rigorous set-up requirements compared to the Vive, there are still several steps to go through to get playing and a system will still require a reasonable amount of storage space to keep it neatly out of sight if it is intended to reside in a living room or bedroom.
The Sony PlayStation VR has the interesting distinction of needing to be patched up to a games console, which is already likely to reside in a pre-determined location in the home. A large 3m x 1.8m playing area has been suggested by the company, despite the rather contradictory assertion that players should remain seated as much as possible while using its headset. For those that wish to play while standing, however, the PlayStation VR will force homeowners to rethink their living areas if they want to accommodate this device.
Picking out the peripherals
As well as the various controllers that come in the box, there are a number of additional accessories that can be introduced to enhance the immersive nature of the virtual experience. These can range from tactile gloves that provide sensory feedback to full-body wearables like the Tesla Suit, which sends electric pulses through a jacket and trouser combination to provide up to 52 channels of feedback.
Some haptic vests are designed to provide full upper body feedback, which can result in them being cumbersome and unwieldy to set up. Others, such as Subpac’s M2 backpack, can be quick and easy to put on yet will still provide a reasonable level of real-time vibration feedback based on the game’s audio output. Some VR accessories can also be used for other technology applications. Myo, for example, can be used as a controller within a virtual environment, but also to control drones, interact with Spotify and navigate around a computer desktop.
One factor that might influence whether or not to elect for a fully-fledged games room is the desired audio quality of the experience. Nearly all VR headsets will be headphones-compatible, yet choosing this form of output compromises the immersive experience slightly as the aural experience won’t be able to achieve the all-encompassing visual effects. While certain companies such as Ossic are now beginning to specialise in 3D audio headphones, these are still either in the development or pre-order stage, often with a lengthy waiting list.
Another, more practical way to incorporate 3D audio in your chosen VR room is to link it up to the rest of the house’s speaker set-up. A room that already has a surround-sound system built into it can be linked up to create a more realistic sound, while a voice-of-God channel can be incorporated through ceiling speakers to allow users to immediately pinpoint the location of a specific noise – perfect if you’re defending an outpost from a zombie horde coming from all directions.
“Much like when creating a home cinema, building the perfect gaming room requires careful planning and intelligent implementation of technology. If VR is combined with a standard console or PC gaming set-up, then the AV set-up needs to comfortably accommodate both. With proper acoustic treatment, ambient light management and a robust projection solution, a room can be configured to make it into a hybrid environment that can support both gaming modes – as well as becoming a relaxation space when neither are being used.”
Krystian Zajac, Managing Director at Andrew Lucas
Ready Player Two
Most VR experiences to date have not been designed with multi-player mode in mind but, considering how important this is to the current gaming landscape, it seems inevitable that this will become a large part of the VR gaming experience as take-up of the various platforms grows.
Having more than one player using VR within the same environment, however, is more of a challenge to accommodate. Due to the way that headsets and controllers are tracked, monitoring more than one player at a time is tricky to get right. The ideal scenario would put two players into the same gaming space, which allows them to see the other’s location within the game.
Obviously, space is at even more of a premium with local multi-player, and the playing area will need to be enlarged to accommodate the number of users. Such a set-up has been proven to work using two HTC Vive headsets, as its lighthouse sensors are able to cover an area large enough for two players to play alongside each other in the same gaming experience.
Another option is to combine a single player in VR with any number of players playing with the more traditional screen and controller combination. One example of this – Ruckus Ridge – places one player into an arena and has them try to disrupt the efforts of the sofa-based players as they attempt to achieve their aim in whichever scenario has been chosen.
Having multiple PCs and headsets in the same space could lead to complications as, unless it is designed as a dedicated gaming space, finding a neat storage solution could become an issue. This could be alleviated by the use of a dedicated gaming backpack such as the one devised by Aorus for its VR-ready X7DT v6 laptop. This not only makes it more convenient to stow the computing hardware away when the device is not in use, but also removes the need to have wires trailing in all directions during play.
Other virtual manifestations
Aside from gaming, there are a number of other ways that VR is likely to start affecting our home lives. Home entertainment is the logical first step, with media corporations such as the BBC and Sky actively creating VR content, the former for the Rio Olympics and the latter for a number of sporting events, including Formula One, football and boxing.
Several media streaming services are also getting in on the act, including Netflix, which has a dedicated VR app for its content, as well as being built into platforms such as the Oculus app. These services are not reliant on the same processing power as their gaming equivalent, and can thus function perfectly well on mobile-dependent headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR.
Virtual reality can also be used as a home improvement tool. More and more manufacturers are putting their product portfolio into VR, allowing customers to browse a digital catalogue and see how a certain product would look in situ before making a purchasing decision on, say, a piece of furniture or a particular wallpaper pattern.
VR can additionally be a useful visualisation tool for customers planning to build their own homes, showing how a property layout will be affected and how the proposed addition will look in a variety of live lighting and weather conditions. Provided that the architecture practice retained for the work either has in-house VR visualisation capabilities or retains an external design consultancy, a homeowner can simply download their property designs via an app and view their content using their VR headset while relaxing in their living room.
Beyond simply watching and interacting with visual content, there are a number of options coming out on the market for creating simulation experiences in the home. Adrenalin junkies that love sky diving or base jumping could replicate the experience with a motion simulator such as Birdly. This machine suspends the user horizontally and moves and tilts to create the sensation of flight, while the user can shift direction using a pair of wing panels. It even includes a speed controlled fan, which alters in intensity based on the altitude and speed of the simulation.
For those who prefer to exercise at home, there are a number of indoor bike models that are designed to be used in tandem with virtual reality programs. One model, VirZoom, incorporates wireless sensors and and in-handlebar trigger buttons so that your movements translate into movement and actions in VR. This comes with a number of specifically created emulators so that, as well as riding a bike you can also drive a racing car, pilot a plane or even ride a unicorn. Another option is Ebove’s B/01 bike, which goes one step further by introducing responsive incline features and pedal resistance, as well as a number of immersive 3D environments to make indoor exercising a more pleasurable experience.
There are a number of companies working on fully immersive motion simulators that integrate with VR, although machines such as the MMOne, which is mounted onto a hydraulic arm, are likely to be prohibitively expensive and too unwieldy to fit comfortably into most residential environments. Some of them – such as the Virtuix Omni – are designed to replicate as closely as possible the full spectrum of movement such as walking and running, while others – including the in-development FeelThree project – are built with a sedentary experience in mind.
If 2016 = VR, will 2017 = AR?
With all of the above simulation options, a completely dedicated gaming room is likely to be the only realistic option, although a cycling or other exercise-focused simulator could easily be integrated into an existing home gym set-up without causing too much disruption to other machinery.
Another area that is due for significant progress is augmented reality, which has seen a surge of interest thanks to the Pokemon Go app that brought it to the attention of the general public. Companies such as Microsoft and Magic Leap are working on making AR headsets – which overlay virtual effects onto the physical environment – into a commercial reality. As these allow the user to see their surroundings at all times, they will be less likely to require a dedicated space to function, making it potentially easier to incorporate into a family home. As with the high-end VR headsets, however, it remains to be seen whether these will need to be wired interfaces, with the limitations that this inevitably results in.
We are still just at the beginning of the road for virtual reality in the home, and we can expect both the hardware and its associated paraphernalia to become less cumbersome and more flexible as they evolve. For the foreseeable, however, homeowners taking the plunge into virtual reality will need to plan its integration into the property carefully so that this upgrade to their home entertainment is a seamless experience, rather than an annoying inconvenience.