Virtual reality: a giant leap for technology?

BSkyB is doubling its investment in virtual reality. Is this a sign that this much-hyped technology is finally poised for a breakthrough? Simon Wilson reports.

What’s going on in virtual reality?

BSkyB announced this week that it has more than doubled its punt on the future of virtual reality, investing a further $400,000 in a Californian start-up called Jaunt, which creates panoramic 3D effects.

The technology developed by Jaunt allows content producers to film 360 degrees, giving viewers an “immersive” 3D experience by playing the content on a virtual reality headset, rather than a flat TV screen or mobile device.

In itself, this is obviously a pretty small investment, though it does position BSkyB at the forefront of nascent efforts by broadcasters to develop 3D technologies for television.

What makes it interesting is that it comes just a few months after the acquisition by Facebook of Oculus, a two-year-old start-up founded by 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, that is working on a virtual reality headset maker.

What’s the connection?

Jaunt is just one of many software or content firms which are working on content that depends on the emergence of reliable virtual reality (VR) hardware. That hardware is the Oculus Rift, or a competing product, Morpheus, being developed by Sony.

Some analysts believe that the Rift headset, which Jaunt uses to demonstrate its products, has the potential to revolutionise the media industry – and not just gaming – in the same way that it was shaken up by Apple or Google.

In March, just days after the latest Rift prototype was shown off to those in the industry, Facebook announced that it had acquired the firm for £2bn ($400m in cash, the rest in Facebook stock).

Will Occulus be worth the money?

That certainly seems a lot to pay for a company that has so far only sold its headsets to games developers within the industry. It will have no product ready to bring to the consumer market for a year or two more. But the purchase price is a fraction of the $19bn that Facebook paid for Whatsapp. And Mark Zuckerberg made clear, in a Facebook post announcing the deal, that he believes Oculus is about far more than video gaming.

“Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.” The future of VR will depend on the unique experiences that software developers come up with. Once reliable hardware is in place, who knows what they will be inspired to create?

Why is Oculus causing a stir?

The firm appears to have invented a VR headset that doesn’t make you feel sick or give you a headache. The history of VR (beginning with Nintendo’s clunky Virtual Boy in 1995) is littered with products that have the unfortunate side effect of inducing nausea in the user.

The big challenge is getting the image to change with your head movements without any perceptible lag – an issue known in the business as “latency”. In a normal video game, too much latency – eg, the gap between pressing your button and the action registering on the screen – is merely annoying.

But when it comes to creating virtual experiences that feel real, every millisecond of latency matters: if there’s too much lag your brain can’t cope and you start to feel ill. Oculus Rift appears to have cracked this issue and many in the tech industry believe that is a key breakthrough for VR.

How have they done it?

A combination of superior measurement technology, display technology and cunning optics. The Rift uses infrared LEDs paced around the headset and a tiny external camera pointing at the wearer, to determine where they are looking.

It fuses readings from a gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer to evaluate head motion. By taking 1,000 readings a second, it can anticipate motion and “pre-render” images, shaving off the all-important milliseconds of latency.

The display replaces LCD, which can take up to 15 milliseconds for all its pixels to change colour, with AMOLED screens that can change colour in less than one millisecond. And, crucially, Oculus has worked out how to deactivate those pixels rapidly so that image doesn’t smear or shake when you move your head.

How well does it work?

Those who have used the Rift say it’s the first VR hardware to create what VR fans call “presence”, when the brain is tricked into believing what it is experiencing is real. The money men are gushing, too. Chris Dixon, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, was stunned when he tested the Rift.

“I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change,” he told Wired. “Apple II. Netscape, Google, iPhone… then Oculus.” When will the rest of us get a go? Oculus isn’t saying, but Facebook’s billions should mean it will be sooner rather than later.

What does VR mean for Google Glass?

The Facebook/Oculus deal represents a “twist in the tech industry’s very own Game of Thrones”, says The Economist. Google wants its Glass smart specs to be a new mass-computing platform, and a few months ago did a deal with Luxottica – a maker of posh eyewear – to help them make them look nicer.

Google’s vision of the future “involves complementing the real world seen through its specs with a visual feed from its search engine and other services”. By contrast, the vision of Facebook, as demonstrated by the Oculus acquisition, is “of people immersed in lifelike digital worlds. Their rivalry should be a real spectacle.”

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