Turning Virtual Reality Into Reality
For the past two decades technologists and entrepreneurs have been chasing the dream of virtual reality only to create nauseating devices making the users want to throw up.
Now, we are blessed with a bold startup recently acquired for $2 billion by Facebook that has cracked this haunting problem to place VR at the forefront of innovation.
Oculus, with their flagship product the Rift, has created a bridge between the real world and the virtual world. This new device not only revolutionizes gaming, but the way we will communicate and interact with our environment in the future.
While most head mounted displays on the market have a viewing angle of 40 degrees, the Rift takes up your entire field of view with a 110 degree viewing angle. Your brain doesn't perceive that your looking at a screen, you actually feel like you're inside of it. The key here is that you can't see the borders of the screen to make a truly immersive environment.
Oculus was started in founder Palmer Lucky's garage where he reverse engineered older VR systems, learning from their deficiencies. From there he knew what not to do and started constructing a system all its own. The first step was to create a wide field of view so that there is a world that wraps around the user. With a virtual world that wraps around you, the more important it is to have that world move with you.
The biggest issue with virtual reality is latency where you turn your head to look at something and there is a delay of when the screen before your eyes moves in that direction. This latency is the major cause of nausea in many systems on the market. The benefit of the Rift is that it's designed to have an extremely low latency. Instead of following your head movements, the screen will now move with you and even predict your movements.
The key to cutting down on latency is head tracking, a lot of head tracking. The Rift fuses readings from a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to evaluate head motion, taking 1,000 readings a second. All of this data allows the system to predict motion, pre-rendering images to shave off precious milliseconds of latency.
LCDs of the highest quality take 15 milliseconds for its' pixels to change color which is too slow to avoid detection by the user. By using AMOLED screens, colors can change in less than a millisecond and Oculus has figured out how to deactivate the pixels rapidly to avoid image smearing when you whip your head around.
Another advancement with the Rift is a small external camera that monitors 40 infrared LEDs on the headset, tracking motion so that you can crouch and move around an in-game object.
With the acquisition by Facebook, many Kickstarter supporters have complained and threaten to pull back their funding because they believe Facebook will ruin it with targeted ads and an integrated newsfeed. On the other side of this Oculus now has the funding to make custom screens instead of using screens from smartphones. This acquisition also means that Oculus doesn't have to worry about turning an immediate profit, which will be useful when coming out with the first consumer product.
With the hardware and production in place, the next steps of VR are a blank slate waiting to be filled by developers who will be building the future of user experience.