Back when I was in graduate school one of the professors in the Computer Science department was into virtual realty. How I wish I had gotten to know that professor better, but due to poor advice I avoided him. In any event, I recall him being into Virtual Realty. This was 20 years ago so the headsets were clunky and the computing power wasn't nearly what it is today... and aside from playing a game of Beachhead 2000 at Chuck E Cheeses my virtual realty experience has not lived up to my interest in the topic.
Today the premise of a future with a myriad of VR options is upon us. Oculus promises their Rift device in a consumer version soon (end of the year?), Sony is touting a PlayStation 4 compatible headset, and Microsoft is diverging with a similar, but different experience via their HoloLens project and last Thursday I picked up the Samsung Gear VR to check things out early. I kind of know this device will be made obsolete soon, but I am so innately curious about this technology... how it feels, what its limits are, and whether I should put any time into developing for it (which as an aside is why blog posts dried up here 3 years ago... I realized I'm not a writer, I'm a software developer).
So for the few that care... here's my take...
Virtual Realty is cool. The idea of immersion into a foreign world and the creation of a Matrix like experience is something from science fiction and the possibilities run rampant in my imagination, but we're only scratching the surface. A PURE VR experience would have to supply all of our senses with appropriate feedback... so far VR only supplies our sight and our hearing with said feedback. The cooking demo? I'd expect smells. The Temple Run VR game? I'd expect my legs to be moving. This is all stuff I knew going in, but it's worth noting as often the hype leaves it out.
That said the Gear VR is one cool device. It requires a Samsung Note 4 phone to use it and essentially that becomes the brains of the unit. I read it elsewhere, but the Gear VR is best summarized as a mouse with lenses as that's pretty much what it is. It DOES support full head tracking and that works GREAT. What have a I done with it so far?
I visited Cirque du Soleil and was on stage with the performers. They came out and surrounded me while two more performed acrobatics in from of me. I could hear the music, look side to side at the performers, look up as the two acrobats danced in the air, and even turn around to view the empty auditorium. It was fantastic neglecting the resolution of the images being less than ideal (and how short the demo was). Actually the image quality reminded me of the Soarin' ride at Epcot in Disney World. We did that a couple weeks ago and I'd say the Gear VR is a better experience... and this is (as of when we stood in line) Disney's #1 attraction. The only thing it did that Gear VR didn't do was lift and shake us in our seats. However, with Soarin' we could not look around and such. Anyhow...
Since then I've taken a tour of the 9/11 park/monuments in New York City and ridden a zip line on the Las Vegas strip. It's important to note that all of these photographic quality experiences offer no ability to walk around. They are taken via a panoramic camera so it's great for a tour, but there's no freedom to wander or walk up close to stuff. You are at the mercy of the photographer. It's still quite cool being able to look all around the photo from someone else's shoes.
Next it was on to Temple Run VR. Games offer the freedom to wander as they attempt to render the word from any point of view. My kids have enjoyed this game a lot so what is it like being able to look back and see the monster chasing you? Really cool. And a bit disorienting. All VR comes with warning about seizures and use limits and the 'disorientation' elements affects some people more than others I am told. For me, I seem to be able to handle it pretty well, but having the visuals of running while standing still in a room is... well... weird, odd, a strange feeling. The game itself is done perfectly and requires a game controller to step back and forth and jump and all, and yes it's cool being able to look all around. This made me think. Instead of experiences where I'm running perhaps VR might be better suited to experiences where I'm driving. I can accept that I'm sitting in a chair if I'm driving a car or riding in a place, but running when my legs aren't pumping just feels odd.
I still have plenty more to explore and plenty of VR desires. Would I recommend buying a Gear VR? It's a great little device for a peek into the VR world and the head tracking is excellent. It's also made in partnership with Oculus which has the be the current VR leader, but given that I think it'll be obsolete so quickly then unless you're like me and just so insanely curious about this stuff that you have to have it now then I'd wait (and if you don't have a Note 4 then forget it... too costly).
In the meantime I'll continue to ponder what is upon us. HoloLens really is an interesting take on this as well and maybe I'll write about that some day and hopefully I'll get to write some code for VR devices.