Virtual Reality (VR)
To create virtual reality of varying degrees of plausibility, a variety of technologies are now used, ranging from a "helmet" in the form of a cardboard box with a smartphone placed in it and ending with rooms and virtual reality costumes. The article discusses VR types, numerous VR devices and components, unification problems and ambiguous financial prospects for introducing virtual reality technologies.
Virtual reality technologies are relatively new, but the terminology has not taken its final shape (it is discussed in detail in the article "Augmented, virtual and other realities"). Wikipedia gives the following definitions.
Virtual reality (VR) is the world created by technical means and transmitted to a person through his or her sensations: sight, hearing, touch and others. Virtual reality mimics both impact and reaction to impact. To create a convincing complex of reality sensations, computer-aided synthesis of properties and reactions of virtual reality is performed in real time.
Do not confuse virtual and augmented reality. Their fundamental difference is that virtual reality constructs a new artificial world, and augmented reality only introduces certain artificial elements into the perception of the real world.
Systems of virtual reality are called devices that mimic interaction with the virtual environment by influencing all five human senses more fully than conventional computer systems.
There are not still such systems in full, but when creating a virtual reality, developers are trying to ensure that it is:
- believable – supports user’s sense of reality of what is happening;
- interactive – provides interaction with the environment;
- available for study – provides an opportunity to explore a large detailed world;
- creating an effect of presence – involves both the user's brain and body in the process, acting on the maximum possible number of sense organs.
Obviously, the achievement of these goals is possible only with the use of high-performance hardware and software.
Types of virtual reality
At this stage of development of VR technologies, the following types can be distinguished among them.
VR technology with full immersion, providing a realistic simulation of the virtual world with a high degree of detail. A high-performance computer capable of recognizing user actions and reacting to them in real time and special equipment providing the effect of immersion are necessary for their realization.
VR technology without immersion. These include simulations with the image, sound and controllers, broadcast on the screen, preferably widescreen. Such systems are considered virtual reality since they greatly surpass other multimedia tools in the degree of impact on the viewer, although they do not fully implement the requirements for VR.
VR technology with collaborative infrastructure. These include Second Life – a three-dimensional virtual world with elements of a social network that has over a million active users, Minecraft and others. Such worlds do not provide complete immersion (but Minecraft already has a virtual reality version that supports Oculus Rift and Gear VR helmets). However, in virtual worlds, interaction with other users is well organized, which is often lacking in products of "real" virtual reality.
Virtual worlds are used not only in the gaming industry: thanks to platforms such as 3D Immersive Collaboration, you can organize working and training 3D spaces. This is called "working together with the effect of presence".
Ensuring complete immersion and, at the same time, user interaction in virtual reality is one of the important directions of VR development.
VR based on Internet technologies. These include primarily the Virtual Reality Markup Language, similar to HTML. Now, this technology is considered obsolete. However, in the future, it is possible that virtual reality will be created including with the use of Internet technologies.1,2
How VR technology works
The most common means of immersion in virtual reality are specialized helmets/glasses. The video in 3D format is shown on the display before the user's eyes. Attached to the body, the gyroscope and accelerometer monitor the turns of the head and transmit data to the computing system, which changes the image on the display depending on the readings of the sensors. As a result, users have the opportunity to "look around" inside virtual reality and feel in it as in the real world.
For a more realistic immersion into the world of virtual reality, in addition to sensors that track the head position, VR devices can use tracking systems that track the movements of the pupils of the eyes. They allow determining where a person is looking at any given time, as well as tracking the body movements of a person in order to repeat them in the virtual world. Such tracking can be carried out with the help of special sensors or a video camera.
To interact with the virtual reality, traditional 2D-controllers (mouse, joystick, etc.) are not enough. They are replaced by 3D-controllers (manipulators, allowing working in three-dimensional space).
Devices with feedback are designed to ensure that the user can fully experience everything that is happening in the virtual world. Vibrating joysticks, rotating chairs, etc. can be used as such devices.3
VR devices and components
It is believed that a person receives 80% of the information through vision. Therefore, developers of BP systems pay great attention to devices that provide image formation. As a rule, they are supplemented with stereo sound devices; work is being done on tactile stimuli and even imitation of smells. Effects on taste buds are not reported yet.
Virtual reality helmet
Modern virtual reality helmets (HMD-display, head-mounted display, or video helmet) contain one or more displays that show images for the left and right eyes, a lens system for adjusting the image geometry, and a tracking system that tracks the orientation of the device in space. In appearance, they now look like glasses, so they are increasingly referred to as VR headsets or simply virtual reality glasses. They can be divided into three groups:
- Glasses in which the processing and image output is provided by a smartphone (Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, etc.). A modern smartphone is a high-performance device capable of independently processing three-dimensional images. Displays of smartphones possess rather high resolution. Almost every smartphone is equipped with sensors that allow determining the position of the device in space.
- Glasses in which image processing is provided by an external device (PC, Xbox, PlayStation, etc.). The external device must be high-performance, and the glasses must be equipped with position sensors.
- Stand-alone virtual reality glasses (Lenovo Mirage Solo with Google, Oculus Quest from Facebook, Samsung Gear VR, etc.)4
Helmets are the main component of VR with full immersion, because they not only provide three-dimensional image and stereo sound, but also partially isolate the user from surrounding reality.
Such displays involve the human mechanism of volume perception – motion parallax. To do this, at each time point for the viewer, the corresponding projection of a three-dimensional object is generated. It is based on viewer position relative to the screen. Moving around the scene, the user can inspect it from all sides, while all the objects of the scene will move relative to each other.
The phenomenon of parallax multiplies the perception of volume. Unlike 3D cinema and 3D-TV, which use only binocular vision, the MotionParallax3D technology allows the user to view the 3D scene from all sides, as if all its objects were real. Offsetting viewer relative to the screen and violating the effect of volume in a 3D movie only increases the effect in the MotionParallax3D system.
A system using the parallax mechanism must catch the smallest movements of the user's head and track them with high speed and accuracy so that the brain does not detect distortions of the object's geometry caused by a lag in image changes.5 The delay should be no more than 20 ms and no more than 11 ms for interactive games.6
As a rule, these devices provide incomplete immersion since they are reproduced on displays and do not isolate the user from the environment. The exception is virtual reality rooms (CAVE, cave automatic virtual environment). In such rooms, a stereoscopic image is projected onto each wall, calculated for a specific point, at which the user is located. As a result, such an image surrounds people from all sides, immerses them in itself. Some experts believe7 that VR-rooms are much better than VR-helmets: they provide higher resolution, there is no need to put a bulky device on your head (someone gets motion sickness in it), and self-identification is easier due to the fact that the user has the ability to constantly see himself or herself.
Multichannel speaker system allows localizing the sound source, so that the user can navigate the virtual world with the help of hearing.
Tactile and other sensations
Virtual reality gloves (datagloves)
Such gloves are equipped with sensors that allow tracking the movement of hands and fingers. Technically, this can be implemented using various methods: fiber optic cables, strain gages or piezoelectric sensors, as well as electromechanical devices (such as potentiometers).8 For example, scientists from the EPFL and ETH Zurich companies have developed ultra-light gloves weighing less than 8 grams per finger and only 2 mm thick). They provide "extremely realistic tactile feedback and can be powered from batteries, thereby ensuring unprecedented freedom of movement". https://actu.epfl.ch/news/ultra-light-gloves-let-users-touch-virtual-objects/
Virtual reality costume
This costume should track the change in the position of the entire body of the user and transmit tactile, temperature and vibration sensations; in combination with the helmet – visual and auditory ones.10
Smells and taste sensations
Work on the synthesis of odors has been going on for more than one year,11 but it is still far from the wide use of the results obtained. We are not talking about any significant advances in the transfer of taste sensations yet.
To interact with the virtual environment, special joysticks (gamepads, wands, etc.) are used that contain built-in position and motion sensors, as well as buttons and scroll wheels, like a mouse. Now such joysticks are increasingly made wireless.2
The information gloves mentioned above and virtual reality costumes can also be used as control devices.
As is usually the case when introducing new technologies, each of the major suppliers who have entered a promising market seeks to promote precisely their products and distribute their technical solutions. Accordingly, leading companies, releasing VR headsets, are developing or ordering content for them. The driving force behind the VR market at the moment is virtual games, primarily based on gamers. Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, etc. headsets have been released.12
Games and other content designed for one headset cannot be played on another one. Gamers can not wait when porting games between the headsets of different developers will be established. Industrialists, advertisers and representatives of many other industries would introduce VR faster, knowing that expensive equipment would not have to be changed because the new, extremely attractive software is developed for other glasses, gloves, or suits of virtual reality.
VR providers are well aware that well-established cooperation between them can bring virtual reality to a new level. Therefore, as early as December 2016, the Global Virtual Reality Association (GVRA), a non-profit organization of virtual reality helmet manufacturers, was created to unite companies in the development of this area. Acer Starbreeze, Google, HTC VIVE, Oculus, Samsung and Sony Interactive Entertainment participated in its creation.
According to the GVRA website,13 the main task of the association is to contribute to the global growth and development of the VR industry. It is planned to create working groups to conduct research and develop recommendations on the most important topics for the industry. Ultimately, these groups will develop best practices and openly share them.
However, as of October 2018, i.e. almost two years after the creation of the GVRA, the only material appearing on the association’s website is the report "Investigation of virtual reality and its potential for Europe" covering the period from 2016 to 2017.14 Apparently, reaching global agreements between large companies is no less complicated than the actual development of VR technologies.
However, efforts to unify equipment continue.
So, on July 17, 2017, NVIDIA, Oculus, Valve, AMD and Microsoft presented the VirtualLink™ specification – an open industry standard that will allow next-generation VR headsets to connect to PCs and other devices using only one Type-C high-speed USB cable (instead of several cords and connectors currently used).
It is noted that VirtualLink is specially created for VR. It provides optimal latency and bandwidth, allowing helmet and PC manufacturers to create a new generation of virtual reality.15
Of course, the tasks of unification will still be solved in one way or another, as has already happened with other technologies. The main thing is to make it happen in the coming years.
Virtual reality in the industry
Examples of the varied application of VR technologies in the industry are given in the article "Virtual reality (VR): Best Practices".
Among investors, attitude towards virtual reality is ambiguous. On the one hand, a VR-helmet can be bought at any electronics store. Since late 2016, only Sony has sold over 1.5 million PlayStation VR headsets for its console. Thousands of companies create relevant content. However, with the introduction of VR technology to the commercial market, the developers of the first wave, apparently, hurried. As a result, users not only did not receive the promised effect of total immersion, but also, when confronted with the imperfection of the technology, were disappointed in it. VR/AR mass distribution is hampered, firstly, by the low quality of VR content. Secondly, by the fragmentation of platforms and the lack of uniform standards when it is created. Thirdly, by the lack of a clear distribution system, a single platform where the relevant products would be collected.
The market behaves accordingly. In the first quarter of 2018, global shipments of virtual reality headsets grew by 16% year-on-year, according to experts from Canalys.16 However, in the second calendar quarter of this year, according to IDC estimates, shipments decreased by 33.7%. Analysts are confident that the current situation is temporary. The emergence of new products, above all, Oculus Go and HTC Vive Pro, as well as new brands, should bring the market back on a positive track.17
Analysts at Gartner and IDC claim that VR/AR is approaching technological maturity. That is, very soon, virtual reality will become part of everyday life. Technologically, everything is ready for its mass use.11