Some issues with VR Part 3 — Wearable VR could solve some VR problems
I have written about VR only a few days ago. (which is why, I am reusing the image from before, because, I don’t know). As it is with technology, companies that are invested heavily in this particular domain are trying to keep the tech folks like me interested. Facebook has plunked down 2 billion dollars. HTC is betting a truck load of money (and its very survival since it has lost the mobile battle) on VR. Microsoft and Google have their fingers in this pie too. The many hardware partners of Microsoft and Google are getting dragged into this.
It’s an emerging technology that can change the scene of entertainment. 3D was supposed to do it, but that never happened. Sure, we all watch 3D movies (mostly because, the choice between 3D and 2D has been forcefully removed) at the cinemas but we are not doing it in our daily viewing on streaming or TV. The point of 3D not being there every day is important because, the same problems that plagued 3D — content and ridiculous looking glasses — are plaguing VR as well.
We will come back to that negative stuff with some cool stuff first.
Facebook (owner of Oculus) is now talking about a standalone headset. I have got to explain the standalone concept here. The thing about VR is that, it’s essentially 2 images being displayed (like 3D) in front of the eyes. This is what puts that real life, 3D effect. Further, the image is a ‘surround image’, as in 180 degrees surround. This 180 degree video is a lot of data. You see, in a regular 2D or even a 3D movie or show, the image area is fixed, and it only has to cover so much of area. More importantly, the frames at which the images are moving can be as little as 24 (which is the speed at which all movies and television shows are presented) and that is perfectly fine to the human eye. In fact, increase the frames to 48 created a lot of problems, as Peter Jackson found out with his first hobbit movie.
That frames thing is even more important for VR because, the low frames won’t look good when the viewer (in VR, the person watching it) is moving around. As the eye moves, new images should replace the old ones, and if there is a delay in this movement, that will cause motion sickness (although the person doing the VR is probably sitting in one place). There are two kinds of movement happening here. The viewer is moving, and the presentation is moving, so that means, the video content must move at high speeds. This is precisely why mobile VR does not run on low end phones. The low-end phones cannot handle the video that is delivering the stuff.
This is also why, full-fledged VR (unlike the mobile enabled headset that I have experienced so far) needs a powerful PC. Until the Apple hardware refresh this year, the entire Mac lineup was unsupported for VR because they were not powerful enough. That’s how much processing power is needed to get a proper VR experience. That is why, mobile based VR (where the mobile phone is placed inside the headset) is more popular than the Oculus Rift or Vive VR. This is also why computers that can actually power Oculus and Vive are so expensive, as they need a powerful graphics card to push all those frames and pixels. All this adds up to a huge expense. At the time of this writing, the HTC Vive costs almost 80000 (yeah, that almost 1200 dollars) in India. Oculus is slightly less expensive, but understand that you will need a PC that is worth another 80000 rupees just to power these VR headsets. Essentially, you are looking at a bill of at least 1.5 lakh just so that can you can experiment (yeah, it is essentially an experiment because VR content is so less and immature right now, it’s almost a joke) with it.
It’s a rich man’s thing. Or a woman’s, although, I am yet to meet a woman who gushes on tech the way a lot of men do.
The cost (1.5 lakh) will keep everybody away. All the advent in modern technology cannot reduce that price in a reasonable time. That is where wearable VR comes into the picture. The Google Cardboard wearable device I have used cost no more than 50 dollars (which does not include the 1000 dollars I spent on my iPhone). Samsung has its own mobile VR platform called Gear VR, which works like Google Cardboard, but I assume, slightly better. Gear VR is cheaper (about 3000 rupees) but only works with Samsung devices, and that too specific models like its premium S6 and S7 series. Mobile VR is cheaper because, you already paid for your expensive phone, so the cost comes down to the cost of the mobile wearable.
That’s how we get to the word ‘wearable VR’. So, in some ways, wearable VR is already here. However, the current system does not solve a major issue — battery life. A good VR experience on mobile requires bright screen, and even the best phones run out of juice when their screen is running at full brightness. On top of this, as explained above, playing VR apps and VR videos requires a ton of processing power, another battery killing activity. Bright screen + extreme GPU/CPU processing means, at most, the phone can give an hour of VR before it dies (may be more, I am just…being dramatic, ).
Unless you are lugging around a portable battery cases, lengthy charging cables to everywhere you go, mobile VR is not the best solution.
That brings us back to the pure wearable VR that Facebook is trying to do now. No mobile phone. The headset already comes with some kind of computing power. Instead of depending on the PC (Oculus, Vive) or mobile phone (Cardboard, Gear VR), the headset takes care of its own processing. Perhaps, this is the final shape of VR. I am already loving it. Relatively cheap (Facebook is projecting an initial price of 200 dollars in US, which translates to about 300 dollars/20000 rupees in India) and works on its own.
20000 rupees is still a lot of money, but it is less than 1.5 lakh.
The real problem though, is the one I was talking about in the beginning. The problems that affect any new technology format (think what happened to Betamax? People keep forgetting that, like when Microsoft went in with HD-DVD instead of Blu-Ray) is the lack of content to consume. Last month, when I revisited VR, I did it out of curiosity. The fun lasts for a few minutes at most, and after that, I simply did not know what to do with it. There are no games, nor video content aimed at VR to keep me using it.
That means, whether I am spending 1.5 thousand rupees or 1.5 lakh, there is only so much content that is there to consume. This is where the classic catch 22 happens. There are not many people buying VR (assuming they are affordable) because there is not much content. There is not much content because there are not many people ready to consume it. This is the exact same thing that ate 3D up, turning it into a massive failure, outside of multiplexes.
All in all, compared to how things were a couple of years back, things are definitely improving. If Facebook (and others) can bring standalone VR to less than 100 dollars (which is a high possibility), perhaps VR will thrive. I hope so, because, the opportunities are endless. Practical VR can revolutionize everything that we do with video, but make it better.
After all, that is why Facebook spent 2 billion on this. Social interaction.