Most people only vaguely remember the infancy of virtual reality. Bulky devices hallmarked by complex assembly and hefty price tags filled the market, or what little market there was.
If you were risk averse enough to shell out the cash and spend hours educating yourself on the most up to date information, whatever you bought would still more than likely turn out an underwhelming experience.
It would entertain for a short period, but soon become a party trick that spent the majority of its life in the closet where you wouldn’t be constantly reminded of your new and improved credit card debt.
The personal experience was mirrored in the financial community, as investors were hesitant to put forward the large sums necessary for research and development in a field with a bleak future.
Fast forward to today, and the landscape has changed so much it’s unrecognizable. Virtual reality, though still not up to par with traditional AAA gaming standards, performs at a level that is mind-blowingly immersive.
The technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year alone and sci-fi novelesque goals like controllerless hand and full body tracking are now well within reach. This really is the time for next generation VR
The affordability and performance of some of the newest virtual gaming rigs has instigated a population boom in the virtual reality community.
Players spend time hanging our across all types of virtual environments, from e-sport tournaments to bars and even retro-gaming arcades.
Why this has happened has to do with a few key acquisitions and the pivotal genius of the odd dedicated developer, but that’s a topic for another day.
This article outlines the top five most exciting breakthroughs in virtual reality technology, from pricing to treadmills, to catch you up on the virtual world in 2019-20.
Facebook owned Oculus released the Rift S headset in the Spring of 2019. It’s designed to run from a gaming computer and comes packaged with two touch controllers and a Mini DisplayPort adapter for those gaming on laptops.
But one of the most important pieces of this headset can't be found inside the packaging; a price tag of ~$399. The Rift S' predecessor cost almost double at initial rollout, while other headsets averaged in the low thousand-dollar range. The exciting news about this move to more affordable hardware is that this is now the trend in the VR market. HTC and Valve have been working together for years and their competitor for the Rift S, the HTC Vive, now starts at $499. Both companies have other affordable options ranging, from $399 to $799. Playstation VR headsets now run from $299 to $399. Of course, there are still options to buy the most high-tech version available for those rare persons not worried about what's in their wallet.
Inside Out Tracking
In the olden days of VR, owners had to be extra picky about where they set up to play. External sensors were the only viable way to track hand and head movement, so your playspace had to be large and entirely free of anything that could come between you and the sensors.
Not to mention the hassle it was to set up such a rig. Now, companies have introduced inside-out tracking to replace these inconvenient sensor systems.
It is a far more accurate movement tracking technique and requires little to no setup. Headsets have HD cameras set at different angles that use smart-software to recognize your controllers and track their movement, as well as giving users the ability to see through the headset into the surrounding environment withour taking it off.
This is especially useful when taking a swig of that sweet soft drink mid-game or shooing away pesky pets. The HTC models are proported to have the most accurate tracking, with six cameras where most other companies use four or five.
Wire (and Computer) Free Headsets
One of the biggest barriers to entry for casual and console gamers has been that in order to operate a VR headset you must own a gaming computer, and not just any old gaming computer will do.
The minimum required graphics card specs for most modern headsets sit at right around the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti or Radeon RX 470, though higher is better. This year, however, has quite literally changed the game.
Oculus released its Quest headset which requires no computer, gaming or otherwise, to have a blast in a virtual environment, and the HTC Vive comes built in with the option to be played as a standalone console.
The freedom provided by not having any wires to trip over or keep track of makes a big difference and vastly improves immersion, but of course there are a few downsides to this approach. Wireless headsets come with a limited battery life and slightly lower resolution when compared to those hooked up to a computer.
The Quest has a limited amount of games, and the Vive requires the user to purchase a separate piece of hardware in order to play wire free. However, these challenges are consistently being overcome.
Purchasing a basic portable battery can over double your available playtime. Oculus plans to release a link option to allow Quest users access to the games they are currently denied and buying the hardware for a wireless Vive is still far cheaper than buying a new computer.
Ever since the birth of VR, a fourth-degree-of-freedom treadmill has been a dream of engineering and creative minds alike. Stories like Ready Player One by Clive Owen have shown the world the possibilities when it comes to VR tech, but what many don’t realize is how close such technology is to reaching the consumer.
One of the traditional issues with a building a 360-degree treadmill is how to compensate for a human’s ability to rapidly change direction. Prototypes like the Infinadeck use advanced software and dozens of small treadmills to compensate for speed and direction change, but despite these advancements the tech isn’t quite there yet.
To overcome this, companies have come up with a simpler design; a treadmill with no moving parts. The Virtuix Omni is the most successful of these models based on this design. It pairs a plastic, concave surface with specially designed shoes that provide the user just enough traction to turn but not enough to go anywhere in the real world, even while running.
Sadly, at the moment these products are only sold to the professional market for arcade and research companies, though consumers can but them on secondary markets like eBay.
One of the other great dreams of VR is the ability to explore a virtual world without the need for any controllers.
Such an accomplishment would greatly enhance the level of immersion and, depending on the level of accuracy, open the door to be able to do so much more inside of a virtual environment.
The design for such a product was originally based around specialized gloves with multiple small sensors sewn in around the user’s palm and fingers. However, the accuracy of such sensors and relative bulk have made this design expensive and unpopular.
In answer, companies have been developing their inside-out tracking systems to recognize hands and hand movement, much in the same way that they currently recognize their system’s native controllers.
Both Oculus and HTC have announced release dates of early 2020 for controller and glove free hand tracking software, though this date is for the professional market only at this time.
It is an exciting time to be involved in the virtual world, as more and more of what we have dreamed of for decades is quickly becoming a reality.
Each year people join this community of virtual explorers, from massive companies to teens in their living rooms, and it is this fact that is most exciting for our virtual environments; that it is filling up with real people.
Affordability is no longer an issue, and the level of immersion is impressive and constantly improving. So when it comes time to buy that next gaming console, consider looking into a VR rig instead and joining the vast community of the virtual world.
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