Design

Virtual reality is just around the corner – Now is the best time to hop on board

March 7, 2016

Read time 7 min

We’ve seen virtual reality (VR) fail in the past. The world wasn’t ready for the likes of Sega VR in 1991 or Nintendo Virtual Boy in 1995; the hardware was lacking power and the gaming market was way too small. Some see similar risks with modern VR, but this time feels different – the new dimension of entertainment and interaction is just around the corner. It’s time to start building your own HoloDeck. 

I’ve played digital games since my parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 for my seventh birthday in the year 1984. That was also a great year for sci-fi fans with movie releases like Ghostbusters, The Terminator and The Last Starfighter. It’s also the year when one of my most beloved video games was released; the space simulator Elite by David Braben. That game totally blew my mind back then. I was suddenly piloting a starship, trading rare cargo and looking for spaceports in this vast universe. The game’s eight galaxies and 2048 individual procedurally generated planets gave a strong feeling of an infinite universe. That was pure magic for me.

The Space simulator Elite: Dangerous is one of the most advanced implementations of VR
The Space simulator Elite: Dangerous is one of the most advanced implementations of VR

Fast forward 32 years: I sit in the cockpit of my Cobra Mk IV, holding my left hand on my throttle controller and right hand on my flight stick. The virtual galaxy is filled with distant nebulas and over 400 billion star systems. Some of them can be seen right now through the canopy. A turn of the head makes the ship’s holographic user interface come to life with Oculus Rift, the head-mounted display (HMD). The pilot’s hands are modelled inside the game, and they repeat the movements of the physical controllers. Saying “Open Galaxy Map” aloud drops the player inside a detailed model of the Milky Way for planning an interstellar jump.I feel like The Last Starfighter’s Alex Rogan defending the galaxy in his Gunship instead of playing a video game.

The Everest VR Experience by Sólfar
The Everest VR Experience by Sólfar

The Oculus Rift dev kit 2 proved that VR adds immersion to gaming, but now it’s time to explore how full-motion affects the experience. We got our own Pre Vive HMD kit from HTC last week, along with only a handful of companies in Scandinavia. Big thanks goes out to my good friend Thor Gunnarsson from Sólfar Studios for making this happen. As a design partner in Reaktor Ventures, I feel proud that we’ve invested in their VR team. Sólfar’s founders are currently working on titles like the Everest VR Experience, currently demoing on HTC Vive and the beautiful sandbox game Godling in development for PlayStation VR.

First generation consumer model of the HTC Vive HMD
First generation consumer model of the HTC Vive HMD

We want to be pioneers in VR/AR design and development. That’s why we decided to build our own virtual reality demo room. The “HoloDeck” also gives our customers the opportunity to envision how this fast growing industry would benefit their companies. It took us only an hour to install all the necessary software, mount the two base stations that track user movement and go through the SteamVR room measurements.

Setting up our four times four-meter demo room was quite straightforward. There are already a lot of engaging demos and games to play. We installed about a dozen and had lots of fun trying them out. Our favorites were Sólfar’s Everest VR and Valve’s Aperture Robot Repair. The Everest VR is based on an ultra-realistic 3D model of the mountain, using over 300,000 high-resolution photographs. In Aperture Robot Repair, you’re taken to the world of Portal games, and get to meet the dreadful A.I. GLaDOS in person.

VR pulled a LOT of designers, speakers and decision makers from Interaction16 conference to our Open Studios party
VR pulled in a LOT of people from the Interaction16 conference to our Open Studios party

We organized an Interaction16 Helsinki Open Studios VR session at our office. No one expected how many designers would be interested in full-motion VR. More than fifty first timers tried the Everest VR experience that night and there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t shocked by the level of immersion. Some people got so absorbed into the virtual world that they couldn’t cross a deep chasm between two cliffs, even when we reminded them they were really standing in an office building. Both the huge interest in VR and the undeniable immersion send a strong signal: things are looking really good for modern VR.

First generation consumer model of the Oculus Rift
First generation consumer model of the Oculus Rift

This year will see the first generation of modern VR and HMD consumer models. They’re not  cheap with Oculus Rift retail price standing at $599 (699 €), HTC Vive at $799 (899 €) and PlayStation VR estimated at $399 (499 €). On top of this, VR needs a lot of fire power to run smoothly. Our own VR beast packs two Nvidia 980 Ti GPU’s. Some estimate that even 7 times more GPU processing power is needed in comparison to non-VR games. This is due to higher frame rate that needs to stay stable, bigger resolution due to supersampling, individual camera angles for both eyes and some extra processing to match the HMD lenses. There are similar things going on as 15 years ago with the first generation of mobile apps and mobile gaming. However, this time it won’t take a decade for the technology to get mature enough to be taken seriously.

Sony PlayStation VR HMD Prototype
Sony PlayStation VR HMD Prototype

It seems that the launch of the first three consumer HMDs from HTC, Oculus and PlayStation will broaden the target group from techies to all mainstream gamers. PlayStation 4 sales just crossed the 37M mark, so the market for PlayStation VR will be huge. It’ll also be cool to see how Facebook integrates Oculus Rift to the lives of it’s 1.5B monthly users. HTC’s partnership with Valve will bring Vive closer to the 125M active Steam gamers on Windows and OS X. The big players Apple and Google have their own VR divisions up and running. Then there’s the world of mobile VR, bringing the virtual worlds to users at affordable price levels with products like Samsung Gear VR. As Google has shown us, HMDs can be crafted even from cardboard. Not to forget that AR is right around the corner too with HoloLens, Meta Vision and the mystic billion dollar VC grabbing Magic Leap. We’ll soon see what happens when devs push the boundaries of VR the way David Braben pushed the limits of 8-bit home computers in 1984.

Reaktor’s VR enthusiasts have developed multiple VR projects since the first Oculus development kit was released in 2013. We believe that VR and AR will become so big in the following years that our customers can benefit a lot from our pioneering experience in this field. On top of entertainment and games, the new media offer a plethora of possibilities for many different businesses: medicine, construction, real estate, travel, and so on.

If you’re interested in future VR sessions, feel free to contact me at johannes.koski@reaktor.com.

Some of the most interesting current and upcoming VR games

Godling by Sólfar Studios (PlayStation VR)

Adr1ft by Three One Zero (Windows, PlayStation VR)

P.O.L.L.E.N by Mindfield Games (Windows)

Elite Dangerous: Horizons by Frontier Development (Windows)

EVE: Valkyrie by Oculus VR and CCP Games (Windows, PlayStation VR)

Other cool VR and augmented reality projects

Tilt Brush by Google

Building VR game levels in VR with Unreal Engine 4

Full motion multi-player VR zombie shooter

Minecraft Hololens demo at E3 2015

Augmented Reality Magic Leap 3D Hologram

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