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I Just Had an Amazing Experience – I Think I’ll Throw Up. The Hope of Consumer VR
MAR 15, 2017 19:15 PM
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I Just Had an Amazing Experience – I Think I’ll Throw Up

The Hope of Consumer VR

By Dr. Jon Peddie

Consumers are an unforgiving lot. They expect things they bought to work, and they don’t expect to be hurt by them. So far, for many purchasers of VR devices, they’ve been disappointed - too much hype, not enough reality.

Commercial VR was started by Jaron Lanier with the development of the visual programming language, which became the basis for VPL Research in 1987—30 years ago, before some of today’s VR hotshots were born. The military, and industry supported (and still do) commercial VR and use it to solve serious mission-critical problems. And yes, sometimes they feel a little queasy when they exit VR and re-enter the real world, but they tolerate it because their projects and objectives are extremely important. They also pay a lot of money for the apparatus, and dozens of engineers, scientists, and technicians are involved with the setup and usage. VR is a very serious business.

VR for consumers is a different thing altogether. Consumers want low cost products. There’s a concept known as the $300 threshold, and consumers (in the US at least) will buy lots of things if they are $300 or less—it’s also known as the price-elasticity curve. Consumer PC-based VR isn’t there yet, and won’t be for a while unless subsidy pricing models (as use3d in the gaming console market) are employed. The best price so far for an Oculus approved VR Ready PC was $499 from USA PC manufacturer CyberpowerPC using AMD processors.  This model is, however, no longer available and the best price now is $699.

Consumer VR is segmented into two categories, mobile (smartphone based), best exemplified by the Samsung Gear, and tethered based, exemplified by the PC-based HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, and the console (PS4)-based Sony VR head-mounted display (HMD). There are a couple of dozen other companies who are planning or building a PC HMD, and about 40 companies making smartphone VR HMDs. The mobile VR HMDs sell for less than $50 (plus the smartphone), whereas many tethered units are several hundred dollars plus the PC or PS4.

The mobile VR HMDs (mHMD) have limited resolution and field of view (FoV), although smartphones have pretty amazingly high resolution these days, and the applications are most passive, known as 360-video. The tethered HMDs (tHMD) have higher resolution and FoV, and interactive applications, mostly games, and mostly first-person shooter (FPS) games. Most of the games for the tHMDs are re-ported to VR, and only recently have a few new games designed for VR been announced. And there is the main problem with consumer tHMD VR—developing content that doesn’t make you sick.

There are two major hardware problems with tHMDs motion-to-photon latency (MTPL), and screen-door effect. Both of them conspire to take you out of the immersion and destroy the whole experience. The MTPL is a function of the timing of the motion sensing sensors in the tHMD to the image generating device (GPU) in the PC, and there are some serious limitations on how much that can be improved. The screen-door effect is the resolution of the display. When your eyes are an inch or so from the screen, you can see the outline of the pixels, which looks like you are up close to a screen door looking through it. That’s something that can be improved over time, and possibly with different display technologies, and watch the micro LED developments to get an idea of where VR displays are going.

In the meantime, the switch from deferred rendering to forward rendering in popular game engines like UE4 from Epic offers a promising software solution.  Deferred rendering works well for traditional 3D but is taxed in VR.  Forward rendering solutions support MSAA anti-aliasing for a better image and a higher frame rate. 



The PTML problem is tougher to fix with electronics, but easier to fix with content. The trick is to not force the wearer to have to rapidly move his or her head back and forth frequently. Properly designed content, with more story and less knee-jerk run and blast action will save the day for tHMD VR. Early developers sought to solve this problem through careful scheduling of the narrative and using techniques like teleporting for movement.  None of which met the expectations of users.  Promisingly Survios, the maker of the bestselling VR title Raw Data, recently announced a new VR game title using a new technique called fluid motion.  This mimics the movement of our arms and hands in motion and works exceptionally well.

Since consumer VR was thrust on the scene by Facebook’s astounding investment in startup, they hype machines have been working overtime forecasting riches for anyone who can spell VR. But the reality consumer tHMD virtual reality is, not too many were sold. Worldwide sales were less than a million for all the PC tHMD suppliers and a bit over a million for Sony. Sony did better for three reasons. It offered a turn key totally integrated system, its price was reasonable, and the content was designed specifically for the system—VR sickness was minimized.

The consumer VR industry is now in a vulnerable position. The early adopters, and the brave early users (who tried it but didn’t buy it) are recommending it less than previously and everyone is waiting for the killer app. The average time in VR is 15 minutes. That’s not much entertainment for such a high price tag. And instead of turning customers into sales people for the product and experience, some have become skeptics.

mHMDs are another story, and mostly because they generally have a story, as well as a low entry price. And I think there is another subjective factor. I think that users of mHMDs have a lower expectation because they know it’s based on a smart phone. That’s not to say the experience isn’t terrific, it is, but it isn’t expected (by the users) to amazing because there’s not a thousand dollars or more of technology driving it.

PC-based VR is definitely in and on the hype cycle and probably this year we may see the possibility of disentrancement take effect. I think VR will move to public places and be an extension of events. Location based VR in China is already a success with over 5,000 locations.  Recently Imax opened its first ‘VR event center’ in Los Angeles and ticket sales and attendance have been very good.  Imax plans to open in London in April. AMC and Regal in the USA are also offering location based experiences this year. That will keep the interest alive until the industry can learn how to make more generalized content and deal with the hardware issues and economics.

And commercial VR will carry on as it has, growing slightly due to lower priced equipment thanks to the consumer VR efforts, and improvements in technology due to the same reasons.

VR isn’t going away, if anything, it’s growing up and being looked at more practically. In the process we will begin seeing the consolidation of the suppliers and continued development of the middleware and the content—that’s where the growth will be.

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