With the recent release of the Oculus ‘Rift’ and HTC ‘Vive’ headsets, and the Playstation ‘VR’ to launch by the end of this year, virtual reality is set to dominate headlines in the technology sector in 2016.

Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment. On a computer, VR is primarily experienced through two of the five senses; sight and sound.

Most up-to-date VRs are displayed either on a computer screen or with special headsets that include stereoscopic displays. Some simulations include additional sensory information and focus on real sound through speakers or headphones targeted towards VR users. Some advanced systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback in medical, gaming and military applications.

VR also covers remote communication environments, providing the virtual presence with concepts of telepresence and telexistence. Virtual artefacts can be created, either through use of standard input devices, such as a keyboard and mouse, or multi-modal devices, such as a wired glove or omni-directional treadmills. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience, for example, in simulations for pilot or combat training. In contrast, the environment can also differ significantly from reality, such as in VR games.

Current VR devices

The Samsung ‘Gear VR’ was the first consumergrade product to hit the market, apart from Google’s hobby kit, Google ‘Cardboard’. Like ‘Cardboard’, the ‘Gear VR’ uses a smartphone to power the headset, but in this case, the ‘Gear VR’ is limited to newer Samsung models. Also, unlike ‘Cardboard’, some of the smart technologies, including a gyroscope and accelerometer, are built into the headset providing lower latency and a smoother overall experience.

The Oculus ‘Rift’, developed and manufactured by Oculus VR, was released on 28 March 2016, making it the first to kick-start consumer-targeted VR headsets. The ‘Rift’ is not a standalone device as it must be connected by a cable to a personal computer in order to work. The ‘Rift’ uses a dedicated screen (an OLED panel) for each eye, each having a resolution of 1080×1200 pixels. This, combined with a high refresh rate and low persistence, means that the user experiences none of the motion blurring or judder that is experienced on a regular monitor. The ‘Rift’ has six degrees of freedom, with rotational and positional tracking performed by a precise, low-latency and accurate tracking system. One reviewer who spent several days with the Oculus ‘Rift’ said that it is a seriously impressive piece of technology when compared to earlier VR devices. It’s comfortable, well built, easy to use and delivers a vastly more immersive experience than the two dimensional windows we use to peer into today’s games and applications.

The HTC ‘Vive’, developed by electronic company HTC and PC game publisher Valve Corporation, was released on 5 April 2016. This headset is designed to use ‘room scale’ technology to turn a room into a 3D space via sensors. This technology allows the user to navigate the virtual world naturally and use motion-tracked, handheld controllers to manipulate objects and experience immersive environments. The HTC ‘Vive’ received over 22 awards at the CES (Consumer Technology Association) 2016, including best of CES.

The ‘Vive’ has a refresh rate of 90 Hz and uses two screens, one per eye, each having a resolution of 1080x1200 pixels. The device uses more than 70 sensors, including a MEMS gyroscope, accelerometer and laser position sensors. It operates in a tracking space of 4.6 metres by 4.6 metres, with base stations that track movement with a precision of less than a millimetre. A front-facing camera is used as part of a safety system which allows the software to identify moving or static objects in a room and displays a feed from the camera to safely guide the user from obstacles.

What’s next for VR?

Besides developing games, VR developers are directing major investments into developing VR experiences for pre-recorded (and eventually live) entertainment and sports programming, marketing and product retailing, and education and training applications. In addition, Facebook and enterprise IT suppliers see social and peer-to-peer communications as hugely promising areas for VR. Down the track, increasingly capable 3D cameras and apps will allow users to play back and share experiences in VR.

Although 2016 may be viewed as a pivotal year for VR, it will be necessary for suppliers to manage expectations given limited available content and technical limitations of entry-level VR.

Among the three vendors, Samsung is expected to lead the market in terms of sales volume due to the price advantage of the ‘Gear VR’, while Oculus and HTC are more likely to compete neck-and-neck in the sector due to the similarity of their devices. Analysts see smartphone-based VR potentially emerging as a ‘gateway’ to upsell higher quality VR experiences to consumers, but high-end PC and console-based headsets will initially be limited to early-adopter enthusiasts and high-end gamers. This is due to the price and because most VR titles will initially be limited to games.