Games, Movies, or Apps: Where Is Virtual Reality Going?

Samsung Gear VR


The promise of virtual reality is far-reaching and extends from games to movies to social experiences. Enthusiasts imagine putting on a pair of goggles and being immersed in anything from the city streets of a far-off country to the incredibly realistic environment of a zombie game. As technology is finally catching up to a dream that dates to the 1960s, today’s virtual reality hardware is on its way to enabling an entirely new type of media and entertainment experiences. Games, movies, and apps are all expected to play a part, though which will represent the compelling use case that will convince the average consumer to put on a pair of goggles has yet to be determined.

As Matthew Schnipper reports for The Verge, virtual reality had something of a golden age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the industry “closed up shop” in the mid-1990s, with the crude digital experiences that inventors were able to achieve too far-removed from the subtleties of real life. Simultaneously, enthusiasts’ vision for virtual reality was overshadowed by the draw of a more promising revolution: the Internet.

Today, virtual reality is experiencing another renaissance, spurred by Palmer Luckey’s development of the Oculus Rift, and Oculus’s subsequent acquisition by Facebook, a tech giant drawn by virtual reality’s promise and its unclear future. The Oculus Rift was the first headset, as Virginia Heffernan reports for the New York Times, that was non-nauseating, a big step forward in enabling the immersive technology to move forward.

Heffernan notes that even a year ago, most gamers would have said that virtual reality was too expensive and too stomach-churning to pursue seriously. But fans of the Oculus Rift discover in the headset’s virtual worlds what John Carmack, Oculus’s chief technology officer, refers to as “presence,” a prerequisite of which is the conviction that they are in another world.

Heffernan reports that while virtual worlds decidedly do not feel like reality, they offer a “profound” sensation of space. As the nausea of virtual reality sickness has been explained as the body’s dysphoric response to conflict between sensory input — its response to the uncanny, as Heffernan puts it — she says that presence is the euphoric response. Presence causes users to forget that they are staring at a screen, and interest in experiencing it through the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality systems is increasing.

The most recent news in virtual reality’s renaissance comes from Samsung, which announced both a virtual reality camera and the upcoming launch of its Gear VR headset at its Samsung Tomorrow developer conference. The Project Beyond camera captures 360 degree virtual reality images and videos via 16 cameras arranged around the device.

While Samsung didn’t give details on when the camera will be available, it did announced that its Gear VR Innovator Edition headset will be available in early December in the U.S. As VentureBeat’s Emil Protalinski reports, Samsung is promoting the headset for its ability to create an “immersive entertainment experience,” as well as its potential for “innovative uses for enterprise.”

From realistic training simulations to interactive learning experiences to 360 degree views of scans for healthcare professionals, Samsung believes that the possibilities are endless. The next step will be to see if developers — and then consumers — agree. The headset is powered by Oculus software, and with the hardware’s launch, Oculus will release the Oculus Mobile SDK for Gear VR, to enable developers to create their own apps, games, and content to be viewed on the headset.

When Samsung first unveiled the Gear VR headset in September, it revealed that the headset depends on the Galaxy Note 4, and uses the smartphone’s 5.7-inch display as its screen. In a blog post, Oculus said that the headset will cost $249 when bundled with a Bluteooth gamepad, or $199 for the headset alone. With the Gear VR’s launch, Samsung becomes the first company to deliver a virtual reality solution powered by a smartphone — an important step forward in making virtual reality experiences portable.

Max Cohen, head of mobile at Oculus VR, the virtual reality startup that Facebook purchased for $2 billion this year, is convinced that the way most people experience virtual reality will be on mobile devices. Cohen told Simon Parkin at MIT’s Technology Review:

“PCs and dedicated machines will always have more power, but at some point, graphics become ‘good enough’ on a mobile device and none of that matters anymore. Will it be in two years’ time? Five years? Ten? I don’t know. But it will happen. You can’t surpass the beauty of being untethered.”

Gear VR, the forthcoming virtual reality headset from Oculus VR and Samsung, is the first attempt at bringing consumers that “untethered” experience. As work continues on the original Oculus Rift, a device that has yet to be released, Parkin reports that Gear VR is more than a side project for those involved in bringing the company’s virtual reality vision to life. Mobile seems like an ideal platform the technology. It offers the possibility of a more liberating experience  than that attained by virtual reality systems that tether users to a PC with, as Parkin terms it, “a cat’s cradle of wires.” Mobile devices are both self-contained and cheaper to buy and run than a PC, and are of course more portable than traditional systems.

But before the Gear VR or its successors can become mass-market products, there are technological problems to solve. Cohen notes that “[h]eat is our primary issue.” He explains that “[w]hen you run a mobile phone’s CPUs and GPUs at maximum, the device heats up really quickly, and it needs to either cut the speed by throttling or shut down entirely.” He adds that the problem of heat “isn’t a problem that’s going to go away in the near future, unfortunately. We’ll always have to manage heat; we won’t be able to fully solve it.”

Re/Code’s Eric Johnson spoke to Andrew Dickerson, Samsung’s director of software development in Dallas, and learned that developers who reported a 20-minute “thermal limit” with games on the Gear VR were using an older version of the mobile SDK, which pushed the Galaxy 4 to its limits. A downgraded SDK “turned the cores back to a reasonable level,” and while developers lose some performance with the updated SDK, Dickerson says that Samsung made some improvements to offset those losses.

John Carmack, the legendary game programmer who last year became Oculus’s chief technology officer, said at the Oculus Connect event in September that another technological issue to be overcome is the refresh rate of mobile phone screens. Phone displays don’t refresh as frequently as other screens do, which can cause them to appear to flicker and ruin the illusion. Smartphones also lack the sensors to provide accurate motion-tracking, which is needed to accurately transpose a user’s head movements into the virtual environment. Battery life is another perennial challenge.

But despite the challenges, Cohen and his team are enthusiastic about the product and its “Innovator Edition.” Even when problems with the hardware have been resolved, creating compelling software will be the next the next challenge. Video games represent a major area of potential, and film is also expected to be an important area of output. Social experiences are another area of potential, and virtual reality could offer new ways for people to communicate with each other, through virtual spaces with physical representations of each person.

But as Parkin notes, the resurgence of the technology more than two decades after its initial rise in the 1980s is driven more by the excitement of enthusiasts than by a compelling case for its value. None of the games and other applications in development have made a strong case for virtual reality’s necessity or its mainstream usefulness, and many are speculating about what kind of experience will emerge as the “killer app” for virtual reality.

Re/Code’s Eric Johnson reported in September that the consensus at the Oculus Connect event in Los Angeles — the company’s first developer conference — was that while virtual reality games will be fun, they won’t be the content that convinces the average consumer to try out virtual reality. Instead, developers at the conference posited, the draw for most consumers will be social and media experiences. “Without content, nobody would be interested in this whole virtual reality thing,” said Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey at the conference, highlighting how the company is depending on developers to fill its app store.

Johnson reports that while one of the most talked about virtual reality experiences at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, this year was a “terrifying” virtual reality slice of the first-person survival horror game Alien: Isolation, developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega in October, TCA programmer Sam Birley says that the first mainstream hit on Oculus could be something completely different: “I’m not really sure what the killer app is, yet. I don’t think it necessarily has to be games. Social interaction is a massive draw to VR. Hypothetically, say they had some form of gaze tracking in the Rift. Being able to form eye contact in VR would be so powerful.”

Game developer Olivier Terrassier Jansem told Johnson that while he expects a game to succeed on Oculus early on, the content will need to be accessible enough for even skeptics to give it a chance, as they did with “Wii Sports” after its launch in 2006. “VR still has the reputation of, you have something on your face and it’s ugly and you look stupid, but it’s really something people need to try. When they try it, it’ll be like what happened with the Wii,” Jansem explained.

For Luckey, the division between the games and social experiences that virtual reality might offer is no longer a hard line, and the killer app for virtual reality might incorporate elements of both. He told Johnson, “Games and social are largely becoming indistinguishable,” noting that even traditional activities like bowling are both social and a game.

Hollywood is also taking notice of virtual reality’s renaissance, and Salvador Rodriguez writes for Quartz that a company named New Deal Studios has begun making 360-degree short films that can be viewed through headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR. The studio, which is renowned for its work on the visual effects of movies like The Dark Knight and The Wolf of Wall Street, wants to be an early leader in creating content for the technology being pioneered by Oculus, Sony, Google, and Samsung.

To make its short films, New Deal partnered with Jaunt VR, a startup that created a camera with 16 lenses — the same number as Samsung’s Project Beyond camera — that captures 360 degree live action audio and video. Jaunt uses its own software to ready the footage for virtual headsets, and viewers can turn their heads to watch the action play out around them. The content created for virtual reality hardware will help companies to make a case for the technology to the public, and most agree that it will take more than games that appeal to a niche market of enthusiasts to demonstrate why the average consumer should pay attention to the emerging field.

Mozilla recently launched a virtual reality website, hoping to inspire others to build immersive, virtual reality sites of their own. Mozilla engineering director Vladimir Vukicevic told InfoWorld’s Paul Krill that he anticipates an array of possibilities for virtual reality in business. “Any industry that could benefit from innovative and immersive visualization can benefit from virtual reality. Business data mining, medical analysis, and industrial training are all valid use cases, right alongside games and recreation.”

Using the site currently requires a VR-enabled build of Firefox for Mac or a PC, plus an Oculus Rift headset. However, Mozilla wants a device-agnostic virtual reality web, and plans to support additional devices soon, plus virtual reality-enabled builds of Chromium. It also plans to provide more resources to help developers build their own virtual reality experiences.

As Nathan Ingraham reported for The Verge, Samsung’s virtual reality vice president Nick DiCarlo also says that his company will need to make the case for both the Gear VR and for virtual reality in general. “For virtual reality to really cross into the mainstream, it’s gotta be more than just really awesome, killer games. What is the most important use case in VR? We haven’t figured it out yet, but there are lots of ideas.”

He thinks that both video games and immersive video are logical places for virtual reality to start, but also anticipates the emergence of a native use case — one that couldn’t have been imagined before the advent of virtual reality hardware and development tools. “What is the Twitter or Instagram of VR?” he asks. “By that, I don’t mean having tweets in VR or having filtered photos in VR — I mean that it’s native to that platform, it’s born of that platform and would not have existed without that platform.”

Samsung could make a significant contribution to the virtual reality renaissance by getting virtual reality into the hands of eager developers on a broad scale, something that Oculus has not yet achieved on its own. If Samsung can jumpstart the development of the first great virtual reality apps, it could push the entire field forward.

More from Tech Cheat Sheet: