The Future of Virtual Reality

Vancouver is a leader in exploring new VR technology, and applying it to the world around us

(Wren Handman)

“People talk a lot, when new technology comes out, that the two industries that drive innovation are gaming and pornography,” says Wren Handman of Hammer and Tusk, a product studio and virtual reality community located in downtown Vancouver.

Thankfully, virtual reality porn is not all it’s hyped up to be, and is in no way keeping up with the influence that the gaming industry has over this emerging media.

“I think the big thing is that we are at the very beginning of [virtual reality], and as the technology changes, what it looks like to us is going to change a lot too,” says Handman.

The realm of virtual reality includes both augmented reality and mixed reality. Augmented reality, as seen in the popular game Pokémon Go, places an image on top of the real world through a camera. Mixed reality goes a little further, where the virtual elements are advanced enough to interact with the environment around it.

Handman’s company works on all aspects of VR, from technical specs and development to content creation.

“People are talking about how 2016 is the year for VR, and in some ways that’s true because it’s finally hitting consumers, so consumers have access now to the Oculus and these powerful VR experiences.”

The Oculus and the HTC Vive are the two main VR products currently available for consumers. Each offers their own variety of games. The Vive has the edge over the Oculus as it works with Steam, the largest online platform for PC gaming.

Another big difference between the two is that the Vive comes with controllers that track your hand motions, while the Oculus does not. Instead, the Oculus comes with an Xbox controller, so it feels more like a “regular” gaming experience.

The future of these controllers is perhaps the most exciting aspect of VR. Not only are developers working on better hand tracking technology, which will most likely be available over the next few months, but head-to-toe body tracking will most definitely be something to look forward to in the future.

Samsung certainly isn’t holding back either. The Samsung Gear is a VR headset compatible with newer Samsung phones. It doesn’t provide the same level of immersion as the Oculus or Vive, but it is available to consumers at a significantly lower price point than it’s more advanced counterparts. Some companies have even announced their plans to create headsets available for all types of Android phone users.

Google also has a variety of portable VR goggles called Google Cardboard. Yes, cardboard models are available, as well as a slightly higher quality plastic version.

While the Gear uses the Oculus store for its game purchases, both the Gear and Google Cardboard have browser based VR capabilities.
One major hindrance for the VR community is the amount of individuals who get nauseous during a VR experience. There are two different ways an individual’s brain can process depth—men tend to process depth one way, while women often process it the other way. At the initial time of VR development, mostly men were developing the technology, and so the devices were built to deal with depth perception in only one of the two ways.

“It is something people are very actively working to solve,” says Handman. “There have been a few developers who have come up with some pretty promising things.”

This year Microsoft began shipping pre-production versions of their own mixed reality experience called the HoloLens. Only a handful of developers have access to this technology at the moment, one of which is NASA.

There’s no word yet on why Apple has been so quiet during the rise in VR investments.

“I think that Apple is very deliberate. If they haven’t there’s a good reason…. There have been some hires of people with VR experience so that’s making people go, ‘Oh, there’s something happening here,’ but nobody knows what,” says Handman.

Handman also speculates that it is likely Apple is holding out for better AR or MR technologies to appear before releasing anything.
Despite how dominant the gaming industry has been in developing VR, it certainly does not hold a monopoly on the technology. Other industries using VR include healthcare and real estate.

“Why go to the doctors for simple things if we have body tracking? They can do lots of basic checkups and that kind of thing in VR,” says Handman.

In addition to the healthcare field, using VR to train in a variety of industries has proved to be incredibly useful.

“There’s a lot of evidence that the experience you have in VR is more akin to building an actual memory than it is to a media experience that we are traditionally familiar with,” says Handman. “If you watch a video teaching you how to build a car and then you go and try to build a car, you’re probably not going to be able to because there’s such a physical element to it. A lot of people have trouble translating that learning.”

“With VR, because you are so physically involved and because the way your brain processes what you are seeing it actually feels more like a real memory,.”

One company that’s made effective use of VR technology is LNG Studios, based partially out of Vancouver, who use the HTC Vive and VR goggles for marketing, conceptualization, and selling in the real estate industry.

“I guess what’s unique about us is we’re sort of a creative company, so we always have to be looking at new technology and what’s coming up” says Matt Grant, Creative Director and Principal of LNG Studios.

A project with Concord Pacific is currently making use of the Vive to showcase the final results of a new apartment building underway in Brentwood. Potential buyers have the opportunity to customize the colour scheme and furniture layout to help visualize their future home. For further immersion, a drone video was taken of the actual view you will see from the patio of the finished product.

LNG also launched a campaign with Concord that gave away 6,000 plastic VR goggles to view the VR experience website—— created for the selling of condos in Brentwood and Toronto.

After launching in your phone’s browser and placing it inside the goggles, the viewer was able to view apartments and the surrounding neighbourhoods of the available units. This experience used a 360 drone video, similar to Google Street view, to explore the surrounding area and a “look to click” mechanism. For example, you could be standing outside of the apartment building and choose to go right down the street and see the nearby shops, or go straight ahead to view the park across the street.
“It’s not any crazy software, it’s just stuff you can do through your phone’s browser,” says Grant.

From indie game developers to medical professionals, VR is fast approaching and advancing the world around us in a variety of ways with full immersion, body tracking, and wildly dynamic audio.

“[A year from now] we’ll be more used to it,” says Grant. “Someone sitting on the bus wearing VR, or on an airplane, they’ll just be doing whatever, playing Pokémon Go or something.”