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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Murchie

Understanding Virtual Reality – Part 2

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

A short-hand introductory guide to virtual reality for business

In the first part of our introduction to vr for business we discussed the two current approaches to producing virtual reality content and outlined some potential uses. In part two we look at the wide range of hardware options available.

Virtual Reality Hardware Systems

It must be considered that, although the userbase is growing, it is still fairly unusual for a consumer to have appropriate hardware to experience virtual reality of any type. Certainly, VR films and games can be played on a flat monitor but that’s akin to watching an IMAX film as a flip page animation – it’s not how it’s meant to be seen nor does it deliver anywhere near the user experience.

In this regard we can split the realistic options into three camps – the most basic smartphone driven VR systems, the stand alone and marginally lower powered wireless VR headsets and the top tier consumer systems.

There are commercial systems above this level, as well as projected dome/CAVE options but for the sake of this post I’m excluding these from the discussion and sticking with readily available Head Mounted Displays (HMD).

Smartphone VR System

A very basic smartphone driven system such as Google Cardboard can be easily picked up for a pound or two online. In fact, in many cases promotional branded headsets are often given away free at trade shows or events. This is in effect a small cardboard box with lenses on that allow you to slip your smartphone into the front and have a rudimentary VR experience. Interaction can be tricky to implement, although simple simulated “clicking” of buttons can be achieved by using a gaze and pause interaction.

One step up from this are the more solid body plastic headsets, again similar in use, whereby a smartphone provides the engine. These can often provide a better experience than a cardboard box but are generally a little more expensive typically anywhere between £10 and £50 online. Superior headsets may be provided with Bluetooth controllers which can provide a little more in the way of interaction – the sadly defunct Google Daydream provided a reasonable system by using a decent motion controller which allowed users a fairly good level of simple navigation and interaction within an inexpensive headset.

One thing to beware of in any of these budget headsets is the quality of the lenses. Quite often these are poorly made which means the entire headset is useless as you cannot focus on the screen. Marginally better headsets overcome this to a certain extent by having a mechanism which moves the phone towards and away from the lenses to allow the user to find the appropriate focal distance.

Finally, it should be noted that the phone which is slotted in provides all the tracking and display requirements, so in many ways this experience will be dependent on the phone’s specification.

Stand-alone Virtual Reality Head Mounted Displays

All-in-one, standalone headsets such as the inexpensive Oculus Go appeared on the market around 2018 allowing users to experience high quality VR content for a fraction of what it would have previously cost, and with complete freedom as these did not require being hardwired to a computer system. These first models were limited to 3 degrees of freedom which allowed the user to look around or up and down, but did not track head or body movements in relation to height, moving back or forward, or moving left and right. These types of systems are sufficient for delivering Cinematic VR and can now be picked up new for around £140 or less online.

More recently with the likes of the Oculus Quest or the Vive Focus Plus headsets began to offer full 6 DoF tracking and even room-scale tracking which allows a user to mirror their movements around the real environment to be reflected in the VR space. This is truly a mind-blowing experience – this type of tracking delivers a level of immersion and presence that in the best implementations place, plausibility and body illusions are fully realised. This is the type of system required for a good level of programmatic model based virtual reality experience. The Oculus Quest is currently priced around £400.

Tethered Premium Consumer VR Systems

The top tier of consumer headsets deliver superior performance based on using the processing power of a more powerful PC. This will typically deliver more advanced audio-visual effects in real time, so is really only worth considering for programmatic VR and would be overkill for a filmed VR piece. They will also almost always offer full 6Dof and room scale tracking using a variety of options.

For business, the additional benefits for this type of system are that it would generally require less care and maintenance, no-one needs to make sure the battery is recharged nor can they accidentally leave it in the cafeteria. Equally the software, should this be anything proprietary, can be better secured on your network computers.

The limitation of this system though is somewhat frustrating as all this power needs to be tethered to a computer base station to deliver the VR content. This limits both the freedom of movement and the extent to which you can move. These two limitations need to be reviewed against the power of the options provided by having a full powered computer driving the system and dependent on the business requirement.

At this level it’s typically the HTC Vive Pro headsets that tend to set the benchmarks with top level systems likely to cost in excess of £1000 plus a further £1000+ PC in order to provide the content to it.

Higher end HMDs above the consumer level do exist but these tend to be focused on niche markets or have limited specialist features which are beyond the scope of this article.

What next? Understanding Virtual Reality – Part 3

In the third and final part of our introduction to virtual reality series we'll discuss virtual reality budgets and factors involved in budgeting for virtual reality content development.

Andrew Murchie is an award winning filmmaker and creative technology consultant from Edinburgh in Scotland. His specialisms include producing content with emerging technologies inclduing VR, AR and 3D Stereo Film. He has provided innovative AR/VR/3D solutions for clients & brands including Mactaggart & Mickel, LowBrow Studios, Our Dynamic Earth, The Real Mary Kings Close and Social Enterprise UK.


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