I’m just back from GDC/Seattle/IEEE VR where I have been able to test a lot of the the latest HMDs out there, particularly Oculus Rift DK2, Sony Morpheus and Valve’s prototype. Those were amazing and blew my mind. They are true VR systems in which I feel present.
I have also tested some of the other HMDs.
I find it really great that so many people jump in the VR wagon! Being able to build an HMD for cheap and having competition is a great thing. And a lot of those teams are close to having a VR system. They just lack a few critical elements to cross the barrier.
VR is not just a display
The issue is that most newcomers focus only on the display part: the display panel, optics and how to mount that more or less comfortably on your head. Then they pick a head tracker and hope that this will be enough to create a compelling VR experience.
They compare their designs in terms of display technical specifications, mainly resolution and field of view.
But what about the overall end-to-end latency? This is one of the most critical aspect of VR and you never hear about it!
How will the user interact with the world? Having a rotation tracker is a good start, but a position tracker for the head and at least one hand will soon be critical. Interacting with a gamepad is quickly frustrating if you want to create interesting VR games/apps. (yes that is an issue even with the latest Oculus Rift DK2).
This is particularly an issue with mobile-based HMDs: the latency is too high, you only have a rotation tracker and there is no way to interact with the scene in an interesting way. Why would you leave such important things such as the display and the tracker to manufacturers for which VR is not the priority? Even the latest iPhone 5s or iPad mini retina don't have a good enough tracker+display latency. They give a nice 360 display for sure, light and easily transportable, with lots of useful applications. Sure, you feel immersed in a way: the display fills your vision.
But do you feel present in this virtual world ?
Does your brain believe it is somewhere else, subconsciously ? (I set this as a requirement, and I know some of you don’t agree This will be argued in another post.)
Maybe in one year or two smartphones will have the required specifications, but not now.
Presence emerges from a lot of elements that have to be right at the same time: Low latency, wide FOV, resolution, low-persistence, interaction etc. They don’t have to be all absolutely perfect; for example Sony Morpheus’ tracking is a bit less stable/precise than Oculus DK2, but it is good enough.
But if only one of these elements is not good enough, presence breaks.
So far I only felt present in Oculus/Sony/Valve’s HMDs (and some other professional VR systems). If we could measure presence (and not just FOV or resolution), you would see a real difference in the quality of HMDs. Unfortunately we don’t know how to do that yet.
A shift in philosophy
I would suggest a shift in philosophy: if you want to be a true VR company, focus on the whole VR experience, not just the display part.
Use a fast tracker with prediction and make sure your motion-to-photon latency is as small as possible. This is more important than having a better resolution/field of view than your competitors. Make sure your demos run at the maximum fresh rate of your display and with a steady FPS! Make sure your distortion is as minimal as possible. Provide an interactive demo, give more interaction than just looking around.
You can feel present with a low-end HMD such as the Oculus Rift DK1 even though the resolution is very low and the display is blurry. What works is really the wide enough FOV, overall low latency and the good enough tracker.
You can fail at bringing presence even with a wide FOV, high resolution HMD, which a lot of people would say is technically immersive, if the overall latency is too high and if the tracker is not good/precise/stable enough.
In the meantime, your HMD is just nice stereoscopic 360° display, not a VR system.
Oculus vs Apple
Which leads me to my comparison of Oculus and Apple:
Apple controls the entire user experience tightly. They spend an enormous amount of resources to push tech a bit further than anyone else to provide a consistent and compelling user experience. There were "smart" phones before Apple came up with the iPhone, but the experience was terrible.
Spending time on improving the whole VR experience is crucial: presence is fragile, breaking it is really easy!
Oculus is one of the rare true VR company: they choose the display panels, the trackers, offer a software layer that improves the hardware capacities (prediction to reduce latency), offer guidelines to create compelling VR experiences, demonstrate good VR demos (I want to play Eve Valkyrie again!!!), discard low-quality apps and they even provide an amazing latency meter !!
They are not hiding the difficulties, they are embracing them. Maybe they have less features/lesser specs than potential competitors, but they provide the minimum so that VR actually works! Why would you want to have higher FOV/resolution, add eye tracking or AR cameras when you can’t provide a simple VR experience?
To those thinking I’m too radical, let me tell you this:
I don’t have any monetary interest in the Oculus or any other HMD. My purpose is that VR succeeds.
If your HMD provides a good presence feeling, like Sony Morpheus or Valve’s prototype do for example, this is all for good!
I know your goal is also that VR lives long so you can make a living from it. This text is a plea to give you the strength to push further!
VR people have been careless and arrogant 20 years ago and let VR disappear. We have only one chance at convincing people that VR is here and now. If you disappoint them with bad VR experiences, you are digging your own grave.