Whilst I am often heard saying, seen presenting, and also writing the phrase “AR is the UI for IoT”, in my work covering IIoT, AR and VR at 451 Research that does not give VR some of the prominence it may need. Equally it is because VR has had a bit of a tortuous time with adoption in the consumer marketplace. However, it seems there is a bit of a resurgence with some content (a fancy word for games in this case) coming to the fore and some hardware that may step VR up a few gears. These developments come from two consumer giants too; Facebook and Nintendo.
In your face
First in this tale there was the Oculus Rift VR headset, the Kickstarter crowd funded device that launched in March 2013. It did so well that a year later Facebook bought the company for a mere $2bn. Facebook had put a stake in the ground about the future of human computer interaction. To use an Oculus Rift properly requires a high-end PC for it to be tethered to and several external fixed sensors to help track the headset and hand controller positions. Both the Rift and its competitor the HTC Vive are very impressive experiences when compared to the cheaper alternative of holding a smartphone to your face with a range of devices. This does give a version of a VR experience but it’s a lot of messing around. It’s also clearly not as fast or smooth an experience as a two grand laptop doing its thing. The Rift setup is expensive and cumbersome, which is a barrier to entry. Facebook is still developing the full fat Oculus Rift and now the Rift S, but in 2017 it released its Oculus Go, a completely self-contained stand-alone VR headset. This cut down experience is not able to track the wearer in all directions, only head turns to view content – up, down, left, right. A hand controller is a simple button used to interact with menus. It worked pretty well, and one of the major uses ended up not really as a VR headset at all, but a great way to watch movies on a big screen whilst lying down.
Now though, as spring has sprung, we are waiting for the release of the next generation of this, the Oculus Quest. A full inside-out tracking, stand-alone headset. It may even be out by the time you read this. The experience is the same as the PC tethered Rift in terms of tracking user movement and the controller held in each hand. That also means that one of the most successful VR games is scheduled for release on the Quest at launch, Beat Sabre. This has proved very popular across all VR headsets, it’s on the Sony PlayStation PSVR too. It’s a highly physical music game involving light sabres. Whilst stood in VR, blocks fly towards you in time with fast paced music, and using your light sabres (one blue, one red) you swish through the coloured blocks in the right order. It is a really good game that will certainly generate sales of the Oculus Quest. Whilst we all expected VR games to be more complex, the visceral and analogue nature of light sabre swinging with fast paced music just works, just as Guitar Hero and Rockband did a few years ago. (BTW Rockband in VR on the Rift is also brilliant).
The other new advance for VR adoption comes from the stalwart of innovative gaming, Nintendo. The Switch is the company’s most recent hand-held game device, launched at a time when everyone is already gaming on smartphones and tablets. It differentiates with many more controller options. The basic unit has physical thumbsticks and buttons on either side of the screen, but those can slide off and become independent motion controllers, amongst other configurations. Nintendo decided to tap into the maker movement, inspiring kids young and old to build things with the Switch at the heart. The company calls this set of products Nintendo Labo. It consists of large pieces of cardboard shapes that are assembled with Sellotape, string and rubber bands around the controllers or the screen itself. Things like a piano keyboard, a fishing rod, steering wheels and pedals or a robot backpack make up the sets. Construction toys, but linked to digital content, make a lot of sense. April sees the release of Labo VR kit, which links to some of the existing games on the platform as well as new content. Rather like the smartphone to the face approach, it lets the player build a holder face mask, but it is not just that. Sets include animal shapes such a bird for a game that sees you flying around, or an elephant whose trunk includes one of the controllers.
Back to the future
VR does offer a fascinating experience. I have, over the years, seen many people say that they get what VR is but have not tried it. The moment they do, something changes in their attitude from the nonchalance of saying they understand to actually feeling it. My biggest recommendation is to just try a VR headset and see what it does for you. The game or content may not matter as much as the act of wearing the headset, though I can heartily recommend burning a few calories on Beat Sabre!