VR growing pains: When will virtual reality mature?

Virtual Reality growing pains
David Daniels, DTG
March 22nd 2017 at 11:23AM : By

David Daniels, the DTG's project director of advanced AV, wonders when - of if - VR will live up to its promise

2016 was supposed to be the Year Of Virtual Reality. And it was a year of amazing innovation in many areas, but we didn’t really see the fulfillment of the VR promise - a real disappointment for many of us.

After discussion about whether VR was the next 3D early in the year, and with stories about significant VR investment in March, IBC 2016 really set the scene with much VR excitement and then October 2016 became ‘VR Month’ with launches from Google Daydream, Oculus Touch and Playstation VR.

The DTG was heavily involved in an industry initiative to help make new VR experiences simple and interoperable for both content producers and consumers. This came to fruition at CES 2017 when the Virtual Reality Industry Forum (VRIF) was launched with the goal to encourage the adoption of common, interoperable technical standards for end-to-end VR systems and plans to create voluntary best practice guidelines and promote VR services and applications.

These will certainly be needed to help this technology find its feet in broadcast. But why wasn’t 2016 the Year of VR? Many have mooted cost as the key obstacle while others cite VR sickness which can make exposure to the technology a difficult experience for some. My own view is that good VR content will be the key to driving widespread VR adoption.

180 degree VR is a good place to start

The problem with content

One issue with long form content in a VR environment is that it is very easy to be distracted by everything around you. In a traditional broadcast environment the director ensures that you concentrate front and centre on what’s going on. So to tell a good long form story in VR requires some new rules about how to capture and direct a viewer’s attention. To this end, one of the first items on the newly formed VRIF agenda is to create production guidelines that help to steer creatives in the right direction, and to engender best practice in creation of compelling long form programming.

Put simply, our eyes are at the front of our face giving us humans a 180 degree field of view – which increases to 270 degrees with eye motion. To get 360 degrees we swivel our necks around and if we look at a moving object for long enough we’ll naturally turn to look straight ahead at it. Unlike our eyes, our ears are designed to experience the world in 360 and will work out which direction the sound is coming from and how far away it is.

That poses the question of whether we are all ready to experience 360 degree VR? Probably not, however 180 degree VR is a good place to start. That works for consumers who can reap the benefits that the VR experience offers and helps out the VR content providers who will save time and money by making experiences enhanced by VR. There’s really no point in 360 content if what’s behind you doesn’t actually add to the narrative!

VR headsets are just the latest iteration of head-mounted technologies we’ve had for years and the basic experience itself hasn’t actually changed very much

More resolution

Another issue currently preventing VR from being more than an impressive toy is resolution, effectively cramming a full 360 degree experienced into a UHD frame pushes the capabilities to the limit, especially for longer form content. So what we are seeing is the emergence of what may perhaps be interim technologies which concentrate on delivering 180 degree content in the shape of personal cinema.

Devices such as the ‘Moon’ head-mounted display from Royole provide 1080 resolution per eye, with great audio built in making the experience of watching a full length movie possible to contemplate. So, if more resolution is the name of the game, where does that come from? UHD at 3840 may sound like a lot of pixels but when we spread these around a full 360 experience it doesn’t really cut it. Handily, we have the promise of more pixels, with the emergence of 8k (7680x4320). Until now I’ve struggled to understand how this benefits traditional displays, but giving a head mounted display this much more data to play may well be the leap needed to give us a great 360 degree experience.

The final point to note is that current VR headsets are just the latest iteration of head-mounted technologies we’ve had for years and the basic experience itself hasn’t actually changed very much. VR is too personal an experience and will remain so until we can get passed head mounted displays. Who wants to sit down and watch an episode of Strictly completely alone, or indeed the next big Arsenal game, as these are by their nature shared experiences.

VR is about how you view, not what you view… so it’s never going to threaten broadcast as such, since that is about what you view, not how you view it.