1) What is VR?
VR is a technologically induced feeling of being immersed and present in a virtual world, on a level approaching that which you experience in real life. It is a computer generated illusion that stimulates your senses, with a form factor that masks out stimuli coming from the real world to enhance the effect. ‘Immersion’ is the impression that you are surrounded by the virtual world; achieved with head tracking that updates the visuals and audio with your head movement. Such head-mounted VR displays go by a number of names, though I prefer ‘VR mask’, due to their appearance and function.
The other major component – ‘Presence’ is the impression that you have physical agency; this is established by allowing you to move through and/or interact with the virtual world, and requires the tracking of your limbs. By far the most effective means of adding presence is the pairing of an omni-directional treadmill, as it enables unlimited freedom to roam through virtual environments in a first-person view, which has always been considered the ultimate expression of virtual reality, and is referred to as ‘Active VR’ (as opposed to passive, stationary or seated experiences).
This combination of immersion and presence is known to induce a feeling of euphoria among VR users, and so will likely foster the standard of ‘treadmill and mask’ (T&M) as the core input paradigm of the medium, just as the ‘keyboard and mouse’ has been for decades of non-VR PC use. Other peripherals, (particularly hand controllers) will further add to the depth and breadth of content that will be developed, though hands do not necessarily require separately housed hardware to be tracked.
After immersion and presence, feedback will be the next major advancement in VR. More than controller vibration, haptic feedback will deliver realistic tactile sensation and so add a welcome tangibility to the virtual world. Longer-term goals for the medium include the addition of smell, taste, and temperature.
2) Why should I care about VR?
VR is the culmination of humanity’s efforts since the dawn of our species to add a transformative, ‘immaterial’ component to our existence, often expressed as idealised representations of features and themes of our lives that drive and stimulate us. This has led to art, dance, music, fashion, make-up, perfume, exposition, storytelling, and play. The purpose of this is to enrich our consciousness, with the ultimate goal of increasing our happiness beyond the level that can be viably attained with un-contrived physical reality alone. The journey to this point and beyond could even be referred to as the spiritual and cultural sophistication and evolution of mankind. It can trigger and amplify any human emotion in a safe and comfortable environment, and will bring new meaning to the word ‘catharsis’.
3) Will VR change anything?
VR will certainly change the world, just as other media have done in the past. While we may presume that we are already saturated with content coming to us through the co-existing media of books, radio, television, consoles, and the Internet; the method used to convey ideas has a bearing on how those ideas are expressed and presented; as well as how they are received, and their impact. Changing the medium changes the content, and no change has ever been so radical as the introduction of virtual reality. Changing the content that we consume can have huge societal and personal ramifications, as the ideas and experiences we are exposed to – particularly in early life, go a long way towards shaping our identity and personality.
4) If VR is so great, why did it fail in the 1990s?
This was due to technological barriers. In the 80s and 90s, VR displays typically cost between $50,000 and $200,000, with the machines that ran them costing around $70,000 – despite being significantly underpowered compared to today’s consumer laptops. Lack of a motion platform such as the Virtuix Omni also hindered its success in arcades of the time. Some people mistakenly regard the commercial failure of Nintendo’s ‘Virtual Boy’ as an indication that virtual reality is underwhelming and not something the home user wants. On the contrary, that product was not a VR display as it lacked head-tracking, let alone the power to generate the kinds of experiences that are possible now.
5) Won’t a screen that close to my face be bad for my eyes?
Another common misconception is that because the screen is close to you, the point you are focussing on must be as well. However, in VR displays there are two images so that your eyes don’t have to converge uncomfortably by rotating inwards; while being delivered through optical lenses that set the light to match your eyes’ natural resting focal depth (around 1 meter). As with other displays, each rendered scene is set on one focal plane, which can lead to some minor eyestrain over long sessions – a common feature also of extended TV/monitor viewing. This is not something to worry about however, and indeed VR display technology will likely improve to the point where increased focal depth range is possible, mimicking real life more closely and allowing for an even more natural and comfortable viewing experience than we are used to currently.
6) If I was disappointed by 3D television, might this also be disappointing?
3D TV has suffered a number of problems, including cross-talk and reduced brightness, due to the need to block out one half of the image with a polarising filter or shutter. These problems do not affect VR displays, as the light going to each eye is isolated; and yet the benefits of VR displays are greater than 3D TV due to the wide field-of-view and head-tracking. It is also important to reflect that VR is not just about immersion, it is also about presence. Moving through and interacting with virtual environments in a natural and intuitive way enhances enjoyment of content and elevates it to a whole new level.
7) Do I need a VR treadmill or can I just use a gamepad or hand-controllers?
An omni-directional treadmill allows the user to turn and move in 360 degrees and is essential for Active VR, since it is an immersive medium in which content can appear on all sides of the user; unlike older media in which the content is typically in front of the user the whole time. Attempting to turn the avatar around while the user remains facing forward has been shown to trigger sim-sickness, often described emphatically as ‘poison’ due to its ability to induce instant nausea.
While comfort modes can be used to change the avatar’s position or angle without inducing sim-sickness, they do so at the cost of presence – defeating the purpose of VR. The problem is not limited to rotation in place, it also affects acceleration and turning while moving (moving in an arc).
The world’s first omni-directional treadmill, called the ‘Omni’ solves these problems by allowing proper proprioception and vestibular feedback and also features a support ring and harness that prevents the player from falling over, thus overcoming the safety issue that otherwise plagues VR game design.
8) Could I just jog on the spot to simulate movement?
Jogging in place is inadequate due to Kinesthesia. Your subconscious awareness of your body’s movement in place and through space must correlate closely with in-game actions to avoid sim-sickness. The human body has its own form of positional tracking provided by a network of nerves integrated into our skeletal muscles, tendons, and joints. These allow us to know the relative position and (by extension) the manner of movement of our limbs, without needing to look at them. This is called proprioception. Even if we are not consciously aware of it, our subconscious can differentiate between the type of movement that we are seeing in virtual reality (say, running forward) and whatever motion we may be doing to trigger it (for instance, jogging on the spot) if they do not align closely enough.
An omni-direction treadmill is therefore required to allow an accurate gait, and enough movement through space (leaning forward, backward, and side to side) to provide vestibular feedback without endangering the player.
9) What is sim-sickness?
This is an involuntary response characterised by symptoms of discomfort, nausea, and dizziness. It is a natural safety mechanism experienced when our brains detect a disharmony between our visually perceived motion and our internally sensed motion. The purpose of this response is to stop us in our tracks to avoid any potential harm (such as losing our balance). In the case of simulator-sickness, this disharmony is the result of an apparent self-motion that is seen but not felt; as opposed to motion-sickness which is brought on by self-motion that is felt while our vision indicates we are stationary, as one might feel at sea.
To prevent sim-sickness therefore, an omni-directional treadmill is needed to faithfully replicate the various locomotive gates we employ in real life, such as walking forwards, backwards, and strafing. Picking-up of the feet to effect a stride is one of the requirements – the more natural the gait, the better the agreement between what our brain expects and our proprioception is telling it. By virtue of leaning forward, backward or to the side to create these movements, the vestibular system experiences acceleration, which further helps to alleviate sim-sickness. The world’s first consumer omnidirectional treadmill to emerge on the market was the Virtuix Omni, which launched on the 15th of December, 2015.
10) What are comfort modes?
Comfort modes take the opposite approach from omni-directional treadmills in their effort to eliminate sickness. Where an ODT adds immersion and synchronises real and virtual movements together to avoid disharmony, comfort modes deliberately reduce either immersion or presence. By reducing immersion they eliminate vection, which is the visual trigger that leads to simulator sickness. However, in practice the results appear to be inversely proportional - comfort increases only as far as immersion decreases.
Examples include blurring the image, overlaying a static mesh, reducing the FOV, and switching to a third-person view. Another method is to remove the sense of presence which users get from moving through the virtual world. This involves switching instantly to another viewing direction (instead of turning your head), or teleporting directly from one point in space to another, rather than moving continuously through it. This is not how people originally imagine VR would be, and there is concern that it may hamper the uptake of VR, though comfort modes remain the only current alternative for people without an omni-directional treadmill.
11) Isn’t VR anti-social?
VR is no more anti-social than a book, a film, a song, watching television, or browsing the internet. In practice we spend a great deal of time isolated in certain activities, and even when experienced in the company of others our social interaction is marginalised by our consumption of this content which demands so much of our attention. On the contrary, virtual reality, as the most natural and interactive medium ever devised, has the potential to bring people together in shared activities that can be far more engaging, fun, social, and meaningful than most of our present past-times, given they are not limited by actual reality’s physical constraints.
Once we overcome the barrier of not seeing our friend or family member’s physical form, we will realise that this doesn’t matter as much as our interaction with their spiritual essence – their personality and memories.
12) Can I play my favourite games in VR?
Yes. With the use of injection-drivers you can make ‘legacy games’ (titles not designed for VR) display properly in VR masks. However, as these titles are not optimised for VR, there could be a number of issues that may affect comfort, usability, and performance. The best experiences will ultimately come from content designed specifically for VR, or with VR in mind. With the success of the medium, the likelihood is that your favourite game franchises will be redesigned for VR.
13) What else will I be able to do in VR?
Social VR will be very popular. As VR can be such an emotionally impacting experience, multiplayer becomes more appealing. There may be a gradual broadening of interactive content beyond the more common gaming tropes - power, lust, avarice, fear, combat and destruction; encompassing to a greater degree those currently better suited to cinema - atmosphere, narrative, plot, dialogue, drama and character. Virtual tourism, education, and training are some of the other spheres likely to make great use of this newly affordable technology.
14) Should I wait for Augmented Reality (AR) instead?
Augmented or ‘mixed reality’ will also have a profound effect on humanity in the coming years. Its practical applications likely exceed that of virtual reality, though its potential as a pure entertainment medium is somewhat less. Holographic companions and pets, and even NPCs appearing to exist alongside the real world will prove to be highly engaging, and it is likely that devices that can switch between these different modes (mixed and virtual) will become available.
Once connected to an all-pervasive Artificial Intelligence (AI) network, AR could direct people in their everyday lives, helping to guide them as to the best decisions in any given moment. Tailored profiles will result in AI being able to cater to your personal situation and character. People will probably spend most of their lives seeing and interacting with either holographic or virtual illusions.
Wearable 360 degree cameras could also allow friends or family to have a picture overlay of your current situation (with permission) appear in their field of vision, connecting people on an even deeper level. ‘Raw reality’ may then be perceived as a terrifying prospect by future generations, to whom denying them their ‘masks’ will be considered an unbearable form of punishment, with the effect of isolating them from the ‘greater world’ that they have become dependent on.
15) Should we be worried about mature content in VR?
No, it is well documented that the leading cause of violent personality disorders is a combination of poor education and traumatic experiences, particularly those endured in early childhood. VR content is not traumatising, as the user is safe and in control. An appetite for violent content does not alone signal a propensity for real violence, and is enjoyed by a high percentage of well-adjusted and peace loving people. Nor does such content trigger or encourage violent behaviour, though it can temporarily increase aggression by stimulating the production of adrenaline and testosterone. Music can also have this effect. Hormone levels soon balance out, with no lasting impact. Indeed, the process of acting out our aggression virtually can have a cathartic influence, reducing the risk of violence in real life.
Documented cases of violent perpetrators playing violent videogames before their crimes do not establish a link, though it is human nature to be tempted to jump to a conclusion in the absence of all the facts. In perspective, videogaming is such a popular past-time that it is highly likely that someone will have played a game sometime before committing an act of violence. History shows that violence has plagued mankind long before videogames were invented, and so they cannot be the cause.
Rather, happy people are less likely to commit crimes, and playing videogames makes people happier. To solve the issue of real world violence, we must solve real world problems – attacking freedom of expression is not the answer. Virtual reality may help with some of these issues. While it cannot stop bullying, it could act as an antidote to neglect in children’s early development for instance, helping the child to cope with real world trauma, and thereby potentially breaking the cycle of personality disorder that is perpetuated across generations through suffering.
16) Who are the Virtuix Omni Pathfinders?
They are a group of fifty VR enthusiasts and industry professionals selected to receive a Virtuix Omni from the first production run. Among them are those who helped fund its development through the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. They have undertaken to test the treadmill and report their findings. Any anomalies they uncover during the course of the Pathfinder program will be investigated and addressed.
Upon completion of the program, the Omni will enter full production and be shipped to thousands of backers and pre-order customers around the world. Some pathfinders will champion 'Active VR' experiences, and promote the virtues of the Omni, which are three-fold: enhancing immersion, eliminating simulator sickness, and improving our physical condition.
With only a few months remaining ahead of the launch of the first consumer head-mounted displays, pathfinders can prove to an increasingly disheartened community that it is possible to achieve the dream of first-person exploration in virtual reality.
17) Who are the Ambassadors?
Ambassadoring (that’s an anagram of ‘Roaming Badass’ BTW), is the act of promoting something for the betterment of a group – in this case, the Active VR industry! It’s the term I use to describe people who promote Active VR content and hardware by livestreaming and posting videos to generate interest. Some Virtuix Omni Pathfinders (like myself) are or will be Ambassadors, and it’s my intention to ‘put myself out there’ to raise awareness, starting January 2016. Come join me!
18) How can I join the Ambassador club?
Well that’s easy! To become an Ambassador and get a link on my site, you’ll need to be an advocate of Active VR. A Virtuix Omni is required, along with a YouTube and/or Twitch account. If you’re posting great content of yourself using the Omni to play games or other applications just send me a message via the contact page with your details & I’ll check you out. My contact page is here: LINK.
19) Who is Doctor Verstraeten, PhD?
‘Doc V’ is an enigmatic character who first appeared on the Virtuix forum in December 2014, with a video message urging Virtuix to speed up the development of the Omni. Something about the video was strange, and upon further investigation there appeared to be some connection between Doc V and Virtuix. His backstory and wild claims seemed fantastical. You can visit his personal webpage here: LINK
20) What’s the deal with your Crimson Shards site?
When I began to uncover more of the mysteries that surround Doctor Verstraeten, I decided it would be best to chronicle my discoveries in an online journal. You can find links to his videos, along with my musings here: LINK