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Are we ready for virtual reality?

Unlike a few other technologies, virtual reality seemed promising and path-breaking. But the best is yet to come

brunch Updated: Jun 11, 2016 17:28 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times
Virtual Reality,Google cardboard,HTC Vive

In 2012, the term VR started to appear. After a very disappointing run for 3D, followed by an even worse line-up of AR (Augmented Reality) devices, VR seemed like another technology that would generate hype and buzz and then die a slow, fiery death.

Virtual reality turned out to be far more solid. In fact VR headsets, VR cams that can shoot 360 degrees, and VR controllers are supposed to be the next big things. It’s made headlines, analysts have gushed over prototypes, every tech journalist worth his salt has written a minimum of three columns on it and video reviews of people strapped up to VR helmets bobbing their heads up and down have become viral hits. The problem is that it is 2016. That’s four years of waiting for the next big thing to become the now big thing!

In 2012, a Kickstarter project called Oculus became a sensation. About 2.4 million dollars poured in from people wanting to be the first to escape real life and go virtual. This was also the start of an all-new virtual reality revolution. This would be the next category to set the market on fire. It would give a new lease of life to gaming, movies and photography; besides, more people would own a VR headset than a smartphone in the next five years. These were some of the predictions from the tech pundits. Well, four years are already over and with just one year left for the revolution to flower, here’s a real-time status update.

Google cardboard and its brothers

If there is one device that has truly been at the forefront of screwing VR brutally, Google Cardboard would be right on top. Yes, I can feel the hush that has descended upon all after reading this one line. And yes, I know that I have just committed sacrilege by abusing the god of VR, and yes, I know that Google Cardboard has been responsible for bringing VR to the masses. And yet, in doing so, it has made sure that everyone who tries it comes away disappointed and confused. “That’s it, that’s VR?” is the first thing that most people say.

By doing things on a mass scale, the Google Cardboard has actually harmed the VR technology

What else can you expect from two cheap lenses fitted into a crappy piece of cardboard that has to balance on your head and also support a phone inside? In bringing VR for all at almost no cost, Google Cardboard has done a huge disservice to both the potential and the abilities of really good VR. Not every piece of technology needs to be made into an economy mass product. Really good technology should sometimes be left alone to mature at the highest level and then percolate slowly to all. To anyone who is planning to use GC or any of its other clones: don’t!

Samsung VR and its brothers

This is another category that is a bit of an upper and downer, at the same time. The device is well-made, looks good, has better technology inside, a more robust platform and content, but still needs you to insert a phone into it. And therein lies the rub. The weight of the device plus the phone is a pain in the neck (literally), the phone being so close to the eyes gives serious pixelation problems.

The LG VR headset has its own display and is very light too

Since the content plays on the phone, it limits the level of graphics it can churn out. Most content is simplistic to the point of being boring within minutes. And the sensors on the phone are used for tracking your movements and that leads to all kinds of problems like lag and timing blowouts. All in all, if Google Cardboard is a zero, then ‘Phone Insert’ VR headsets are a five. The only exception would be the LG VR headset, which has its own display and is light at 118 grams.

Oculus Rift and HTC Vive

This is the gold standard. The big dons of the VR game. The men amongst the boys. Oculus started it all, got acquired by Facebook for $2 billion and currently sits on top of the pile. It’s a very nicely built headset, has great content, a very well-thought-out interface, fantastic response time, no lag and brilliant execution. Except it may make you want to vomit.

Though Oculus Rift is nicely built with great content, yet it has pixelation problems

Because this VR headset works with you seated while it takes you into virtual worlds with fast moments and lots of activity all around. The disconnect makes most people go white-faced fairly quickly. It also needs a big fat machine to connect and still has serious pixelation problems. This is a serious issue in all VR as the screen sits an inch away from your eyes and even current resolutions like 2160x1200 pixels lead to a screen-door effect.

It is estimated that we need a resolution of about 110 megapixels for smooth VR and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. On the other hand, the HTC Vive has turned out to be the silent hero. Very futuristic looking, great content, sits well on the face and then kills it with the fact that you can move around. Plus it has hand-controllers and sensors to make sure you don’t bump into anything. Anyone who has ever tried an HTC Vive has to be dragged away from it kicking and screaming as they want more.

HTC Vive is futuristic looking, offers great content, sits well on the face and even allows one to move around

Still, thick cables, serious pixel pop-up and a very powerful computer needed to run the Vive are serious dampeners. The Vive is easily the best example of where VR can eventually take us.

So here we are in virtual reality land with reality dawning on us that VR was supposed to be the holy grail. It isn’t! Maybe another five years?

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, June 12,2016

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First Published: Jun 11, 2016 16:56 IST