Last Friday, I attended VRLA 2018, a conference dedicated to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There were several workshops and seminars, but I spent my time in the exhibit hall. I haven’t been very impressed with the little VR I’ve seen, so I wanted to check out the state of the art and educate myself about this nascent but burgeoning segment of the audio/video industry.
I’ll be posting separate articles about some of the exhibitors I visited. But for now, I’d like to share some of my overall impressions from the demos I experienced.
1. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) are too heavy. The demos I saw used the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Odyssey, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go, and others. They all felt too heavy, pushing down on my nose. Yes, they all have adjustable straps that ensure a snug fit on the head, but the weight of the display unit distracted from the experience.
2. Resolution is relatively poor. In every case, I could easily see the pixel structure—and in some cases, the sub-pixels themselves!—which prevents a completely seamless visual experience. Of course, I realize that dramatically increasing the pixel density of such a tiny display is very difficult. But it’s a necessary step for VR images to appear as real as the real world, and it ain’t there yet, at least in a form that’s available to consumers.
3. The optical distortion in the periphery of the field of view (FOV) is unacceptable to me. It looked like I was viewing everything through an extreme wide-angle lens. This was especially disconcerting when I moved my head around. Some HMDs were better at this than others, but all the ones I tried had it to one degree or another.
4. I felt slightly nauseous after many demos, which were only a couple of minutes in duration. This might be at least partly due to my propensity for motion sickness—I can’t read in a moving car or train without feeling ill. But I suspect that part of it is the nature of VR and how the inputs from your visual and somatic (body-awareness) senses to the brain often disagree. In one demo, I nearly fell over as I turned around to see that I was “standing” in the same spot as a movie-theater seat.
5. My prescription glasses had a hard time fitting in some HMDs. This made the weight of those units feel even worse. Some have a focus control, so I could use them without wearing my glasses. But others do not, making my glasses mandatory in order to see the visual images clearly.
6. VR audio is farther along than video. In nearly all cases, audio is presented in headphones, and virtualization—which simulates the effect of sounds coming from outside your head—is a relatively mature technology. I heard some great examples of this, including a demo by Dirac, which I’ll discuss in a separate article.
7. Regarding the body’s somatic sense, I saw several approaches to stimulating it in accordance with the virtual environment. For example, there was a platform mounted on springs, a huge hamster ball sitting on wheels attached to a frame that lets you “walk” in any direction, and a motorized contraption you strap into to “fly” like a bird. Then there are haptic devices that stimulate your sense of touch and physical pressure. These range from ultrasonic stimulation of the hands to vests and even entire body suits with actuators in various locations. In one multi-person shooter demo I observed but did not try (seen in the photo above), each participant wore a vest with actuators on each side that vibrated when they were shot in that area.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to investigate the content-creation side of VR. Several exhibitors had 360° cameras and microphones, which had been used to shoot some of the demo footage I saw. There were also seminars on VR content creation and storytelling. Also, semi-truck trailer was outfitted with dozens of cameras that capture images of a person from all angles to build an accurate computer model for their very own VR avatar. I hope to dig into those aspects of VR in the future.
Meanwhile, I had a lot of fun at VRLA 2018, despite a few moments of nausea. The technology is full of potential, much of it yet to be realized. That makes VR a very exciting arena that I plan to follow in the months and years ahead.