03.07.15

Letter from America: E3: VR, AR, MR? ARRR!

Heiss_E3

We Americans have a funny habit I’ve not seen practiced in other parts of the world to the same degree that we do here: the notion of not just observing religious or national holidays, but of also creating additional days to celebrate something where there may be no real or historical rationale for the day in question.

In point of fact, there is one of these “National [Fill in the Blank] Day” celebrations for almost every day of the year. In July, for example, we have more than the official Independence Day celebration on July 4. You may also choose from “National Eat Your Beans Day” (on the 3rd), “Wrong Way Corrigan Day” (the 17th), “National Thermal Engineer’s Day” (the 24th), and “National Scotch Day” (We don’t know if they are referring to the people or the drink, but you can celebrate on the 27th), to name a few. There are way too many to list, but since we suspect the point has been made you can check out the full year’s list at http://bit.ly/1eMZYHH.

This brings us to one of our favourite “non-official”-official days of the year: “National Talk Like A Pirate Day”, which takes place on September 19th. What, you may rightly ask, does any of this have to do with our business and products world? Fair question. We’ll answer by saying that after taking in this year’s E3 event back in mid-June here in Los Angeles anyone asking us what we thought was the most important thing from E3 would be greeting with Pirate-like talk: ARRRR! (As their website notes, it is “Arrr”, not the common misuse of “Arrgh”. The difference is explained at http://bit.ly/1eTHrK1.)

Indeed, the “RRR”s ruled at E3, but in different forms that we are here to explain and discuss in this month’s Letter. By now I’m certain that most readers have heard of “VR”, which stands for “Virtual Reality”. With VR you almost always wear a helmet-like device of some sort that is used in conjunction with a computer or video game console to display totally created images. Viewing the scenes shown in the rig’s display you are immersed in a virtual world where, depending on the specific program or game and the VR product being used, you move your head and/or use a controller or wands seen by a camera manipulate the viewed environment and control the program or game action. As we’ll detail shortly, the most famous of these VR devices is the Oculus Rift. However, others such as its cousin the Samsung Gear VR, Sony’s Project Morpheus, HTC’s Vive, Fove VR, Zeiss’s VR One, Razer’s OSVR, Google’s “Cardboard”(and yes, that isn’t a project code name; it is made from cardboard!) and others now available or soon to hit the market. The important thing to keep at top of mind with VR, regardless of the product or platform is that when using them the viewer is placed in a totally immersive world. Everything is rendered out by the playback system, with the caveat that the images could include “real human” footage within the program. The viewer is completely shut out of the room they are in both visually, and for the most part, aurally.

MSFT-View-252x400ARRR! What else? Well, there is just that, albeit with a few less “R” characters: “AR”, which stands for Augmented Reality. With AR you also use a head-worn display, but rather than it being a helmet-like device that totally blocks out the outside world it will typically be something that will remind you of Google Glass, or perhaps any pair of spectacles with a camera attached and some sort of display in your line of sight. Best analogy we can think of to something more familiar? How about a head-up display where the pilot looks through the glass but also sees projected images. Indeed, rather than show the images on a display mere centimetres from the viewer’s eyes, some AR products such as Epson’s Moverio line may, but not always, create an image that seems to be projected in front of the viewer. Others, such as Vuzix’s M100 do have a display directly in the field of vision.

Regardless of whether the image is “projected” or from a hard display, the reason why you want to see both the “real world” as well as a created image or overlay comes from the notion of “Augmented”, itself. An application for this outside of the home theatre world? Think of a mechanic repairing an engine or a bomb squad member asking the eternal question of “Is it the red wire or the green one?” With AR they can see BOTH what is in front of them as well as images from a computer or remote source. Those images can be an overlay of arrows or pointers, the readout from a sensor or other monitoring device, or in our world, imagine having a client sit in the room where you plan to place a large screen or speakers. In the latter use case you can then overlay your plans for what will be installed in the room and even as they move their head around, the proposed room plan will track and show properly. 

That sort of application can have an “R” of its own, with what Microsoft displayed at E3 using the forthcoming HoloLens product. Using the very popular Mindcraft game as the content, a player wearing the HoloLens was able to look through the front lens at what was in reality a blank table top. However, with images projected on it in response to the game play as guided by a standard Xbox One controller, the player saw a virtual world imposed over the real world. Thus, the “R” here is what they called Mixed Reality, or what we’ll here call MR. From our vantage point at Microsoft’s event, we can report that the results were amazing. With screens above the stage showing what the player saw, it was stunning to see crisp images build and move in the mix of real and virtual images. “Mixed”, indeed! So there you have the differences in these “R”s, but what does this all mean? In that other “R”, your Real business world?

The first message to convey is that while the prices for these devices will not be cheap. Yes, Google’s Cardboard can be had today in a range from a bit over $20USD to around $50USD depending on whose version is purchase. Keep in mind however, that a smart phone is required, and there is certainly cost for that unless a pre-existing unit is used. Pricing for most of the rest of the devices such as the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus are still pending, but the guessing for Oculus runs from $200USD to $500USD. We’ll know for certain later this year as we move towards the “early 2016” introduction date. As a data point, Samsung’s Gear VR is $200USD and remember that is without the required Galaxy S6 phone. Bottom line, in most all cases this will not be a low cost enterprise.

The next item to consider as we come out of seeing many of these products at E3 is that they do not play well with one another. For example, Oculus-centric games will almost certainly not work with a Morpheus, not Morpheus games with the HoloLens. The moral here: You might want to advise all but the most ardent gamer clients to wait on this technology as if they favour specific games they might want to wait to see with VR or AR/MR system will enable it.

Heiss_VR_1

Yes, in some cases you will be able use the VR products with existing games, but in most cases they will be limited to games specifically coded to be compatible with VR/AR/MR. That means you must only check to find which VR/AR/MR device is compatible with which game, but will that game be computer-based or console based? If the latter, is it specific to Xbox One or PlayStation 4? Side note: Nintendo has not announced any plans for an “R” device to be paired with WiiU. Perhaps that will have to wait for their “NX” console, and that likely a year or so away. More to be aware of? For the Sony VR system you will need not only the viewer device, but the Move wands and Sony’s compatible camera. Curiously, HoloLens compatible games do not use the Kinect image sensor that, indeed, was absent from all E3 demos both at the press/developer event and on the show floor. From a physical room planning standpoint,

VR, in particular, but AR/MR as well, bring with them some requirements to be aware of. First, it should be noted that almost all of the demos we saw at E3 of Oculus were with the player sitting down. Why? Playing in a virtual world can so disassociate the participant from the real world that there is the strong possibility not only of nausea, but of falls from the disorientation. Safety may well say a strong advisory to be seated will be in order. That, in turn, means that the seating has to be provided and all devices used tethered or connected in a way that allows head movement without any problems. In large scale VR systems with “stand-up” rigs such as the Virtuix Omni this is re-enforced by actually having the player secured to the playing pad with a safety belt.

Along with seating, you’ll need to consider additional storage, more charging outlets and provision for other related accessories. Not frequently discussed at E3, but something that we urge you to consider if VR/AR/MR is on the roadmap for system bid is audio. Remember that these are personal devices designed, particularly for VR, to take the player out of the real world. For that reason, no matter how good or otherwise immersive the audio might be in the environment where an “R” will be used, it is clear that headphones will be almost mandatory. If your first instinct is to suggest ear buds for their light weight or high-end audiophile ‘phones for their quality, think again. Regardless of whether VR/AR is in use or not, gamers will want to be provisioned with task-specific headphones. Yes, they do need to have good quality, there are specific features that differentiate game-centric products from the likes of Turtle Beach, Astro, Polk, Plantronics and others. These include accommodating the unique connection required for most Xbox controllers, the need for boom microphones, and other decode, amplification and control features. With prices in the $150USD to $350USD range they are neither cheap nor ultra-pricey, but they do make a considerable difference to the player and their success in playing. If what we saw and heard at E3 is any indication of what is to come, all of these “R”-based game concepts, products and extensions will be a hot button topic moving into the 2015 selling season and beyond.

Our best advice is to first do more investigation beyond the basics we’ve outlined here. Then, keep up with the developments and keep these technologies in mind so that you are ahead of any forthcoming client requests. To the client they may appear to be as simple as strapping on a viewing device, but as we’ve shown there is a bit more to it than that. As we mentioned up front, the uninitiated often confuse the correct pirate-talk of “ARRR” with “ARRGH” as the latter is not talk, but the sound one makes when sitting on a pin or when a pin pierces a balloon. We want you to understand VR/AR so that you have the true meaning of “ARRR”: My team is going to win it all!” We’ll keep you posted to help make that happen.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid.