Virtual Reality is, for many of us, a childhood dream that is finally coming to fruition. An entirely new medium that has the potential to envelop your senses and transport you to new experiences has opened up and Makers are leading the way in many areas.
We’ve come a very long way since the clunky headsets of the 90s, like the Virtuality V2000 pictured above. The new age of VR isn’t just for video games. There are so many varied and diverse examples of experiences that are absolutely wonderful on this new medium that groups of people who never considered creating digital environments are stepping up to join the fun.
Why Do Makers Care about Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality offers a brand new interface for crafting digital files that you can then turn into real-world items through 3D printing and other modes of digital manufacturing. Do you find the current interfaces for software too prohibitive to sculpt that figure you want to 3D print? There’s VR software that allows you to sculpt “clay” by moving your hands in a natural way. Since it is software, it comes with features that real clay won’t have, like an undo.
Here’s an example of digital sculpting in VR using Oculus Medium
The market for accessories is growing extremely quickly. Much of this prototyping and design is being done in people’s homes. Since VR is new, the methods in which we interact with the digital space are wide open and Makers are jumping in to create input devices, physical environments, props, customizations, and all kinds of other items.
Ok, I’m in. What headset do I need?
If you want to get into VR, you’re going to need some hardware. The market is growing so quickly that there is already a lot of confusion surrounding the differences in hardware. Like many areas of tech, there are a plethora of specs to compare and ecosystems to scrutinize. People are aligning themselves with these devices and arguing over who’s “team” is better. I’ll skip all that and simply lay down the options. I’ll break things down into tiers based on the power and experience difference.
PC/Console VR Headsets
This is where the most immersive and power hungry VR experiences will live. Harnessing the immense processing power of a desktop computer or a console gaming system, these are complex input/output devices that are the bleeding edge of virtual reality interfaces. For the most intense graphical experiences, you’ll need to pick one of these.
Oculus Rift ($599)
The Oculus Rift is available for Pre-Order now. The Rift will track the position and rotation of your head and has built-in high quality headphones. They have their own distribution system called the Oculus Store. Note that the Rift does not track your hands. The controllers for that will be sold separately by the end of 2016
HTC Vive ($799)
HTC Vive will track your head position and rotation as well as the position and rotation of your hands via 2 controllers. The tracking space is slightly larger than the other systems currently available. The Vive primarily uses the Steam store offered by Valve for software distribution.
Playstation VR ($399)
The Playstation VR attaches to the Playstation 4 and can track the position and rotation of your head. Position and rotation of your hands can be tracked via optional Playstation Move controllers. For experiences here, you need to rely on the existing Playstation ecosystem.
Mobile Hybrid headsets
Mixing the hardware of a cell phone with some additional electronics for a pleasant but affordable VR experience.
Samsung GearVR ($100)
This requires a comparable Samsung phone to operate.
It is easy to confuse this with the much cheaper Google Cardboard style devices. However the GearVR has additional sensors that allow it to track motion much better than a standard phone. Combine that with the software changes that Samsung have made to prioritize VR performance on their Galaxy series of phones and you have something that is far better than a standard cardboard VR rig.
For software distribution, the GearVR uses the Oculus Store
Google Cardboard Analogs
Google Cardboard is incredibly popular and is a fun place to get started with VR. Make no mistake, you’re barely scratching the surface of quality available in a VR experience. There are so many to choose from that come in all shapes and sizes. Some are the original cardboard design that looks like a box with two lenses. Some employ sleek plastic cases with head straps and pleasant padding. Some even appear to be almost identical to the GearVR or Oculus from an aesthetic standpoint, and can cause a lot of confusion. What all of these have in common is that they rely solely on your cell phone to do all the computing and sensing.
For software distribution, you will use apps downloaded from your phone’s native app marketplace.
On the horizon
OSVR by Razer ($299)
Hoping to be in the same category as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the OSVR is currently a developer kit. It does work, but you may have to do some tweaking to get the results you want.
There are many rumored and teased headsets that will be revealed in the near future. At this point, they aren’t available to the public and we don’t have enough information about them to make any kind of meaningful decisions. This area will be growing rapidly for a while.
What about DIY headsets?
When the Oculus rift was a hacked together bit of tech in Palmer Luckey’s living room, there were many articles popping up on how to build your own version. It is relatively simple to construct a basic VR display that tracks motion. However, it is important to realize that since that point in time, big strides have been made by those with deep pockets. The current set of headsets have motion tracking that is so quick there is no perceptible delay between you moving your head and that motion being displayed into your eyes. This has a massive effect on the experience. Home made systems typically have a delay of a fraction of a second, and that is enough to make your brain — and your stomach — get really uncomfortable.
Here are a couple examples of DIY versions. Note that they haven’t been updated since the big companies really started investing in solving the motion sickness problem.
When the first prototype of the Oculus Rift was revealed, the community jumped to replicate it. This is a fantastically documented build that should be easy replicatable. At the end of this build, you can see a few examples of other people’s builds.
Very similar to the original Oculus Rift Prototypes. This will get you a display that adjusts according to the rotation of your head.
Just because Makers can’t really compete with the big companies right now on headset design doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped innovating. Not only do people still use DIY headsets for prototype experiences, they’ve really started to shine in the area of all the accessories that we can imagine for VR. Makers are creating input devices and tactile feedback systems, sound experiences and physical environments. We’ll talk about all those things in an upcoming article, for now, get yourself a VR headset!