Virtually there: the hard reality of the Gear VR

10 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

First Look at ‘Flickr VR’, High Quality User-Generated 360 Photos on Gear VR.

Flickr has today released their Gear VR app that lets you browse through some its best user-generated 360 photos—all at an impressively high quality and delivered at a speed that’s quicker than you can say ‘Revontulikaari’ (that’s ‘Northern Lights Arc’ in Finnish). Tech companies have been hanging their hats on that one for decades without much success, due to high prices and poorly rendered graphics that have given people headaches—literally. The Yahoo-owned Flickr platform has made its way to Gear VR with its new Flickr VR app, giving you access to a select number out of their user-generated photo library of an estimated 60,000 panoramic photos. 360 photos in the right format already receive the ‘click and navigate’ treatment on the website itself, as Flickr will automatically detect equirectangular photos upon upload and enable the 360 viewer on the photo page.

And with its thin straps (which are much more compact than on earlier versions of the Gear VR), it finally fits in a normal-sized messenger bag or purse. Despite these missteps, a new generation of virtual-reality tech targeted at consumers has begun to hit the market, most prominently with Samsung’s $100 Gear VR visor released in late November.

Both Gear VR and Google Cardboard—which starts at less than $20 and was launched in 2014—rely on a smartphone clipped or slid into their respective visors. That makes the gadgets a relatively low-risk investment for consumers and enables tech companies to gauge public demand for virtual reality in advance of devices such as ones from Oculus, Sony and HTC slated for next year that feature more sophisticated embedded sensors and displays. You might sit for a half-second in a Tron-like waiting room between photos if you dart around too much in the menu, but it seems that the app automatically pre-loads the next 4 or 5 photos once you’re actually inside of one, so swiping left or right to navigate the next photo is instantaneous.

What’s needed now are compelling reasons to strap on a visor and step into a virtual world that doesn’t involve a flight simulator or video game with a high body count. That said, there is currently no way to sort through 360 content, as the carousel menu just automatically loads another random block of 12 photos—making the app pretty limited with how you can explore content. Now that VR headsets no longer cost tens of thousands of dollars the door is open for educational and social applications that are true to virtual reality’s roots, allowing people to learn and interact in digital classrooms and playgrounds. (See video below.) Those roots make the current VR technology crop’s pricing and potential all the more intriguing. In 1960s computer scientist Ivan Sutherland was looking for “a way to visualize scientific and mathematical objects and walk around them as though they were part of the experience of the real world,” says Ken Perlin, a computer science professor at the New York University Media Research Lab.

Some of this can be blamed on the device’s resolution however, as offering small, hard-to-read text would go against the app’s overall visual finesse. In 1968 Sutherland and then-student Bob Sproull built their “Sword of Damocles,” a very large device “that hung over your head and carried a headset with it as it moved around on a giant boom.” Unlike the mythical weapon—suspended by a single hair of a horse’s tail—that the Sicilian King Dionysius II used to teach the envious Damocles about the perils of power, Sutherland’s headset was bolted tightly to his laboratory’s ceiling.

It’s clear however that if Flickr wants to ride the approaching wave of user-generated 360 photos that’s sure to come when cheaper consumer-level 360 cameras come to market, they’ll need to find a more suitable way to let VR headset owners search and filter through photos. In order to take full advantage of the medium’s capabilities, you’ve got to be able to fully turn around, whether you’re doing so to catch details in a video or change direction in a game. The device then used that data to render crude sketches of chemical compounds floating in the air from different angles, giving that person the feeling of being surrounded by three-dimensional information.

For the most part, virtual reality remained in the research environment until the 1980s, when computer scientist Jaron Lanier launched a company called VPL Research to develop virtual-reality equipment, including a headset dubbed the EyePhone and the DataGlove, designed to enable the manipulation of virtual objects. Nintendo, Virtual I/O and a handful of other companies tried their hand at consumer VR in the 1990s but failed to gain traction because their products were overpriced, underwhelming or both. Watching Netflix or other flatscreen video is possible, as is using the web browser and playing certain games, but some of the highest-quality experiences quickly turn into a recipe for whiplash and sore shoulders. I’m in roughly the middle of the motion sickness spectrum, and I had to consciously avoid anything that would trigger it, especially heat or stuffy rooms.

The Oculus Rift visor receives its content by plugging into a PC and is expected to come with built-in (but removable) headphones, handheld controllers and a tripod-mountable sensor that relays movement information to the headset. November’s Gear VR release was the Samsung’s first aimed squarely at consumers and is compatible with the company’s Galaxy Note5, S6, S6 edge and S6 edge+ devices. (Two previous “Innovator Edition” versions cost twice as much and targeted developers and tech-savvy early adopters).

And using the very sensitive pad is an exercise in keeping your hand close enough to find it without sight, but not so close that you keep accidentally tapping it. This is mostly baffling because it seems extremely possible to transfer the exact same trackpad interface to something like a small handheld remote — the Gear VR’s version of a detachable stylus. If you assume that VR will succeed, it’s easy to imagine a future where La-Z-Boy recliners have been replaced by swivel chairs, or even by more active peripherals like the omnidirectional treadmill — chairs are supposed to be terrible for our health anyways.

Games like EVE: Gunjack, an arcade-style shooter, already work with a limited range of motion, and more developers may eventually back away from full 360-degree turning. Hololens is also notable because it will combine virtual reality with augmented realitythe latter allows wearers to view information and graphics superimposed over what their eyes are seeing through the device’s lenses. Perhaps the most significant advance in this new round of VR technology is its ability to deliver an immersive experience without the nausea its predecessors caused. “Motion sickness was a problem when the delay between my head movement and the graphics I saw exceeded a certain threshold, generally about a tenth of a second,” N.Y.U.’s Perlin says. “Modern technologies that make use of these inertial trackers in the headset have pretty much gotten rid of that.” One exception would be Google Cardboard, which relies on the smartphone’s built-in inertial-movement sensor and has to share resources with the rest of the phone, causing what some describe as a noticeable latency. But there are also a lot of basic logistical problems, like the fact that it interprets every turn in a car or subway track as head motion and turns your view around to match. Dedicated sensors in the other headsets measure head orientation a thousand times per second, significantly cutting down on image latency, Perlin adds.

I can come up with one notably unsuccessful example, however: the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a supposedly portable device that had to be propped on a table, used a one-color screen, and paused every 15 minutes to prevent headaches and nausea. The Virtual Boy was widely panned, but looking back, reviewers could be strikingly forgiving of what we remember as its biggest shortcomings — arguing that the one-color screen was just like the popular Game Boy, or that a certain amount of headache was simply the price of entry. Such sensor fusion enables the Gear VR to receive detailed data about each student’s position in the studio, allowing them to have a virtual experience together, he adds. Participants in these exercises wear VR headsets and other sensors that enable them to interact both physically and virtually in an area surrounded by motion-capture cameras.

Considering the enormous impact on society the Web had after two decades and smartphones have had in less than half that time, predictions about virtual reality’s role in the future seem less far-fetched. Oculus has struck deals with studios like Felix & Paul, so it’s slightly strange that Facebook and Samsung didn’t use their considerable funds to commission a meaty, well-publicized video series at launch, something to draw users in for the days and weeks after release.

The VR fiction series Gone looks exactly like this, but its 5-minute episodes are supposedly being strung out over months, and it’s still in the teaser stage. I played maybe half a dozen I’d voluntarily boot up again, and three I’d play as long as I might a mobile or PC game: cooperative bomb defusal game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, compelling point-and-click adventure Dead Secret, and my longtime personal favorite, the hacking game Darknet. Still, most of them — including those three — feel a little thin or unfinished, like beta versions awaiting new levels and more polished mechanics or graphics.

It’s a fantastic and creative project, but one that belongs to the inherently limited local multiplayer genre — in other words, it’s a great party game, but people only throw so many parties. This is, obviously, the “chicken and the egg” problem of virtual reality: people won’t make games unless the headsets sell well, and the headsets can’t sell unless people make games. This is probably better than the first wave of Android and iOS games, but those games were padding out a system that people already used for other reasons. Whatever Samsung says, this — not last year’s Innovator Edition — is the public beta of mobile VR, the point at which we learn what works, what people want, and whether they’ll pay for it. This isn’t like complaining that a phone has a low-resolution screen, it’s like warning buyers that the screen is covered in very fine glass splinters.

Oculus quite reasonably puts truly mainstream VR several years away, and products like the Rift or HTC’s Vive will offer a totally different set of experiences.

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