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Comment: Virtual reality needs to be more than a solitary experience

Headsets like the Oculus Rift are just one element of creating useful immersive environments, explains Colin Yellowley

For the past five years, my company has been developing 360-degree projection technologies and building immersive environments that allow entire teams to interact with virtual reality (VR) content. Initially it was a long, hard slog. Then Facebook acquired Oculus VR and suddenly it seemed as if the entire world had opened its eyes to VR’s potential. The Oculus Rift headset promised a high-quality, low-cost way to bring immersive content to life. All those issues that had plagued VR in the 1990s had been put to rest. And there are so many applications: immersive gaming, VR films and videos, of course, but also architectural and engineering visualisations, training and brand experiences.

Admittedly, today’s VR experience is not perfect. But when this much money and attention is lavished on a technology it tends to take root. What I find mystifying though, is that so many people are blind to the limitations of headsets.

What’s the issue? Is it the puke problem? Motion sickness does continue to be an issue with VR headsets. It’s getting better, but glitches still occur, especially with some types of content; the brain gets confused and the user feels a sudden wave of nausea. This is something to be aware of, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

Is it the fidelity foul up? When miniature screens are placed just a few centimetres from the eye, even the highest-resolution images can become pixelated and the sense of presence forfeited. But the fidelity of today’s VR solutions usually stands up to scrutiny.

Is it the field-of-view furore? The very best VR headsets have a 210-degree field of view, and the norms are closer to 100 degrees. When donning a headset, you often get the dreaded snorkel-mask effect, though there are few instances where it is truly debilitating.

Actually, it’s none of these things, though they are all real considerations. As you plot your move into VR, you should be aware of the limitations: not everyone will have a great experience, and headsets will have to be used in moderation. But these issues are likely to be eliminated in time, as the technology improves.

My problem is more fundamental. It started to reveal itself, little by little, in our conversations with clients.

Wearing a VR headset is a solitary experience. When you put it on, you block out the real world and everything in it. And this renders it next to useless for many situations where VR could otherwise be a perfect fit.

For example, some of our clients work in the stakeholder engagement business. They use our technology in public consultations, and their job involves making and reading eye contact. But you can’t make eye contact in an Oculus. Yes, you can get a virtual person to look directly into your eyes… but it’s still virtual.

Then there’s virtual prototyping of products and places. Clients in this line of work constantly report that headsets just get in the way. They want to see each other, in person. They also want to see their own body, because when judging dimensions they often use their own body as a scale.

Our engineering clients want to show design concepts to customers and counterparts, discussing details and reaching collective decisions. How do they do that when everyone is wearing a headset, and no one can see what anyone else is looking at?

So, the bottom line is this: if the reason to use VR is to engage people singly and individually, there is no better way to do it than with the new generation of VR headsets. But, if you are looking for a shared or collective response, you need to choose other delivery mechanisms.

In truth, there is rarely a stark choice between headsets and immersive environments, and they are often used in parallel. For example, even the highest-spec immersive environment could never match the full-on Oculus-type experience. The flip side is that a headset is not conducive to collaboration, consultation and shared experiences.

Oculus Rift has given an incredible boost to our business, but it has its limitations. It is a solitary experience that can block out your colleagues, clients and counterparts. And by exploring complementary ways to experience VR, like immersive projection environments, you can actually make your content more useful and accessible than you had ever imagined.

Colin Yellowley is managing director at immersive technology firm Igloo Vision

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