Last week I shared my thoughts on the significant progress Virtual Reality (VR) has made towards mass adoption. This week, I’ll discuss the commercial and technical problems that I see facing VR technology.
Right now, at the very early stages of VR, we are experiencing a “chicken and egg” conundrum that is ultimately slowing down the industry’s growth and market reach: game developers don’t want to commit millions in launching a “first gen” title (that is bound to be superseded within a few months of launch) until the hardware installed base is bigger; and the hardware volumes won’t ramp up until there is a killer, interactive, multi-user game title made exclusively for Virtual Reality that will attract mainstream users like a “World of Warcraft” or “Halo”.
To compound the situation, manufacturers are figuratively shooting themselves in the foot by deliberately making incompatible hardware, forcing game studios to develop for each platform and deterring consumers from purchasing VR systems altogether. The nascent VR industry won’t survive a Betamax/VHS -style platform fight because this time around, the technology is too expensive and too intrusive in the home. Setting up a full-room VR system is a pretty big commitment at this stage, and consumers don’t want to spend upwards of thousands of dollars on a system for Christmas only to have the technology immediately superseded.
Technical hurdles abound for room-scale VR systems in these early stages, but none more so than mobility. The best VR experience still requires a physical connection between the Head Mounted Display (HMD) and its host PC or game console. The fact that they are tethered to an external processor not only hinders the user’s ability to move freely and engage in a true immersive VR experience, but it also creates a fairly annoying weight that’s left dangling from the back of the user’s head and neck.
Concepts for wireless HMDs that can compete with the powerful, tethered room-scale systems currently on the market are slowly beginning to take shape, but solving the latency problem is still a major issue for engineers looking to cut the cord.
The virtual environment must sync with the users head and body movements, or else risk motion sickness and a disjointed experience. In fact a latency of 20 milliseconds is the point most people start to experience nausea.
Achieving this perfect sync requires wireless technology that not only achieves extremely low latency, but also a connection that is lossless, synchronous, and can support high quality sound and video without jamming up the rest of the user’s network. The solution itself must also have an extended range, especially if, in the near future, users and manufacturers want to experiment with multiroom setups.
Virtual Reality, once fully developed and widely adopted, will not only change the way we interact with art, with the world, and with each other, it’ll change standard methods of education (students will be able to take extensive field trips or practice dangerous surgeries, from the safety of a classroom), travel, social networking, shopping, and beyond.
Having worked with VR technology investors and developers over the years, I am particularly excited about the potential of Blackfire’s WiFi protocol to help overcome some of these issues, and create an even more immersive VR without wires.