There has been a lot of hype around virtual reality (VR) in gadget circles in the past couple of years. Like 3D film, VR has been attempted (and flopped) before, but massive advances in technology along with a substantial reduction in costs has finally made it a viable mass market proposition.
Question is, does the mass market really want it, or do we have another 3D film situation on our hands?
2016 will be the year all of us can try VR, regardless of budget and it may be the year we look back on as either the beginning or the end of it.
Google cardboard is the easiest way to get a taste and it’s about the cheapest too. Simply strap your smartphone into the cardboard viewer, run the Cardboard app and you’ll have a decent selection of immersive videos and VR games to try out. It’s amazing how much can be achieved with your phone, some reinforced paper and some cheap lenses. But all VR should not be judged by Cardboard alone, especially if your phone’s screen is HD or lower.
A high end smartphone can offer up a real ‘wow’ experience. If you’re lucky enough to own a Samsung Galaxy S6, S7 (or Edge) or the Note 5, then the Samsung Gear VR is like Google Cardboard with lots of shiny gadget polish. At around £80, it’s still a very cheap way to get into VR and see its true potential. You can watch traditional movies in a virtual cinema and really feel like you’re looking at a massive cinema screen. Or you can try out some of the 360 degree movies, where you're physically placed in the scene - this is an exciting development for filmmakers and there’s a real opportunity to offer a different kind of experience in storytelling. BBC Click just made a world first full TV episode in 360 video and it’s well worth a watch even if you don’t have a headset (watch here on YouTube).
Again, Gear VR has a nice selection of games and 360 photos to keep you amused through the Oculus store.
Both of these gadgets have been around for more than a year - the reason 2016 is so exciting is that Oculus Rift and HTC Vive hit the consumer market. Their immersive capabilities take on a whole new level, but so does the cost. These headsets know where they are in 3D space (IE you can walk around without using a controller) and connect to powerful PCs for graphically rich gaming and other visual experiences. They also include controllers which (especially the Vive) will give you your ‘hands’ in the world to interact convincingly with objects in the games. This extra level of immersion should also help with the feelings of nausea some people get when there is a disconnect between what they are seeing (perhaps a roller coaster) and what their body’s other senses are reporting ( hey! You’re on the sofa!).
If PC gamers bite then these amazing units should see great software appear and prices ultimately fall to where the rest of us might give VR serious consideration. Then of course there is Sony and their PlayStation VR headset, designed to work with PS4. If console gamers can get their head around (and into!) an accessory that costs as much as the PlayStation itself, then VR gaming could get huge! Early demos suggest that the PS4 is up to the task of delivering rich gaming experiences in VR and it has the potential to be a more social experience, as the PS4 can still send the game to the TV as well as the headset - which is a bit more inclusive when you’ve got your mates around.
Looking at the options above, it’s easy to see why 2016 will be a big year for virtual reality - but there are still a few barriers to entry for anything more advanced than Google Cardboard. The Gear VR needs an expensive Samsung Phone, the Rift and the Vive are not only North of £500 each, it’s estimated that currently less than 1% of the world’s PCs are powerful enough to deliver them! The PS4 would be my top tip for mainstream success, but we’re still talking hundreds of pounds on top of a console purchase. It seems there might be a gap in the market for an affordable standalone (not dependent on a phone, console or PC) VR headset. A quick scan across IndieGogo turned up something that suggests I wasn’t the first to think that.
The Auravisor's vision (pun intended) appears to marry Google Cardboard with the internals of an Android phone, all optimised into a single VR headset that needs no wires or phones.
A 5” 1080p screen sits behind quality adjustable lenses and also encased in the plastic headset is a quad-core processor driven Android computer with enough horsepower to run Cardboard apps and games without needing you to take your smartphone out of your pocket. I particularly like the adjustable faceplate, as the Cardboard is obviously not intended for longer sessions and Samsung’s Gear VR is most definitely not one-size-fits-all.
Starting at $260 with a controller, AuraVisor could certainly fill the gap at the entry level end of the market and be perfect for those who want to be there for the birth of modern VR, but won’t feel too burned if 2016 turns out to be the year we chose to stay in good old real reality.
So what are my plans? Well, I've just invested in the Gear VR and will write up my experiences once the novelty has worn off. If I'm still using it in a year or so (and it doesn't make me too sick!) then the PS4 headset might be next. I'll leave it to the hard-core folk to pay out the big bucks on the Vive and Rift, but I'll be regularly hassling them for a go.