The Current State of Virtual Reality: A Homebrewer’s View

June 2004

In today’s world most people work ten to twelve hour shifts, and some more then one profession just to make ends meet.In the hours we have off, we spend thousands of dollars every year to take our minds off of the pursuits of our careers.Countless hours are spent in front of television sets being whisked off into fantasies of car chases and alternate lives where we dream of being someone or somewhere else.We take endless vacations to alternate paradises to lighten up our lives through exploration and adventure.This is where Virtual Reality can come into play. The worlds and scenarios that can be generated and experienced with virtual reality technologies are endless.

Virtual Reality (VR) can be defined as, "a medium that can blur the lines between computer generated worlds and reality using computer software and hardware such as head mounted displays (HMD), data gloves, and trackers." Virtual reality is a collaboration of different technologies that have evolved greatly over the last few decades.Reduced size of microprocessors, improved LCD and CRT displays, better software algorithms and a greater understanding of human-computer interfaces are some of the few key aspects that have allow the exploration of the vast possibilities of VR today.

Despite supporting advancements in technology, Virtual reality has yet to make a concrete footprint in its own industry.We have all seen movies like "Lawnmower Man", that show us fantastic worlds that can be accessed through a pair of goggles and gloves.Virtual Reality has come along way from Ivan Sutherlands first HMD in the 60’s but still is no where near the level the media perceives.This misconception of the current state of VR in the public mind dooms many forthcoming products.Hardware like HMD’s when introduced never has a chance, because people expect to see a computer generated image that rivals that of a desktop monitor. The current state of VR prevents this from being true.

Virtual reality is still in its infancy due to its lack of hardware support in applications and software development, as well as cost of development.VR lacks the driving force that is needs to become center stage in the computing world.It has benefited in the past from the push of the Defense Department and the US Air Force during the Space Race, World War II, and the Cold War.These races of technological advancements has helped to progress the computer and supporting VR technologies. Data gloves, head mounted displays (HMD’s), tracking systems, and tactical feedback are all parts of the puzzle that were helped from these pushes in the past. Each has advanced significantly from these breakthrough advancements, yet their respective states still hold an infancy equivalent to cartoon type graphics and prototype status.Most of the uses of VR remain in research and specific special interest groups.

Specialization of virtual reality applications and developments is one avenue of exploration but not the only one.There has been enormous work done in the field by research facilities like ARC (Augmentation Research Center) and PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).Without these type of centers VR would be no where its current state.

They have advanced the technology in leaps and bounds and laid the foundation for the future of the industry.Yet there has been failed attempt after attempt in bringing VR to the general public.People have struggled with making others understand the vision that will be the future of computing.Thus the industry continues to inch along producing applications for specific research and university types.

The lack of support and use of specialized equipment along with the failure of living up to media hype has helped to keep cost high.These problems along with the cost of supporting technologies, like displays, drive VR out of the hands of most enthusiasts.The average headset is in the range of a thousand dollars or more, reaching all the way to eighty or ninety thousand.A data glove can cost any where from five hundred dollars to thirty thousand.This hinders the technology from entering the household and becoming a valuable and resourceful tool.Virtual reality systems will have to have a considerable drop in price to enter any promising markets as well as create a market for itself.Applications will have to become intuitive and fresh and create a new way of dealing with mathematical models, visualizations, and general problem solving.These fields of study and many others are exactly what VR is promising to revolutionize.This will be a new way to look at problems and possibly give us new answers.

There are few applications that allow the use of several virtual reality technologies concurrently.If the pieces could be brought together into a single system where each plays an important role, the general state of VR would be advanced enormously.Systems like the RB2 produced by VPL, originally headed by Jaron Lanier, is the type of systems we need for home use.A networked VR experience where users can fade away into an environment populated by millions of people from across the world. A type of Matrix that William Gibson envisioned in his book, "Neuromancer".This is the future intellectual medium that could revolutionize the world.We can create a type of 3D World Wide Web where users can interact and exchange information and also view hidden clues that are often hidden in human behaviors.Facial expressions and hand gestures give us vast amounts of information when dealing with others.VR could incorporate these features in a type of cyberspace teleconference meeting every time we accessed a system. There is a drive towards this type of application.There are several online VR communities that use an avatar, window on the world approach.These programs are driving towards a similar idea in which the final product of the VR revolution is an alternate plane where people can meet to exchange ideas and revelations, and interact with their environments anyway they see fit.We just need to pick one avenue and keep the car on the road.

Virtual Reality is another situation in a new industry where standardization is needed before it can proceed. If the VR community could agree on one standard and work on it exclusively then we could move forward in leaps and bounds instead of every other direction.There have been attempts to do just this especially in the software domain.VRML is a world modeling standard that was introduced by a few bright people like Mark Pesce who hoped to create a fully interactive cyberspace.It used a style similar to HTML, which was great for ease of use and simplicity.Giving even the most inexperienced person the chance to build the worlds they had only dreamed of.It gained a considerable amount of momentum a few years ago and even spawned some very interesting online chat rooms.VR needs more of this type of collaboration to provide standard world building tools.

Hardware in the VR realm also needs a glimpse of this type of standardization and collaboration.Most equipment obtainable today has to have special drivers along with proprietary hardware. Some don’t work with all platforms.Units might require special cards be inserted into your system to operate.VR hardware needs to become a Plug and Play based system.It needs to achieve the ease of use and installation that a mouse or keyboard processes.Even better would be a USB based set of devices that could be hot swapped between systems, working in almost every imaginable situation.It is apparent that this early in development it can be difficult to determine which library or avenue is the best to support the future of the technology.Every new start up company or person comes out with what is supposed to be the newest and best approach to a common dilemma.The industry is working towards a common system of direct VGA video headsets and serial trackers which is a positive push towards standard equipment.This push of producing equipment which uses common PC resources along with libraries like VRML with help to create our much needed exposure.

A predominate market that exists today is the video game or entertainment industry.This is the most promising launching bed for virtual reality advancement.Virtual reality in its current technological state is very well mated for this type of application.Display technology and tracking systems work very well with most of the currently released games.These video games can be our virtual playgrounds.HMD’s and other VR peripherals can be used with less effort in games then most other applications.A game can draw you into an alternate state of mind, forcing you to forget your links to the outside world.Quake is a perfect example of this type of experience.These types of games can be played in 3D format with head tracking and the effect can be amazing.Running from a blasting machine gun can actually draw out a feeling of fear.When reactions of this nature start to become apparent, then the lines of reality and non-reality start to blur.This is what virtual reality is all about.

The support for virtual reality hardware and software in the gaming industry as well as other isn’t as frequent as one would hope but it’s a start.We have the beginnings of a great technology but must rely on supporting technologies for growth.One key to overcoming this dilemma especially in the gaming industry could be emulation.Virtual Reality can get its feet wet by emulating other popular devices.If virtual reality gloves and trackers were made more susceptible to emulating mice and joysticks the cost of bringing them to market could be reduced and simplified.The amount of work writing code should be reduced and transparent.The increased support whether the application is aware of it or not would be awesome.Devices wouldn’t need special separate interface cards or special code written for them to operate in a normal gaming environment.VR equipment could hide under the skins of other devices until its own identity is uncovered.This would get VR into a multi-platform mainstream and show that there is demand for this type of equipment.

Recently in the last few years the shift towards cheaper consumer hardware has been helping VR get some hidden recognition in other markets.Companies including Sony are producing HMD’s like the glasstron for personal viewing that can be used on any computer system.Their aim has been mostly in the mobile computing markets for DVD players and laptops, but they are easily adaptable for VR uses.Intertraxx is another company that is helping bring cheaper technologies to the market. They have been producing sourceless Inertia trackers that access a computer through a serial or USB port.These trackers can be used in a variety of applications like motion capture, head tracking, and various others.Essential Reality is another company worth mentioning that promises to bring the data glove to the consumer for approximately 130 dollars.They are bringing it to market claiming it will revolutionize the way we use computers.

Despite a select few, most of the equipment is still rather expensive and out of reach of the average homebrew enthusiast.If companies like these can continue to grow and bring down prices then demand will increase for these products and help put them into the hands of the homebrewer.

Aftermarket purchasing of VR equipment is a mandatory requirement for most people.This is a great way for the homebrew person or average consumer to bring virtual reality technology into the home.Online auctions like Ebay and Yahoo are a haven for buying headsets and gloves for a fraction of the cost.Some of the most interesting work in virtual reality can be done on the homebrew level.At this level the user knows exactly what they want and how much they want to spend doing it.The only problem with this scenario is the lack of resources to produce the more elaborate equipment like HMD’s.This is where we (the consumer/homebrewer) depend on corporate America to produce a well-designed product that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Virtual Reality will one day be the new ground breaking media of the future. It has its current holdups but the promise of the future is worth the wait. How it gets there and who pushes it there is still unknown. It’s up to the homebrewer and several small key companies to keep it alive long enough for it to hit mainstream and gain a more solid foothold in our society. The technology is becoming cheaper all the time and applications are becoming more forthcoming and apparent. If we can survive this infancy it will promise to be an amazing revolution in the way we see the world and ourselves.