Oh, how I love the promise of Virtual Reality. I imagine stepping into fantastic environments for incredible adventures. Or simulate a virtual office space that’s not bound by real-world real-estate prices. Or meet people in virtual clubs before going on virtual quests. But after playing around with the Oculus Rift DK2, I realize we need a lot more than an affordable headset. Three things need to be solved, or VR could die just as quickly as it did in the ‘90s.
1. A universal VR UI (or better, a VR OS)
To start a Rift game, I have to start it the ‘Windows-way’. I need to click on an icon, after which usually a 2D launcher pops up. Some VR games work in ‘direct mode’ and automatically find the Rift. Others need to be manually moved to the ‘extended display’. More often than not, I have to slide the Rift up from my face to recheck the screen after launching the application. Because the Rift display does not show me if something went wrong or if my Alienware is still loading.
This isn’t just because most apps and games are still in an early phase of development. That’s only one part of the problem. The main thing is that the Rift experience is completely seperate from the Windows OS.
So what we need first and foremost is a reliable and easy-to-use UI or OS that’s Rift-focussed. We need to be able to do all the normal OS type things (open programs, see error messages, adjust settings) without ever taking of the HMD. In fact, there should be no need to even turn on the standard monitor.
An app like ‘VR Desktop’ tries to do this, but is nothing more than a shell that projects the Windows interface in 3D. It’s a nice start, and is preferable to the ‘peek under my Rift’ approach, but it’s a stopgap solution. A true VR OS could take advantage of the VR paradigm, and use 3D spaces to enhance our old-fashioned PC desktops.
I don’t think the desktop should be completely replaced. No one wants to navigate a 3D maze to get to their files. But I could imagine an actual virtual office where different apps are represented by simulated objects: filing cabinets for harddrives, doors as links to VR websites or games, etcetera.
In my wildest imagination this virtual office would be highly customizable, and the environment would be even more flexible than the background images we now use to decorate our 2D screens.
And of course the VR OS would have to be connected. I mentioned doors: imagine doors to VR games, or chat rooms, or virtual shopping centers. A true VR OS would have no difficulty linking us to the outside world and in one fell swoop create that fantastic Oasis as described in the marvelous book Ready Player One.
I can’t see my keyboard when I wear the Rift. This is very annoying when the game prompts me to press a specific key, and I once again have to peek from under the headset. Also, manipulating my virtual surroundings is a pain with a mouse or controller. Picking up a ball in a tech demo, and then throwing it in a basket, is about as difficult as performing delicate surgery while wearing boxing gloves. Or I assume. Most operations I perform aren’t that delicate. Anyhow, there must be a better way to interact with virtual 3D objects.
Something like Leap Motion is a step in the right direction. A small camera tracks the motions of your fingers and shows your hands in virtual space. This allows for interactions with virtual objects. But there is no touch! There is no haptic feedback which would allow for much more precision.
I’m not just thinking about manipulating virtual weapons or puzzle pieces. How about a virtual keyboard you can actually touch? Where you feel the feedback of the keys and actually notice when you miss a key? This would be so much better than just a virtual keyboard ‘in the air’. Touch is a very important sensation in the real world, and having special gloves that offer resistance when you hit virtual surfaces would allow VR to be actually productive.
3. The HMD should be invisible
When I first held an Oculus Rift DK1, I thought this was the coolest gadget ever. So light! So easy to wear! But after spending several days with the DK2, I realize the experience just isn’t comfortable in long hauls. It’s warm, constrictive, sweaty and the weight of the HMD actually presses on my nostrils, sometimes making it difficult to breathe.
This is probable the easiest problem to solve. If there is one thing we see in technology, it’s that things get smaller and lighter very quickly. Anyone remember mobile phones in the eighties? And how about those widescreen CRT TVs most of us had in our living rooms just half a decade ago?
VR HMDs need to shrink, and shrink fast. These devices should be no bigger than aviator sunglasses. Because if they stay the way they are, only the most persistent geeks will wear them for longer periods of time. A true VR revolution demands devices that are as manageable and easy to use as iPhones. The true next gen VR headset must be ‘invisible technology’, by which I mean we don’t notice the hardware and are fully immersed in the experience. Television has become this, for example. We don’t notice these rectangular machines anymore. We just turn them on and watch our shows. Unless VR HMDs become ‘invisible’ in the same manner, they are destined to remain niche products.