Envision being able to fly across the world and see the Great Wall of China without leaving the comfort of your own home, or even fight off a horde of zombies from your living room – this is the magic of virtual reality. Consumers are investing more and more into this market. The consumer-based spending in 2018 on virtual reality content and apps is forecasted at 1.3 billion US dollars and is expected to reach 2.8 billion by 2021.
If you are just joining to us now be sure to read up on the previous chapters in our handbook on app development for the non-tech savvy including connected objects, hybrid and native apps and an introduction to app development terminology.
This chapter we will dive into defining virtual reality, identifying its different elements, the pros and cons to using the technology, understanding content viewing hardware and its components, knowing what to do during the development process of a VR project, how different industries are using virtual reality to their advantage and the most popular VR apps making waves on the market.
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality is a computer-simulated reality or an immersive multimedia experience using pre-filmed content and 3-dimensional images in a virtual environment. Virtual reality, or VR, is the creation of an imaginary reality. It simulates a different environment using a headset, making users feel like they are truly living in that reality with sounds and visual effects.
Virtual reality can simulate anything from an everyday experience like walking down the streets of New York and riding a roller coaster or it can be something completely unrealistic like floating in space or walking on a different planet. The goal is to convince a user’s brain that they are somewhere else, forgetting their actual reality.
It is important to note that virtual reality should not be confused with augmented reality and mixed reality. A few weeks ago, we wrote about how businesses are using augmented reality technology where we provided a definition on AR, which is used in apps for mobile devices to add digital aspects to reality, essentially enhancing the real world and adding to what already exists. For instance, using a Snapchat filter that adds dog ears to your selfie.
And finally, mixed reality is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality where physical and digital objects exist and interact in real time, ranging from natural to virtual environments.
Elements of a Virtual Reality Experience
You may not know this little fact, but virtual reality does not always include wearing head-mounted displays (HMDs). There are actually 3 levels of immersion: non, semi and full immersion. Each of these levels has different interactivity and engagement components. Here we have detailed each category:
Non-immersive: This is the least interactive version of virtual reality which usually includes looking at high-resolution monitors. Only part of the user’s senses is stimulated. This level of immersion is like experiencing virtual reality from the outside, excluding the use of HMDs, where the user is still aware of their surroundings while being somewhat immersed in a virtual world.
Semi-immersive: This is the partial immersion in a virtual environment. An example of this type would be like in a flight simulator recreating the feeling of takeoff and landing in a controlled environment. There is also no HMD needed at this level of VR. The user is surrounded by large screens projecting 3-dimensional images and are still aware of the real world outside of virtual reality.
Fully-immersive: This level of immersion is where head-mounted displays (HMD) come into play. HMD equipment can then be accompanied by headphones and hand controllers for a fully immersive experience along with motion detecting devices to stimulate all the senses.
How does the Content Viewing Hardware Work?
We just mentioned the use of HMDs or head-mounted displays, so what are they exactly? These are made up of sensors, lenses and display screens. It’s a device with a display that goes in front of a user’s eyes covering their whole field of view showing virtual content. This device is also combined with a headset for audio immersion. Other instruments like treadmills, motion platforms and joysticks are used to help trick a user’s brain into thinking the virtual environment is as real as possible. Below we mention the different components that make-up head-mounted displays detailing how they function.
- Field of Vision: Most headsets show a 100o -110o field of view. This is the degree of display.
- Frame rate: The frame rate is the frequency of consecutive images shown on a display screen. On television, the rate is 30 frames per second (fps) and game consoles are at 60 fps. In virtual reality mobile apps, it is usually shown at a minimum of 60 frames per second to avoid simulation sickness. The faster the frame rate, the more realistic it becomes. The slower the frame rate, the more lag there is in the images.
- Latency: The latency is the time it takes the image in the headset to adjust and keep up with the user moving their head and body. Sometimes there can be an image delay if it can’t keep up with body movements. The latency needs to be at 20 milliseconds (ms) or lower for the virtual reality experience to feel real. The higher the latency the more lag and delay which can also cause simulation sickness.
- Audio: Users can use their own headphones if they wish or some headsets have their own integrated headphones.
- Tracking: It is important to track the user’s movements to help maintain the full-immersion and keep up with these movements as well as understand them. This tracking is done with monitoring the user’s head (looking up and down), eyes (sensors tracking eye movements and the objects they focus on) and motion (moving their body such as hand and arm movements or how the user is moving on a virtual reality treadmill).
The Pros and Cons of Virtual Reality
Like with all electronics and devices, they each have their upsides and downsides. Yes, virtual reality is a fascinating and entertaining form of technology, however, it is important to look on both sides of the spectrum and examine the pros and cons.
- Amusing. It is entertaining being able to escape reality to experience this advanced technology and dive into a virtual world.
- Training. Virtual reality is helpful for training purposes like pilots in flight simulations, and doctors for surgeries. This allows professionals to practice their craft without the worry of harming anyone, like crashing a plane or a medical accident occurring. Immersive learning helps to expand these different sectors with saving time and eliminating risks. Virtual reality helps professionals learn from their mistakes without dealing with dire consequences.
- Virtual conferences. Virtual reality allows users to feel as if they are in the same room as their colleagues. It brings workers together through virtual meetings and cutting cost on business travel.
- Convenience. Virtual reality adds convenience, for instance, in the tourism industry it gives people an idea of what a place looks like with beautiful views and important landmarks, helping them decide where to travel. For businesses, this means saving time and money so workers don’t have to travel far for meetings.
* These advantages are just a small glimpse into the upsides of virtual reality. Later on, in the post, we will talk more about how different industries are benefiting from the technology.
- Costly. Buying all the equipment for an immersive virtual reality experience adds up. Headsets like the Oculus Go costs 330$ on Amazon.ca. And then buying a VR ready computer also costs a couple hundred dollars going between $900 – $3,500 on Best Buy. Someone who wants the full VR experience will have to invest a lot of money for all the proper equipment.
- Virtual reality sickness. A prolonged exposure on screen in virtual reality affects and confuses the eye to brain connection. This causes the feeling of eye strain and fatigue, dizziness, nausea, headaches, motion sickness and distortion. This is also known as virtual reality sickness.
- Needs supervision. Virtual reality must be done with supervision and not in a crowded room because while wearing an HMD, users are unaware of the world around them. According to CNN, they could trip and fall, hurting themselves if someone else isn’t watching over them.
- Damages eye growth. According to an optometry professor, the prolonged use of virtual reality can affect the growth of the eye leading to myopia or nearsightedness. This is also particularly concerning for children still growing and developing. Overuse of virtual reality can permanently damage the development of their eyesight.
General Steps to Consider During the Development Process of a VR Project
Mobile app development is shaping and driving the virtual reality market. It is at the root of its success. More businesses are jumping on board to create a virtual reality project to stay ahead of their competition and mobile development companies have to keep up with the tech trends to remain relevant. If you are thinking of starting a VR project, below we have highlighted a general list of steps to get the process going.
- Immersion: The key to the success of a virtual reality app relies on how realistic the graphics are, this means fully immersing users in the virtual environment with the correct usage and combination of lighting, sound, visuals and level of interaction. They need to be completely transported into this virtual reality forgetting the real world around them on the outside.
- Performance: As we mentioned before, virtual reality apps work best at a minimum of 60 frames per second, with 90fps being the optimal performance speed. If these guidelines are not followed, the experience for the user can be unpleasant and lead to motion sickness. Not only that but having a stable VR app performance without bugs is essential. It is important to focus on the smoothness of the app before fixating and focusing on developing special effects and features.
- Platforms: High-end platforms include Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR. These offer the best virtual reality experiences. There are also mobile platforms like Gear VR and Google Daydream which are the more inexpensive options when it comes to purchasing the headset and controller equipment, however, because of that, they offer a less interactive experience compared to the high-end platforms. Another platform is WebVR which can be supported by Google, Firefox and Microsoft.
- Team assembly: When assembling a team for a VR project it is important to have skilled developers in 3D, UX and UI (user experience and user interface) and technical designers who know how to use 3D modelling, animations and lighting. Finally, engineers are needed to ensure the experience is completely immersive. It is important to be specific in every detail in order to get it right and avoid users having a poor virtual reality experience.
- Experimenting: It is always a good idea to experiment your project with different prototypes. With these multiple experiments, you can receive user feedback and revise the experiments until you are happy with your final product. Each experiment can explore the different features, graphics and effects you want your users to experience.
- Cost: The cheapest and less risky option is to produce a 360o video which tends to be a popular option for businesses just starting out with VR. The only downside is it lacks a level of interactivity and immersion. The next step would be to invest in 360o interactive video. This is very similar to the 360o video experience but it has an added layer of interactivity and navigation so the users are able to connect better with the video. After those two options, it is the full VR experiences that are the most expensive to implement. The upside is that they do include full interactivity and immersion for users.
Virtual Reality is Shaping Industries
As we mentioned above, businesses are using virtual reality to stay ahead of their competition and remain up to speed on the technological trends. The virtual reality market has had a big impact on a variety of industries like the healthcare and retail sectors. Below we mention a few industries benefiting from the technology.
Automotive/Manufacturing: Engineers and designers can see how a car would look and function internally before building it. Ford, Volvo and Hyundai are adopting VR for the building process and with this technology, customers can test drive and try different features.
Healthcare: Healthcare professionals can practice on virtual human bodies before working on the real deal. This option is ideal for students who are learning and for professionals preparing for high risk surgeries. Robotic surgery can also be performed using VR and surgeries from around the world can be viewed using the Medical Realities App. Virtual reality is also being used to help traumatized veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. In some hospitals in the U.S., VR is used to expose veterans to stressful situations they experienced in the field all the while being in the safe environment of the hospital to help deal with PTSD.
Tourism: As mentioned earlier on in the post, you can experience a destination before going there, looking at different landmarks and sceneries using virtual reality. The hospitality sector, including chains such as the Best Western, has also been taking advantage of this by letting customers view and experience hotels before committing to staying.
Architecture: Architects can manipulate different aspects of a building like the lighting and layout. Clients can then view how their new home might look once it’s done.
Education: Virtual reality can provide immersive training experiences. This includes experiencing real-life situations rather than learning through textbooks or lectures. It enhances the education experience making it more enjoyable and interactive. For instance, schools in Canada are implementing VR technology to help kids with mathematics and drawing shapes and structures. Check out the video below.
Marketing/Retail: Virtual reality in marketing and retail is all about letting customers test products before buying them. For instance, the company Arctic Cat (ATV and snowmobile seller) uses VR to take customers on virtual test drives. Customers can try before they buy and see what it’s like from the driver’s seat. Using VR gives customers a first-hand virtual experience with the product they might purchase.
Popular Virtual Reality Apps
Now that you have read in detail about virtual reality, let’s take a look at some fun apps you can test out for yourself! According to Digital Trends, these are the best virtual reality apps of 2018. We decided to list the top 5 for you to check out.
1. Allumette: A Stop Motion Animation Virtual Reality Film
Based on the short story “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, according to Penrose Studios: “Allumette is intimate on an emotional scale – focusing on the love between a mother and her child as well as the sacrifices that people are willing to make for the greater good. Simultaneously, we tried to push the boundaries in terms of scope and scale.To tell the story of Allumette, Penrose crafted an entirely new and fantastical VR world, with a city loosely inspired by Venice floating in the sky. Clouds lap the buildings like waves in the winding canals and rios of Allumette’s world. We see ourselves not only as storytellers, but also as VR world builders.”
2. Colosse: A Storytelling Experience
According to the technology company Oculus: “’COLOSSE’ is a real-time virtual reality storytelling experience, with a stylized, character-focused visual language. An experience that explores viewer directed storytelling in a unique setting. The story of the long lost Great Spirits known as the COLOSSE explores themes of fear, power and respect.”
3. Google Earth: Go Anywhere in the World
The Google Earth virtual reality experience allows users to fly over any part of the world they wish to see. They could fly over Tokyo or Venice, looking at the landscapes and landmarks.
4. Kingspray: Virtual Reality Street Art
A realistic graffiti simulator where users can create street art wherever they please along with realistic spray, colour and drip effects. Some locations include train yards, rooftops and abandoned subway stations.
5. Ocean Rift: Observing Marine Wildlife
This virtual reality experience can be compared to an underwater safari experience. According to Oculus Rift, “Explore a vivid underwater world full of life including dolphins, sharks, turtles, orcas, sea snakes, rays, whales, manatees, sea lions and even dinosaurs! Ocean Rift is divided into 12 unique habitats ranging from coral reefs, shipwrecks and lagoons, to the arctic, the deep and prehistoric seas. Discover and touch 45+ information points throughout Ocean Rift to learn more about the animals.”
Virtual reality is certainly an interesting form of technology. Being able to go on deep sea expeditions looking at marine wildlife and travelling the world by simply wearing a headset is an impressive advancement. We are going to continue discussing ingenious technological improvements in the last couple chapters. Next, we are going to be looking at artificial intelligence and the final chapter will be about augmented reality. Check it out soon!