Explanations, Research, & Experiences with Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality is something that I’ve had limited experience with, unfortunately, but I’ve done bucket loads of research. Virtual Reality is every Gamer’s dream, to explore worlds that are not possible or to have such fun, dangerous, and extreme worlds filled with weapons, tools, and characters. Worlds to interact with and puzzles and fights to navigate with your full body is the end goal. We want to feel temperatures, textures. We want to touch, run, jump, punch, wield weapons, speak into a world more naturally, use body language, be able to give your friends a high-five or a hug, use hand to hand combat, trek up mountains, ride dragons, feel gun recoil, taste health potions. We want more. It’s going to take time for the technology to get there and to become affordable but for now, let’s talk about what we have now.
I was able to play a bit of VR games using an HTC Vive with the hand controllers. The most fun game by far was Beat Saber. I was deprived of guitar hero as a kid and Beat Saber was not only a rhythm game with full-body controls of having to squat and swing your arms to play. As you can imagine, it was like a childhood dream come true. I strap on the headset pick up the controllers and all I see is a dark void around me and a menu floating before me. I select a song and hold a red lightsaber in my left hand and a blue lightsaber in my right. The music starts and these cubes come flying toward me with either a red or blue border to indicate which lightsaber I should use to strike it with, along with an arrow to tell me which side of the cube I should it from. In my first few swings, I had a slightly hard time to hit them and get used to how long the lightsabers were. But after only 5–10 swings it felt extremely natural. In VR you see the world in 3D and it’s not like 3D at the movies or a 3D TV. This 3D is flawless and natural. The feeling of slashing cubes to the beat of a song is very fun and immersive.
One of the other games I played was SUPERHOT. It’s a shooter where time only moves when you do and enemies who are basically red figures shaped like people to come at you with guns, swords, and their bare hands to try and kill you. It allows you to live out your dream of being an action movie hero, it’s SUPER FUN. Grabbing a gun, ducking behind cover, and dodging bullets, and trying to fight back is immersive and tricky. The only reason this is possible is obviously due to the slow-motion mechanic. Though I’d still love to see this same game but with a mode where the slow-motion is turned off. I found that even though things like tables and boxes aren’t actually there, I still acted so naturally like they were. My Fiancee shot a short video on her phone while I was playing and I was hiding behind a box firing my gun with one hand and looking for another weapon with the other. I then peaked over the box the same way anyone would when playing a game of paintball.
Next, I want to talk about the physical aspect of VR. In BeatSaber you must swing your arms and during the more difficult parts of the songs or on harder settings, you’ll be so immersed that you will actually start putting some weight into your swing. You must move very quickly and with intent. Also, certain songs and difficulties will through these holographic-like-walls at you where you either must squad down to go under them or step side to side. They don’t come at you too often but after an hour of playing it adds up to a good workout for both your legs and your arms. The best part, however, is that you’d never notice that you were working out. It’s not like a bike ride, a jog, or working out in a gym. This is more like playing paintball or tag. You are too focused on the objective and the game that you hardly notice how much physical work is required and even if you did, you wouldn’t care. You’d be more than willing to push yourself just that bit more to avoid death, clear a level, or clear a song. I didn’t feel my muscles hurt until I was leaving and I even felt it for a day or two later. For me, it’s much like paintball, I’m running, jumping, sliding, crawling, crouching, squatting, yelling, shooting, and dodging all with the goal of eliminating my opponents and I’ll do anything to achieve my goal. I never notice that I’m out of breath until the last enemy is dead…. I mean, eliminated.
Lastly, I want to touch on the hardware. Current generation VR headsets have what we call a “Screen door Effect” or SDE for short. This is because the pixel density, or PPI, is too low and we can actually see pixels. Inside a VR headset is a lens for each eye and a screen that is divided into two sides, one for each eye. The lenses focus your eyes to a normal and natural distance to that you don’t feel like you’re staring at something that is an inch from your face. That would most certainly be bad for your eyes. Each VR headset has its own methods for countering the SDE but as long as the screen’s PPI is still low, it won’t matter what they do. The higher the PPI the more detail you’ll be able to see and it will cut down on blurriness, SDE, and will make things look and feel more natural. In fact, it would take just over nine-thousand by nine-thousand PPI to trick the human eye into thinking it’s a reality. Of course, other factors come into account like latency, colors, darks, lights, etc. But either way, we’re a good 4 years away from having screens that good and probably another 4 years away from having computers run games at such a high resolution. A company at CES did show off a small screen with 1,000 PPI for VR and that would likely remove the SDE entirely but the display will still be blurry, especially for objects that are beyond 30 or 50 meters from the player’s view. Currently, headsets have a varying PPI count. The HTC Vive Pro has 615 PPI at the current highest while the Playstation VR has 386 PPI at the lowest. All other headsets. VR headsets right now also have 110 degrees field of view (FOV) however the Pimax headsets which are shipping any day now are pushing to 170 and 200 degrees FOV. Some headsets have some distortion and even unintentional motion blur. Though the current Oculus Rift, Vive, and Vive pro have minimal issues with this and is something that will be ironed out over time as we improve the screens in our headsets, for the most part, it’s a minimal concern at best. Headsets are all under one pound in weight and the feeling of the weight is easy and seamless to get used to. The straps on the HTC Vive which I used was less than ideal though. Putting your head down or too much shaking can definitely shift the headset which breaks immersion and can quickly taint your time in the virtual world.
So what is it like to use this gear? Well, thanks to the pixel density being too low for a clear VR image doing things like trying to make things out at distances is nearly very tricky, and trying to look at detailed things up close can also be hard. The best example of this is trying to aim down the sights of a gun while in VR is not ever precise, unlike aiming down the sights of a gun in real life. Next is that sometimes when a game tries to be too detailed or you’re trying to fire a gun at a distance, it’s hard to know distance and angles. Even though the 3D is flawless, with it being so blurry at distances it gets harder and harder to accurately judge the distance between yourself and a distant target. Next is the wire, VR has just now begun having wireless tethering so you wear a battery pack and they’ve managed to have nearly flawless tethering from the headset, to your PC. It’s impressive and it’s very important. Playing games wear the world is all the way around you like Gorn and Arizona Sunshine, it can be a pain to have a wire that limits your movement, especially since you can’t see it with the headset on. When playing a game that doesn’t use more than 180 degrees like Beatsaber or most levels in SUPERHOT, then it’s fine and hardly noticeable. Next is how some games cleverly reduce the SDE with their visuals. Now the SDE isn’t technically reduced but it’s less noticeable. Since the space between pixels is black, a game like Beatsaber has dark backgrounds and most HUD is about 25% transparent, with light grey text. Also, the cubes that you are trying to hit and rather large with thick borders making them very easy to see along with them either being blue or red which are impossible for the SDE to blur together. Lastly, the arrows on the cubes are also pretty big but most importantly they are wide and fill the side of the cube that it’s indicating it needs to be hit. SUPERHOT does something similar. SUPERHOT has all the objects and world around you be either light grey or white, however, the weapons and interactable objects are all black and the enemies are red. So despite the SDE, all objects are easy to see and distinguish. So though the SDE can be noticed, it’s not a problem for anything other than aiming down sights. For a game like Arizona Sunshine or any other game with more detailed textures with more colors. They can seem even more blurry and harder to make things out, especially at distances. The FOV is another thing that is noteworthy. Having 110 degrees field of view is obviously much small than what we see in real life, in fact, we see above 180 degrees when we count looking as far side to side and our peripheral. However, if you play a videogame on a regular screen with a console or PC then you’ll notice that it’s rare to see a FOV over 90 degrees. Though many PC games can reach well into the 100-degree FOV. The current generation of VR headsets feels a lot like using a mediocre paintball mask. The goggles on those masks limit your FOV a bit, the same way a VR headset does. The Pimax headsets, however, get up to 170 or 200 degrees FOV. 170 Degrees would feel a lot like using a pro-grade paintball mask since those goggles are far better designed and more low profile, allowing the user to have a wider FOV. The 200-degree FOV headsets would likely be pretty flawless, but the vertical FOV is still needing improvements and there is a dark space where your nose is to prevent one eye from seeing the other eye’s screen. Now I’m lucky because I wore a hat for many years of my life and I am used to having my vertical FOV limited and I’ve done lots of gaming with lower FOV and I’ve played paintball so the transition to VR for me was easy and seamless. For the next few years, games are going to need to be designed specifically with these nuances and limitations in mind in order to allow a game to feel immersive and not give the player a headache (literally or figuratively).
Using guns in VR is an interesting experience. Mainly because as fun as it is to hold a super lightweight gun with minimal recoil and shooting people is awesome. However, with the blurry sights for aiming and lack of contact points, it only works for one-handed weapons. Let me explain. When you hold any gun in real life, it requires two hands or two hands and stock. The gun has 2 or 3 points of contact to help stabilize and maneuver the weapon. Sadly unless you buy additional gear for your VR experience (which comes with its own issues which I won’t bother getting into) you are stuck with having two separate controllers for each hand. This means that using a pistol is okay since there is only one point of contact, the hand that holds it. But a rifle needs two hands and a stock which means there is a static object (the gun) that connects from one hand to the next and to your shoulder. This drastically changed both immersion and how well you can use the gun. It currently feels like holding two separate pistols instead of a rifle. It makes it harder to aim, control the virtual recoil and it’s simply awkward to maneuver.
Soon enough we’ll have high enough resolutions, FOV, and PPI for our VR headsets that it’ll be flawless and easy to use for everyone. Not long after that’ll be a common household piece of tech that everyone will be familiar with. VR will indeed reach the point of full-body immersion and control. All our senses will be used and the possibilities will be endless. But until then, let’s enjoy looking through virtual goggles with a screen door overlay. I know I’ll be looking forward to every chance I get to slice cubes up to the beat of the music or kill bad guys with my own two hands. Happy hunting folks.