Imagine for a moment putting on a virtual reality headset and feeling physically present in a non-physical environment. Everywhere you look you are met with the engrossing sights and sounds of a completely virtual world, and in the not-too-distant future, this virtual environment will be entirely indistinguishable from our real world.
This will be true full immersion virtual reality. Not only will what you see and hear appear real, you will also touch, taste, and smell in a simulated setting.
The potential applications for this technology are endless; from entertainment and gaming to medical and military training, immersive virtual reality will change plenty of established industries for good, and no doubt create a few new ones along the way.
Here we take a look at the current and future virtual reality developments, and how this will lead to a more immersive gaming experience.
Truly A Growing Trend
As discussed in our previous article, the overall virtual and augmented reality industry is projected to grow to $110 billion by 2020. Within this growth period, virtual reality gaming is expected to account for around 10% of this total.
It really is an exciting time for tech & software development and investment; AR (augmented reality) has already seen Google Glass arrive and quickly depart the marketplace, Microsoft are betting big on the HoloLens, and Google are going again by backing Magic Leap. Meanwhile on the VR side, Facebook spent $2 billion acquiring Oculus, and Sony are looking at cornering the gaming market with the PS VR. It has all the signs of the smartphone market before the iPhone arrived on the scene; we’re just waiting to see who makes a big move with their tech and positions themselves as the industry leader.
The Addressable Market
The addressable market for virtual reality will include content (such as films), theme parks, video games, and other business sectors that will leverage this technology as a means of standing apart from their competition.
The addressable market for augmented reality on the other hand is likely to be similar to that of the smartphone and tablet market, with hundreds of millions of users and price points similar to those aforementioned pieces of tech.
So with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Sony all digging deep and developing their own VR and AR technology, we should ready ourselves for a hardware arms race the likes of which we’ve never seen. And as these massive companies manoeuvre their tech into the mainstream, it’s likely to impact much more than just how you play video games.
But first, to really get to grips with the wider-reaching implications of VR technologies, you must understand the concepts of Immersion and Presence.
What Is Immersion?
Immersion into a virtual reality world is the perception of being present in a non-physical environment. This perception is created by surrounding the user with images, sound, and other stimuli to provide an engrossing experience.
According to author and game design consultant Ernest W. Adams, immersion can be categorized into the following types:
- Tactical Immersion
- Strategic Immersion
- Narrative Immersion
You are likely to experience Tactical Immersion when performing physical operations that involve a certain degree of skill. This is summed up by players feeling "in the zone" while perfecting specific actions that lead to success.
You are likely to experience Strategic Immersion when undertaking a mental challenge. This is best exemplified by chess players choosing the correct move among the broad number of possibilities.
You are likely to experience Narrative Immersion when you become invested in a storyline. This is similar to what occurs when you become engrossed in a movie or a book.
Beyond these three categories, Björk & Holopainen posit an additional category of immersion, which they call Spatial Immersion. This occurs when the player is absolutely convinced by the virtual world, feeling like they are actually there, and that the world looks and feels “real”.
What Is Presence?
The concept of presence is one where users feel connected to, and interact with, a world outside of their physical bodies thanks to technology. As it stands, the focus has been solely on the technology to create realistic, high-fidelity virtual worlds. However, human factors must be considered also to truly achieve a state of presence.
Virtual reality headsets are the first step towards attaining presence, allowing users to feel part of an entirely simulated environment. At the moment this feeling is entirely subjective, and down to the quality and engineering of the technology. The visceral reactions VR developers crave can only be achieved through technology that serves these experiences with a precise level of tracking and low latency.
According to the virtual reality team at Valve, the following is required to establish presence:
- 1080p or better resolution
- 80 degrees or better field of view
- Low pixel persistence
- A high refresh rate
- Global display where all pixels are illuminated simultaneously
- Optical calibration
- Top quality movement tracking
- Low latency
What Is Full VR Immersion?
Many technologists and futurists, Google’s Ray Kurzweil chief among them, predict true full immersion virtual reality will occur around the 2030s and 2040s. So how does it differ from our current definition of virtual reality?
Well, in order to create this sense of full immersion, the 5 senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) must believe the virtual environment is physically real. Immersive technology can therefore trick the senses via:
- Visual Feedback: Panoramic 3D displays
- Auditory Feedback: Surround sound acoustics
- Tactile Feedback: Haptics and force feedback
- Olfactory Feedback: Smell replication
- Gustation Feedback: Taste replication
Current technology is able to replicate these to a certain extent, however the focus has been primarily on the visual and auditory feedback. Strides are being made with the tactile feedback element, introducing gloves and vests to mimic touch and feel in a virtual setting.
But the true full immersion VR that is being pursued is likely to involve something a little more futuristic; nanobots - robots the size of human blood cells - which will interact with our brains, shutting down inputs to our senses from the real world, replacing them with signals from the virtual world instead.
In theory, you could then decide to move your muscles and limbs as you would in the real world, but these nanobots would intercept these signals, preventing your real limbs from moving, and causing your virtual limbs to move in their place.
This opens up a number of exciting applications, and will likely change our relationship with the Internet, where we will be able to interact with virtual environments with real and virtual people alike.
The Requirements for Full VR Immersion
In order to achieve fully immersive VR, there are a few things we will need to master with regards to our understanding of the human brain and body. These include:
Improvements to Our Understanding of the Human Nervous System
In order to manipulate our senses, we must first better understand our own nervous system, identify which nerve impulses are linked to certain sensations, and identify which motor impulses are linked to muscle contractions and limb movement.
An Ability to Manipulate the Nervous System
Technology will be required to manipulate our nervous system, and this is likely to be invasive implants placed near the spinal cord, as all nerves pass through this part of our bodies.
The Development of Powerful Computer Hardware & Software
To be able to process these complex inputs and outputs, an incredibly powerful computer will be required. This computer will need to interact with our central nervous system fast enough to ensure the virtual world is indistinguishable from our own reality. Once the senses have been sufficiently fooled into believing the virtual environment is real, we will then need to be able to naturally and intuitively interact with the environment as we would in the real world.
Immersive VR Gaming
As we’ve previously touched upon, the applications for this level of immersive VR are practically endless. From simulated environments and situations for military, law enforcement, and medical training, to flight and driving simulators, immersive virtual reality is almost certainly going to change how we educate and improve ourselves.
Yet one of the biggest and most popular applications will undoubtedly be that of video gaming. As an entertainment medium, immersive virtual reality will allow us to escape our day-to-day lives and step into a massively multiplayer online world where we can interact with other players and see, hear, touch, and feel our surroundings.
Those days of nanobots are still a little far off, so for the time being we are reliant on VR hardware and software to fool our senses into feelings of immersion and presence.
Current Immersive VR Technology
The current virtual reality experience is not just limited to sight and sound, with new developments happening all the time. For instance, the HTC Vive, one of the newest leading VR hardware developments, has been designed to utilize "room scale" technology. The Vive actually transforms a room into 3D space by using sensors, creating a virtual reality world in which the user can navigate by walking around and using motion tracked controllers to experience, interact and communicate.
Meanwhile, the Virtuix Omni treadmill, which allows users to walk, run, crouch, and jump within a virtual environment, is yet another example of the strides being made with VR hardware, and which are opening a multitude of doors to games developers.
The treadmill is particularly exciting (although not all that practical for gaming at home, especially if space is at a premium) as it adds another dimension currently lacking from VR gaming, that of real movement. Most of the readily available VR games are based on a “sit down and play” approach, but with this piece of hardware, the freedom to explore a virtual world beyond merely turning one’s head or looking up and down is greatly expanded.
There are also innovative light entertainment, exercise, and educational applications for the Omni. Is it raining outside? Pull on your headset, jump on the treadmill, and go for a jog through any number of sunnier virtual environments. Studying the American Civil War? Take a walk (or a run) through a battlefield. Can’t afford that trip to Paris? Wander around the virtual Louvre without having to elbow your way through crowds.
The progression and improvement in VR hardware will lead to virtual reality becoming a mass market medium, with visuals, latency, tracking, and accuracy constantly getting better.
And for the gaming industry, more and more innovation is coming to the fore. First person games may seem like the obvious (and only) genre suited to VR, but platformers such as Lucky’s Tale will have something to say about that. When we reach the point of mainstream VR adoption, we’ll see games specifically designed to be played in a virtual environment, rather than retrofitted to make use of certain virtual reality hardware.
So what else can we expect in the near future? Well, the next logical step from something like the Omni treadmill will be dedicated VR spaces. These will essentially be empty square rooms, where players can freely move around as they are guided by the software so as not to bump into the walls or other players. This could herald a new dawn for video game arcades, rival laser tag or paintball, and even create the next generation theme park.
And with more improvements to tactile and olfactory technologies, players could start to feel the wind in their face or the heat from the virtual sun as they explore and play in these simulated environments.
Augmented reality (AR) too will see an increase in popularity, as real world open spaces are transformed into multiplayer games. It’s likely that AR will be the more accessible of the two mediums, not unlike mobile gaming in comparison to console or PC gaming. This will provide game developers will a massive user base to tap into from the off once hardware such as the HoloLens becomes commercially available.
Enter The Matrix
All of this leads nicely back to conquering the human brain and cracking fully immersive virtual reality. As improvements to the sight, sound, and touch elements of current VR are made, so too does our understanding improve of how we will interact with the software, and one another, in a virtual environment.
Research and development is currently being undertaken to solve problems such as simulation and motion sickness, which will be crucial to the commercial viability of VR technology, while the progress being made to understand our brain and the central nervous system means the Matrix-like full immersion virtual reality remains a possibility.
Within the next 15 to 25 years, we may have the capability to bypass our eyes, ears, touch, taste, and smell, to completely alter our brain’s perception of reality. We could in essence connect ourselves to a virtual world with endless possibilities, where we could run, jump, play, and even defy the laws of gravity, all from the comfort of our own homes.
This possibility may seem far-fetched now, but game developers should be prepared to tell their stories in increasingly immersive virtual environments. Our message is for developers to tap into VR technology today, or lose out on leveraging the next big tech market. It’s really that simple.
How Can AppReal Help?
With our finger firmly on the pulse of Virtual and Augmented Reality gaming and technology, AppReal is ready to help you take your first steps into this exciting emerging marketplace. Our team of experienced specialists can guide you from the concept stage through to art direction and custom development.
With a strong background in both Unity and Unreal gaming engines, we can develop games for both mobile and console/PC platforms, helping you make the most of the available hardware and software. We also understand the importance of “presence” when it comes to VR game development, and our team are able to deliver this thanks to an in-house expertise in sensory technologies, image processing, and speech recognition.
So if you’re ready to take the leap into virtual reality game development, speak with one of our friendly experts today.