The first time that you put a virtual reality headset on your face is a very memorable moment. The Matrix was released only less than 2 decades ago, and already we're experiencing the same feeling that Neo had when he jacked into the matrix for the first time. As I write this article, the first generation of consumer by HTC and Oculus are being manufactured and delivered to eager enthusiasts and developers. An estimated 200 million VR headsets will be sold by 2020. http://fortune.com/2016/01/21/200-million-vr-headsets-2020/. This year, millions of those consumers will experience their first "Neo moment."

For the next couple thousand words, I'll talk about where the virtual reality industry is at, what to expect, and why I probably won't shut up about VR anytime soon. There are misconceptions, fears, and there is more speculation than both. I'll also tell you about the projects that I've had the opportunity to work on at Pulse Design Group.

 

In 2011, Palmer Luckey created a head-mounted display (HMD) in his parents' garage using duct tape and cardboard. Soon after, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to begin developing a headset called "Oculus Rift." The Kickstarter campaign was wildly successful and reached ten times the original goal. Later that year, Facebook acquired Oculus for 2 billion dollars. Since then, Oculus has released two iterations of developer kit headsets.

In 2015, HTC announced that they were producing their own virtual reality headset. The news about their new product, the HTC Vive, was met with mixed reception. Why was HTC, a phone manufacturing company creating a VR headset? How would it compare to the Oculus Rift? Does anyone else think that 'Vive' is a silly name? 

To be fair, the tech industry certainly has no shortage of silly names.

To be fair, the tech industry certainly has no shortage of silly names.

The Oculus Touch hand controllers, slated for a 2016 release, are extremely comfortable and easy to use.

The Oculus Touch hand controllers, slated for a 2016 release, are extremely comfortable and easy to use.

The HTC Vive, unlike the Oculus Rift, promised room-scale tracking, tracked hand controllers, and the "chaperone system," a system designed to prevent the user from walking into walls and objects in their real environment. Insert image of chaperone Oculus will likely include each of these features in the future, but the first generation of Vive products will include these when the first consumer version launches. The Oculus Rift currently costs $599, HTC Vive costs $799.

As consumers begin receiving their new virtual reality headsets, we'll see more and more headlines about VR and new technology. This will be the first year that millions of people will experience virtual reality. Users will have the opportunity to walk through castle ruins in Germany, fly through a cityscape like an eagle , and experience space combat with a whole new level of immersion.

What could go wrong? These are the most common hesitations about virtual reality:

I get motion sick from roller coasters and airplanes. I'll probably get motion sick in virtual reality, so I won't try it.

I don't play video games, so I'm not interested in virtual reality.

How expensive!? This is cool stuff, but I won't buy in.

These are all very valid concerns. Let's go through each of them and dive into the details.


I get motion sick from roller coasters and airplanes. I'll probably get motion sick in virtual reality, so I won't try it.

The most common fear for first-time users of Virtual Reality is nausea. Most adults have experienced some sort of motion sickness from roller coasters and airplane turbulence, so wouldn't they also likely experience motion sickness from virtual roller coasters and airplanes?

When it comes to virtual reality, what we're concerned with is actually called "simulator sickness." Sim sickness was first discovered (what a miserable thing to discover, right?) when helicopter pilots would train in virtual simulations. Simply put, sim sickness is confusing movement rather than too much movement. This is definitely a valid concern. I've experienced sim sickness and I understand that it is more than enough to prevent someone from ever trying VR for a second time. If it makes you sick for the first time, you'll probably never put a VR headset on your head ever again.

The most common cause of sim sickness is unanticipated movement. Sim sickness can also be caused by technical issues, such as low framerate, poor visual quality, and unnatural perception. 

Most instances of sim sickness are easily preventable by the developer. If the user gets queasy, it is probably because of some disorienting factor in the program itself - and I say that as a developer. The proverbial Golden Rules for VR development are constantly changing, but here are some great resources for what not to do as a developer: 1, 2, 3.


I don't play video games, so I'm not interested in virtual reality.

Eva Hoerth, VR Design Researcher and Community Builder at Ratlab LLC.

Eva Hoerth, VR Design Researcher and Community Builder at Ratlab LLC.

Video games are certainly paving the way for virtual reality development. Unity and Unreal Engine are the two most common programs used to develop for virtual reality, and they're both video game engines. Aside from Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, Sony also recently opened pre-orders for their Playstation VR headset that exclusively targets gamers.

According to a report by Goldman Sachs, nearly 46% of virtual reality development by the year 2020 will be for video games. However, VR is expected to positively impact several other industries in new and exciting ways.

Virtual reality is being used to diagnose mental health conditions like PTSD and depression. Films are currently being produced exclusively for VR audiences. Athletes can train in new immersive ways. Architecture firms and real estate companies allow users to visualize buildings before construction begins. If we believe that VR will be limited to gaming, we'll be surpassed by our competitors in the industry who embrace the technology.

This is an image of a Hybrid Operating Room that we created in virtual reality. Users are able to interact with their environment and use communication and design tools in the virtual space.

This is an image of a Hybrid Operating Room that we created in virtual reality. Users are able to interact with their environment and use communication and design tools in the virtual space.


This is cool stuff, but I won't buy in to this.

From left to right: Sony's Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.

From left to right: Sony's Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.

You will need to have a PC that is capable enough to work with a VR headset, so you're looking at a starting price of nearly $1,500 for either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. A new VR capable PC costs roughly $600, but you can expect those prices to drop over the next few years. Here are the listed recommended specs for the different headsets.

Moore's Lawis the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, computer power has doubled roughly every two years. Additionally, improvements in rendering techniques such as foveated rendering and asynchronous timewarp will ultimately lower the barrier for hardware requirements.

Congratulations!

Congratulations!

The first Apple Video iPod launched in 2005 for $399. If you've been waiting for that price to drop, congratulations! You can currently purchase one on Ebay for as cheap as $50

That was just for the first generation of Video iPods. Naturally, the price has dropped dramatically over time as manufacturing and hardware improved. We can reasonably expect the same thing to happen with virtual reality headsets.


These are all very valid concerns. If we can get over those three barriers, and if virtual reality reaches mass consumer adoption, then we can reasonably assume that VR will dramatically impact how we experience and interact with technology on a daily basis. If you're still with me, maybe you're already thinking about some great potential possibilities.

"Wouldn't it be great if…"

What if we could walk through buildings before they are constructed? At Pulse Design Group, we're able to virtually visualize exactly what a proposed space will look like with sub-millimeter precision and with an unprecedented level of interaction. Real estate companies are able to preview what a house will look like for potential buyers. It is not difficult to imagine that this will be the norm for architecture, real estate, and 3D design in the future.

With cameras and some clever photogrammetry trickery, developers can allow users to virtually explore real-world locations. This morning, I walked through Cluny Abbey in a program created by realities.io before talking a stroll across the surface of Mars.

VR can now be used in health care to help surgeons train for complex surgeries. Users can even walk through expanded views of internal organs - a concept that I find as exciting as I do icky.

With a Leap Motion sensor, a user is able to track their hands in virtual reality and interact with virtual objects and interfaces. Yes, just like Minority Report. We can imagine a future where employees will have virtual workspaces with floating monitors instead of typical cubicles with flat computer screens. This opens up new possibilities with shared remote workspaces and telepresence.

With programs like LectureVR and Altspace, users can even give virtual presentations and attend virtual seminars. Imagine attending a seminar about theoretical physics instructed by a virtual Albert Einstein or a presentation by Neil DeGrasse Tyson about astrophysics.

Films like Henry and Gary the Seagull are being created exclusively for VR audiences. The metaphorical book on VR filmmaking is still being written, but we can look forward to a greater level of interaction and presence in these new types of experiences. Imagine being in the scene standing next to the action stars as the story progresses around you. 


"If that's all true, why couldn't we also…"

Couldn't we experience what it would be like to walk across the surface of alien planets? In some virtual reality programs, you can walk around on Mars and check out the International Space Station. Could we remotely work in offices across the world? Could we collaborate with other designers and developers in an entirely virtual environment?

Couldn't we also create 3D content in virtual reality? In Google's Tilt Brush, users can paint in 3D and share their art with other users. As a 3D artist, I would be far more productive if I could reach out my hand and control the position and orientation of every vertex on a geometric shape.

Personally, I felt like 3D painting was more akin to sculpting than the method of traditional painting.

Personally, I felt like 3D painting was more akin to sculpting than the method of traditional painting.

Life continues to imitate sci-fi.

Life continues to imitate sci-fi.

Perhaps we will be able to remotely control robots and machines; taking control of their arms and seeing what they see. Imagine the impact that this would have on the engineering, construction, health care, and military industries. Tele-presence and remote working would become common practices in our daily lives. This would have a truly profound impact on how companies operate in dangerous environments as companies are able to save time and money while completing hazardous tasks.

 

Naturally, there is a huge potential for investment in virtual reality. This technology could potentially disrupt every industry from gaming to architecture, and we can only speculate what it will look like in 10 years. The only things more common than VR startups are studies from economists that boast about how massive VR will be in the future.

I haven't even talked about augmented reality yet. AR is technology that superimposes computer generated information onto the user's vision. Seeing the potential for huge profit, there are several new products on the market and currently in production, like the Epson BT-300 smart glassesMeta headset, Microsoft Hololens, and the Daqri Smart Helmet. We'll hear more about augmented reality in the next few years as production continues and the cost of production continues to lower. I'll follow up this post with a post about augmented reality and what it will mean for you and your work.


So where are we now?

We're seeing the rise of new entrepreneurs and new product ideas. The VR community is proving itself to be an invaluable resource to enthusiasts and developers, and I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most friendly and productive people in the industry.

I work as a virtual reality developer at the aforementioned Pulse Design Group, a healthcare architecture firm based in Kansas City. We develop VR experiences using Leap Motion, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift. I also have the immense opportunity to introduce first-time users to virtual reality experiences. By using virtual reality as a communication and design tool, we're able to allow a user to walk through a proposed design before construction even begins. This allows us to make necessary changes and communicate design intent much earlier in the design process. As a result, clients have an unparalleled understanding of what their proposed space looks like, and there will be no chance for surprises when they enter a finished space that they previously viewed in VR.

What is currently going on behind the scenes in the industry?

Apple has acquired as many as 23 different VR and AR companies, all of whom are now completely silent about what they are currently developing. I think it is fair to assume that they are developing something, and that we'll hear something about it soon (also, that something will be white and chrome.) Google is continuing to develop their Google Tango system, which is a system that is able to track spaces and recreate them in VR with immense clarity. Magic Leap, a promising company that has raised more than $2.5 billion to create a new augmented reality product, has released little to no information about their product. We can expect to have a collective "whoa" moment as they begin releasing information in the coming years.

We're in the future. Buckle up.

Everyone in the virtual reality community is extremely friendly and welcoming. If you want to experience virtual reality for yourself and hear more about what is going on in your local community, find a local meetup group or get in touch with a local developer. Your best resource is the people around you. In Kansas City, I have the opportunity to co-organize the KCVR meetup group alongside Andrew London. As VR becomes the norm, I expect that communities like this will become breeding grounds for innovation, development, and collaboration.  If you're ever in Kansas City, get in touch and check out our virtual reality lab. We would love to show you what we have been up to!