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Written by: Jordan Kaneko
Written on: December 6th, 2013
Tags: electrical engineering, entertainment, computer science
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About the Author
In the fall of 2013, Jordan Kaneko was majoring in Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California.
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Volume XVI Issue I > A New World of Opportunity: A Look Into Virtual Reality
People have shown an interest in virtual reality, long before we were capable of accomplishing it. Now, with technological advancements in computer graphics and hardware, engineers are closing the gap between fact and science fiction. Developing advanced 3D displays and increasing processing speed and response time are leading to a future with authentic, immersive virtual reality devices.

Introduction

You open your eyes. You’re standing at the entrance of a dark and ominous cave. As the mouth of the cave looms overhead, you raise your torch to try and make out what lies ahead, but everything beyond you is pitch black. You gather your wits and enter. As you steadily creep through the narrow passageway you begin to regret your decision, but you press on. Moments later, the cave opens up to a large cavern. You stop, straining to see anything ahead of you in the dim light when all of a sudden you see it. The only problem is, it sees you too. In the nick of time you draw you sword and manage to deflect the razor sharp claws of the dragon that has already begun its attack. You retaliate with two jabs and make solid contact on the second strike. The beast shudders. As you withdraw your sword from its belly and prepare to make your final stand, the dragon takes a quick step back, opens its jaws, and engulfs you in a sea of flame. Game Over. Then you take off your headset and head to the kitchen for a snack.
In recent years, technological advancements have allowed concepts that were once viewed as impossible scenarios, straight out of a science fiction story, to fruition. Presently, with the complexity and capabilities of electronic devices on the rise, virtual reality (VR) is on its way to becoming, well, a reality. The Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset is a new gaming console currently in development that could revolutionize the virtual reality industry for consumers. It stands to not only compete with current video games, but also potentially replace them completely. The release date has yet to be confirmed, as the system isn’t quite ready for sale yet so until then, fighting off dragons must remain in the realm of science fiction, for now at least.

What Exactly Does Virtual Reality Mean?

In the popular science fiction film The Matrix, most of the planet’s population is immersed in a completely digital world called the Matrix that they believe is real, while their bodies lie completely idle [1]. The Matrix is indeed a form of virtual reality, but it in general, the term has a broader definition. “Virtual Reality” can be any technology that involves the user in any form of visualizing something that does not physically exist. Usually this is in the context of computer-generated digital technology, but some have even gone as far as books, movies, and even simply using one’s imagination can technically be referred to as a virtual reality of sorts [2]. In terms of engineering, VR is identified as a means of relaying the senses of a user through involvement in a world created by a computer. In the context of this article, VR will refer to any visual display system that utilizes the senses and presents some form of simulated life as the production of an ideal VR system that would be indistinguishable from real life is far from becoming a reality.
The History of Virtual Reality
The idea of VR has been alive for much longer for much longer than the technology to support it due to Science Fiction media. Essentially, interest in virtual reality stems from a much larger and broader concern. The question of what is “real” and what isn’t applies directly to VR [3]. For example, in The Matrix, most of the inhabitants of the Matrix are unaware of the fact that they are even in an artificial environment. It is so believable that, to those in the system, the Matrix is their reality. This blurred line between fantasy and actuality has fueled the development of VR technology, even if the philosophical question of the validity of VR has no decisive answer. Officially, VR began in the mid 1980s when a computer scientist by the name of Jaron Lanier coined the phrase “Virtual Reality” which he defined as a technology that allowed interaction between users and programs/images via computers [2]. In the 1990s, as research progressed, there were some attempts to spread VR commercially to the masses. Unfortunately, steep prices and a lack of realism in the products prevented these products from really taking off, leaving VR out of the entertainment industry for the most part [3].

Video Games

Technically speaking, all video games fall under the broad spectrum of VR. Over time, with advances in visual graphics technology and memory storage improvements, video games have become far more detailed and lifelike. First-person shooter is a category of video games where the screen displays what the character would be seeing through their eyes versus showing the character themselves. In 1997, the popular first-person shooter Goldeneye 007 was released [4]. It is now sixteen years later and first-person shooters are still popular. Crysis 3, the third and most currently installment of the Crysis series, is another first-person shooter is known for having impressive graphics [5]. Comparatively, it is easy to see that these VR systems are only improving in detail (see Fig. 1). While these improvements are quite apparent, both have the same major drawback preventing today’s video games from complete immersion in the VR system. Currently, these games are still being displayed on flat, rectangular screens, making the fact that the games are artificial quite obvious. Despite the realistic graphics, the contents of the screen will be viewed as on object in the real world, and not truly being a part of the VR system.

Virtual Reality Now: Oculus Rift

Currently, an exciting breakthrough in VR is in development and its name is Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift is a gaming headset that is taking gaming in an interesting new direction. The headset boasts an impressive 110° field of vision [6]. Previously, similar displays were very limited in visual range, only about 30-40°. This difference is analogous to the limitations of traditional video games. With 40° of visibility, you still feel as though you are looking at a screen whereas with 110° the effect provides a feeling of being in the world on screen [7].
Oculus Rift also has a high pixilation. Pixels are the units that make up display screens. Each pixel is basically a colored dot that, when lined up, makes up the entire display. The Oculus Rift has what is called 1080p. This means that there are 1,080 columns of pixels across the screen. This higher pixilation helps to avoid the issue known as the screen door effect. This occurs with lower resolutions (less pixels) and the spacing between the pixels appears to look somewhat like a screen door is between the viewer and the screen.
The Oculus Rift changed the 3D aspects of the screen. Each eye sees an individual image. Together, they overlap in order to focus and see the complete image. This is the reason that crossing your eyes makes you see a double-image; your eyes are out of focus. However, the human eye doesn’t have complete overlapping, making previous 3D attempts with complete overlap inaccurate. Oculus Rift doesn’t have complete overlap, making the viewing experience more realistic [8].
Another problem Oculus Rift is tackling is latency glitches. Latency refers to the problem that arises when the mounted-headset moves [8]. In order for the illusion of the VR system to be upheld during use, the visual display must move with the same direction and speed as the user’s head. A lack of this function was a major issue with previous versions of VR headsets, detracting from the VR with out of sync visuals. To counter this issue, various sensors were added to Oculus Rift, allowing it to better account for the various types of movement possible, also known as degrees of freedom. There are six degrees of freedom. These include the movements involved with moving forward, backward, left, right, up, and down.
Oculus Rift uses a combination of three main sensors to account for all six degrees of freedom. The accelerometer measures the acceleration of an object. Next is the magnetometer, which takes measurements of the strength and direction of magnetic fields. Finally, the gyroscope measures the orientation of the object based on its angular momentum, or circular movement. It also has an increased frequency of 250 Hz, double what most other head trackers utilize [8]. Hertz measures the amount of cycles per second of something. In computers, this relates to the speed in which the computer can “think.” This allows for faster reactions by the headset due to the increased rate in which information in processed by the device. This helps to lower the latency considerably because normally, if the frequency cannot match the speed of the head’s movements, the visuals of the VR system simply cannot keep up with its user.
Oculus Rift also offers development kits to anyone willing to purchase one for $300 [7]. With these kits, any developer can create their own game or simulation that can be played on the headset. This means that developers are also not limited to just games. They can program anything that can be displayed on the headset, allowing a variety of simulations such as military combat or flight simulations, surgical simulations, educational and training programs, therapeutic/PTSD programs, and any other VR applications that are currently being used.
Along with new games being developed by actual gaming companies, Oculus Rift can also support certain games made for previous gaming consoles by adjusting the display to 3D. With so many options, Users will have more games to play, and the friendly competition will help to fuel new innovations in the games themselves.
By joining all of these features, the Oculus Rift team hopes to not only change the way video games are played for the better, but also to potentially replace them as not only a gaming console, but also a tool for many different activities, appealing to a diverse range of users.

The Future of Virtual Reality

The Oculus Rift headset is just one step in the process of improving VR. Certain challenges such as latency and pixilation, while greatly improved by Oculus Rift, are still present. There are also many more applications of VR than just video games. Virtual Reality can help to simulate various situations without the user being directly involved. This has led to other uses such as therapeutic, combat training, medical, and other practical uses [6]. Oculus Rift is still in the works, but it could very well introduce a viable commercial market for VR technology. However, there are still many technological limits preventing engineers from creating the kind of VR from science fiction stories.

Conclusion

Virtual Reality opens up many new opportunities for improving life as we know it. Further developments could allow people to safely experience a myriad of activities they would never be able to without VR. Video Games have already been becoming more realistic and advanced while products like Oculus Rift are paving the way to innovation and invention in the VR field. This technology is far from perfect and may never reach the fantastical standards set by the imaginations of science fiction writers. Still, VR can already be used for a variety of purposes and with the current projects and development, can only be further improved in the future.

References

    • [1] J. Silver, (Producer). & Wachowski, A. (Director), & Wachowski, L. (Director), The Matrix [Motion Picture]. United States: Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership, 1999
    • [2] J. Forsell, “Virtual Reality,” Futurics, vol.27, no.3, pp.77-80, 1983
    • [3] Lovén, S. (2011). Also Make the Heavens: Virtual Realities in Science Fiction. Sweden: Section for Sociology of Literature, Department of Literature, Uppsala University
    • [4] Hollis, M. (Director). (1997). Goldeneye 007 [Video Game]. United States, Japan, Europe: Nintendo.
    • [5] Yerli, C. (Director). (2013). Crysis 3 [Video Game], United States: Electronic Arts.
    • [6] J. Hruska, (2012). Oculus Rift: Is the World Finally Ready for Virtual Reality Games? Extreme Tech. [Online Journal] Available: http://search.proque​st.com.libproxy.usc.​edu/docview/10310116​60
    • [7] Oculus rift virtual reality headset gets kickstarter cash. (2012). In BBC News Technology. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk​/news/technology-190​85967
    • [8] J. Carmack, (2012). John Carmack Keynote [Keynote Address]. Available: http://www.mtbs3d.co​m/index.php?option=c​om_content&view=arti​cle&id=13128:john-ca​rmack-talks-vr-at-qu​akecon-2012&catid=35​&Itemid=73