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Virtual reality for beginners: Everything you need to know to wrap your head around VR

Hayden Dingman | July 20, 2015
Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it's finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that's happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market--Valve and HTC's Vive headset--and a few months after that we'll see the Rift finally do the same.

Not quite. Alternate reality is a bit more complex than virtual reality in that it melds computer graphics with the real world. In other words, your view of the world isn't so much obstructed by an AR headset as it is enhanced.

For an early (and very simplistic) example, let's talk Google Glass. All Glass did was stick a miniature display in the top-right corner of your field of view. You could walk around like normal, glance up, and see the time or a picture or whatever "floating" in the air above you.

Of course it wasn't actually floating there--your eye just perceives Glass's display that way.

And Glass wasn't even a great rendition of AR, because it was made to hide out in the corner of your vision. Newer AR headsets are focused more on immersion, sitting smack in the middle of your field of view.

Now, the potential for AR is incredibly high--especially for day-to-day life. For instance, my favorite demo so far came by way of Microsoft's HoloLens kit and was essentially a step-by-step walkthrough on how to change out a lightswitch without electrocuting yourself. You can easily envision a world where people are taught to play an instrument, change their oil, brew beer, or any number of skilled tasks by using AR.

On the other hand, I've also written extensively about how I don't think AR is particularly interesting for traditional linear-storyline gaming purposes --a viewpoint I stand by. I've now played games on three different AR headsets and while it's fun messing around in a sandbox, it's not the type of game I tend to enjoy best. But for something like Minecraft? It works fine.

The other problem is the technology itself. AR headsets are nowhere near as mature as VR headsets, and we're probably looking at another five to ten years before they get to the point where the tech is slim and powerful enough to enter mainstream use.

But we're getting there! The main players in the AR field are Microsoft's HoloLens set (which I played with at E3) and CastAR, which was made by some ex-Valve employees.

Press my buttons

Back to VR. There are basically four main categories of input devices, listed here from worst to best: Mouse and keyboard, gamepad, specialist controls (i.e. flight sticks), and motion controls.

Mouse and keyboard: I know it hurts, PC faithful. It hurts to rank the controller above the mouse and keyboard. I promise this will be the only time.

But it's for good reason. Here's an experiment you can try at home: Put on a blindfold and try to use your mouse and keyboard. And if you think that's not too bad--maybe you touch-type 100+ words per minute--try sitting back in your chair, reciting the alphabet, then reaching your hands out again to grab your mouse and keyboard.


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