Types of VR 🐴🦄🌈

As discussed earlier, there are loads of terms floating around in the world of VR. But it’s not just things on the spectrum between AR and VR. There’s also various types of experiences within just VR.

Rather than try to cover every possible variant here, I’ll talk to the types I’ve experienced personally, and as a result what I think are the important components that make for good VR.

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6 degrees of freedom (6DOF)

I’ve used quite a range now, from 3 degrees of freedom (3DOF) Google Cardboard, right up to a high immersion 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF) HTC Vive setups. Here’s an overview of what i’ve used so far:

Cardboard (3DOF)

I’ve got what can only be described as a growing collection of Google Cardboard headsets. The more you get involved/exposed to the VR community and events it seems sort of inevatable that you’ll pickup a few along the way. This is part of what makes Cardboard so great. It’s highly accessible. If you’ve got a modern iOS or Android based phone you’ve got 99% of what you need to get going. Cardboard headsets range in sophistication and price, from $15 bits of literal cardboard, to “fancier” setups that strap to your head with headphones for $50+.

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Emma sporting one of my “fancy” Cardboard headsets

Acessiblity aside, the sorts of experiences you can do in a Google Cardboard really are a perfect entry into VR. It’s a fantastic way to take users to inaccessible locations and show them things. Examples include estate agents showing an out of town client through a property, or placing a marine biology student at the bottom of the sea. The biggest and most obvious shortcoming is the low levels of both emersion and interactivity avalible to carboard users. Effectivly you can only interact via the users gaze or a single button interface on the headset itself. This sort of thing is fine for a certain segment of VR but obviously you’re not exactly going to be entering the Matrix anytime soon.

One of the things that can’t go unsaid about Cardboard’s accessibility is how it lowers the barrier to entry to VR development. As I said in my hardware for VR post, you can get into VR on a very low budget with cardboard as a target device, and that’s a big deal.

If you’re interested in giving Cardboard a go, take a look at Google’s Cardboard site.

Gear VR (3DOF + 3DOF controller)

The Gear VR is a fasinating step up from Cardboard. In many ways it’s a very sensible direction to take VR. At around $100 USD, plus the cost of a compatable sumsung phone, the cost is more accessible than a full emersion setup. Obviously a phone strapped to your head is only going to take you so far visually. You’re also only going to get a 3DOF (that’s pitch, roll, and yaw tracking of the users head) which limits the feeling of presence. However the addition of a controller, even a simple 3DOF one, means far greater levels of interactivity. To my mind, having any control scheme that similates a users hand greatly increases the value of the setup.

Having said all that, the Gear VR isnt something I’d recommend unless you’re already a Samsung phone user. It’s benifits are not worth the $1000 NZD investment over a cardboard setup . It’s also worth mentioning this segment of the marketing is increasingly competitive. Google have Daydream in this space. I haven’t used it personally but conceptually it looks quite similar. If you think a setup like this is something you’d like to explore you should consider both before making you decision. You should also be aware that Daydream looks to be releasing stand alone headsets later this year that may be the most interesting take on this segment yet. Unless you’re in a mad rush for a VR setup I’d consider waiting until later in the year before buying.

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A promotional sketch of the HTC Daydream standalone headset

HTC Vive (6DOF + 6DOF hand controllers)

I like to think of the HTC Vive as a window to the future rather than the revolution that some tout it to be. The experience itself is unmistakably amazing. The level of immersion is so high that I stopped thinking about controlling a computer simulation, and started just naturally interacting with it as if it was a real environment. It’s actually quite a strange thing to describe, but having used this setup dozens of times i’m convinced this as far more to do with your hands than it does your head.

The second you enter a VR environment, and you have some control of it via controls that closely approximates your hands, you stop thinking about the tools and just start being. Before you know it you are truly in VR. Based on the impact of hand contollers I’m a bit surpised more isn’t being done with cardboard headset combine with hand controllers, but then again there’s likely significant technical challenges I’m not aware of.

HTC Vive headset in action

The HTC Vive in action

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly the Vive is by far my favourite VR experince. However the reason I say it’s a window to the future is the ticket price. These things cost a fortune. A Vive with hand controllers cost $799 USD. Which on its own is a big investment for most. Not inaccessible, but significant. The real kicker here is you need a high end Mac or PC to connect the headset to. Taking that into account you can be looking at a $3000+ NZD machine to get started. Not exactly mainstream pricing.

It’s just a matter of time before these things transform into a more mainstream format. It’s quite likely the coming stand alone headsets are the begining of that. How much they cost and how good they are is yet to be seen, but I for one am excited at the possibilites.

The sooner more people have immersive VR experiences and reasonable consumer prices the faster this industry prices. With gateway drugs like Cardboard giving people their first taste for a low price, it’s sure to an explosive industry once the hardware catches up.

Hardware for VR development 🖥

Starting out in VR development it’s easy to think you’ll spend the earth on special hardware to get going. The reality is that’s just not true. The below 360 image (which I took with the google street view app on iOS) is fairly rough as 360 images go. The room was a mess as I was in the middle of a fairly ugly hardware transition. The stitching isn’t very good, so there’s lots of bung parts to it, but you get the idea of the space and gear I work with.

Until recently I was using a late 2009 Mac Mini and was managing just fine on my Udacity VR developer course. Well I was managing, not sure about the fine part. So I upgraded to a late 2012 mac mini, still 5 year old hardware, and I’m going gang busters doing google cardboard development with it.

Here’s a few more details on the hardware setup i’m running in the 360 image above:

Hardware

Displays – Two second hand 1080p displays I purchased on Trademe for $300 total. The one on the left is in portrait orientation for my code editor. The one on the right in landscape for the Unity editor. Both are on this monitor stand I purchased from PB tech for around $100.

Input devices – There’s a bunch of keyboards in the shot but the one I’m actually using now is a Logitech K380. I managed to get a refurbished one on 1-day for $40 shipped. Honestly it’s such a good keyboard I’d be happy to pay retail for it. Logitech claims 2 AAA batteries will last 2 years. Far better than the 2 months I was getting out of my Apple keyboard and a fraction of the price. For a pointing device I’m using a stock standard magic mouse. I’d prefer a Logitech MX Master 2S, but it’s a nice to have rather than a must.

Computer – I have two in play now. My development machine is a late 2012 Mac Mini I purchased on Trademe for $500. Even though it’s from late 2012 it’s actually the fastest model of Mac Mini ever made, the quad core i7. I’ve put 16GB of ram in it and replace the spinning disk with an SSD. I’m really happy with its performance. It does everything I need for Unity development, especially given the contrast of my other machine the late 2009 Mac Mini. That machine is now running as the server for the house. I’ve modified it a bit adding 4.5TB of storage and 8GB of ram. It can no longer run the latest version of MacOS but it’s doing a great job as a cache and Time Machine server.

Future plans

Audio hardware – Something I’m really aware of with VR is the impact of audio. Obviously visuals are important in VR, but good quality audio can also have a huge impact on immersion. It’s also very useful in directing the users attention. I’ve got a few bits of hardware on order to support creating more of my own audio for various projects. The main bit of kit is a USB audio interface, or more specifically a Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen). I got mine via Amazon as it actually worked out a bit cheaper than buying local, even with the shipping costs via youshop.

I’m trying to play a longer game with this purchase. It’s likely better than I need at this stage, but it will last me 15 years or more.  With budget in mind, for the rest of my audio gear I opted for a cheap XLR mic, arm, and pop filter from Aliexpress. I’ll upgrade those later when I have more funds available and other parts of my setup mature.

360 camera – At the moment i’m just using my iPhone 6s and various 360 apps. Over time I’m expanding my capabilities as I need/can afford them. I’m in the market for a 360 camera, likely something like the Ricoh Theta S or a 2017 Gear VR camera. I’m hoping to purchase one of these in the next 3-4 months.

Mac Pro and a 6DOF VR setup – Ultimately I want to replace my Mac Mini with a far more powerful setup so I can expand into more immersive VR development. I’m aiming for a new Mac Pro when they become available later next year. I’m also delaying purchase of something like a Vive or an Oculus as long as I possibly can. It’s such early days in VR hardware and i’d prefer to wait to buy when there’s gen 2 or even 3 out. I suspect 2018 is going to be an expensive year.

The thing to take away here is you don’t need to spend the earth to get started with VR. Some second hand hardware and a drive to learn will take you a long way before you need to invest more.