Virtual Reality needs lo-fi
About six years ago, at the back end of 2009, jaded by my years living in London and working for CG studios, worried about the state of the industry given the perilous nature of the economy and the amount of redundancy flying around and the seeming lack of jobs being advertised, I responded to an advert for a position at the University of Northampton, for a project which was starting up running an immersive stereoscopic visualisation centre. The University had invested £3 million in hardware and software, the crowning glory of which was a five-sided CAVE system. This looked brilliant. Firstly, Universities, at that time, were fairly recession proof, and so the job would be secure and secondly, it was a chance to engage seriously in Virtual Reality, in cutting-edge technology in a market and industry that was on the crest of becoming the next big thing.
Needless to say, the work of the centre and the culture of virtual reality was in equal measures fascinating and highly frustrating. It became apparent very quickly that the possibilities with Virtual Reality were endless as long as you didn’t ask too much of the system, a system that was highly complicated and over-specified and as such the software behind it was not user friendly or understandable. The keys to the kingdom were in the hands of a number of large companies who wanted you to buy what they were selling, and a best fit approach was required around the software. Of course, they had spent years developing the software to be used with their systems, so you can’t blame them for wanting to make money out of it.
Rather than engaging potential customers with the possibilities of VR, you spent a lot of time explaining the limitations. A tool is not applicable if you spend your time explaining why it is cutting edge and clever, rather than a client envisioning straight away the advantages of its use. Added to this, potential customers couldn’t see their clients wanting to travel to a physical location to use the centre. The first question that potentially interested parties had was “Is it mobile?”
Having said this, there was interesting and innovative work that was produced, and I wear the scars of my time with the centre proudly. Having set up my own VR business, it amuses me to see that VR is once again being positioned as the next big thing. However, this time I think that there is more opportunity of it sticking.
Punk music in the UK was in one sense a reaction to the overblown and over produced prog-rock of the 1970s. Leaflets documenting three guitar chords were distributed with the tagline of “These are three chords, go and start a band.” Music went lo-fi, and the production of music, and the ability to produce music, were given back to the future innovators; teenagers.
Similarly, I am really enthused about the potential of low-cost headsets allowing Virtual Reality to become more than a million pound box in a room. When I say low cost, I am not talking about Oculus Rift, or even Samsung Gear VR, but more along the model of Google Cardboard. While Oculus Rift has its place, the recent announcement about its launch price being over $350 (http://vrfocus.com/archives/22922/vr-vs-oculus-rifts-price-and-release-date-when-will-we-see-them/) means that it becomes exclusive to a certain demographic. It also requires a pretty high powered computing rig to run it (https://www.oculus.com/en-us/blog/powering-the-rift/). With no current laptop specification being able to run it (although this will probably change in the future), it limits the portability of the system.
Google Cardboard, on the other hand, runs on a phone, is highly distributable through apps, and anybody can develop apps if they have a computer that will run Unity 3d (https://unity3d.com/). There is a debate to be had about operability, and the level of phone required to run the apps, but everybody has a phone, and the next generation of phone GPUs are being designed with VR in mind (http://www.engadget.com/2015/08/12/snapdragon-820-graphics).
This puts the power of innovation and development into the hands of the people who have the time, the inclination and the imagination to create brilliant things with it; teenagers. Google Cardboard is Virtual Reality’s lo-fi moment, and one platform that I think above all the others is really exciting.