One year with Oculus Rift

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  • January 7, 2016
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Yesterday the consumer version of Oculus Rift has been finally released and now the first consumer virtual reality headset is available for pre-order.

The Rift, developed by Oculus VR (a company acquired in 2014 by Facebook) has brought immersive virtual reality back to the attention of the public after the progressive lost of importance and interest from both consumers and companies mainly in the last decade.

The reason of that was probably the fact that immersive virtual reality was at a a stage where it was impossible to use it without wearing heavy and bulky pieces of equipment installed in specific conceived environments. Consequently it was considered an available technology, but truly expensive, hardly manageable, unconfortable and also often associated to the idea of  exclusion and isolation from reality.

Palmer Luckey, Oculus VR founder and designer of the Rift was able to invert this trend taking advantage of a magic moment represented by the maturation of most of the technologies involved in immersive virtual reality.

A magic moment also considering the new financing opportunity that crowdfunding has offered to start-ups like Oculus VR.

The enourmous success of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign was probably one of the first of a series of high-tech projects funded directly by the final users. It opened the way to a new approach in conceiving both the developmemt and the launch of products with a high emotional and technological value. Niche products apparently in which probably none of the hi-tech big companies would ever had  imagined to invest.

Towards the end of 2012 the first Oculus Rift developer kits started shipping. They included progressively improved versions of both hardware and software.

In october 2014 I requested and received my Developer Kit 2 featuring the latest headset version prior to the 6th of january 2016 commercial launch.

After having used it for more than a year I’ve decided to share my experiences end explaining what led me to search for Oculus Rift alternatives and later on pushed me to the development of my personal VR headset to better cover the needs of my clients and mine.

My very first impression after receiving the development kit was undoubtedly positive. The hardware quality is awesome. It’s a solid and well designed product, relatively comfortable to wear and for sure lighter that the previous VR headset I had tried back in 1999 !

At that time I was working for the Fiat Design Center in Turin and we were working on the design of the Fiat Panda released later on in 2003. We decided to integrate immersive virtual reality activities in the development of the conceptual design for both interiors and exteriors of the vehicle. It was a very ambitious idea and very constructive for me.

We were already using a virtual reality system which is still being used today. It consists in the visualization of the vehicle on a large retro-projected screen. It’s a very good solution for sharing ideas especially on the final design phases, but it wasn’t enough to preview neither the actual dimensional impact of the exterior design nor the environment feeling of the interior design.

We suddenly realized the complexity linked to working with immersive virtual reality tools and how difficult is sharing informations efficiently.

These challenges are still present today. You cannot really show immersive virtual reality to others, you have to try it yourself and when you’re immersed in the virtual environment there’s not a lot of ways to link “virtual” reality with “real” reality ! This makes immersive virtual reality a very difficult tool in projects that needs a collaborative approach.

At that time the cost and complexity of the equipment forced us to limit the experience to just one headset with a quite unreliable tracking system controlled by a big sphere positioned in the center of the room.

Nevertheless we managed to develop the different design proposals usign the desired tool and got the design approval. With our surprise, the day of the presentation Mr. Roberto Testore, the CEO of Fiat Auto at that time, was very amused by the idea of experiencing virtual reality, but also quite scared of not being able to see his body in the virtual environment.

Compared to our 1999 system, Oculus Rift represents a huge leap forward. The  tracking system uses a small external infra-red sensor which is more or less the size of a webcam and is positioned just in front of the user, plus the internal headset sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer). This solution minimizes the so called “VR sickness” which is a nausea feeling that many people may experience when trying immersive virtual reality.

The high quaity lenses, together with a software image correction (so called “barrel effect”), can provide a clear un-distorted view even at the edges of the field of view. 

One of the most important things is anyway the flexibility of the software that manages the headset. In 1999 for the Panda project, on top of the contents, we had to create a specific software in order to link the virtual space to the head tracking system. There were no software open platforms to help, while today Oculus Rift can count on an ecosystem of software tools  very well known by developers. These tools had been improved over time thanks to the fast evolution of the video games industry.

As a vehicle designer I get often involved in car o aircraft interior design projects and the Rift has become one of my professional tools. It allow, after a proper preparation of the 3D data, to literally enter in the environments and evaluate not only the design features, but also the scale and impact of the different elements. In small design studios like mine it easily replaces phisical maquettes that would be difficult to fit in a small space.

Obviously, compared to a phisical maquette, it’s not possible to touch the surfaces, but on the other side it can be even more useful to visualize an environment correctly and with a high level of realism. Being able to see the right lighting, materials and details even in early phases of the design development can make a huge difference.

Beyond the use for professional 3D visualization, a tool like the Rift allow a variety of other possible applications.

Since Facebook acquired Oculus VR, virtual reality has become also a subject related to social interaction. We all asked ourself “what is Mark Zuckerberg going to do with Oculus VR?”. Facebook is probably one of the best medium to bring virtual reality in the hands of the masses and for giving it a value in terms of social sharing and human connections rather than isolation from reality as it was in the past.

Today, after the commercial launch of the consumer version of the Rift, many people believe that in a near future virtual reality could be finally a technology available for everybody.

But is it really going to happen ?

I received my Developer Kit 2 when my entire professional activity was based on two Mac Mini and two MacBookPro. At that time unfortunately, even if I was able to produce any kind of 3D graphics with my equipment, non of the computers I had in my studio were ready to support correctly the amount of graphic power needed for a fluid visualization using the Rift.

Things obviously changed when I added a high end MacPro to the list of my computers. On the latest MacPro of course there’s no lag at all and the visualization is just perfect.

Now is clear that Oculus Rift is mainly a tool for professionals or hardcore gamers. It is not at all, for the moment, something accessible to everybody simply because to the cost of the headset (the Oculus Rift pre-order price is set to 600 $ + taxes + shipment) we need to add the cost of a graphically powerful computer. Most of the computers available on the market are not fulfilling this requirement.

Fortunately there is some more accessible alternatives, at a lower cost, but most of all more easily adoptable by a wider and less expert public.

I started searching for Oculus Rift alternatives  when some of my clients started asking me to help them promoting their products to the public through immersive virtual reality experiences during special events or simply in their show-rooms.

At that time each developer was allowed to order just one kit so it was impossible to create an experience with more that one headset. And this was the first limit I’ve found.

At the same time we started evaluating all the devices security problems during events together with all the complications related to the continuous on-site support that a device like Oculus require for being used correctly by an event or show-room visitor that has never experienced virtual reality before. On top of this the fact that each headset had to be connected to a computer added a layer of complexity regarding the show-room layout and wiring.

Soon I’ve found out that immersive virtual reality was possible also on mobile devices. This opened a number of alternative scenarios given by the opportunity of not being linked to a computer anymore and being able to use lighter and smaller  equipment.

In fact the main advantage of designing virtual reality experiences using mobile technology is the total absence of cables. Except if you want to use it to secure the devices, but this can also be done through wireless technology.

The Rift needs different power and data transmission cables, a video cable, a sync cable, plus the audio headset cable considering that the developer version doesn’t have internal audio.

On the other side, a vitual reality headset based on mobile technology is just a support for the optics while it borrows from a smartphone the screen, the sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer) and the audio. All the technology that is necessary to create an immersive virtual experience is already present in most of the smartphones on the market.

Once installed, the Rift offers a limited action range because of the cables and the front external sensor while a mobile device is obviously an all-in-one solution and therefore offers a 360 degrees range of action.

Another great advantage in using an headset based on mobile technology is related to the fact that improving the embedded smartphone means improving the quality of the experience. Considering the fast evolution of mobile devices we can easily imagine how quick and easily a mobile headset can be upgraded.

Recently a huge variety of mobile VR devices has become available on the market. They may differ in shape, size, materials, but they all share the same characteristic: they tends to be compatible with the widest range of smartphones possible.

The only real exception is the Samsung Gear VR, a VR mobile headset developed by Samsung and Oculus VR. It is only compatible with the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones. In this case the advantage is the very precise positioning of the device inside the headset because the whole device has been developed around that specific smartphone.

A misalignment of the smartphone screen always causes annoying visualization problems and can turn the virtual session into a tiring or annoying experience.

The visual field alignment precision is a big advantage of the Gear VR, while a big disadvantage could be the fact that it could not be compatible with the next Samsung Galaxy generations. In that case a redesign of the entire headset would force customers to replace the headset toghether with the new smartphone.

By the way considering the mobile technology evolution speed, I think that devices like the Samsung Gear VR are far more interesting and could lead to better solutions compared to desktop devices like the Oculus that, from the point of view of a designer, can still remain very good 3D visualization tool, but quite limited for being used outside the office, during presentations or events.

The mobile tech evolution speed together with the higher potential and flexibility led me to invest my energies and attentions in the direction of mobile VR and keep the Rift only for some specific 3D visualizations projects.

Over the last year I’ve been working on the design of a completely new headset based on mobile technology and entirely produced in my studio using my custom made 3D printer. This approach allow me to get the best technical solutions, but also to entirely customize the headset for every single event or presentation and continuously develop the design without having to freeze it for production.

One of the early versions of my VR headset was already used for some interactive design presentations, but also for an important event hosted by Toyota Boshoku during the 2015 Milan Design Week.

Soon I’ll be publish all the details regarding my VR headset project and I’ll be happy to share this continous evolving experience.

The year 2016 is considered by many a very promising year for all the technologies linked to virtual reality. It started with the commercial launch of Oculus Rift, but there is still a lot of innovations related to VR that can attract even more attention from the public and hopefully bring immersive virtual reality to a wider audience.

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