Virtual reality (VR) has arrived. According to Gartner’s theory of technology hype cycles, virtual reality has entered the mainstream and is here to stay. VR has found broad applicability in domains ranging from games and entertainment to professional training and health and wellness. The news is tough to miss– this year, Facebook released its first virtual reality social network for its Oculus Rift VR hardware. The New York Times shipped Google Cardboard to every one of its Sunday Times subscribers in late 2015 and has featured daily VR video essays since late 2016. Verizon installed Samsung Gear VR demo stations in its stores. So what’s going on behind the goggles and how do they differ from the gimmicky TV-in-your-face gadgets from the in-flight catalogs of yesterday? It’s all about context and perspective.
The human eye focuses light onto an overlapping grid of neurons at the back of the eye known as the retina. From there, the signal takes a ride on the optic nerve until it joins the signal from the other eye at the back of the skull. This is the primary visual area, where the two images fuse to form a cohesive picture of the surrounding world.
What makes the experience of sight immersive are a bunch of visual cues telling the brain that the scene it’s seeing is real. A clear image feels more real than one lacking fine detail. A panoramic image that fills our field of vision is more believable than a framed picture hanging in view. Indications of depth also lend realism. These can be as simple as nearby objects blocking farther ones. But the strongest indication of realism and depth comes from the experience the brain has piecing together the slightly different images your left and right eyes receive. This is known as “stereopsis,” and our ability to induce the experience using high resolution digital displays is part of what makes modern VR so compelling.
Panoramic, high resolution, stereo images can now be rendered using hardware present on smartphones. In fact, Google Cardboard converts your phone into a VR headset by presenting half the screen to each eye and using built-in motion tracking to detect head motion and change the image to match.
The other half of immersion is “perspective,” or the viewer’s ability to explore the scene. Traditional movies have a single perspective. Everyone in the audience has the same experience of standing behind the camera watching the scene unfold in front of them. Immersive videos add new dimensions to the scene. They might fill your field of view and allow you to look around rather than stare straight ahead; this is known as 360 video. They might also present a different image to each eye in order to create a sense of depth; this is known as 3D or stereoscopic video. At the far end of the immersion scale is “virtual reality (VR),” a kind of holy grail combining stereo images with the ability to both look around and navigate a scene. Because film can’t capture all conceivable perspectives at once, scenes in virtual reality must be totally digitally generated, the same as videogames.
Which reality suits your users best?
If you’re considering creating your own immersive digital experience, it’s important to choose the right level of realism. The more realistic the scene, the more expensive it is to both create the content and view it later. Here are some examples of what type of immersion may work for you based on what experience you want to provide customers:
Different types of immersion may work better for different segments of users, and so we suggest performing usability testing, which you can do either digitally or in person. This will give your team valuable information about how your users think and what types of virtual environments will be most engaging to them, so that by the time your team is ready to design and develop the first prototype, your resources are appropriately allocated.
What’s next for immersive experiences
Technologies like Unity, Google’s Daydream, and Apple’s VR-ready iMac Pro have brought fully immersive digital experiences into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the near future will take those fully immersive experiences into the real world via mixed and augmented reality like Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore. If you’re interested in learning more about how your team can leverage immersive tech like virtual reality and augmented reality, get in touch.