VR is short for Virtual Reality, which in Poland also goes by the name phantomatics thanks to the works of Stanisław Lem. It was not so long ago that this concept made its way into the mainstream – this took place in 2017, although its history dates back to the decline of the nineteenth century. In 1838, Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, which is a tool used to watch 3D photographs. A stereoscopic image consists of two separate, almost identical shots. A small shift of the point from which a given frame was captured simulates the natural difference between the image that our right and left eyes perceive – thanks to this difference, our brain is able to determine the depth of the image and differences in distance.
The origins of stereoscopy can be found a lot earlier, in the sixteenth century. There are drawings made with ink, dated at around 1551, depicting one figure presented from two spots, which created an illusion of spatial viewing. Regardless of how old this idea is, it is not technology that lies at its basis, but rather the properties of our sight. The popular VR devices such as: Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Go, or Samsung Gear VR – all of them use the same phenomenon. However, over the years, an image has not only taken on color but become mobile, talking and with time - also interactive.
VR technology is mainly picture and sound, although the experiences that come with it are mainly enhanced by smell or touch, depending on the technological facility and chosen applications; and there is a lot to choose from.
- simulation of various vehicles – underwater, land, air, and space.- in medicine – medical imaging, in interactive trainings and “experiences”, treating phobias, treating post-traumatic stress disorder, and even treating burns; remote surgeries also become possible.- prototyping and presentations - creating CAD models, audiovisual communication, trainings, museology.- marketing and trade – interactive presentations and marketing campaigns allowing to experience a product, virtual shopping and tourism. - entertainment – in other words, audiovisual material and games.
Virtual reality today
The currently available VR devices seem to be very similar at first sight. Solutions such as Oculus, Sony, HTC and Samsung seem almost identical on the outside. Virtual reality is first and foremost goggles or VR glasses, among which the most distinguishable solution is Google Cardboard or its copies, which are mostly made of carton. Such a simple construction is possible thanks to the use of a smartphone as the heart of the entire system – similarly as in the case of Samsung glasses. Using its computing power and the smartphone’s screen, VR goggles offer a much cheaper solution compared to goggles from HTC and Oculus, which require a computer to work.
The right computing power is necessary when generating complex, detailed virtual worlds, and stationary machines with powerful graphics systems can provide the biggest amounts of that. Nevertheless, the abilities of today’s smartphones allow for a number of applications connected with VR and despite certain limitations, they still remain the most comfortable, light, and wireless solution. All VR devices are connected by one goal – creating a real environment in full 3D space, without visible borders. And so, though in practice VR goggles are also just “another screen” (or two separate screens), in contrast to TV and monitors, they have no frames – most goggles have been created in such a way as to make the field of vision exceed 100 degrees. Our vision will also come across lens, which will allow to properly adjust and focus the image.
Regardless of the solution used, after launching the device, the most important thing is the reality that we are about to visit and how we will move within it. One of the basic ways of movement, and at the same time very natural, is tracking the movement of our head. We can use different controllers, hand-tracking, voice commands, buttons on the goggles or trackpads. Head movement tracking, regardless of the VR goggles used, can take place in three axes, using a built-in gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer. Some systems use internal and external cameras to detect the position of the goggles in space with a LED light. A very important aspect for tracking movement is latency – the delay with which our movements are read and transferred to virtual reality - the smaller it is, the bigger the immersion.
Despite movement of the head, manufacturers of VR goggles make their best attempt to transfer the motions of our body into the virtual world, and the movement of the hands is what counts the most. VR devices solve detection of movement in many ways – in combination with controllers, which include a set of sensors in the goggles, thanks to cameras or laser detectors. The latest HTC VIVE gives the greatest possibilities of tracking movement, following our actions in the scale of the entire room, through which we can move freely.
So far, only one product on the market offers a readymade solution for eye-tracking thanks to FOVE goggles. Developers expect that eye-tracking will be to VR what touch screens have become to phones and when this is implemented the right way, we will not be able to imagine a world without this technology.
An example of popular VR releases:
EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone – one of the first loud VR titles, presenting spectacular cosmic battles. The game offers a single-player mode, as well as a multiplayer option. Even though it has been two years since the game first premiered, it strikes with its detailed graphic design and is a must-see for fans of sci-fi which have PC- or PS4-dedicated goggles.
Project Cars 2 – this one is dedicated for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. A true lucky strike for fans made by lovers of motorization: over 180 cars, whose behavior and mode of driving was developed by professional race drivers. A touch of reality, in particular in the VR mode, is additionally provided by the changing weather conditions, influencing the way that the vehicle is driven.
Beat Saber – a musical-rhythmic game without plastic instruments, but with virtual laser swords. The gameplay is based on smashing colored blocks flying our way in the rhythm of music. The idea is brilliantly simple; it is an incredibly well-implemented concept for all those who feel like moving a little to some good tones.
Farpoint – this one has convinced many players to buy PlayStation VR goggles. Created exclusively for the Sony platform, a futuristic action game with gameplay and mechanics of shooting in the foreground. Despite a few simplifications, Farpoint is a breath of fresh air in a world of VR games and it is simply great fun.
The Lab – one of the few completely free games created for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The work of Valve Corporation, embedded in the world of Portal offers sever various game modes: Slingshot, Longbow, Xortex, Postcards, Human Medical Scan, Solar System, Robot Repair and Secret Shop.
Google Play apps – the aforementioned Google Cardboard has a dedicated app going by the same name, which is a peculiar VR center for smartphones. Google created versions of their services tailored to VR, such as YouTube or Google Erath, and the whole Play store is full of paid and free items.
Development of the VR app
In 2016, Forbes suspected that the virtual and augmented reality branch will hit the value of 162 billion dollars until 2020. According to various estimates, the value of the VR market alone at this time is supposed to exceed 40 billion dollars. Along with the increasing popularity of virtual reality, more and more companies are deciding on using it in their projects. This technology is becoming not only more common but also more accessible thanks to the native implementation of VR in engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine 4.
The basis for creating a VR app is solid project documentation, which will help the developer through the entire process, and allow the programmers to transfer our vision to the final code. In order for a finished product to meet our expectations, they have to be clear, and the key functions should be explained properly. What may be helpful here are various prototypes and models, meaning everything that may illustrate our vision to the coders. We should be able to explain, preferably bearing in mind the end user, how a given reality looks like, how we will move around it and most of all, what main target our solution meets.
Documentations for a project can be created by the person commissioning a given app, its developer; this can also be done in cooperation of both parties. When this is done, further arrangements can be made. Another important step is choosing the target platform for which our app will be created. The number of available, previously listed solutions is quite large, and new ones are still coming.
What platform to choose?
Using the right tools, developers have the possibility to create a project, which, with just a bit of workload, can be transferred into a few different platforms. The aforementioned Unity and UE4 engines or libGDX may be used on a PC, PlayStation or mobile devices, which is why developers often use universal tools. Again, the app that we want to create and how we are planning on using it are important factors.
Payment model – contracted hours or fixed price?
One of the most important factors that influence the development of our app, and most of all the final price of its preparation, is the settlement. Usually, work is settled in two basic ways: by a fixed price for a finished project or using an hourly wage.
A pre-arranged fixed price for finishing the project is usually the lowest total cost for our production. If we have clear criteria, well-prepared documentation and strict timeframes, this way of settlement might turn out to be the best, particularly for smaller projects. Price lists of various developers differ quite significantly depending on the latitude and degree of complexity.
A simple app for one studio, like a virtual 360-degree tour, or a straightforward frame is a cost of around 3,000 to 5,000 dollars and about 5 weeks of work. A more complex app, like a simulation for the medical industry with advanced 3D models can cost as much as 30,000 dollars and take 4 to 6 months of development. There is no workable, upper limit; creating a complex app or game may absorb from 100,000 to 300,000 dollars in 24 months.
Starting cooperation with a developer with an hourly rate may be necessary when working on bigger projects, the shape of which has not yet been defined and which may require some elasticity. Again, rates are different in various parts of the world, ranging from 15 to even 180 dollars per hour, depending on the reputation and experience of the developer. The industry agrees that developers with the greatest price to quality ratio can be found in Europe.
The final price is the cost of supporting the product after giving it into the hands of the users. The support plan price is usually identical to the development price; however, often times, mistakes that come about due to the fault of the developer are fixed for free and as part of the warranty. With time, it may also turn out that the final product is missing a function that we did not presume previously - in this case, we have to take into account additional costs.
VR is awaiting a distant, but bright future. It will take several years before the right standards are made, and the technology matures and becomes more accessible in terms of its price. Despite all this, even now VR is proving to be something more than just a titbit. Virtual reality slowly changes education, trade, healthcare, and with time, it may become present in our everyday life. Experts agree – the future belongs to interactive, almost intimate experiences, where technology is something more than just goggles and a pair of controllers.