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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Technology: Oculus Rift – a New Virtual Reality Viewing Accessory- Stareyes Galaxy Reporting…

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) viewing accessory that is designed to give VR gamers a new level of user experience. 

The device development was initially financed by Kickstarter, and demonstrator units are now available for developers, together with a software development kit (SDK). Linden Lab is looking into porting this VR experience to Second Life © (SL) users, but there is still a way to go before we can expect the first avatars to enter SL using an Oculus Rift viewer. Stareyes Galaxy had the opportunity to test the demonstrator.

The technology behind the Oculus Rift is quite straightforward. It uses a 6” liquid-crystal display (LCD) and enlarging optics for both eyes. A personal computer (PC) is used to send the viewable content to the display. The user then sees a stereoscopic view of the VR content, as both eyes get their own view, separated by the perspective. The optics focus on the display surface itself, but the perspective seems to be set in infinity. The rendering for the display is done by means of the software, for each eye separately. The viewer uses the same content that is rendered on the PC screen.

Stereoscopic rendering is used on microdisplay-equipped VR “goggles” already previously. What makes the Oculus Rift experience compelling is their clever use of gyros and acceleration sensors to signal the user’s head movements back to the PC. The rendering then follows the user’s point of view, and this is done with little enough latency to respond quickly to the user’s head motion. This way, the virtual scene seems to be locked in “real space” and as the user turns her head, it feels as if she is turning her head in the virtual space.

The optics in front of the user’s eyes is simple, and the software takes care of the imaging artifacts by pre-distorting the views for both eyes. As a result, looking at the columns and rows of pixels in the user’s view, they may seem curved and blurred toward the edges. The view fuses for a compelling 3-D experience, and I found this very well done on the demo. Unlike in microdisplay-based VR systems, the field of view is large, extending very naturally close to the peripheral edge of vision. This, despite the pixelization of the view, creates a very immersive sensation that I found to enhance the virtual reality experience. This pixelization is due to the limited resolution of the LCD used in the viewer. Individual subpixels were visible, and the objects looked jagged at the edges. Texture resolutions were limited, as well. Moving the head quickly back and forth, I found the rendering to follow the head movement quite accurately, but due to the LCD’s slow response, the view became blurred when the head was moving.
The movement controls can obviously be mapped for each game or application separately. In the demo, the mouse was available to change the angular point of view, and the arrow keys functioned as motion controls for “x-y” motion within the space rendered for the user. Since there is no actual physical movement, there was a slight feeling of unnaturalness when moving about within the space.

There is no indication that Linden Lab would provide a test version of the SL viewer for Oculus Rift, and it may take some time before a viewer is available for the common SL user. By then, the commercial version of the device might be available. It is rumored to have a better-resolution display, which would reduce the pixelization. Hopefully, the rendering can be kept fast enough so as not to create unwanted latency from the sensors to the rendering point of view. How Linden Lab solves the interaction is another thing completely. I found it slightly difficult to just use the arrow keys and the mouse. Interaction with objects, taking care of communication, and so forth, will deviate from the mainstream SL experience, and hopefully a reasonable solution to interaction can be found.

The development unit was quite comfortable to wear, but it really closes out the outside world. There is little possibility for multitasking on SL, when you wear one of these devices. The distance of the optics could be adjusted with respect to your eyes, and using the device with eyeglasses is possible, allowing sharp focusing on the content. Virtual reality is no spectator sport, and it may take some time before there is an adequate level of social acceptability for users of virtual reality eyewear. Just as the eyewear shuts the real world out, the user is shut out from people in the real world.

I am looking forward to seeing the commercial version of the Oculus Rift for sale to the consumer. For first-person shooting use, I would expect the unit to provide a better performance, as the view acquisition is very natural, and as the stereoscopic rendering gives a better perspective to the game. In Second Life, the interaction paradigm has to be solved. SL is a social space first and foremost, and interaction with other avatars is key. It could be argued that using voice would be an easy solution, but for anybody who has been to active voice chat sims, it is obvious that widespread use of voice chat due to the increasing availability of devices like Oculus Rift would only contribute to the chaotic pandemonium. Virtual reality interaction is an active area of research, and surely, a solution will be available, in due time.


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