Virtual Reality took center stage at a recent San Jose Convention Center trade show, where several thousand attendees checked out the latest in VR hardware, virtual worlds and other immersive experiences. The numbers don’t measure up as a major trade show, but it’s plenty impressive when you look at how far the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) conference and expo has come in three years.
In 2014 there were 34 exhibitors “and that was pretty much everyone in the industry” recalls SVVR creator Karl Krantz. At this year’s event there were almost 150 exhibitors, including some big names like Nokia USA, Leap Motion and Nvidia. Krantz says it was the biggest professional conference for the VR industry to date.
A VR enthusiast, consultant and entrepreneur, Krantz has some definite opinions on the state of VR today and where it’s headed. There’s a lot of buzz around VR headgear like Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and even Google’s low cost Cardboard, and Krantz readily admits the industry can’t afford to stumble like it did the first time people were excited by the promise of VR.
“VR was like disco in the ‘90s, there was peak interest, but people tried it and were disappointed,” he says. “VR didn’t deliver on the promises being made and it became a dirty word.”
So what’s going to be different this time around? Interestingly, the SVVR show features a VR museum on the show floor featuring products and designs from decades earlier. “The amazing thing is that the form factor hasn’t really changed. You put an Oculus next to an old VPL headset and they don’t look that different,” says Krantz.
But looks can be deceiving. Krantz says a key difference with today’s headgear is that when you use it, you don’t get sick – an all too common occurrence with the slower, less advanced headgear of the earlier era. Yes, there are still reports of people getting dizzy, but Krantz says it’s far less common or severe than the problems with the older gear.
The reason is latency, that period of time from when you move your head and the viewing screen updates or motion-to-photon as it’s also called. In the ‘90s he says that time was measured in hundreds of milliseconds, now, thanks to more powerful processors, it’s down to 10-20 milliseconds. “That’s a lot closer to real time and what the brain accepts,” says Krantz.
The SVVR conference had only a few augmented reality exhibits. Krantz says he’s kept SVVR “hyper-focused on VR” because a lot of other conferences do both, but he thinks AR is a very different community, that tends to be more conservative and backed by big companies, where VR is more bottom up and accessible as evidenced by the many Kickstarter VR projects.
SVVR did feature a panel entitled: “Augmented Reality versus Virtual Reality: Why Can’t we all Get Along?”
In fact that’s exactly what Krantz expects to happen. “Eventually the two will blend. The technology is the same in that everything that’s good for AR is good for VR for solving problems,” he says. He also notes that VR systems are being used to prototype AR ideas that aren’t yet physically possible to build.
“That’s the reason AR people should be excited, because prices are coming down and that means there will be great tools to use for prototyping in the future,” says Krantz.
Over the next few years Krantz thinks VR will be a bigger deal because AR is harder to do and VR development is moving at a faster pace. That said, he think AR will be more embedded in “normal life,” letting you look at all kinds of physical objects and get an augmented view of, say, art inside a museum building.
“AR is cool but it’s less immersive,” says Krantz. “When you’re in virtual world you are like ‘Oh my god, this is really something else.’”
So what’s coming next year?
A trend he expects to be on full display at next year’s event is real-time facial capture. This is a bit tricky when the user’s wearing headgear, but he says companies are working on measuring skin tension and other techniques to capture and display facial expressions.
“Once we can do that in real-time, and I think a year from now it will be the norm, companies like Oculus will just build it in to the headgear,” says Krantz. “That’s really going to open the floodgates to VR’s popularity.”