How exactly do these headsets work?
Ever wonder how a VR headset is capable of transporting us to a virtual time and place? To get that world in front of your eyes, a lot of advanced science needs to happen behind the scenes. First off, a substantial amount of computing power is
leveraged to render images twice, once for each eye. Right now, that power is provided by a PC or console via an extremely dense data cable that sends information to the head-mounted display.
Then gyroscopic sensors, accelerometers, and magnetometers work in concert with trackers hidden under LED-permeable plastic (or exposed light bars in the case of PlayStation VR) to determine where you are in real space. That data is then used
to rapidly change your view of the simulated worlds with a goal of imperceptible lag and close to perfect one-to-one translation.
The onboard sensors aren't quite enough to render perfect positional information. That's where an external camera and the LED sensors or light bar come in to play. As lag is re moved and positional data approaches one-to-one correlation, our brains
are fooled into thinking that our movement in the real world and images we're presented are actually in front and around us.
How comfortable are these headsets?
Part of the reason it's taken so long for Oculus to come to market is the company's pursuit of comfort. Improving the refresh rate to 90Hz (meaning the image is replaced on the display 90 times per second), reducing latency, and minimizing persistence
are all factors in allowing users to enjoy virtual reality for extended sessions. The head-mounted displays also include a number of ways to adjust the unit, including straps to modify fit to the user's head and focus dials to make the image
as clear as possible in pursuit of the "sweet spot" at which the image becomes almost indistinguishable from looking at the real world.
"We weren't going to come out and say we'd solved motion sickness or anything like that," says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. "This is going to be an ongoing challenge in general. As we try to replace all the light coming in your eyes and give you
computer-generated eyes in a way that feels natural and completely normal like in the real world but now in this virtual world, we're in the early days. It will continue to get better. I really feel like where we are with Rift has crossed the
threshold so the majority of the audience for some amount of time will be able to enjoy VR comfortably. Most people - the majority of the audience - will be able to jump in."
Can I use these head-mounted displays with my glasses?
All three of the major head-mounted displays releasing next year are compatible with eyeglasses. Each is designed to fit over some eyewear, and in many cases, you'll be able to achieve similar fidelity to those with uncorrected vision or contact
Some people with larger frames may run into problems. Those who wear glasses on the Game Informer staff were encouraged to place their glasses in the HMD and then put both on at the same time. We expect that as the technology improves, further
accommodations will be made for those that wear eyeglasses.
I hear people can get sick using VR headsets...
They can, but the developers are focused on eliminating this problem as much as possible. Our brains are difficult to fool, and if we aren't convinced of the illusion, there is significant potential for simulation sickness. Symptoms include cold
sweats, dizziness, light-headedness, headache, pallor, nausea, and in the worst cases, vomiting.
The most comfortable virtual reality experiences map camera controls to head movement. The reason this works so well in countering illness is how our vestibular system works. Our inner ears contain fine hairs called cilia, which have microscopic
crystals on the end. As we move our heads, the hairs bend and shift, transmitting signals and letting our brains compensate for positional adjustments. Simulation sickness occurs when the data your eyes send to your brain is in conflict with
the information received from the vestibular system.
One of the ways the platform holders plan to combat simulation sickness is by informing the users which experiences are rougher on the stomach. The Oculus Store in particular plans to
introduce a "comfort" rating. "For the stuff that's in the Store, it is curated to be a certain quality level," says Oculus head of worldwide studios Jason Rubin. "It is going to be looked at to make sure that it is above a certain amount of
comfort. We'll most likely have a way of telegraphing to the customer what's more comfortable, what's less comfortable"
Is virtual reality safe for the faint of heart?
One of the lingering concerns about virtual reality content is that the violent and terrifying content to which we've become accustomed on two-dimensional displays won't play the same way in an immersive context. Speaking at Unite 2014, Cloudhead
Games' Denny Unger warned developers about abusing the immersive nature of the medium. "When the commercial version comes out, somebody is going to scare somebody to death - somebody with a heart condition or something like that," he said. "It
is going to happen. Absolutely." Platform holders are already working with developers to create a set of best practices for content.
Is it dangerous being cut off from the room around you?
Comfort isn't the only challenge facing VR. The head-mounted displays can be an isolating experience, especially as users begin to replace the built-in earphones with noise-isolating or noise-canceling options. Right now, there aren't good options
for leaving a headset on and interacting with the world around you, whether that be answering your phone, talking to someone in the room, or taking a drink of water.
One option is outward-looking cameras installed on the front of HMDs that can display the user's surroundings at the touch of a button. They aren't the best solution according to Iribe. "Things like passthrough cameras are uncomfortable," Iribe
says. "It puts the view in the wrong place relative to your eyes. It's not a good solution. It's not a comfortable solution to that idea of isolation to quickly see what's in the room. Pushing the button and looking out is not a silver bullet.
There is no silver bullet for this. The longer-term way that you want to do it is by truly mapping the environment that you're in and being able to push a button and see the mapped version in the exact right place."
For now, users will be presented with a range of safety and health warnings. Oculus says it will be suggesting limits on play time and remain in a dialogue with users to help refine communication about safety issues. Part of that is preparing
technical support for launch that tackles a wide range of questions that might come up from users experiencing virtual reality for the first time.