Fabio Matsui / September 17, 2015

Get Real About Virtual Reality

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Albert Einstein

Wire Stone is fascinated by the intersection of humans and technology. That connection influences our daily “reality” in ever-evolving modes, and we’re always investigating new ways to infuse digital interactions with meaning and substance.

As we race into uncharted terrain, there is occasionally confusion among our clients about the difference between the various means of altering immersive reality. All these technologies influence our perceptions—and thus our reality—but their practical applications are quite different. The following is a brief overview that boils down the essence of each offering.

Microsoft HoloLens is a relatively large, head-mounted display that layers digital images on the world around you while precisely tracking your position relative to your environment. You see as you normally would, with the addition of virtual 3D elements that appear to be an actual part of your immediate experience.

Oculus Rift covers your head and completely obscures your vision, enabling a fully immersive experience—instead of the room you’re in, you only see the virtual world. The device precisely tracks your head movements so what you see perfectly aligns with your movements, which is critical for creating a sense of “reality.”

Google Cardboard is an innovative, inexpensive VR option. You simply insert your phone in a cardboard viewer to achieve results similar to Oculus Rift. Google published directions for constructing viewers, and there’s a healthy community of makers that have created similar viewers made from materials other than plain cardboard.

Augmented reality (AR) shows you what your smart phone or computer camera sees, with the addition of virtual 3D objects that move in perfect sync with the world around you. AR typically relies on reference points in the environment to track the real world.

Google Glass and other smart-glass technologies are essentially tiny displays mounted on your glasses that show information. Although Google Glass has been discontinued, the technology will continue to be present in other forms.

While these technologies all seek to alter our idea of reality, they differ in fundamental ways that directly impact how they can best be employed.

Take the blue pill—gaming in virtual worlds

Oculus Rift is a natural choice for 3D games because its fully immersive nature works well with purely virtual environments. HoloLens, on the other hand, is better suited for games that include the players’ “real” environment as part of the game. The image quality is not as crisp as it will be in the near future, but it’s still an intriguing new gaming mode.

Google Cardboard is great for mobile 3D games played at home or in private places (it might be awkward to wear cardboard viewers in public).

AR gaming is an apt fit for marketing scenarios. Most modern smartphones and computers are able to run AR applications, so marketers have ready-made access to a broad range of devices and scenarios. AR games combine game-play elements with the quotidian world around us, enabling fun brand promotion in a compelling, real-world context.

Bring the “wow” factor to events and presentations

Oculus Rift offers maximum impact when the goal is providing complete immersion in an environment that you can’t bring to an event. For example, you could give potential buyers a virtual walk-through of a condo building that has not yet been built, or a detailed inspection of an airplane that’s too costly to bring to the customer. In these instances, extra attention must be paid to the quality of the 3D models in the same way you finesse 2D graphics for a trade show—presentation is everything!

Google Cardboard provides a less expensive and more convenient alternative to Oculus Rift, although the experience is ultimately not as compelling. From a marketing perspective, it provides an opportunity to give away branded cardboard viewers while encouraging people to download your mobile VR app.

HoloLens and AR are more appropriate when you want to augment physical objects with additional information in three dimensions. For example, you might display dynamic 3D information on top of an existing 2D graphic such as a poster, prototype, brochure, etc. Or you could visualize additional options for an existing environment, such as seats in an airplane, or furniture in a living room.

HoloLens offers greater immersive impact, but the downside is that it requires everyone to be wearing a device, which can be clunky and isolating. AR is a less expensive solution that allows for more social intimacy, in that you can position multiple people behind a screen to share the same experience.

Have information at the ready in commercial environments

From the start, we believed that the true potential of Google Glass was in commercial applications like manufacturing and distribution. Besides the well-documented “glasshole” effect, the intermittent loss of eye contact while the wearer peruses digital information leads to awkward interactions in consumer environments. In addition, short battery life and limited display surface could be impediments for most commercial applications.

Oculus Rift isn’t a viable solution for retail environments because it completely covers the user’s vision, which can lead to safety concerns; this immersive technology is best for individuals sitting immobile in a chair. Google Cardboard has similar limitations.

HoloLens, on the other hand, has great potential in environments like warehouses and factories due to its hands-free operation. Most manufacturing environments require safety glasses, which can be a challenge, and the current HoloLens device is relatively heavy and bulky, which can be a problem in confined environments. Pricing and battery life could also have an impact on its practical application, but in the coming years the devices will get cheaper, less intrusive, and longer lasting.

Finally, AR applications in commercial environments are impractical, because they require the user to hold a device, which would decrease productivity and cause safety concerns.

Master new technology, new paradigms, and new skills

With the exception of Google Glass, most of these reality-altering offerings require 3D gaming skills, which might be new to many individuals and organizations. While we’re all used to 2D graphics for user interaction, manipulating 3D environments is a challenging paradigm shift that brings a new dimension to user-experience design. And like all good design, when it’s well executed the UX is seamless, engaging, and enjoyable. But in this world with its extra dimension, bad design will cause more than frustration—it can cause vertigo, nausea, and brain-bending side effects!

3D content has many more components than 2D. First there is the three-dimensional model, which is best described as a “wireframe.” Then you need artists to texture the 3D models, which is tantamount to painting the wireframe. And lighting in virtual words has a huge effect on the quality of the experience, just as it affects any real-world physical environment; think of how a poorly lighted office influences its occupants.

Application developers have to master the use of existing 3D libraries and frameworks. They must also acquire a basic understanding of 3D math and develop effective 3D rendering techniques. All of these complex and varied skills must work in concert to provide a seamless virtual experience—it’s not easy competing with the depth, detail, and beauty of our “real” world.

Fabio Matsui is Wire Stone’s chief technology officer, where he leads the research and development of advanced digital experiences.