Can we please stop backstabbing consumer VR?

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Can we please stop backstabbing consumer VR?

A few days ago a post on Quora by Steve Baker surfaced on my radar from two independent sources, so I took a closer look. Basically the highly up-voted piece calls for a blanket ban on all VR devices “until such time as the problems [discussed below] can be fixed…which may very well be “never”.” This sounds dangerous indeed, so being someone who works with VR on a daily basis and advocates this tech, I took an even closer look. What follows is my midnight analysis/rant on the topics found in the cited article. Why? Because I have 2 years of experience with VR, and plan to have many more.

Mr. Baker however already has 20 years of experience with VR. This is a lot. That is, if the thing you are experienced with has stayed the same for 20 years. I will argue that VR has evolved quite a bit. But people also evolve. At least that was my expectation going into the lenghty reading session.

Allalaaditud fail

The real reason why VR will fail.

And another quick point. The link was sent to me with a worrying question “VR will never be mainstream?”. Now, “never” is a strong term. I see this haunting much of the current ciritique about VR – it’s heavily focused on the “here and now” and based on that single timepoint (sometimes also including past failures) claims are made about the coming eternity. For example: “current headsets have cables, therefore VR will never be mainstream” or “current displays are too low resolution, therefore VR will never be mainstream”, and of course “current games are short and seldom, therefore VR will never be mainstream” etc. OK, most pieces do end on a positive note that someday we’ll have all the VR we can dream of. Keep that in mind when continuing down.

Onto the article! I really am sorry, as I have something to say on practically every sentence in that Quara piece.

“All that’s happened is that [the headsets] dropped in price from $80,000 to $500”. Having never had $80,000 to boast, this feels not that trivial. High entry barrier was one of the reasons the VR field progressed so slowly, with only a handful of well-funded labs having the means to conduct research. And of course pretty much every lab was unique in their setup. Now, pretty much every lab has a headset, plus all the 100 000+ developers out in the wild. Even the 22th IEEE VR conference in 2015 thought it was kind of a big deal.

“There are several claims that the nausea problem has either been fixed, or will soon be fixed”. Yes! Not only that, but there is actual proof, like the hundreds of people I’ve personally put through different VR demos. If you know what you are doing, you will have a good time. VR best practises are just now slowly emerging, and every VR dev should know them by heart!

“Sadly, the $80,000 googles we made for the US military had less latency, higher resolution displays, and more accurate head tracking than any of the current round of civilian VR goggles…and they definitely made people sick”. I might be a bitter VR geek, but knowing what I know about the current round of civilian VR goggles, this to me signals only one thing – that the content Baker & Co showed must have been violating all the rules cited in the previous paragraph.

notvrreally

Cool. And not virtual reality as we mean it.

“The problem is that the people who make those claims are either ignorant (or are deliberately ignoring) the evidence collected over 20 years of flight simulation experience with VR goggles (only we called them “Helmet Mounted Displays” – HMD’s – and what we did was called “simulation” and not “virtual reality”).” – I’ve read the literature, accept it completely and I can’t agree more! Yes, what they did was called “simulation” and not “virtual reality”.

The article should have stopped right there. It didn’t.

“There are no designs for displays that can produce light that’s focussed at a wide range of distances – so without some very new technology – we can’t fool the brain.” Correct. See “light field display” for some very new technology emerging in the coming years. It is naïve to think we’ve somehow hit a technological wall all of a sudden.

“If you’re hallucinating, and you’re a caveman, then you’ve probably eaten something poisonous – a “magic mushroom” maybe? And when that happens, your brain goes into panic mode and tries to empty this substance from your stomach…and you feel very, very nauseous.”  I’ve actually used this handy explanation myself many times to explain the “I see I’m moving versus I feel I’m not moving” discrepancy, and every time I’ve grown a little bit more skeptical about this intuitive story. So by now I’m totally not sure it’s a valid explanation any more. So until further well controlled studies on decent hardware I’m just going to say that it seems some very specific scenarios in immersive VR make the user dizzy and developers should definitely avoid those situations, even on a goddamn $80,000 rig.

coaster

Ban all rollercoasters!

“People will always get sick with VR displays UNLESS the content is kept further than around 3 meters from them.” The eyes get tired, sure. And the display tech still has ways to go. But we can’t say something like theme parks cause vomiting, UNLESS you walks 3 kilometers around them. There’s no mentioning of the possibility of some specific rides in the theme park (like the Vominator 2000) causing the ill effects…

“Sadly – that excludes ANY kind of application that happens inside a building – and ANY kind of application where you can interact with objects naturally at arm’s length.” I recently spent 45 minutes building “Fantastic contraptions” in VR and only quit when my feet got tired. This game happens “at arm’s lenght”. And being inside a building? Check out “Unseen diplomacy”, where you’ll be spending joyous minutes inside a ventilation shaft, only to emerge with a happy and nausea-free grin. Examples are too many to count. Of course, when you are claustrophobic, things get a little trickier.

“MOMENTUM: Those forces are entirely absent in a VR rig…and your brain notices that.” – Here I agree, but the definition of a “VR rig” is fuzzy. Any sort of “room scale” setup actually fixes the problem instantly, as you can walk around naturally and all the momentum cues come flooding in.

“But not all people get seasick or motion-sick – and pilots are amongst that lucky group. But this problem simply cannot be fixed by any means. The laws of physics don’t allow it.” I’m not a physicist, but I am a psychologist and know about the brains ability to adapt to all kinds of weird situations. Like zero-g for example, if given enought time. So I’m confident that this discomfort becomes a non-issue after some time. Ask any VR developer.

46h

Thorsten Wiedemann, alive after 46h in VR

“Almost everyone can tolerate wearing [the consumer headsets] for several minutes before getting sick. About half of people feel sick after a few minutes – and (maybe) half of them get so sick that they have to take off the goggles ASAP. Anecdotal evidence – sadly.” I will bet anyone a large pile of cash that if I put them inside the Oculus DK2 and don’t show ANY content, they will not get sick. You can write me a check. I think it’s obvious at this point that content actually matter. Really, it does. I can easily name a bunch of VR titles that I guarantee will make you sick (but that is a topic for another post). But more importantly, I can name even more titles that make you really exited about VR – and they aren’t all just “sit outdoors and stare at far-away stuff” experiences!

“We would mostly look at the side-by-side displays on a regular monitor [while developing].” This is not how you develop VR software. This is where all the troubles start – assuing that something works in VR and the devs don’t even bother testing it. And when it doesn’t work, they are too lazy or “experienced” to even look for a solution. If there wasn’t a fix 20 years ago, there sure as hell can’t be one now, right?

“US Navy studies on sim sickness.” Ahem, studies from 1989! I’d like to copy-paste the same quote that was featured in quara, but would change the emphasis:
“Anecdotal data continues to be received indicating there is a part of the aviation population that experiences delayed problems beyond the simulator exposure and for periods that exceed 6 to 8 hours for approximately 8 percent of the population and l-to-2 days for an even smaller population (1). Studies be conducted to determine which scenarios are linked with simulator sickness and methods to prepare aviators to deal with those scenarios (2). A correlation of simulator sickness with actual flight experience under similar conditions should be determined in side-by-side studies conducted in the simulator and in the aircraft.”

(1) Firstly, pilots are a really small subset of the general population, pilots under study are an even smaller bunch, and 8% of that sub-subset is a really marginal number. But this marginal number is not terrible at simulations – they are most probably just really good pilots! Here I quote wikipedia, as I would concider this general knowledge: “Studies conducted independently by the US Navy, US Coast Guard, and US Army during the 1980s all came to the same conclusion: the greater experience of the pilot, higher the likelihood of sickness symptoms during simulation training exercises.” For you see, if your brain knows what to expect from flying a plane and the simulator is not up to it, the brain gets an error signal. A big dizzying error signal.

(2) How bad were the simulators of 1989? Well, according to the cited article: “Of further concern to us is the relatively high scores on the SSQ [simulator sickness questionnaire] scales seen for aircrews flying instrument flight which are relatively benign scenarios. This time spent with no scene content should produce lower SSQ scores.” Basically as I understand it, this means that just by being inside the shaking simulator, checking the real dials and not staring any displays, people still felt like throwing up!

shootinAnd to reiterate – it wasn’t a virtual reality study, it was a flight simulator study in an actual (badly) shaking cockpit that had some screens for windows. Done in 1989.

In my humble opinion the post by Steve Baker is dealing unjust blows to the current state of the art VR. This is seemingly backed by the past 20 years of slow progress, two studies from way back and no rational near-future perspective. If you really want the “holodeck experience”, don’t invest your time discouraging the developers working on it! This could already actually be one of the biggest challenges facing VR in the coming years – not ENOUGH interest! Most of the abovementioned “problems” are either non-issues, solved or soon to be solved, as I tried to explain in my semi-sarcastic way.

I’m glad I could be the bearer of good news! :)

Madis Vasser
Madis Vasser
The principal investigator, tech guy and janitor in the lab. Founder.
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