Virtual reality (VR) head-mounted displays (HMDs) are now just months away from finally hitting the consumer market. But, as excited as fans are getting for their arrival, they also know that the first iterations of the Oculus Rift and SteamVR kits will be far from the last. Palmer Luckey himself recently labelled the first generation of HMDs as ‘pretty expensive and relatively primitive’, referring to the high-powered PCs needed to run VR experiences and the current slate of components that present their own limitations.
It’s quite possibly that, while 2016 will see the birth of consumer VR, 2017 will see the iteration of it. It’s tough to say when the second Oculus Rift (CV2) will appear, although Oculus VR has hinted that it’s hoping to match the annualised smartphone release cycle. Also don’t forget that the Gear VR mobile HMD, co-created by Samsung, will soon be seeing its second iteration, which will serve as the true consumer release just a year on from the Innovator Edition’s launch.
But what will the second wave of HMDs need to improve on? Using the Oculus Rift as the prime example, VRFocus takes a look at what to expect from the future of VR hardware.
This is perhaps the most obvious aspect to improve upon in VR right now. The consumer Oculus Rift will boast two 2160 x 1200 OLED displays, reducing what’s known as the screen door effect (in which users can see the lines between a screen’s pixels) dramatically over previous development kits. But it’s still far from perfect; objects within VR can appear jagged and reading certain text can be harder with these lines in the way. Oculus VR’s Michael Abrash notes that 16K resolution displays are needed to be rid of this issue. We’re a long way off from that, but HMDs will keep needing to raise the bar until we get there. Could CV2, at the very least, support 4K?
Resolution is only half of the battle, however. The persistency of screens will also need to improve, further reducing any possible motion blur and supporting higher framerates. This can be as much of a software issue as it is a hardware one, but it’s essential to making VR experiences all the more believable and immersive.
The full limits of the Oculus Rift’s Constellation Tracking are yet to really be put to the test. Oculus VR has offered only very controlled demos of the consumer device, meaning press have been unable to find the limits of this tracking and stack it up to what’s generally regarded to be the current leader in this field, the HTC Vive. Hopefully the company will be looking to close that gap and even surpass it with later iterations of the HMD. Valve’s SteamVR system is coming to more than just the Vive, and could set a standard for VR software in the near future. If so, Oculus VR will need to keep up with that standard.
The accuracy and scale of tracking is something that could be improved across the industry. Not only will we hopefully expand beyond SteamVR’s 15 feet by 15 feet limit (if anyone can even support a space bigger than that), but we’ll be able to take greater details into account such as height and arm length. In-VR avatars will be able to mirror all of our individual movements and NPCs will be able to use that information to realistically interact with us. Although impressive, tracking in its current state is still primitive, and there’s a long way to go before VR takes full advantage of it.
You might not think that input has much to do with a HMD, but you’d be wrong. Oculus Touch is of course an impressive piece of technology as is the HTC Vive’s own position-tracked controllers, but they’re destined to be replaced. This likely won’t happen in the next generation of HMDs or even the generations after that, but VR will one day be an entirely independent system, and that will involve some form of on-board input, possible in the form of hand-tracking as suggested by some of Oculus VR’s recent acquisitions.
Controllers may well always play a part in the future of VR; perhaps Oculus Touch will live on as a means to pull the trigger on a gun or solve complex puzzles, but the VR dream involves putting on a HMD and being all you need to experience fully immersive content. Built-in input will be essential to this.
Price is a tricky aspect for VR. It obviously has to come down to attract a wider audience, but will this be possible with components and features constantly being added in new generations? Will this mean that, like smartphones, less enthusiastic VR users will be sticking with older HMDs that come down in price every few years as the latest models are released? Tradition suggests this will be the case, but VR runs the risk of becoming hugely fragmented if so. Developers will struggle with releasing content that accommodates multiple generations of HMD.
It may take a small miracle, but Oculus VR will need to look at driving down the price of consumer releases each year, no matter how incrementally.