Virtual reality headsets are about to become part of your arsenal of gadgets. No, really!
A year ago, pretty much nobody had what are generally referred to as VR goggles or headsets. But a year from now, I predict that pretty much all serious tech fans, gamers, media consumers and social media users will own and use a pair.
We’re right smack-dab in the middle of a full-fledged gadget revolution.
The emerging standard for the most mainstream (i.e., cheap) approach to such goggles is Google’s open-source Cardboard platform. With Cardboard, anyone can make their own. The goggles are usually made out of—what else?—cardboard, and wrap around the user’s smartphone. This category of device, which also includes Samsung’s Gear VR goggles, uses the phone’s screen, speakers, sensors and the ability to run apps instead of duplicating those components in the goggles.
Other leading contenders for widespread use of “VR goggles” are Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap, which should ship next year. In addition to these, we can expect hundreds of other VR headsets from literally hundreds of companies.
So the goggles are coming. The question is what are we going to do with them? Confusion abounds about the uses for VR goggles—specifically, the media they enable.
Most people—including journalists who write about this stuff, lazily and inaccurately—call everything “virtual reality” or “augmented reality.” And in almost every such case, they’re wrong.
By my count, there are 10 new, entirely distinct media that can be viewed through a pair of so-called “virtual reality goggles.”
Google announced a free Android app on Dec. 3 called Cardboard Camera. The app is for taking pictures that when viewed in Google Cardboard appear as 3D stereographic photos. It performs this feature by showing each eye a picture taken from a slightly different position and pointed in a slight different direction.
Google encourages users to take panoramas, and in fact, it works like your garden variety camera panning feature, where you start taking a picture then sweep to the right or left.
Cardboard Camera stereographs must be viewed in the app at present, using Google Cardboard goggles. The app also records and plays audio captured while the stereograph is captured.
Stereography is one of the first media most consumers will see through VR goggles.
Anaglyphs also show 3D, but using color. This is how those old-school cardboard 3D glasses work. While stereographs are a better 3D system for VR goggles, existing anaglyphs can be easily brought into an app for viewing with VR goggles.
3. 360-Degree Photography
Photos that go all the way around top to bottom are called 360-degree photos. Google calls them Photo Spheres, and they can be uploaded to Google Street View.
Most 360-degree photos are taken using a smartphone camera for taking pictures in all directions. A special app is required to stitch them together into a single 360-degree photo. But they can also be captured with special-purpose cameras, such as the Richoh Theta S.
When these are viewed in a Web browser, you can view the photo by in 360 degrees by clicking and dragging. But with VR goggles, simply turning the head to look lets you see all around in the photo.
As with so many VR goggle experiences, the ability to look around by naturally turning your head makes 360-degree photos psychologically convincing and satisfying.
4. Stereoscopic 360-Degree Photography
The true revolution in photography comes from the application of both stereoscopic and 360-degree photography.
This kind of photography requires special rigs for making high-quality experiences. But the effect is amazing.
5. Immersive Video
One of the biggest current uses for VR goggles today is to watch immersive video, which is video that lets you look around in all directions by moving your head. This kind of video can be streamed live, or with a delay, as it was with some of the recent U.S. presidential debates.
Immersive video is great for providing a stronger sense of “being there” than regular videos can.
Some professional immersive videos have been published. For example, The New York Times bundled Google Cardboard with the Sunday paper recently so subscribers could check out what was essentially a 360-degree video gallery on The Times’ Website.
10 Killer Media Applications Enabled by ‘Virtual Reality’ Headsets
The paper should be more precise with language, but they (like so many others) called it “virtual reality.”
6. Stereoscopic Video
VR goggles can easily show good old-fashioned 3D videos. That means movies created for 3D can be ported into apps for watching as intended, but in a personal viewing experience, rather than in a theater or on a big-screen 3D TV.
7. Immersive Stereoscopic Video
The piece de resistance for VR goggle content is immersive stereoscopic video. Platforms like Google’s Jump or products like Nokia’s Ozo will enable filmmakers and storytellers to create high-resolution, 360-degree immersive videos with 3D video and sound.
It’s theoretically possible that immersive stereoscopic video will one day replace movies. In the meantime, they’ll function as a high-end alternative to movies for specialty theaters and home entertainment systems.
8. Augmented Reality
After “virtual reality,” the label “augmented reality” is misused the most. In general (and erroneous) reporting and conversation, anything that shows both “reality” (a clear view of what you would see in front of you without the goggles) and something-computer generated is called “augmented reality.”
But that’s wrong. Augmented reality is the appropriate label only when the computer-generated part refers to the real part.
If you’re wearing a pair of VR goggles in Manhattan, and your app is showing you a dinosaur walking down 5th Avenue, that’s not augmented reality. It’s more accurately “mixed reality.”
If, on the other hand, the app uses visual processing and GPS to identify and label in your field of view the 5th Avenue Apple Store, then that’s augmented reality because reality is augmented with information.
Google Glass, which people correctly refer to as “smart glasses” rather than VR goggles, has augmented reality apps, such as NameTag, which performs real-time face recognition. But most Glass apps aren’t augmented reality.
Still, Google Glass will return to the market next year and a burgeoning category of smart glasses will usher in a new age of augmented reality. And regular VR goggles, like those on Google’s Cardboard platform, can do augmented reality, too.
9. Mixed Reality
Remember that Manhattan dinosaur experience I told you about? That’s mixed reality, where virtual objects are superimposed on the real world, but only for the person wearing the goggles.
Microsoft’s HoloLens is getting a lot of attention in the mixed reality space. Note that HoloLens is actually incapable of doing virtual reality.
The same goes for the products being developed by Google-backed super startup Magic Leap.
HoloLens and Magic Leap integrate virtual objects and action into real environments by mapping nearby spaces and surfaces in real time. So, for example, a projected virtual flying robot can not only appear to land on a table, but hide behind it as well.
10. Virtual Reality
And the tenth media you can experience with virtual reality goggles is—pause for effect—virtual reality!
By definition, virtual reality provides a completely computer-generated, 360-degree 3D immersive world where the environment, objects, creatures and people have nothing to do with what’s happening in real life in front of you.
One probable leader in this space is Facebook’s Oculus Rift platform, which is expected to ship in a few months.
Virtual reality is the high-end, computer-intensive console-gaming level of what you can do with goggles. But they won’t just be used for gaming. Applications include industrial, training, medical, social and many others.
Why Words Matter
The press and public are sloppy about VR goggle media types because it’s new to most of us. What’s the difference?
As more of us start enjoying these powerful new media, we’ll have to change our ways and start calling things by their correct names.
Specialties are emerging for content creation, and these specialists will insist on accuracy in labeling. For example, the world’s greatest Immersive Stereoscopic Video content creators will bristle at their work being called “virtual reality.” They’ll tell us that they know nothing about virtual reality and have no interest in it either. Their equipment, software, techniques and markets will be completely different as well.
VR goggles (and we’re going to need a better name for the goggles, too) are ushering in 10 brilliant media. These media types are well understood, and have perfectly good labels to go with them.
So don’t be misled by sloppy language from journalists, bloggers and others—because mainstream use of VR goggles is virtually here.