The Oculus Quest is an impressive piece of hardware, but there’s so much more to come. Virtual reality is just getting started. Here’s what has us most excited.
Hand Presence (and Haptic Feedback)
Oculus is advertising “hand presence” with the Oculus Quest thanks to the touch controllers. But, in the future, we’d like to see more hand tracking with fewer controllers.
I’ve personally tried out systems that avoid the controller and track your hand movements. Picture grabbing something and throwing it. It felt much more natural to do this with empty hands rather than while gripping an Oculus Touch controller and pushing buttons.
This sort of hand-tracking would generally require a camera or two sitting in front of you to track your hands. However, it could work with standalone headsets through the use of gloves that track your hand movements.
Better yet, these gloves could provide haptic feedback. Imagine catching a ball in virtual reality and feeling the impact thanks to the haptics in your gloves. Imagine touching things in virtual reality and feeling as if you were touching them in the real world.
Companies like HaptX and VRgluv are working on this technology, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see it become more popular and mass-market at some point. Oculus has even patented its own glove design, although patents are no indication a product will ever be released.
Foveated Rendering (and Eye Tracking)
A technical term, “foveated rendering” is one of the things virtual reality geeks are most excited about.
Here’s how it works: Each of your eyes has a central “fovea” where retinal cones are closely packed. This is the reason why your eyesight is sharpest at the center of your field of vision, while it’s less sharp in your peripheral vision.
Currently, virtual reality headsets render a sharp image across their entire panels. You can look wherever you like.
However, they don’t need to do this. With foveated rendering, a virtual reality headset could track where your eyes are looking and render the area you’re looking at in ultra-high resolution. They would render the things you’re not looking at in lower resolution, but you’d never notice. As you move your eyes around the scene, the headset would automatically focus its rendering power wherever you’re looking.
This would dramatically reduce the amount of rendering work the headset (or PC) has to do, which means a developer could create ultra-high resolution virtual reality experiences.
Oculus has now added “fixed foveated rendering,” which just means that images at the center of the display are rendered more sharply than images on the outside of the display. But, in the long term, eye tracking hardware will provide the best foveated rendering experience.
Michael Abrash, Oculus’s chief scientist, believes we’ll have good eye tracking and foveated rendering technology within four years.
Virtual reality does offer a sense of “presence,” but you don’t feel like you’re present with other people. Current avatars are very cartoonish. Facebook showed off some impressive-looking “expressive avatars” that look much better and will be coming later this year, which will be a big improvement. Oculus’s Lucy Chen says these avatars have improvements based on “research into simulated eye and mouth movement, and microexpressions.”
But that’s not what we’re most excited about. At Oculus Connect 5, Oculus’s Michael Abrash showed off live-animated realistic avatars generated using machine learning.
Imagine socializing online in a virtual space—or even just playing a game—and seeing the other person as a realistic human with realistic movements, facial expressions, and speech animations. This would be a huge step forward for the medium, but it’s “still in an early stage” according to Abrash. Imagine if it could include a person’s full body and hands, too!
Eye tracking would be necessary to pull this off fully. Imagine looking someone in the eye in virtual reality.
Powerful Untethered VR
VR still involves trade-offs. If you want untethered freedom without a cable connecting you to a PC, you can choose an Oculus Go or, soon, an Oculus Quest.
But, if you want the best VR experience and graphics, you’ll need a headset connected to a PC. That means a cable. As Mark Zuckerberg put it, the tethered Oculus Rift is “for experiences that need a PC to push the edge of what’s possible.”
Ideally, you could do both: Have a convenient untethered VR experience with the power of a PC’s rendering.
HTC is offering that right now with the Vive Wireless Adapter. Paired with a PC and an HTC Vive headset, the adapter communicates wirelessly with your PC and has a built-in battery so you can play for up to two and a half hours. TPCAST also offers a wireless adapter for Oculus Rift.
This is a product you can get today, but we hope it will be easier in the future. Perhaps a standard Oculus Quest-style headset could wirelessly pair with a PC with no additional hardware, for example.
Technology is always advancing. Display panels are becoming higher-resolution with lower latency, and those are huge improvements for virtual reality. Mobile chipsets are getting more powerful, which means standalone headsets are becoming more capable. Improvements to inside-out tracking mean that you can now use an Oculus Quest and have a similar experience to the Rift with no external sensors tracking you. Expect to see many more improvements like these in the future.
In 2018, it’s still early days for VR. The technology is cool, but it has a long way to go. Developers are still figuring out what to do with it.
Despite the hype, virtual reality is not going to transform everything overnight. But it will steadily get better and better. And let’s be honest: It’s amazing VR works as well as it does today.