Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, January 13, 2017

Virtual Reality and Oculus Rift Reviewed
I fully confess – as I write, my hair is on fire and my socks are smoldering.  It is difficult to contain my excitement to the point that I can even write a coherent review!  But what I want to accomplish here is twofold.  One is to review the virtual reality (VR) experience which is currently affordably available.  And two, review the top-of-the-line rated VR equipment – Oculus Rift.
Two Kinds of VR
Before I get into this, let me describe the two kinds of VR equipment available.  The first is ‘quasi-VR’, such as “Google Cardboard”, that uses a larger screen cell phone for its display.  There are some really nice, comfortable headset “VR Goggles” available.  The second type is the full range high fidelity 3-D VR equipment described in much greater detail below.
The ‘quasi-VR’ equipment, such as Google Cardboard, capture the general idea of VR by immersing the user in various two dimensional scenes of highly variable VR quality.  Many of them are panoramic scenes covering from 180 degrees to a full 360 degrees, but most of these do not envelop the entire available spherical panorama from the apex to the feet of the observer in a complete 360 degree wrap around.  These goggles are nonetheless very exciting, and demonstrate the physiology of the entire VR experience, as described below.  And the good news is that the Google Cardboard and other, more comfortable VR headsets are readily available, and relatively inexpensive; the cost is truly in nearly every price range.  I paid a mere $10 for my very nice and comfortable Tzumi Dream Vision headset on Black Friday.  There are also lots of ‘Goggle Cardboard’ type stills, videos and apps available free online for download.  But there is one key point to be made here.  These lower end VR applications are nearly all 2-dimensional (2D) and of highly variable quality.  Yet they are still great fun because of what is going on in the user’s mind the moment they strap the VR goggles on their head. 
The VR Mind Connection
The VR experience – low end or high end – works so spectacularly because of a trick called ‘visual immersion’.  We are all familiar with that idea.  Watching a movie is a much different experience on our TV at home vs. seeing the movie on the big screen in a theater.  The difference is visual immersion.  The larger the screen, the greater the experience of visual immersion in the scene.  The effect can be ramped up by employing immersive sound tracks, curved screens and 3D.  The greater the immersion, the more authentic the experience is perceived psychologically.  And yet the visual immersion experience is still limited even in a theater by the reality of people sitting all around us, by the frame of the screen, by exit signs, curtains, voices, and countless other distractions, even while viewing the largest screen.  Our mind will simply not allow us to accept total immersion in the scene before us because of the real world that invariably – even relentlessly – imposes itself on our peripheral field of vision.  We are simply locked out of perfect immersion by the world crowding in on the screen, no matter how large it is.
But in VR, all of that changes – even in the lowest cost, lowest fidelity 2D VR headset! The true magic of VR is total immersion.  The VR display, literally inches from the eyes, is specifically engineered to completely fill the visual field and specifically block out everything except for the display.  When that happens, the visual brain easily gives up and gives in!  Without any visual cues to the contrary, the brain readily accepts the new reality displayed before it.  Even the ‘knowledge’ that it is an artificial reality is not powerful enough to overcome the seamless new world before the eyes.  It is a near perfect visual immersion and, therefore, it is a new reality that is easy for the mind to accept.  In VR, the brain communicates that the person is actually ‘in the scene’ being viewed, because there is no visual information to tell the brain any different.  Thus, the term ‘virtual reality’ perfectly describes what the human brain so easily accepts once all cues to the ‘real world’ are covered up and replaced by another virtual world. 
VR Quality
VR quality is easily understood.  For example, when I was a young boy, my family had a 13” Zenith black and white television.  The immersive experience of that TV vs. my television today (52”, flat screen, 4K, 3D) is wildly different!  I can watch the same movie on both televisions and have a totally different experience because of the quality of the display.  The same is true of VR equipment.  Total immersion is defined by visual cues such as 3D, and visual accessibility to the entire spherical hemisphere all around the viewer – in a 360 arc in ALL directions.  In a truly virtual world, this extends to the capacity to walk, run or fly through the new world far beyond the starting point and still always maintain that 360 degree sphere of visual accessibility.  In less capable VR systems, the views are quite often not a 360 degree sphere, not 3D, and the viewer is fixed in one place.  In higher quality systems, the VR world is 3D, perfect 360 spheres, and movement within the VR world is permitted.
Oculus Rift Review
I have always been excited about my quasi-VR headset using mostly Google Cardboard applications and a few 2D VR adventure applications.  With that in my mind, I thought I knew what to expect when I strapped my Oculus Rift headset on for the first time just after Christmas.  I cannot adequately describe the difference between the 2D VR experience and the 3D Oculus Rift experience, but I shall try!  It was incredibly, awesomely, astonishingly different – and I had always been totally amazed by the Google Cardboard experience!  The Oculus Rift was literally one of the most astounding experiences of my life from the first moment I strapped them on.
The Ramp Up to Oculus
I have never played a video game in my life, ever.  My 5 grown sons are a different story.  Video games have been a large part of their lives from day one.  I just never caught the bug and have always been very ‘meh’ about it.  Nothing has changed.  I did NOT invest in Oculus Rift for games.  I discovered Oculus at, of all places, the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.  A special event permitted visitors to “fly through” the classic Dali masterpiece “Elephants” using an Oculus Rift.  The second I strapped the headset on, I was caught up in a surprising ‘Virtual Reality’.  Unexpectedly, I was completely inside a bizarre world created by the mind of Salvador Dali.  As I flew about the work of art from all angles, heights, and even inside the structures of the painting, I was completely sold.  I knew that I had to have this technology in my study… and not for games!  Ironically, Oculus Rift was specifically designed for video games and the only desktop computers capable of running it properly are the high end gamer computers with powerful video cards.  Fortunately, I had resisted buying a computer for several years and was due a new one anyway.  That opened the door to purchase a computer specifically powerful enough and with the appropriate video capacity to run the Oculus technology.  Note of caution: not all “VR capable” video processors can handle the requirements for the Rift.  Make sure you check all of your computer capabilities against the list of required specs on the Oculus site.  If you intend to run with the computer that you have, you can test your system in advance before you purchase the Oculus hardware by running the test on your computer available on their website.
Opening the Box
I ordered my new computer and the Oculus Rift headset on the same day (from Best Buy).  I also pre-ordered the new Oculus Touch handsets that were not released until December 1st of 2016.  The touch sensors attach to your hands and allow you to touch and move things in the virtual world.  I waited for the Touch sensors to arrive before installing everything.  When I turned my Oculus Rift system on, the touch sensors had not even been on the market for one month.
The system set-up was somewhat involved.  There are a pair of sensors that judge your position, the position of your hands, and the position of your VR headset as you look around which monitor your every movement inside the virtual world.  The headset is very comfortable and easy to adjust.
Entering the Virtual World of Oculus Rift
Quite honestly, I was totally unprepared for the first minute of high fidelity virtual reality through the Oculus headset.  Even though I had the experience at the Dali Museum, the painting was dark, surreal and of ‘oil painting quality’.  As a first experience, it was wonderful and unexpected.  But nothing like a ‘real world fidelity’ VR experience.  Further, I had many hours using Google Cardboard VR applications which I considered magnificent and exciting.  But those experiences were nothing at all as spectacular as a high fidelity, 3D, totally immersive VR experience as delivered by the Oculus Rift.
After a calibration screen (rather spectacular in itself), the screen went dark for a few seconds and then opened inside a habitat on the surface of another planet. It was the free Oculus Training Program called “First Contact”.   The first moment in that habitat was so visually stunning that I was totally unprepared for it.  I felt exactly like Neo must have felt when he entered the virtual worlds of the Matrix with Morpheus!  It was THAT spectacular!  The fidelity of the VR was nearly perfect.  The habitat was in faultless 3D and so realistic that there was no way to tell that I was not actually there.  It was not a cartoon or a drawing at all – but a real habitat with windows (facing up).  So I will go ahead and make the intellectual leap and tell you that, unequivocally, that habitat was actually real to me in every respect and there was no way to tell otherwise.  It was just real! I could turn a full 360 degree circle – look up, down, and in any direction, and it was flawless.  I could see the weave of the carpet at my feet; reach out with my virtual hands and pick up objects; drop them, toss them, and bang them against one another.  I could move equipment, drop balls that bounced, stack cans, and load videos into VCRs.  Virtual, pixelated butterflies landed on my hands if I held them out.  If I did not, they simply flew about the habitat.  I could get down on my knees and look under the tables and experience a short range of motion in the habitat.  It was not a driven game at all.  I could choose to just stand there for hours or get on with the training.  I could experiment with objects or just stare.  There was no clock ticking.  It was my habitat to spend as much time in as I wished and do whatever I wanted there.  It was in every respect a true virtual world, although there were limits in this training habitat.  I was not allowed to leave and go outside as I was supposed to be here for the sole purpose of training.  But the experience was completely at my speed and direction.  I could lollygag all I wished or get to work.  I left for diner in the ‘real world’ and returned later.  Everything was exactly as I had left it.  It didn’t matter.  It was my virtual world in my own sweet time at my speed and at my pace.  And I could come back as any times as I wished.  As for sounds – the habitat featured standard, white ventilation noises and what I will call ‘mindless background VR music’.  It is not onerous in any way – it’s just there, hanging in the background.
I was supposed to be training in the habitat, but I was so completely mesmerized by its perfect 3D fidelity that I was tracing wire bundles, examining equipment, pushing buttons, and looking out the upper window at the sky until I had my temporary fill of this amazing virtual world.  Ready to proceed through orientation training, I began to follow my prompts and it was then that I met my instructor.
The first act of Oculus VR training was to pay attention to the arrows hanging in the air that prompt the user (me) to utilize my virtual hands to participate in the training.  So, with my right virtual index finger, I pushed down on a vintage VCR door.  It clicked shut and as it did, what appeared to be a small format VCR instantly transformed into a ‘Wall-e’ type robot.  Frightened by my presence, he bounced off the walls and hid, peeking out at me.  Then he waved at me.  Nothing happened until I waved back with my virtual hand.  He approached me (floating) in mid air, chattered robot-speak, handed me a digital disk, and an arrow prompt pointed to a nearby slot beneath a monitor.  The exercise was learning how to wave, point and grip with my virtual hands, use them to move objects from one point to another, then to release them. 
I was quite mindful that this habitat and the ‘Wall-e’ Oculus Touch interface program had just been released only two weeks before, so I was one of the first users.  And so interfacing with a digital entity was made even more interesting.  ‘Wall-e’ has such an endearing personality that I focused on him much more than the training tasks.  I reached out to touch him but as I did, he moved away, just out of my reach.  As I ignored my training tasks and focused on him, he cocked his binocular head to the side, communicating his puzzlement both by his motions and in his increasing level of robot noises, trying to figure out what the human was doing instead of learning VR.  I wanted to experience and live in VR; thus, interacting with this digital entity-personality was far more interesting to me than learning the mechanics of Oculus Touch!  I was never out to become an accomplished VR rocket jockey.  Instead, I wanted to actually live in the VR world.  ‘Wall-e’ added to the incredible habitat I was in and exponentially increased its fascination to me.
There were four or so disks with various tasks to learn.  As I pushed each disk that ‘Wall-e’ handed to me into a digital 3-D printer, it would print up a new object to handle with both digital hands and fingers, demonstrating various forms of manual dexterity.  Each had its own interesting object to handle and to operate, and it was one of these that birthed a cloud of bright pink pixelated butterflies that interacted with you if you wished, or flew by if you ignored them. 
I have visited the habitat and ‘Wall-e’ nearly a dozen times, and on each visit I learn a little more about this amazing place and ‘Wall-e’.  Each trip is different because I learn new things about the habitat and its little robot.  That is why the virtual world is so much like the real world.  I awaken in my bedroom each day and things are new and different each morning, totally depending on how I interact with my space at any given time.  In another sense, each new visit is like the movie ‘Groundhog Day’.  The initial setting is always the same (unless you leave the game on all night) yet the outcome is different depending on your new actions.
As this is the very first virtual place that allows for human virtual dexterous interactions, I am very, very much looking forward to forthcoming applications, such as much larger habitats with many compartments and much more able android beings to interact with.  For example, it would be quite interesting if Siri or Cortana could be integrated into these VR worlds for a link to reality and internet data.  Oculus already has a ‘Virtual Desk” App which sets your desktop in any virtual setting you choose and responds to the Oculus fingers, but I have not experimented with this App yet.
After my first venture into the Training Habitat, as I departed it, the world round me faded to black and, in a few seconds, I heard what I can only describe as ‘mall music’ as I was suddenly standing in what I can best describe as a very large, open space that resembles the open, grand atrium of a very spacious hotel.  Remember that in high fidelity 3D VR, the space you are standing or sitting in appears EXACTLY as it is designed.  If it is created as a huge space, your mind sees it exactly that way!  It turns out, this space replaces the “desktop” of a standard computer.  This awesome space is the launching point of all VR activities and Apps.  The atrium is created with what I will call ‘virtual license’.  It is quite open on the edges and sides, outside are virtual trees with exaggerated leaves, and it is snowing with very large snowflakes drifting down.  There are very tall, cubist-structured buildings outside in the snow, lifting upward to many stories high.  The feel of immense space, openness, and a kind of surreal beauty is clearly a part of the scene.  The carpet beneath is so well defined you can see its individual threads.  Before me are holiday images, because the scene is generated real time at the Oculus company and is new each day.  My name, avatar, and interfaces are located on a big board to my right (at least 20 feet high).  In front are today’s Oculus bargains (if I want to buy more games, apps, etc.), and to the left is my recent destinations and link to my own Oculus library.
You can change things about your page through ‘Settings.’.  To do so, you touch buttons in front of you with your virtual fingers.  But instead of regular buttons, your finger enters into a pool of vertical standing water on each touch, which is a totally astonishing effect all in itself.  Remember, this is all happening in a setting of perfect, total immersion so that it is indistinguishable from what we know as ‘reality’.
And I haven’t even opened up any other Oculus apps yet!  I cannot wait to see what lies even deeper in the Oculus experience! 
Personalizing Oculus
It is one thing to integrate yourself totally into a high fidelity 3D adventure created by someone else or by a VR team – but it is yet another to integrate your personal vision and mind in a high fidelity, 360 degree, perfectly spherical image or video that you took of your own life, you home, your family, your vacation or adventure.  This exciting technology has kept pace with VR technology so that anyone can fuse and preserve their personal life in perfect VR photo and video fidelity.
Let me compare this technology with what we are all accustomed to.  The difference between the best, highest resolution electronic photo capture from the top of the line cell phone or electronic camera, and a 360 degree high fidelity VR image, is like comparing the best electronic photo to a crude civil war tin-type image.  In the future, a standard, everyday image will always be in 3D high fidelity 360 degree VR.  Therefore, (this is essential to understand) the VR images of today are the first to preserve the early days of the 21st century for the future in what will soon be considered standard imagery.  Our old 2D snapshots of a single frame of time and space will soon be absolutely obsolete antiques.  The questions our children’s children will be asking is this: are there any VR images or videos of our grandparents or our parents?  They will ask that because all other photographic technologies will be considered crude, at best. With the older images and videos, they will only be able to look at them, not actually enter them!
The difference is stark.  The 2D photo we now take for granted is flat, limited and represents only an instant in space and time.  But a 3D 360 degree spherical image or video represents the entire surroundings at the moment of capture.  With such an image or video, future generations will not see a flat image, but will actually enter into the photo or video – literally walking into the time and space – and be able to sit or stand before us as though they were standing there at the moment of the capture.  They will see and hear us in full fidelity; not as tiny, flat head shots – but literally standing before us in full height with the world we stood in surrounding us and our future descendants!
The most amazing things is that this technology is available right now!  In fact, as I write this, I am looking at the camera that will capture this VR reality in the highest resolution available today – 4K 360 degree video or stills.  The one that I have purchased is called the Samsung Gear 360.  With this camera, we will be able to leave our family with images and videos they can literally walk into and experience as though they were standing there with us when it was taken!
The Samsung Gear 360 (shown) has a pair of special lenses that captures dual 180 degree spherical images and videos and then internally links them together into a perfect image or video sphere.  When loaded into Oculus, the personal image or video becomes a full fidelity 4K VR experience, not just an image. 
Now, if you will allow me a few wide-ranging thoughts on VR.
1.  Is it really all that perfect?  The realistic answer is no, it is not.  I say that because these are truly the first steps in high fidelity VR.  I predict that by this time next year, all headsets will be 4K so that the image will be even more crisp and detailed than what we know of as true reality.  The facemask is probably as comfortable as they can make an eye-hugging mask.  After an hour or so, you can feel it.  Look for full face masks, or even VR helmets, with ventilation in a year or so.
2.  Look for even more spectacular destinations.  As I said previously, I anticipate much more detailed and much larger worlds and living spaces with far more intelligent android characters.  Eventually, there will be VR rooms (similar to the holo-decks of Star Trek fame). 
3.  Is it dangerous?  It has that potential for sure!  It is easy to imagine a lonely or disaffected person getting lost in VR worlds and not wanting to come back to a sometimes bitter, dangerous and harmful real world.  And who could blame them?  The VR worlds are astonishing beyond description and can even be made ‘virtually’ perfect.  And we have only taken the first primitive baby steps with this technology.  What we have today is nothing compared to what will soon be.
4.  Are there positive benefits?  I believe that there are far more positive benefits to VR than negative.  It can be used for training, or for vacations that last one hour or one week.  It can be used for virtual meetings, or it can be the ticket for literally anyone to explore other planets in real time.  But the most positive benefit of all is that, for a very reasonable cost, it allows regular people like us to participate in experiences and visit places only dreamed of, or only previously available to a few select, wealthy individuals – not to mention off-world and other world locations.
5.  Are there any health effects such as visual or balance issues?
A.  It can induce you motion sickness.  If you are prone to motion sickness in the real world, it works exactly the same in VR. 
B.  Since your eyes are completely covered and you are literally in motion in another world, it can cause accidents to you and others in this world.  Everyone using VR should have a safe, clear VR space.
C.  Having a small screen inches before your eyes is causing some concern, but there have been no studies yet about its long term effects.  Many users complain of eye ‘fatigue’ after a certain period of use.
D.  There is the potential that VR could interfere with normal socialization among younger users.  I absolutely do not believe that is going to be a significant, widespread issue because we have nearly two generations experience with younger users all being tied to non-stop video gaming.  They turned out no better or worse than their pre-video-game-generation parents.  VR is no different except that the screen is much closer while the exact same gaming immersion is going on.  And, parents should ALWAYS have their hand on the technology switch if things start looking iffy.
E.  Again, disaffection is a potential issue for both young and old alike because of the sheer power of perfection of the escape mechanism.  But I feel it is unlikely to capture otherwise ‘normal’ people and cause them to disappear from society.  VR disaffection is more apt to be a problem with people who are already undergoing some psychological trauma.  Ironically, in a virtual world of perfection, it may be that they will return much better off than before they entered!
The VR Safety Valves
There are several built-in VR safety valves that immediately come to my mind that will ALWAYS force anyone back into the real world.  Bathroom breaks.  No VR space I am aware of has a toilet – and because of real world plumbing, it’s not likely!  Food breaks.  No virtual refrigerator is going to dispense real food and nourishment.  Cell phones.  If there is a medium more powerful than VR, it is cell phones, email, social media, texts, etc.  And finally, sleeping.  Sleeping in a VR headset would have to be torturous. 
Bottom line
My review of Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch: hair still on fire!