VR180: The Future Of VR Is … View-Master?

Google is launching a new line of cameras for 180-degree VR video

Updates from VidCon: more users, more products, more shows and much more

VR180

Google invites you to capture the world as you see it with VR180; new cameras announced from partners

LucidCam VR camera kicks off launch with promo tour of San Francisco

It’s been a very, very, very long time since I’ve posted about VR.

That’s not due to a lack of interest. I continue to grab a demo Gear VR headset when I’m in a Best Buy to peer at the latest samples on it.

And I’m still damn impressed and excited, despite my irritation over the screen-door effect.

I’m not keen on VR games. I’m keen on VR storytelling.

But that whole 360-degree view is a bitch to figure out for drama or comedy or even documentary.

I have my own ideas about it — which I will keep to myself — but I continue to wonder how everyday people would react to them.

It’s everyday people who are the VR mass-market, not the people who have played games more than they’ve ever read books.

OK, if I’m going to be snide like that, I should note that everyday people watch TV/video more than they’ve ever read books! That’s just the reality of the mass market VR needs to reach.

That said, my observations of everyday people trying out VR — in Best Buy, at the Samsung 837 showcase store — has always puzzled me. Because they don’t look around.

I’m the only one risking whiplash as I try to twist my head 360-degrees in all directions to See Everything. And in VR video that’s been taken from a height, when I look down I wind up like this …

… even the screen-door effect doesn’t mitigate it.

Everyday people not looking around is even confirmed from heatmaps, as 360 Rumors points out:

heatmaps show that most viewers view videos only looking at the forward view

And The Register chimes in with: Virtual reality audiences stare straight ahead 75% of the time.

You can’t argue with science like that.

The thing is, front-facing stuff isn’t VR.

It’s View-Master!

I had View-Master as a kid. I enjoyed it a lot. It had high-resolution and color. Two things my childhood lacked because these were the days of low-resolution over-the-air monochrome TV (with ghosting and interference and vertical hold problems).

View-Master was like really seeing things as they should have been.

And now, with Google’s VR180 initiative, it seems we’re going back to those days.

But what if there’s actually two VR markets?

The real VR, which is Rift, Vive, PlayStation, Daydream, and Cardboard.

And this new VR180, which is basically a 21st century version of View-Master?

If people viewing VR are just going to treat it like a TV — facing forward — why not accommodate them?

I know that probably doesn’t sound very exciting to hard-core VR people, but wait.

Because VR180 has the potential to surpass 360-VR and pave the way for it.

This is where I try to paste together two things that are on different tracks. VR180 and a company called …

A new startup from Nokia employees is trying to fix VR’s biggest technical problem

Most people have probably seen the posts about this startup around. But here is the key thing, from Has This Stealth Company Solved Vision-Quality VR?:

The ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to match the resolution of human eyesight. In order to give you an image that’s indistinguishable from real-life vision, VR needs to display more than 2,000 pixels per inch. That’s about 10 times more densely packed than a Macbook’s “retinal display”—and according to Jason Paul, who oversees VR strategy at NVIDIA, it’s also going to be long time until we get there. “Based off how many pixels we would need to be able to push and mapping that out alongside our upcoming new GPU releases,” he told Upload VR in May, “it would take us about 20 years to achieve resolutions that can match the human eye.”

The folks at Varjo didn’t want to wait that long. As ex-Nokia employees (Finland represent!), many of them were familiar with small-screen optics, and the way they saw it, there was already a display out there that could simulate human vision. Sony’s broadcast cameras use an OLED microdisplay that’s only 0.7 inches diagonally, but manages to cram in a full HD resolution:1920×1080. That works out to more than 3,000 pixels per inch—enough to let you see everything there is to see, without eyestrain or effort.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

And seeing is believing.

This is what VR looks like today:


Click = big

The ruinous screen-door effect. In a way, that’s like going back to my childhood monochrome TV days. Everything is so low resolution that it’s frustrating after experiencing the crystal clarity of View-Master.

This is what the same scene looks like through Varjo’s scheme (VarjoVision?):


Click = big

It’s a lot closer to classic back-in-my-day View-Master clarity!

See other Varjo sample images.

That is what 360-VR should look like.

And I believe that’s what VR180 can look like first.

I’m not quite sure how Varjo has arranged their prototype hardware. But it seems to me they’ve been targeting 360-VR. What if this technology’s future is instead really VR180?

The stumbling blocks are:

1) The Sony screen is US$900. Wait.

2) I have zero experience with optics (aside from needing reading glasses) so I don’t know if just putting two of those Sony screens (one per eye) in a headset would simply work. But the tech world is filled with bright people who can figure that out. Supposedly. Yet it took a stealth startup in Finland to have the Eureka Moment of that tiny Sony screen. Why didn’t anyone else have it?

As for the price obstacle, come on. This is tech. If Apple and Google and Facebook and Amazon and even Sony’s own PlayStation division want that screen, Sony will find a way to crush the price of it. The current market — broadcast-quality cameras — is a rounding error compared to the potential mass-market of VR180.

The price of that screen could drop massively to the point where Mobile VR using a phone would be the bad memory it currently is. Everything could be in a standalone slim, lightweight headset. With a price that will plummet even more when Chinese companies get access to the Sony screen and disgorge several hundreds of millions of headsets.

For VR180.

The 21st century View-Master.

Is it at all possible?

Can filmmakers skip the effort of 360-VR and start with VR180 instead?

If audiences will only face forward, why not settle for giving them just that in the beginning?

But even if filmmakers and audiences are in that sort of sync or overlap, here are the questions that could sink everything: Why not just stick to watching TV and other flat screens? Why bother with a headset?

3D-TV was tried and failed. People looked like dicks viewing it.

And if those turn out to soon be VR180 headsets, won’t people look like dicks again? Would it matter? Would VR180 seem an entirely different thing than using such goggles to view a TV?

Another factor to consider is Apple and AR. Having already dominated AR before their iOS 11 is even out with it(!), I have to wonder about where it could lead. Could it become popular as an entertainment? Could that then lead people to feeling frustrated with holding a screen and desiring a headset? And could that headset be for both AR and VR180?

I don’t have any answers in this post, just a lot of questions.

But it seems to me that VR180 would offer more traditional filmic storytelling capabilities than 360-VR. Cuts, pans, tilts, and slow zoom could work. That’s in its favor.

It also seems to me that cameras created for VR180 would be far less expensive than cameras for 360-VR. They would also be easier to use and perhaps even make it possible to quickly share their recordings instead of requiring the stitching processing delay of 360-VR. Could VR180 cameras be the Super-8 that the Samsung Gear 360 has failed to be? (Sidenote: It puzzles me that the LucidCam, also linked to above, is never mentioned by Google.)

Or are VR180 cameras nothing but a short step before phones contain such capabilities?

And if VR180 can be done on a phone, are we back to bulky Samsung Gear VR and Daydream VR headsets for immediate viewing?

Many questions. No answers yet.

But VR180 could develop into the something 360-VR still hasn’t.

Previously here:

Virtual Reality category

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4 Responses to VR180: The Future Of VR Is … View-Master?

  1. E.T. says:

    The last season of Silicon valley added VR to the long list of their joke targets.

  2. creadvty says:

    Hey Mike. Great writeup! And i like the analogy to Viewmaster. I think one difference this time around is that they are trying to make it much easier to CREATE and SHARE for this 3d medium. So now you can create viewmaster moments with you and your friends. And these are not just photos but videos.

    3d cameras had been around but they were usually expensive and it wasnt easy to share the images in 3D. But now the videos are viewable by anyone with a smartphone and a $5 cardboard viewer.

    Would those be enough? I hope so but to be honest i would not bet on it at this point. But let’s cross our fingers…

    Best regards,
    Mic

    • mikecane says:

      From what I’ve seen in discount stores, the $10-$15 Cardboard-compatible plastic-shell VR headsets have been selling well. In fact, they always sell out completely. Even if these are only being given to kids, it’s a foothold.

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