VRLA 2018: VR tech needs to move forward

VRLA 2018 was packed with the ingenuity and creativity you’d expect from a small conference of cutting edge virtual reality tech. From brand new horror experiences, to health and well-being applications, there was no lack of new concepts being explored by passionate developers and artists.

So why did VRLA feel a little underwhelming? It wasn’t a lack of excited consumers or developers, but more a pervading sense that the technology has stagnated. There are new advances that push it forward every year, incremental pushes like the Vive Pro or the Oculus Go, but nothing that fundamentally changes the way we consume virtual reality.

It’s time for the next big technological push, so the inspired people that develop VR can explore this exciting technological frontier with better tools. At VRLA 2018 there was a consistent pattern of people trying to circumvent the technological and physical limitations of current VR technology, instead of focusing that energy on new conceptual applications.

A few of the most obvious issues are addressed below, though feel free to let us know any other issues you think will help push VR tech forward in the comments.

Cut the cord

There are a glut of wireless VR options available, from generic headsets with their own unique twist, to the more widely accepted formats like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream. The vast majority of these rely on the processing power of a powerful smartphone however, which is a barrier to entry for some, and cumbersome to use for those that do have the right technology.

The release of a new generation of wireless headsets, most notably the Oculus Go, addresses some of the biggest concerns of potential VR adopters: price and complexity. By creating a fully self contained, wireless VR experience that has all of the applications already developed in these fully fleshed out marketplaces for a relatively low price, these hardware companies are hoping to gain access to a new audience.

But the tradeoff for portability is performance. As inventive and engaging as some of the apps may be, they are nowhere near as immersive as those for the higher end platforms like the Vive, the Oculus, and to a slightly lesser extent, the PSVR. All of these higher-end experiences require significantly more powerful hardware, including tethered headsets and tracking cameras, all of which add to the complexity of setup and use, and cost.

HTC is certainly on the right track with their Wireless Adaptor. It’s much more elegant than some of the VR backpack solutions we’ve seen, but it still requires a huge tangle of wires and a complex setup process. This is exciting news for enthusiasts who already own the Vive, but is likely to do little to bring in new consumers.

Simply put, we need the portability of something like the Oculus Go with the power of the Vive. Whether that technological advancement comes from wireless transmission or increased GPU power in the headset itself remains to be seen, but it’s a critical part of bringing in more consumers to the still somewhat exclusive VR space.

Losing the trackers

New tracking solutions are one area in which there has been substantial improvement, and that was clear on the floor of VRLA 2018. Both the Vive and the Oculus require cameras for full movement tracking, and though they work well when setup properly, it’s yet another encumberance to easily accessible VR. Microsoft's AR headsets are a nice middle ground in that the trackers are built into the controllers themselves, but that also has limitations as it requires direct line of sight to the headset.  

There were some inventive solutions, like floor paneling with built in tracking, and it’s reasonable to assume this problem will be solved relatively soon as trackers become smaller and more visually undetectable.    

The incredible shrinking headset

Headsets are getting smaller, but they’re still not small enough. We’re still far from the dream of contacts that can teleport us to virtual worlds, or fashionable glasses that do a great deal more than just block the sun. The Vive especially is still massive, and though comfort is becoming less of an issue as manufacturers keep improving their designs, it has a long way to go before it could be called sleek.

VRLA had a Zombie Maze; a simple, fun Microsoft HoloLens AR experience that involved moving through a maze and encountering zombies digitally rendered in the real environment. Part of why it was entertaining was that it circumvented several of the issues we’ve addressed. Tracking isn’t an issue, it’s cordless, and the headset itself is substantially smaller than the competition because it doesn’t have to pack lenses into the frame. Even so, it’s probably not suitable to wear in public unless you’re remarkably self assured.

Again, this is a simple example of technology that will inevitably improve over time, but until it does, it’s going to be difficult for VR to break into the mainstream.

Keep moving forward

There’s no question that VR is here to stay, not just in gaming, but in fields like law enforcement, healthcare, and engineering. Its already come an extraordinary long way since the Vive was released just a few years ago, but it’s also quite clear there’s a long way to go before it becomes something everyone can enjoy.

Like any technology it’s going to be incremental changes, but at VRLA 2018 it felt like developers are starting to push up against the boundaries of what’s capable with the technology as it is. It’s exciting to imagine what the next generation of VR technology will look like, and the extraordinary places these talented developers will take it.

Hopefully VRLA 2019 will be the year VR tech catches up to the minds who are pushing it forward.