Next Gen VR Improvements: Upcoming Virtual Reality Headset Tech
Virtual reality is off to a solid start, but its success is hampered by several issues that come along with early technology. Most of these issues will be solvable in the next generation of VR headsets. Many of these virtual reality improvements have already been announced and are being developed now to be ready to improve the next gen VR headsets.
The Fit of Current Gen VR Headsets
Current gen VR headsets are just a little too heavy to wear comfortably for long periods of time. To make the problem worse, the shape of the headset and the way the straps are situated makes it not only a little uncomfortable to wear, but also a hassle to take on and off. The Playstation VR surprisingly manages to be the winner in this category compared to the Oculus and Vive. This shows that improvements can definitely be made to comfort on all future devices.
To be fair, once you configure the straps to fit your head, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift fit well enough to be not be a major problem. However taking the headsets on and off is still quite a hassle. Also, when moving your head around a lot, extreme actions like leaning over to reach down to the ground often causes the headset to slide around. This happens a little no matter how well you adjust the fit.
VR Headset Screen Resolution
This is a headline issue that will most certainly be one of the earliest improvements in the second generation of Virtual Reality headsets. Current VR headsets have seemingly settled on a standard resolution of 2160 x 1200 (1080 x 1200 per eye). This sounds fairly high at first because its more than standard monitors and HDTVs. However because your eyes are so close to the display the resolution is actually sub optimal.
You will most certainly notice the low resolution in most scenarios. If you are playing a cartoonish game, with small interior environments, this is not much of a problem. Its when you get into detailed games or large environments like outdoor areas it is a noticeable problem. Text has to be close or large in order to read well, enemies at a distance are hard or impossible to see, and it just looks a little “blurry” overall.
Trials of Tatooine’s Low Resolution (One Example)
For example right at the launch of VR, a free Star Wars demo game was released. It is very short and consists of only one short gunfight, but when enemy stormtroopers step out to shoot at you, some of them are so tiny and low resolution that you can only see them because their armor is bright white. You only see a blur of pixelated color, no detail, and they are only a few hundred feet of in-game distance away.
Supersampling Can Help Right Now
With a powerful enough graphics card, you can increase the “supersampling” settings. This can help the graphics appear to be more detailed and sharper than they normally would. Depending on the software and your hardware, you may be able to increase the supersampling by something like 110% to 200%. This can also be referred to as scaling. In effect, you are telling the computer to render the graphics at a higher resolution, then scale them down to display them at the headset’s native resolution. The end result is a sharper overall image.
As computers and graphics cards become more powerful, they will be able to render higher resolution images for the VR headsets. Even using current gen headsets with higher super sampling will provide better results.
The Screen Door Effect
The screen door effect is closely related to the above resolution issues. Because the pixel density of the screens inside the headsets are not high enough, and your eyes are so close, you can easily notice the empty black space between the pixels. Its not so horrible that it ruins the experience, but it is noticeable. Your view is a bit like if you were looking at everything through a window screen. If you don’t yet have a VR headset, another way to imagine how this looks is to put your nose right up to your HDTV or computer monitor. You will be able to see the individual pixels. It is a noticeably negative effect.
Once the new generation of VR headsets gets an increased resolution, it will also have a higher pixel density and this issue should become a thing of the past.
Controllers that Feel Natural
With the release of the Oculus Touch controllers, we get a great look at what is possible with VR controllers. For most virtual reality applications, you want the controllers to make your hands feel very natural in games. The Touch controllers do this very well, far better than what is possible with the HTC Vive or with the simple Playstation VR wands.
When you are playing a game with a gun in your hand, the Vive controlers feel a little better, but some day I hope we see an actual gun prop controller as an extra option. Some fans and developers already have working prototypes, for example that work by taping one of the controllers to the end of a toy gun.
Tracked Glove Controllers for VR
There are even companies that have working gloves that can be tracked in VR with fully tracked fingers and haptic feedback when you pick up objects in game. Right now it is a very specialized product that seems targeted at very specific, very expensive applications, but at least we get a look at what can be possible in the future.
Graphics Cards Powerful Enough for Next Gen VR
This is a problem that already has a solution available to consumers. The current top tier of graphics cards are pretty much powerful enough to run detailed VR games, such as the gtx 1080 ti. Unfortunately it will probably be a couple of years before they drop down into more affordable mainstream price ranges.
Another concern would be if headset resolutions increase (hopefully double to be around 4k resolutions), then once again GPUs will struggle to be powerful enough to drive VR gaming. These video cards can already manage to run some modern games at 4k resolutions, but virtual reality requires a very solid 90 fps / 90 hz to be comfortable and that is a tough task to accomplish.
4k VR Headsets
By the time the next gen of “4k” VR headsets comes out, we should have a new generation of graphics cards that can match it, but they will no doubt be in the $600-800 or more range. High end, optimal VR experiences will unfortunately continue to be very expensive.
Headphones: Audio Built in to the Headset
This is a simple one that’s already been done pretty well. The Oculus Rift has built in headphones that are also removable in case you want to use your own audio solution. The HTC Vive has a headphone jack built into the headset, but no matter what you do this is going to add extra cords and more hassle in putting on and removing the headset.
One option is to use wireless headphones. This is what I do with the Vive. It works okay, but wireless headphones are expensive and pretty uncommon. Also, if you use wireless RF (radio frequency) headphones, you will most likely get an annoying minor hissing noise due to the wireless transmission. Perhaps bluetooth headphones could help solve this as long as there are no latency issues, but again you are still required to put on and remove an extra device. Having removable headphones built into the headset is the ideal solution, but they need to be a good enough quality that you can be immersed in the virtual, three dimensional audio.
Next Gen VR Wireless Headsets
Everyone who has tried VR for any amount of time has dreamed of wireless headsets. When you are playing a game in VR, the big cord coming from the headset to the computer is going to get in the way. There’s no way around it. In slow moving games and applications, it is only a minor annoyance, but in a fast paced game like Space Pirate Trainer, where you are constantly moving around the space to dodge bullets it is a huge hindrance and can even cause damage to your headset or computer.
The good news is there are already workable solutions out there and in fact they can be made to work with the current gen headsets too! At the moment, there are no real readily available consumer level products, but many people have tested out the technology and it does work well enough.
Wireless VR Headsets
DisplayLink XR and TPCast are two companies who are working to make wireless virtual reality possible. They do introduce an unavoidable small amount of lag (or latency), but it is small enough to not ruin the experience. One source mentioned around 5ms as the extra latency introduced.
The price point mentioned was around $200. That seems like a reasonable cost at this time, but hopefully it will be integrated into the second gen of virtual reality headsets. DisplayLink plans to only sell the components needed to make this work – they dont plan to release a standalone product for consumers, instead they will try to supply the parts directly to headset manufacturers or other companies.
Another downside is that both of these solutions use a battery that has to be on the person. It could be put into a pocket or backpack, but either way that means a bit more hassle and weight.
Wireless Virtual Reality Gaming Right Now!
The only real way to do wireless VR right now is to have a battery powered computer, like a gaming laptop, and stick it in a backpack. You would have to ensure that it keeps cool enough and has ventilation. Obviously this would be a very expensive solution and a bit of a hassle to set up and get into, but it is certainly do-able right now.
The Gear VR is wireless because it uses your phone, but it really isn’t suitable for VR gaming or other more complex virtual reality applications.
The Future of Virtual Reality: Next Gen Improvements
Time solves many problems and luckily VR is doing well enough right now that many companies are currently and will continue to develop both hardware and software for it. In two or three years we should see some huge improvements in the quality of the experience, ease of use, and the variety of experiences available.
On a personal note, I’d like to be sure to mention that I absolutely love virtual reality and am happy that it is now available for everyone. However the issues listed here do dampen my enjoyment of the experience and I can’t wait for the next generation of VR devices.