Meet IonVR: Sick VR That Eliminates VR Sickness
The Big Android Barbecue 2015 has come and gone, and as attendees know, going to such an Android gathering rewards Android fans with new experiences. This year, the best of the show was all about Virtual Reality.
And as is the case with every emerging technology at any event, the people involved in pushing Virtual Reality were all over the convention, showing us all the great things their products are capable of. The two names to look out for were IonVR and HTC Vive, both providing very different experiences. I had a chance to play with both, the former at length and the second just through the one-time demo, which was long enough for me to get a good idea of the kind of experience HTC is targeting.
But while HTC’s high-budget project is backed by Valve and clearly intended for gaming (the Portal theme of the demo made that crystal clear), XDA-partnered and Chainfire-aided IonVR attempts to tackle a different market, through a different solution, and with its own suite of clever tricks. With their modular, upgradable headset (which can support all sorts of phones), this company is diving into a highly competitive and fierce new space. What makes IonVR special, why did we enjoy it so much, and how can it change the way you consume media in the near future?
Fun Without Compromises
While there are other headsets out there that provide a universal platform, the biggest difference between IonVR and other Cardboard solutions is the fact that IonVR puts serious work and technology into achieving a realistic experience outside of the media content, making the most out of whatever you are experiencing through the lenses.
You take off the headset, and you are back in real life — no disturbances
Whereas Cardboard lets the screen and the device behind it do all the work, with little to no thought past the lenses nor aimed at many of the needed corrections to make the experience work, IonVR provides an optic solution of hardware and onboard processing that does away with many of the inconsistencies mobile VR currently brings to the table.
The biggest issue facing widespread VR adoption is “VR Sickness” — something that I saw most people discuss after their HTC Vive experience, and a problem I personally faced after my demo session. For those unfamiliar, current VR implementations cause disorientation after one takes off the headset – sometimes after a minute in the headset and other times after lengthy sessions inside the HMD. At the BABBQ, my HTC Vive session – as awesome as it was – left me feeling uneasy and with a distorted perception for hours after I had tried it, which was one of the only negative things I had to say about it.
IonVR is a different story altogether: I tried their Stromberg-directed Demo, a neat stroll through a surreal world straight out of Lewis Carroll, and multiplayer games as well (first in class, literally!) for lengthy sessions, and taking off the headset left me with no disconnection between my perception and my motor system, nor with any feeling of unease.
If one intends consumers to crave all sorts of radical, world-twisting VR content, VR sickness must go
You take off the headset, and you are back in real life — no disturbances. The tracking and general motions were also better than those one would expect out of Cardboard, due to both hardware and software (including demo content) through their “MotionSync Technology”, and the whole experience felt realistically responsive. While seemingly a small advantage, it’s the kind of thing that will allow VR to hit the mainstream by being a media format that won’t actually impair your perception nor your health once you are done. And if one intends consumers to crave all sorts of radical, world-twisting VR content, such a thing is a must.
One of the things I discussed with Dan, IonVR’s co-founder, was the emotional impact these experiences could have on consumers. The team behind this solution – and I can only assume those behind the rest as well – have done their homework, and realize that VR has potential to do great things, but also great harm. Leaving Orwellian horrors aside, though, the company realises that VR, because of its uniquely immersive qualities, can deliver emotional experiences unlike other media formats — this is not to say that great writing can’t bring you to tears, but rather that the inherent virtues of this technology can directly play with one’s senses in a way written symbols simply can’t.
And once again, this is something I got to experience. The end of the Stromberg Experience, in particular, had my on-rails movement lead me down the end of a bridge as an eerie figure approached me; simply remembering the event brings chills down my spine, not because it was particularly realistic, but because I felt immersed in that world. Dan and Brooke from IonVR also told us about the kind of reactions they received during their many testing sessions, and they summarize their results by stating that testers felt as if they were living childhood again. The BABBQ threw their words to the test, surprisingly, as we had many unexpected guests. Cue the younglings:
During the event, a big group of students curiously walked by and they all decided to try out the headset and take it for a spin. Their faces alone were worth capturing, and most of their feedback matches up with mine — particularly the part about there being no disruptive transition between VR and RL once the headset was taken off. Seeing the appeal VR had on younger generations made it clear that this is what many will grow up with, changing childhoods in the same way 90s kid wished they experienced themselves. So it impressed technology enthusiasts, and it impressed younger generations. Who else could get a kick out of VR to solidify its demand?
VR Gaming is Here
IonVR hosted the first local multiplayer VR match in history, and we had a hell of a time. The star of the show was N.O.V.A. 3 running on IonVR, in virtual reality. How, you ask? The game itself was untouched, but IonVR used its magic to display the 2D image in a rather convincing VR environment. Not all of it looked quite right, but such a challenge was expected. Nevertheless, turning and aiming worked as you’d expect, and looking at a target was enough to set your crosshairs on them to initiate fire.
There is nothing like chasing down another Android enthusiast with a flamethrower through a virtual reality environment
“After experiencing multiplayer gaming on VR, playing videogames on a flat vertical surface feels primitive”
What followed were intense yet quick matches in a huge deathmatch arena with all of the sci-fi carnage one can expect out of a Halo clone. The turning mechanic added a new layer of aim to the game, but for quick turning, you did want to use the provided joystick.
IonVR hasn’t managed to solve the sickness one naturally gets from spinning in place, and doing so in a convention with hundreds of people can be a bit embarrassing. Other than that, though, the experience felt fantastic, and a teaser proof-of-concept that shows how enhanced immersion can boost multiplayer gaming.
Turns out that there is nothing quite like chasing down another Android enthusiast with a flamethrower through a virtual reality environment, with both the predator and the prey heavily invested in the immersion. This is where VR shows a lot of potential, if only for serious gaming. Even with N.O.V.A.’s “mobile game” graphics, the experience felt more immersive than what many other high-caliber PC and console games can offer. After experiencing multiplayer gaming on VR, playing videogames on a flat vertical surface feels primitive.
For all of these virtues, VR is not quite there yet. Mobile VR is slightly further down the line as well. The pixel density of the screens, the quality of the graphics that our phones can output under such resolutions, the battery life devices get on these conditions, and the fact that there is no laser-precise head-tracking system like HTC’s wall-mounted system means that mobile VR could remain second-class for some time to come. That being said, VR on mobile seems to be inclined towards less-interactive media; movies rather than games, Stromberg rather than Valve. We all know that mobile gaming is a different world from that of triple-A PC games, and mobile VR is no different with those constraints.
That being said, the virtual reality demos from both IonVR and HTC didn’t come without flaws, mostly in terms of hardware and UX. HTC’s demo, which I plan on detailing in another feature, offered some of the most immersive and remarkable experiences, yet they seemingly failed to meet some crucial suggested VR guidelines (such as no cut-to-black), and the VR sickness that followed won’t allow many to close the deal. IonVR, on the other hand, had its demo suffer from fragile 3D printed components (theirs was a prototype and not the final, manufactured headset that will ship out to consumers), smudged lenses, and other sudden and unexpected technical issues.
Where to Go From Here
A Virtual Reality experience ultimately lives and dies through its content. And right now, there are major players investing in virtual reality — from Hollywood to video game giants. While HTC has Valve behind its back, IonVR has Stromberg and Spielberg through their partnerships with The Virtual Reality Company (VRC). Whether or not the content can make full use of IonVR’s particular virtues remains to be seen. There are some things still holding back mobile VR in particular: resolution, processing power, and content.
“VR is finally getting on its legs and getting ready to walk”
As media evolves, so does the required talent; movies now incorporate all sorts of professions behind the scenes working together to bring your imagination somewhere else, even if just for 2 hours. VR will be no different. This means that highly-coordinated pushes forward and campaigns are required.
But VR is not just about media; it has applications in medicine, therapy, training simulations, and much more — perhaps applications we can’t even conceive in our minds quite yet. And, as Dan from IonVR told us, they are considering all of these as well. VR can help with pain management, curing phobias, minimizing trauma, rehabilitating patients with serious limb damage. Sometimes we forget that technology tends to find ways to trickle down onto our everyday life, and great technology even more so. VR is not just great technology — it’s the future. After that week at the Big Android Barbecue, and countless demos and conferences dealing with the subject, I am convinced VR will be a changing force in our society, and it’ll change culture in unimaginable ways.
But until we get there, we can only hope for more demos, more small releases and seemingly small projects like Cardboard, and we can only expect many new players to jump in as well. As it stands, VR is finally getting on its legs and getting ready to walk. We are told that the future is coming soon, and much sooner than the general public expects. It’ll be outlandish, quaint, and perhaps extraordinary. Only time will tell, but if either IonVR or the HTC Vive are showing near you, pay them a visit — it’s the closest you’ll get to clairvoyance.