Why Roomscale Is Such An Important Concept In VR

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Why Roomscale Is Such An Important Concept In VR
October 21, 2016

Key to virtual reality is the ability to interact with an environment, such as the one at this VR haunted house at Universal Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights event (above photo: Universal Parks)
 
These days, the term “virtual reality” is tossed around with almost reckless abandon, as companies and brands rush to hitch their products to the topical tech trend. The term is now regularly use to describe an astonishingly wide variety of products, services, and experiences that have very little in common with each other. Everything from inexpensive phone holsters such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Galaxy Gear, to dedicated PC-tethered rigs like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now lays claim to the VR mantle.
 
But not all VR is created equal, and it can be incredibly confusing for consumers trying to understand how these experiences differ from each other. This confusion also poses real risks for the industry. Consumers who may be unimpressed with a poorly produced or low-end VR experience may wrongly believe that all VR is like this, and be turned off from the technology. As a cautionary tale, just look at the film industry’s push to 3D a few years back. The best 3D films are nothing short of astonishing, but a rush of cash-grab 3D flicks (most of which were filmed in 2D and had the extra dimension added after the fact) soiled consumers’ opinions of the format.
 
We’re seeing something similar now happen with VR, with widespread (and some would argue intentional) confusion between the concepts of “360 video” and “virtual reality”. These are related formats in that they both involve face-wrapping headsets, but there are key differences that consumers should be aware of.
 
360 video is filmed using special cameras that point in all directions at once. This creates a spherical scene in which users can look up, down, and around using special headsets. These experiences can be produced cheaply (plenty of companies make mass-market 360 cameras), and the vast majority of so-called VR experiences out there—particularly those put out by brands for marketing purposes—are actually 360 video.
 
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the exact point where something ceases to be 360 and can positively call itself VR is a bit blurry. But the key difference between the formats is that 360 is entirely prerecorded and passive. You watch a documentary in 360 video. You play a game in virtual reality.
 
This isn’t to bash 360 video. The format’s accessibility is absolutely key for getting VR hardware to the masses, and there are many well-produced 360 videos that are certainly worth your time. But without the ability to actually engage in the environment in any meaningful way, it’s hard to make the argument that it is truly virtual reality.
 
Virtual reality’s power comes from its ability to engross and engage users. There is no multitasking when you’re wearing a headset, and such all-encompassing experiences have the ability to tap into your primal brain and nervous system. I’m fond of saying that, even if you know you’re actually trying a VR experience in a conference room or living room, you may still have a hard time stepping over that virtual cliff. At it’s best, VR is a thereness and empathy engine (a term I’ve heard countless VR producers use).
 
This is why the concept of so-called “roomscale” VR is so important. If you want the best possible and most immersive VR experience, this is the one feature you absolutely need to be on the lookout for.
 
Basically, roomscale VR gives users the ability to physically walk through a real-world space and have these movements translated into the virtual world. When you walk around a conference or living room, these same movements occur in the VR experience. Needless to say, this functionality absolutely changes the way you experience VR.
 
It suddenly feels realin a way that is simply impossible non-roomscale VR (and definitely impossible in 360 video). Playing games such as Space Pirates (highly recommended) is no longer a matter of pushing buttons, but actually ducking and dodging alien gunfire. With roomscale, VR becomes a total-body experience—what we all hoped the Wii would be before we realized we could fake it by sitting on a sofa and whipping our wrists around.
 
“You won’t believe roomscale VR until you put put on the goggles and take your first step,” says Cody Brown, founder of Roomscale.org, a site dedicated to building a community around the concept. “Walking around a digital space for the first time is something you’ll never forget. It sounds a little crazy but we already have a good word for it. Roomscale VR is cyberspace.”
 
“Imagine a VR experience in which you are standing in an open field west of a white house. With roomscale, if you begin to walk west in the real world you will actually go west in the virtual world,” says David Title, chief engagement officer at Bravo Media, which producers VR content.  ”If you physically lean down to look at a virtual flower, your virtual nose will get close enough to almost smell it.”
 
If this sounds a lot cooler than the passive VR demos you may have run across, that’s because it is. With roomscale, VR ceases to be a quick cash-in gimmick dominated by marketing agencies who are looking to do something in the space just for the sake of it. With roomscale, your nervous system is fired up and you may feel like you have been transported via a holodeck to a different world. When geeks talk about how cool virtual reality can be, this is what they are talking about.
 
Now, there may be a ton of VR rigs on the market, but there are very few that can handle Roomscale. The HTC Vive can do it, and Oculus Rift has announced some upcoming accessories that should enable it for its headsets as well. There are also some site-specific rigs that translate full-body motion into the experience, such as the Ghostbusters experience in New York, and the VR haunted house at Universal Orlando) But pretty much nothing else in the consumer space can handle roomscale quite yet.
 
Part of the problem is that devices such as the HTC Vive require a ton of hardware, including stationary sensors that map the layout of a room, along with a user’s movements. In the near future, this hinderance should go away. Every generation of smartphone has better positional tracking, and it’s not hard to imagine one coming out that truly can detect and translate the right type of movement to create a roomscale experience. Today, most modern smartphone scan display 360 video with ease. When positional tracking gets just a little bit better, these omnipresent devices could also double as high-end VR rigs that truly do bring the best of this technology to the masses.

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