Nolilocks & The Three Reality Bears: VR, AR & Volumetric Displays
Hey friends! Nolan here, ponderer of deep thoughts and maker of bold claims. Today I am going to compare and contrast the best platform that each branch of cool weird future tech has to offer. It’s HTC Vive vs Microsoft HoloLens vs Looking Glass’s Volume.
Procedural Note: Oculus Rift can now, through the purchase of additional peripherals, be brought up to parity with the Vive. For brevity’s sake, I will only write “Vive” when I mean “Vive and/or Oculus Rift after you’ve bought two more cameras and a pair of new controllers”.
Procedural Note: “Mixed Reality” is not a real distinction and I will be rightly referring to HoloLens as an Augmented Reality platform. I also have problems with the term “Augmented Reality” but that’s a polemic for another day.
Procedural Note: Maybe Volumetric Displays haven’t caught on because they don’t have a good acronym? “Check out this immersive VD experience!” does not sound appealing.
What it is: A personal hologram viewer. The self-contained headset creates a 3D map of the space you’re in and properly overlays it in your view. This means you can leave a virtual object in a physical place, walk around, and return later to find it in the same location. It’s a digital layer on top of the real world.
What it does well: The fact that HoloLens is a self-contained computer you wear on your head makes all the difference. There are no wires connecting it to the wall or the ceiling or anything else, it’s completely untethered. Not only does this greatly simplify the setup (though the current version still requires the input of a mysterious eye width measurement unique to each user), but it also means the physical play space is unbounded and the user doesn’t have to worry about where they are positioned within a space. They can fully immerse themselves in the augmented reality experience.
In HoloLens you also have access to a number of different control schemes including hand gestures, voice commands, and the combination of a physical button with a gaze based selector. This is really great! Developers have options and users have a standard toolset of learned actions.
What it could do better: Sounds great, right? HoloLens has one huge problem that keeps it from being commercially ready (or maybe a little problem!) — the field of augmented view is far too small. It’s only a couple of inches squared in area, which means you can’t view large 3D content up close without it cutting off. Very cool tech, but the use cases are just too limited right now. That said, I would definitely purchase one when it hits the primetime.
What it is: The interconnected system of a headset, infrared cameras, and motion controllers. It allows the user to experience “room scale” virtual reality, which tracks the orientations of their head, hands, and body within a predefined play space. It ideally replaces real life with a virtual world in which a player feels completely immersed.
What it does well: The motion controllers in particular are quite sophisticated and allow for a lot of expression within a virtual space. Players are able to translate real life skills directly into a digital game since the control scheme removes much of the abstraction between input and game. Combined with body and head tracking, users are able to control experiences “intuitively”. It also has a respectably sized library of games from indies and AAA studios alike because it’s a real released commercial product.
What it could do better: Sounds great again, right? Well, it can be, if you have a friend to help you in and out of the rig, limit your movements so you don’t hit anything or run into walls or trip over the cable, and is fine with observing you play a game by yourself that they can’t see. And if the frame rate doesn’t drop, sending you on a one way trip to barf city. All those ifs make the Vive hard to recommend.
Rant: Seriously, how is this a multimillion dollar industry? Aside from the technology not being ready yet, I truly believe it will always suck to have a TV strapped to your face. We have a Vive at the lab and nobody ever uses it. I guess nobody is using VR anywhere!
Looking Glass’s Volume
What it is: A 3D monitor. An off-the-shelf projector shines a pre-distorted 2D image underneath a custom-made prism, which separates the image into discrete light layers throughout the depth of the monitor. People see the content properly positioned in true 3D space.
What it does well: The viewing angle is quite large, so many people can gather around the same monitor and enjoy the same experience. The depth, unlike 3D TVs and the 3DS, is not a trick based on rapidly alternating camera views through a polarizing filter. The light is actually reflecting off a location farther away in physical space! Because the effect is largely hardware based, it still functions perfectly even at low frame rates and low resolutions.
What it could do better: From a user perspective, Volume’s lack of dedicated input source can be confusing. It’s a hologram monitor without a built in processor. People often think the unit is a custom cabinet capable of only playing the one game it’s currently running. This is a double edged sword — developers have ultimate control over the experience but they can’t assume any prior knowledge of how to interact with a 3D display. Standing alone, it doesn’t fully convey the breadth of options both users and developers have.
And now, some sweeping conclusions!
It’s all about friction. The best parts of each device are where the technology falls away and the user is free to interact directly with an experience. HoloLens’ ultimate portability and Vive’s intuitive controllers both enhance a user’s experience more than they hinder. As a display, Volume’s core technology is already mostly frictionless for users (no head gear!), which is a great place to be. I’m also happy to say that some really cool utilities are in development to help reduce the friction it does have.
Both HoloLens and Vive have dedicated input sources that are built into the device. Probably because they use software to facilitate the effect and users need a way to interact with that software. As mentioned, Volume has no onboard computer and the interactions can be wildly different from experience to experience. To assuage this, I’m developing some middleware that will help standardize the way both developers and users interact with Volume. It’s a universal input manager that allows everyone to benefit from the lessons we’ve been learning on the way people interact with volumetric displays.
Content on these devices is often a vicious cycle.
Developers don’t want to invest in creating an experience unless an audience is there to use it, users don’t want to invest in a platform unless there’s already a lot to do on it. The VR industry is struggling with this cycle because it requires content built from the ground up with 360° views in mind. Volume at present has libraries that make it easy to convert old and make new experiences into 3D, but we’re also coming up with solutions to take pre-existing 3D content and display it volumetrically, no extra effort required.
HoloLens and Vive both have menu systems that let users grow comfortable with their control schemes before engaging in any experience. On shipment, Volume makes available a handful of application made by the Looking Glass team to show off best practices and inspire developers to explore what’s really possible in 3D. It’s an intentional half step so Volume can both demo like HoloLens/Vive and be open for developers.
All together, it’s vitally important to learn from the mistakes of other technologies and recognize their successes. Volume, as a third pillar beside VR & AR, has the benefit of seeing how other cool weird future tech behaves in the wild and should absolutely steal the best ideas from its forebears (I am the third and youngest child, can you tell?)
Looking Glass has a great position in the market right now and I’m excited to help it reach its full potential.