CTO @ Argyle
By 2019, most people have probably seen or tried virtual reality experiences, otherwise known as VR. You may have tried a very basic version of VR with Google Cardboard where you could look around and see a 360-degree picture around you. Or you might have even tried a full-fledged VR with the HTC Vive or an Oculus Rift where you were not only able to look around but also to move and explore the new and unfamiliar space.
Some people think that VR is just a passing fad, while others praise it to be the next big thing in computing. Despite all that, VR is a new type of medium for interaction with computers, and it’s been steadily breaking into the consumer and enterprise markets for the last 8 years. For example, Ford has used VR to help them to design their GT supercar, while Boston Children’s Hospital and multiple different other hospitals around the world have used VR as an effective replacement for painkillers.
This article will try to help PMs to better understand the technology itself (similar to our recent article about AI), to help them to manage VR projects, and to prepare for any challenges that might lie ahead when managing a VR project.
To understand what virtual reality is, we must look at the history of 3D technologies and see where VR has come from. Over the years there were multiple attempts to take us from the realm of 2D content into the realm of 3D content. It all started with “3D” pictures in the late 19th century and moved into 3D cinema in the mid 20th century. However, VR should not be mistaken for the more typical 3D content. It is much more than that.
The key factor differentiating 3D cinema and VR is what engineers in a VR space call “presence”. Presence is a technical term used to describe the feeling of total immersion and existence in another space that VR headsets provide to the user. This feeling of “presence” requires the device to trick many different facets of the human perception system.
The best test designed to check the existence of the “presence” is to tell a person to try and walk onto a virtual ledge of a 100 stories tall building and try to jump off it. In a 3D cinema, this might look, daunting, but most people would have no trouble taking the leap.
However, in the virtual reality the field of view, refresh rate, resolution and other aspects of the headsets are designed in such a way that it tricks the human perceptual system into believing you are really somewhere else. This makes taking that leap off the building ledge almost an impossible task for most, while others scream and shout while accomplishing this simple and harmless exercise.
Those who have the guts to step off the ledge and start virtually falling off the building, report having a feeling of fall in the stomach that mimics the real falling reflex. This is the case because of how well we are tricked in believing virtual reality is real. This feeling of “presence” is the key difference between other 3D experiences and true virtual reality.
History of VR starts with the very first demo of a Sword of Damocles in the MIT lab in 1968. Back then VR was mostly a test for military flight simulators and screen technologies. There were many failed attempts to make VR a reality in the mid 20th century, but most of them resembled very basic demos that would take up too much space, and could only be afforded by the largest R&D labs.
The first real wave of VR hype came and passed in the early 90s. There were companies making very expensive and cumbersome VR headsets, such as Virtuality 1000CS. There was even a TV show called VR Rangers showing kids the wonderful journeys of VR warriors looking suspiciously similar to Power Rangers.
However, the technological capability in the graphics space of the early 90s was not a match for the requirements of the VR systems. Most people have reported side effects of using VR displays at the time. Nausea and sea sickness was accompanying almost all the experiences. Most games couldn’t produce much more than a few simple shapes, and VR was forgotten for another 15 years.
Then came the rise of the Oculus Rift, starting with their Kickstarter campaign in early 2010, which has brought VR out of the shadows and into the mainstream consciousness again.
Most people associate VR with playing computer games. While gaming is the big part of VR market, it is definitely not the only use of VR. VR has been successfully applied in many different fields since its inception in the late 1960s.
It started off as a research project to make better flight simulators, however, since it’s rebirth VR has been used in many different areas across a variety of industries. Here are some of the more notable examples:
Currently, there are few different types of VR devices in the market. They can be best split into two categories: Mobile VR and Desktop VR.
Mobile VR — As suggested by its name is defined by the portability factor. The first generation of mobile VR headsets often used a smartphone that you would put into the headset shell. The current generation mobile VR headsets use standalone hardware and mobile processors integrated into the headset itself.
This allows for a convenient but limited VR experience usually with simpler graphics when compared to desktop VR. One other major drawback of mobile VR is that most of the mobile VR headsets lack something called “positional tracking.” This type of tracking not only tracks the user’s head tilts but also the user’s head position when moving in space. It is essential for a fully immersive experience and reducing the discomfort of the user.
Devices: Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, HTC Focus etc.
Desktop VR — Desktop VR is sometimes called the Full VR because it allows for a more full VR experience and includes features such as positional tracking for the head and both hand controllers. A variety of desktop VR systems exist with some featuring additional add-ons such as omnidirectional treadmills, full room trackers, gloves, interfaces for multiple different controllers, etc.
However, the most defining feature of a desktop VR headset is the quality of the full body immersion experience, giving the user the best possible “presence” effect. This is mainly enabled by the power of the GPU and the CPU inside the desktop machines these headsets get connected to. Not having the small form factor of the mobile devices these systems can use much more powerful processors. This also usually means that an average VR capable computer would cost you around $2000.
Devices: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, Intel Chip Based Windows XR variants such as Acer, Samsung, Asus, HP VR systems.
Naturally, somebody will need to code all the interaction capabilities in your VR app. This is where the role of software developer comes in. Keep in mind that not all software developers have experience in working with 3D graphics or using game engines. Most VR projects use either Unity 3D or Unreal Engine for making this task much easier. 3D game engines have certain graphics and control features, which help to cut the development time and cost up to 20x when compared to making your own 3D engine. 90% of VR content produced today is using Unity 3D, and it’s relatively easy to find Unity developers for hire.
If you decide to build your VR platform from scratch or your application requires a specific 3D engine, then you will need a graphics expert who is able to use bare bone tools such as OpenGL to build a new game engine for you to use in your project. If you decide to go down this route, keep in mind that this might significantly increase the workload and budget required to finish the app. In some cases, this way of building VR experiences can have some performance gains. However, most of these benefits will be negligent compared to the cost of finding a senior computer graphics expert if you decide not to use one of the available 3D engines. In simple terms, this can be compared to making your own camera when shooting a movie.
As a professional PM tasked with virtual reality project management you will need to educate yourself on the technical requirements of the project, and how they impact your project’s bottom line. Keep in mind that not all software developers are equal, so look for people with game development experience when hiring for your VR project.
Even though simple VR apps are relatively easy to build, the complexity grows exponentially as more features are added. This is mostly due to the limitations of current computing power and the way graphics are processed in a computer. VR apps have their own set of unique challenges that only become apparent when designing a VR project. To tackle these you will need to hire a VR specialist who has experience working specifically with VR apps.
Some of these challenges are related to the technical limitations, and specifications, while others are more human interface related. For example, if you design a VR app in which the user will be experiencing the world through a height that’s different than their own, make sure they sit on a bar chair rather than a normal chair. This sounds rather bizarre, however, our brain registers our feet touching the ground and calculates our “correct” perceived height, therefore if our feet are not touching the ground we can better tolerate the experience of being much taller in VR than we really are.
As another example, if your VR experience uses teleportation, a good VR specialist would tell you to use the screen blanking effect that lasts 300ms because our brains would accept this as a real blink of an actual eye (which last between 300–500ms), and would filter out the effect completely, making for a more smooth experience.
These problems usually don’t surface in our regular software or design projects, that’s why it is important to hire at least a part-time VR specialist consultant, who can make sure you save a lot of time and money by building a right thing in the right way.
A 3D artist is usually a person sculpting the actual 3D content. A scene designer is somebody who puts all the 3D assets together to create the environment. An animator is responsible for preparing the 3D models for animations and then creating those animations using various different software tools.
All of these jobs can be done by one person, which is usually the case when somebody is building a bootstrapped VR project. In large film or game design studios, you would typically find highly specialized individuals taking up these roles.
Either way, these roles are very important for any VR project. VR experiences rely heavily on 3D content and production of that content can make up to as much as 80% of work required for making a VR app. As a PM, it’s important to understand that these roles are most likely going to be your biggest sources of expenditure for the project, and you should plan your budget accordingly.
3D modeling is a hard task requiring large amounts of time to complete. The creation of animations for the 3D models is even a harder task. For a PM it is important to keep this in mind when estimating the story points.
For example, humanoid figures like robots, humans, horses, virtual assistants, or any other complex biological creatures can take as much as 100x longer to model and animate than interactive objects made out of more primitive forms, such as buildings or menu windows.
For example, a scene showing virtual office workers working could take up to 100x longer to model, animate and design than an architectural demo showing the outside of a building.
A good rule of thumb to use here is to think about animation and 3D modeling in terms of drawing. If something is hard to draw, like humans or animals, it’s going to be much harder to model it in 3D and even harder to animate it so it looks professional. However, if something can be described in code, like a complex animation of abstract shapes, that can be much easier to build and manipulate in 3D. Algorithms work cheaper than humans, and as a PM you should be the first line of defense making sure that the project scope stays realistic by having realistic requirements around content.
Everything that is created in VR will have to be displayed using a graphics processor unit in your computer, otherwise known as a GPU. Even the best computers today are still limited by the number of 3D objects they can manipulate at the same time. The fact that VR uses a display that is refreshed at least 90 times per second, means that VR is putting a very heavy load on the computer that it is running on.
For example, a VR headset such us an HTC Vive would require a computational load comparable to the 3 to 4 normal computer monitors running on the machine at the same time. Most of our virtual reality applications are limited by what the current day devices can achieve with their GPUs.
The best way to imagine this is to think about 3D games from the early 2000s. They were starting to explore realistic 3D graphics, however, most of them were still using shortcuts to achieve the maximum visual effects. This is exactly the situation with the current VR experiences, we are still in the very early days, and most applications will be limited by the capabilities of the hardware they are running on.
As mentioned above there are many different VR platforms available. At the time of writing of this article, there are at least 30+ different VR devices available across both desktop and mobile VR markets.
This means that supporting your VR app on all of the platforms would require a lot of additional tweaking and rework. It’s especially difficult to share content between mobile VR and desktop VR apps since they support very different levels of 3D graphics and animations.
Using a 3D game engine such as Unity 3D or Unreal Engine helps because they allow an app to be theoretically deployed to more than one platform with minimal rework. In practice, it is easy to share the builds between most high-end desktop VR systems, however, mobile VR might need additional rework and new 3D assets to work smoothly.
As a PM, plan accordingly and limit your scope to a few most popular platforms so it’s easier to maintain the codebase and support the best user experience.
Even though VR has been around for a while there is still little conclusive evidence about its potential health risks. There are multiple studies looking into device induced shortsightedness, and other potential hazards but none of them have conclusive evidence yet.
Most of the hazards in VR come from the actual surroundings around the user. Risks of falling, tripping over, and smashing the controllers around the workspace are there. Manufacturers work to reduce them by introducing virtual borders and notifications systems.
For now, most VR headsets manufacturers don’t recommend the headset to be used by children. That is mostly due to its side effects that are sometimes experienced by the users. The early 1990s nausea and seasickness are mostly gone, however some apps, especially if not designed well, can cause some degree of seasickness.
As a PM, you should know that the key to designing good VR experiences without side effects, is in the interactions, and especially in movement mechanics. Those are out of this article’s scope, but for those interested in finding out more, Facebook’s Oculus has put together a great guide how to design comfortable VR experiences.
VR has changed a lot since its early days. In its current form, it is a useful tool for industries using 3D content, working with training, or aiming to create an impression by “transporting” users into a different place.
As it is with most technologies, VR is all about people and social interactions rather than the tech itself. The current day technology developments are only useful as long as they solve some sort of problem that users have. This is especially true with Virtual Reality projects, and their applications in the industry. Industries currently gaining the most value from VR are architecture and interior design, training and simulation, data visualization, gaming, entertainment, and movies.
The main challenge of the VR development comes from the fact it is heavily reliant on 3D models and animations. This can be a difficult task if the complexity of the certain type of modeling and animations is not understood. There are multiple other challenges with VR therefore it is wise to get help from a VR professional when building your VR app. Game engines can help to solve some of the development challenges but you have to find the right developers who know how to use them.
VR Technology Engineer Explains VR in 5 Levels of Difficulty
Brief VR Explanation by MKBHD
History of Virtual Reality Technology
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