How do all the technical components of VR headsets, e.g., screens, lenses, tracking, etc., actually come together to create realistic-looking virtual environments? Specifically, why do virtual environment in VR look more “real” compared to when viewed via other media, for example panoramic video?
The reason I’m bringing this up again is that the question keeps getting asked, and that it’s really kinda hard to answer. Most attempts to answer it fall back on technical aspects, such as stereoscopy, head tracking, etc., but I find that this approach somewhat misses the point by focusing on individual components, or at least gets mired in technical details that don’t make much sense to those who have to ask the question in the first place.
I prefer to approach the question from the opposite end: not through what VR hardware produces, but instead through how the viewer perceives 3D objects and/or environments, and how either the real world on the one hand, or virtual reality displays on the other, create the appropriate visual input to support that perception.
The downside with that approach is that it doesn’t lend itself to short answers. In fact, last summer, I gave a 25 minute talk about this exact topic at the 2016 VRLA Summer Expo. It may not be news, but I haven’t linked this video from here before, and it’s probably still timely:
Last Friday I made a trek down to the San Francisco peninsula, to visit and chat with a couple of other VR folks: Cyberith, SVVR, and AltspaceVR. In the process, I also had the chance to try a couple of VR devices I hadn’t seen before.
Virtual locomotion, and its nasty side effect, simulator sickness, are a pretty persistent problem and timely topic with the arrival of consumer VR just around the corner. Many enthusiasts want to use VR to explore large virtual worlds, as in taking a stroll through the frozen tundra of Skyrim or the irradiated wasteland of Fallout, but as it turns out, that’s one of the hardest things to do right in VR.
Figure 1: Cyberith Virtualizer, driven by an experienced user (Tuncay Cakmak). Yes, you can jump and run, with some practice.
I have talkedmanytimes about the importance of eye tracking for head-mounted displays, but so far, eye tracking has been limited to the very high end of the HMD spectrum. Not anymore. SensoMotoric Instruments, a company with around 20 years of experience in vision-based eye tracking hardware and software, unveiled a prototype integrating the camera-based eye tracker from their existing eye tracking glasses with an off-the-shelf Oculus Rift DK1 HMD (see Figure 1). Fortunately for me, SMI were showing their eye-tracked Rift at the 2014 Augmented World Expo, and offered to bring it up to my lab to let me have a look at it.
Figure 1: SMI’s after-market modified Oculus Rift with one 3D eye tracking camera per eye. The current tracking cameras need square cut-outs at the bottom edge of each lens to provide an unobstructed view of the user’s eyes; future versions will not require such extensive modifications.
Here is an interesting innovation: the developers at Cloudhead Games, who are working on The Gallery: Six Elements, a game/experience created for HMDs from the ground up, encountered motion sickness problems due to explicit viewpoint rotation when using analog sticks on game controllers, and came up with a creative approach to mitigate it: instead of rotating the view smoothly, as conventional wisdom would suggest, they rotate the view discretely, in relatively large increments (around 30°). And apparently, it works. What do you know. In their explanation, they refer to the way dancers keep themselves from getting dizzy during pirouettes by fixing their head in one direction while their bodies spin, and then rapidly whipping their heads around back to the original direction. But watch them explain and demonstrate it themselves. Funny thing is, I knew that thing about ice dancers, but never thought to apply it to viewpoint rotation in VR.
Figure 1: A still from the video showing the initial implementation of “VR Comfort Mode” in Vrui.
This is very timely, because I have recently been involved in an ongoing discussion about input devices for VR, and how they should be handled by software, and how there should not be a hardware standard but a middleware standard, and yadda yadda yadda. So I have been talking up Vrui‘s input model quite a bit, and now is the time to put up or shut up, and show how it can handle some new idea like this.
This is a tricky question, and we have to be precise. So let’s first define some terms.
When talking about “VR movies,” people are generally referring to live-action movies, i.e., the kind that is captured with physical cameras and shows real people (well, actors, anyway) and environments. But for the sake of this discussion, live-action and pre-rendered computer-generated movies are identical.
We’ll also have to define what we mean by “work.” There are several things that people might expect from “VR movies,” but not everybody might expect the same things. The first big component, probably expected by all, is panoramic view, meaning that a VR movie does not only show a small section of the viewer’s field of view, but the entire sphere surrounding the viewer — primarily so that viewers wearing a head-mounted display can freely look around. Most people refer to this as “360° movies,” but since we’re all thinking 3D now instead of 2D, let’s use the proper 3D term and call them “4π sr movies” (sr: steradian), or “full solid angle movies” if that’s easier.
The second component, at least as important, is “3D,” which is of course a very fuzzy term itself. What “normal” people mean by 3D is that there is some depth to the movie, in other words, that different objects in the movie appear at different distances from the viewer, just like in reality. And here is where expectations will vary widely. Today’s “3D” movies (let’s call them “stereo movies” to be precise) treat depth as an independent dimension from width and height, due to the realities of stereo filming and projection. To present filmed objects at true depth and with undistorted proportions, every single viewer would have to have the same interpupillary distance, all movie screens would have to be the exact same size, and all viewers would have to sit in the same position relative the the screen. This previous post and video talks in great detail about what happens when that’s not the case (it is about head-mounted displays, but the principle and effects are the same). As a result, most viewers today would probably not complain about the depth in a VR movie being off and objects being distorted, but — and it’s a big but — as VR becomes mainstream, and more people experience proper VR, where objects are at 1:1 scale and undistorted, expectations will rise. Let me posit that in the long term, audiences will not accept VR movies with distorted depth.
My friend Serban got his Oculus Rift dev kit in the mail today, and he called me over to check it out. I will hold back a thorough evaluation until I get the Rift supported natively in my own VR software, so that I can run a direct head-to-head comparison with my other HMDs, and also my screen-based holographic display systems (the head-tracked 3D TVs, and of course the CAVE), using the same applications. Specifically, I will use the Quake ||| Arena viewer to test the level of “presence” provided by the Rift; as I mentioned in my previous post, there are some very specific physiological effects brought out by that old chestnut, and my other HMDs are severely lacking in that department, and I hope that the Rift will push it close to the level of the CAVE. But here are some early impressions.
Figure 1: What it would look like to unbox an Oculus VR dev kit, if one were to have such a thing.
I don’t think there’s need to introduce the Oculus Rift HMD. Everyone’s heard of it, and everyone’s psyched – including me.
However, HMDs are prone to certain issues, and while that shouldn’t detract us from embracing them, we should be careful to do it right this time. The last thing the VR field needs right now is a viral YouTube video along the lines of “Oh, an Oculus Rift! Cool! Let me try it on… Wow, that’s awesoBLEEAAARRGHHH.”
To back up a little: when HMDs became a thing in the 80s, they tended to induce dizziness and nausea in viewers, after a relatively short time of using them. Interestingly, HMDs had generally worse effects than other types of immersive display environments such as CAVEs. The basic theory of simulation sickness is based on virtual motion, and does not account for this difference.
The commonly stated explanation for this difference is display lag. In an HMD, the screens move with the viewer’s head, and any delay will cause the virtual world to move along with the viewer until the display system catches up. Imagine wearing an HMD and quickly turning your head to the side. Say it takes 30ms total until this motion is noticed by the head tracking system, the application updates its internal state, renders the new state, and refreshes the HMD’s screens. During this interval, the world will turn with you, and it will snap back to its original orientation once the delay time has passed. The real world does not behave like that, and because HMD-based graphics tap deeply into our brain’s visual system, this is very disorienting and adds to the discomfort. In a CAVE, on the other hand, the screens do not move with the viewer. Delay will still cause a disturbance in the projection of the virtual world, as the actual viewer position will not match the virtual one, but because screens are large and relatively far away, this will be barely noticeable. So far, so good.
Alas, there is an additional, often overlooked, factor — display calibration. Any immersive graphics system, HMD or CAVE or else, needs to exactly replicate how virtual objects are projected onto the system’s real screens, and then seen by the user (how exactly that works is a topic for another post). The bottom line is that the graphics software needs to know the absolute positions and orientations of all screens, and the absolute positions of the viewer’s eyes. Determining this is the job of head tracking and system calibration. But in an HMD, unlike in a CAVE, the tolerances for calibration are very low. The screens are very small and very close to the viewer’s eyes, which doesn’t leave much room for error (see Figure 1). Even worse, there is no way to precisely don an HMD short of putting screws into one’s skull; every time you put it on, it sits slightly differently. And that means any pre-configured projection parameters will not match reality.
Figure 1: Diagram of a hypothetical HMD for calibration purposes. The HMD consists of small real screen mounted directly in front of the viewer’s eyes, and uses optics to create larger virtual screens at a longer distance away to allow users to properly focus on those screens. For proper calibration, graphics software needs to know the precise positions of the viewer’s pupils and the exact positions and sizes of the virtual screens, in some coordinate system. Head tracking will provide the mapping from this viewer-attached coordinate system to the world coordinate system to allow users to look and walk around.
These mismatches have several effects. For one, imagine that a viewer wears an HMD slightly askew, so that the two screens have different vertical positions in front of their respective eyes. If the software does not account for that, the two stereo images will be vertically displaced, something that does not happen in real life. The viewer’s eyes will make up for it, up to a point, by moving up/down independently, but that is an unnatural motion and causes eye strain. It’s the same effect as watching a 3D movie in a theater while not holding one’s head level — it will hurt later.
Another, more subtle, effect is that in a miscalibrated display system the virtual world does not behave as the real world would. Do a simple experiment: fire up some first-person video game that allows view configuration, such as Doom3, and set a high field of view. Then rotate the view and observe. The virtual world will display a strong distortion effect, meaning that the sizes of objects, and their internal angles, change as the viewpoint changes. This is an extreme example, but even slight discrepancies are subconsciously unsettling, because our visual system is very good at detecting if something is not right with the world, and it tells us that by making us sick.
Even in non-immersive 3D graphics, a too large discrepancy between real field of view (how large the screen looms in our visual field) and programmatic field-of-view is known to cause motion sickness, and immersive 3D graphics with the same issue will be much worse. FOV discrepancy is only one symptom of miscalibration, but it’s the one that’s easiest to demonstrate; the others are more subtle (but that’s a topic for another post). In the end, miscalibration is a nasty problem because it is subtle, very hard to correct, and causes significant ill effects.
I noticed these things when I started experimenting with my own HMDs a while ago (I have an eMagin Z800 3DVisor and a Sony HMZ-T1). I experimented with rapid motions, but those didn’t really make me dizzy. I did notice, however, that the world didn’t seem solid, but as if it was made from jelly. I expected that, not having done proper calibration yet, so I used an interactive calibration utility to set up the system just so. After that, the world seemed stable, and interestingly I didn’t notice any more issues from lag. Not having done any further experiments, my hunch is that miscalibration is actually a bigger problem than lag. (Disclosure: while I was using a low-latency Intersense IS-900 tracking system, the computer running the show was fairly old, and the Quake3 renderer had no particular performance tweaking, so I estimated total system delay around 30ms).
So what’s the take-home message from this wall of text? If we want HMDs to succeed, we need to treat them properly in our graphics software. We need to use proper projection models instead of the standard camera model (but that’s a topic for another post), and not simply apply ad-hoc stereo models such as toe-in etc. (but that’s a topic for another post). It might work for a demo, but it won’t be pretty, and it will make our users sick. Instead, we need to know exactly how the HMD is laid out internally (screen placement and size, effects from the optical system in front of the screens, lens distortions, etc.), and, just as importantly, we need to know exactly where the viewer’s eyes are with respect to the screens (see Figure 1). This last one is the hard part. Maybe a future perfect HMD will contain one pair of stereo cameras per screen that will accurately track the viewer’s pupils and allow the graphics software to set up the projection parameters correctly, no matter how the HMD is worn and how the viewer moves. But until then, we need to come up with a practical approach, and we need to find simple methods to calibrate HMDs on the fly, and teach our users how to use those methods.
Well, and, of course, we mustn’t forget about minimizing lag, either. That would be too easy.
Oh, and by the way, want to get a quick glimpse of just how immersive the Oculus Rift will be (going by current specs)? If your monitor is X inches wide, put your eye X/2 inches in front of the monitor’s center — that’s about what it will look like. If you want to play a first-person game from that viewpoint and have it look right, set the horizontal field of view to 90 degrees.