Let’s chat about VR (virtual reality) and home entertainment for a minute. Oculus—the VR innovator Facebook bought a couple years back— is only four years old, and Samsung’s Gear VR—which falls under the Oculus umbrella—was only recently released. Although VR Goggles have been a feature at CES in years past, 2016 marked the first time I saw the technology all over the place—VR is becoming ubiquitous.
Seeing in 3D is integral to the VR experience, indeed it’s the most important element. In my opinion, VR is the best way to enjoy 3D—since it is totally immersive—but also because it avoids the pitfalls of glasses-based 3D systems that suffer from ghosting and crosstalk. That’s why I say, if you are going to wear glasses to watch 3D, you may as well go all the way and wear goggles to experience VR!
Assuredly, the late 2015 release of the $100 Samsung Galaxy Gear VR was at least partly (and likely mostly) responsible for the explosion of VR demos at CES this year. Indeed, before I left for the show, I had been playing with my own Gear VR rig (using a Galaxy Note 5). I ordered the Gear VR on Amazon well before the holidays and received it mere days before leaving for Las Vegas; I was glad to already have some experience with the product and its interface.
In Vegas, Samsung’s VR headsets were popping up everywhere I looked. Whereas I only wore an Oculus Rift once throughout the whole show, I donned Galaxy Gear VR headsets on four separate occasions. The demo in Technicolor’s suite was the first one I encountered.
The VR experience I tried combined a D-box motion simulator chair with the Galaxy Gear VR. It was called the Goosebumps VR Experience, and while it did not give me actual goose bumps, I did find it exhilarating. I sat through the minutes-long presentation and found myself grinning at the conceit—it’s for kids but it’s a very involving light horror/action set piece. In the clip, you are placed in a car with Jack Black, and you have to escape a giant bug.
The D-box motion programming augmented the immersion by providing physical feedback that correlated well with the action in the clip—namely the texture of the road as well as the bumps of the monster bug bashing the car. I had to laugh when I turned the seat over to another journalist and realized how funny I must have looked to the rest of the folks in the room, as did every other victim who followed in my footsteps.
Technicolor’s reps elaborated on a topic of concern to the company, which is making sure the art of storytelling is not obfuscated by technology. But the discussion also touched on a technical point of great interest: What will it take for VR to be truly immersive, where you get lost in the world you are seeing, hearing and feeling?
The answer to the tech spec question is a bit intimidating. In order to achieve believable immersion, Technicolor cites 8K per eye HDR video at 120 frames per second as a necessity. Furthermore, the HDR has to have 16 stops of range and use the rec.2020 color space. That alone requires an insane amount of bandwidth. Furthermore, all this needs to be delivered to the viewer with imperceptible latency—good luck doing that with today’s smartphones. At this point, you might be wondering, how long will it be before consumers see such a product? The consensus at the show was that it will take five years (or so) before a device with that capability exits—at a price that won’t necessarily be wallet-friendly.
While we may be years away from VR perfection, I’ve already found myself enjoying the experience of being a virtual environment. I do crave higher resolution and a smaller, lighter headset—the current gear is decidedly cumbersome compared to 3D glasses—but I am confident that in due time the technology will be perfected. When it arrives, it will revolutionize movie viewing as we know it, just like Technicolor did when it brought color to the movies with The Wizard of Oz.
Oh, and while we’re talking VR, here’s something really cool that had not occurred to me before—if you have a 3D immersive audio rig, then you don’t need headphones to experience VR audio. Voices and sounds rendered in 3D space in the room correlate directly to what you see as you look around in the virtual world of the headset. You can’t do that with stereo, and the effect is extremely cool.
I’m convinced that VR headsets will become part of the movie viewing experience in the future, and I can picture people buying and installing speaker-based 3D immersive surround systems to use during their VR experiences, be it gaming or watching content. The writing is on the wall, soon VR is going to be as disruptive for the TV, movie, and gaming industries as headphones were for audio. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out, but I know this is going to be huge.