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Inside or Outside – Which is the Route to Virtual Reality Mainstream

There’s every indication that Virtual Reality is going to break into the mainstream very soon. Even though there’s a huge amount of financial muscle backing the development and exploration of VR’s potential, it still exists as a niche gamer technology to a lot of the public. According to the latest market study released by Technavio, the global virtual reality (VR) content market is expected to grow at a CAGR of close to 128% by 2020. As the report highlights, for VR to make it big time and hit these lofty growth figures, it needs to build on its current dependence on games and embrace the entertainment industry too; it needs to prove that it deserves a place in the average household, and not just the gaming room.

However, in the past few weeks some truly big names have been coming out with significant VR content initiatives. Citibank (Citi), Live Nation, NextVR announced they are launching a Virtual Reality Concert Series that will run through 2017. Then, it's not quite an ABBA reunion, but virtually the same thing: the long-dormant Swedish hit makers announced they are teaming up with American Idol creator Simon Fuller. ABBA and Fuller announced the project promising "a ground-breaking venture that will utilize the very latest in digital and virtual-reality technology ... which will enable a new generation of fans to see, hear and feel Abba in a way previously unimagined.”

For these events to be successful, VR needs to be approaching mainstream adoption rate levels, and to do that, the cost and convenience of VR has to improve. Today the better VR headsets like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are priced between $500 and $800 and they need to be set up with external cameras or UV laser system transmitters in the room they are going to be used in to work properly. So when Microsoft announced that PC OEMs will soon be shipping VR headsets that enable virtual reality and mixed reality starting at $299, the potential for VR to go way beyond gaming appeared to be getting closer.

The Microsoft announcement is significant as these new virtual reality headsets take advantage of Windows 10’s VR and holographic capabilities, are a lot cheaper and don’t require external sensor support systems. Microsoft said that the headsets feature inside-out tracking sensors - delivering true 6-degree motion - without the need to prepare in advance the room that you are going to use the VR headset in. This dramatically changes the game for VR headsets by reducing the price point and improving the ease of use and convenience for a high performance VR system.

Key to all of this is the inside-out, six degree-of-freedom tracking. Six degrees of freedom refers to motion tracking that can tell when you’re moving through space, not just turning your head. Right now, it’s the key difference between a high-end headsets and a cheap one like Google Cardboard.

In order to enable 6DOF, systems like the Rift use outside-in external tracking systems that make the whole setup more complicated and less portable; the room that you want to use the VR headset in has to be configured in advance with hardware that supports the VR headset you are using. Inside-out tracking does away with this requirement by using sensors built directly into the headset to detect how the wearer is moving and then adjusts their ‘virtual’ position in the VR application to match: A Microsoft VR headset wearer would just put the headset on and start interacting with the application straight away – and would have the mobility to move to other rooms or even use the headset outdoors.

A key technology to making this work is known as simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) tracking – or SLAM tracking for short. It originated in Robotics research and is still being used there and for autonomous vehicle applications. When integrated into a VR headset system, the SLAM system can use inputs from the headset’s various sensors, cameras, motion sensors, depth sensors, etc., to effectively three-dimensionally map the environment the headset is being used in. The SLAM technology can then effectively ‘triangulate’ the position of the headset wearer in the context of the 3D map (the environment) and accurately feed this information back into the VR application; effectively giving the VR headset computer ‘vision’ in the environment it is operating in.

With companies like Kudan making SLAM available to a wider audience of developers in the not too distant future, VR will make the jump into the mainstream through a broader range of applications that appeal to a wider audience encouraged by access to lower priced equipment. Headsets optimised to appeal to users more focussed on entertainment and educational pursuits rather than hard core gaming will deliver the audience and revenue growth forecast the industry anticipates.

Of course the hard-core gaming community wants the very highest performance because if you are playing games, responsiveness, reliability and accuracy are paramount. Outside-in systems make this easier because if you have a headset, and then a controller in each hand and you want the controllers to track in 6dof as well, then adding that functionality with a high degree of precision is relatively easy by adding additional infrared sensors to the system.

Sometimes it’s more a case of capitalising on an opportunity and reaping the rewards of flexibility. Eventually people will want to come out of the games room and use their headsets to entertain and teach themselves in different rooms of the house, office or even outside. The companies that meet that need will lead the charge of bringing VR technology out into the mainstream and reap a very significant reward.

Kudan is a computer vision company based in Bristol UK developing SLAM technology for ARVR, Robotics, IoT and Artificial Intelligence applications.

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