Virtual Reality – what equipment to choose for a museum?

Although virtual reality technologies have been on the market for years, the nuances of their application can still be unclear to many. Do you know what the VR market offers today? Let’s look at it together and consider which of these technologies will work best in a museum or an exhibition facility.

Virtual Reality Mechanism

Virtual Reality is based on a set of techniques whose task is to provide the user with an experience of being in a different space than the one in which he is currently in. The technology creates an opportunity to present stories set in locations that do not actually exist.

The basic mechanism for immersion – that is, the engulfing of the user in the very experience – results from the ability to look around in a smooth and uninterrupted manner. This effect is achieved thanks to the very precise measurement of the rotation of the glasses (by default: the head) and the instant transmission to the graphics display of the correction of what they should present to the eye. The speed of the reaction is crucial: if we allow too much delay between, for example, a sharp movement of the user’s head and the updating of the image that is displayed to him, it can easily lead to nausea. The professional term used in this case is “latency” – understood as the period of time that must pass between the impulse (here: human movement) and the reaction (here: updating the displayed graphics).

Virtual Reality Technology

I would like to draw your attention to one thing: Virtual Reality is not just hardware – it’s also software that allows you to witness the rich experience. Techniques for creating dedicated software (Unity3D, Unreal, CryEngine) make possible the cost-effective production of this type of experience – and the rapid evolution of silicon technologies allows studios to create new worlds of any kind.

However, it is worth pointing out that the cost of purchasing the hardware needed in an exhibition is usually lower than the cost of producing the software that will use it. Unless you need an installation consisting of dozens of stands, I recommend commissioning the contractor to choose a particular set. In my experience, the real work required to create a virtual world will be essentially identical, although certain technologies have certain advantages.

The beginnings of modern Virtual Reality

Despite the fact that the image of a man immersed in a world created by computer has been present in popular culture since the early 1990s, the sets available at that time were expensive, unreliable and the effect they gave was not too convincing. The situation began to change rapidly only in 2012, when the previously unknown company Oculus launched virtual reality glasses on the US crowdfunding portal KickStarter.

The innovative idea of using simplified optics (and correction of distortions with a graphic card) generated great interest – as a result, test development kits were sent out. The consumer version of Oculus was launched on the market only 4 years later. By that time, other companies had taken intense action, assuming strong positions in the newly established VR market.

Overview of consumer VR glasses

Google Cardboard

In 2014 an unexpected revolution took place on the VR market. Google presented the innovative Google Cardboard solution. Instead of buying an expensive set with dedicated glasses, plus a cable attached to a heavy desktop computer, users could employ the computing power of mobile phones! If the lenses were properly adjusted, the size of the mobile phone display was sufficient to cover the user’s field of vision.

Currently, plastic glasses of this type are also available on the market – this category includes a whole “supermarket” range of virtual reality devices available at the price of around 50 dollars. There are two disadvantages of this technology: firstly, it does not allow the tracking of the user’s head; therefore, the head of the user in this form of VR must stand immobile like on a photographic tripod. Secondly, the user can only look around – unfortunately, there is no possibility to get into complex interactions with the world due to the lack of controllers.

HTC Vive

In 2015 HTC, a giant mobile phone producer from Taiwan, decided to start cooperation with Valve. HTC Vive, a product of the alliance, was launched on to the market earlier than the consumer version of Oculus, and up to this day it is a sales hit. In addition, Vive offered a function that Oculus did not have at that time, namely the so-called positional tracking. Vive not only tracks the rotation of the head, but also its precise position (the first Oculus did not have the positional tracking feature) and the position of controllers, allowing them to provide natural and intuitive ways to interact with the world presented.

HTC Vive constantly provides a stunning level of simulation (allowing for free-flowing participation). But to achieve such an effect, a specially adapted room is necessary. In an exhibition space, it is crucial to think about the proper distribution of cable routes between special laser illuminators (the so-called lighthouse) and the corners of the room.

Oculus Rift CV1

In 2016 Oculus Rift is launched onto the market – unfortunately somewhat late, overtaken by the HTC mobile giant. It’s great, but it doesn’t offer anything new anymore. The headset is lightweight, has built-in headphones (a fairly rare element in the current market offer), and the controllers are solid. Although the first versions could not track the position (only the rotation), the consumer version of Oculus was enriched with special cameras that track the full position of the user.

However, since the market was already largely saturated by HTC Vive, Oculus decided to start cooperation with Samsung.

Samsung GearVR

Samsung is a Korean mobile technology giant – its market share is approximately 70% of all the displays currently produced. The offer also includes some of the most powerful mobile phones (Galaxy series). Although the solution known as GearVR is still based on the same idea as Google Cardboard (we put the phone into the glasses – a selected Samsung model), it has been enriched with an additional controller. Although it does not provide full tracking, it tracks the rotation correctly, which – with the help of mathematical tricks – allows you to get a pretty good impression and experience. For the purpose of selling GearVR, Samsung has signed an agreement with Oculus, giving Samsung access to the “walled garden”, a closed shop with Oculus apps and games.

Windows Mixed Reality (WMR)

Windows Mixed Reality is an advanced solution developed by Microsoft – based on HoloLens Augmented Reality (AR) technology. Microsoft has licensed the production of equipment to several manufacturers – and the following are available on the market:

  • Samsung HMD Odyssey (with built-in headphones),
  • Acer Headset,
  • Dell Visor,
  • HP Headset,
  • Lenovo Explorer.

An interesting feature of Windows Mixed Reality is that fact that there is no need to adapt the room (by placing sensors in it). The system uses a pair of cameras placed in the helmet – applications retrieve information from the helmet about the user’s shift relative to the environment. They do not have direct access to the image from the cameras.

Thanks to such a solution, the sets do not need to be in the field of vision of laser radiators (as in Vive) or external cameras (as in Oculus). The Windows Mixed Reality sets are the only ones that work well even if there is more than one participant in the same room.

Oculus Go

The last device to be discussed here is Oculus Go. It is a variation on Cardboard. In this solution, the glasses do not provide the tracking of the head position, but only the rotation, but in the set we get a controller (twin to the one known from GearVR). Unlike in other mobile VR appliances, however, we do not have to use a phone – the display and electronics are built into the device. With no touch screen or GSM transmitter, the cost of the entire solution was significantly reduced.

It is worth noting that Oculus Go is supported and promoted by the current owner: Facebook corporation – hence it is expected that in the near future the social part of the technology will be developed. Oculus Go is a new product, not yet verified by the market, but indicating the direction in which the mobile VR category will probably be heading.

What VR equipment to choose for a museum?

Mobile VR, which includes Oculus Go, Gear VR and Google Cardboard, offers several advantages to the user. The main thing is mobility – understood as the lack of cables binding us to a big and heavy desktop computer. It should be remembered that what is an advantage from the user’s point of view can be a disadvantage from the point of view of the exhibitor. Mobile sets, especially those that use expensive mobile phones, generate additional logistic problems related to the security of equipment. Moreover, due to the lack of positioning of the head, these sets prevent the creation of such a rich and real vision of the world as fully tracking systems give us.

Therefore, we encourage our customers to install any of the following sets:

  • Windows Mixed Reality – where tracking conditions are difficult to control or if more than one person is required to participate in the experience.
  • HTC Vive – where in the space of the object you can easily place laser illuminators, the so-called lighthouse (Vive provides the best positional tracking),
  • Oculus – where sound plays an important role (the device has built-in headphones).

Unity3D Developer