Sense of Presence: Epic’s documentary series on VR

In their new video documentary series ‘Sense of Presence’ the company behind the Unreal Engine 4, Epic Games, offer a number of short films seeking to explain Virtual Reality.

In the first film in the series ‘What is Virtual Reality’ they consider the new possibilities provide by the medium. The primary affordance of the technology is provided by 360 degree visual tracking, in real-time, within a computer generated environment. What this means is that any environment that can be represented in three dimensions within the computer can be visually sensed by users with a virtual reality headset or HMD as if they were there. Accompanying this is a sense of immersion which, in the words of Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, can ‘make it feel like you’re actually in a place you are not’. This this sense of immersion is effectively achieved by fooling the brain and the success of this can be seen in peoples physical reactions to events in the virtual environment such as ducking out of the way of flying objects or attempting to lean on furniture in those environments.

In the second film ‘Building Virtual Reality’ Epic look at the way gaming technology has been pivotal in the development of VR  and the challenges that have been encountered in trying to deliver immersive experiences. The first challenge is that achieving the stereoscopic effect of depth in 3D requires that the computer render two images rather than one. In order to keep the frame rate high enough to trick the eye into perceiving continuous motion the computer needs to render twice as many frames per second (fps) as a game displayed on a single screen. If the frame rate drops unacceptably perceived motion in the headset stutters, the sense of immersion is lost, and the mismatch between the information received by the users brain from their eyes and that from their inner ear causes motion sickness. Game engines which provide real-time rendering capabilities are ideal platforms for the creation of immersive VR experiences.

The third film ‘Storytelling in Virtual Reality’ looks at the way immersion within the virtual experience can promote emotional responses to a degree that existing game experiences do not. The user is active within the virtual scene and free to move their attention as they desire so new techniques are required to solicit the users attention.

In the final film ‘The Future of Virtual Reality’ Epic consider the potential of VR beyond gaming, particularly those for connecting people via telepresence: the possibility of being present somewhere you are not. This opens up possibilities for training, education and new forms of visualisation. The film highlights the way in which developers are still learning to work in the new medium. Virtual reality for Palmer Luckey is the ‘final medium’ insofar as it can simulate all of the others that preceded it: ‘The ultimate goal is to make virtual reality as real as possible, because once you can do that, there’s not really any need to perfect anything else’.

I appreciated the way the films largely, though not completely, avoided the juxtaposition of the virtual with the real which I find unhelpful when discussing VR. The films provide a good summary of the way the new wave of VR views itself, but also the way it wants to be perceived by the public ahead of next years commercial releases. Alongside the hype there are plenty of exciting opportunities waiting to be realised in the coming years. It’s exciting to see what happens next!

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