CES 2020 - the verdict
A quick look at some of the VR and AR announcements from the world’s biggest tech show
VR headset design has long been pointed to as one of the reasons VR is yet to become ‘mainstream’. Often headsets can be heavy, unbalanced and the lenses don’t always match up with your eyes. While headset technology has definitely come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, it’s interesting to see the direction that the wearability and interactivity of headsets is taking now, with a few key developments unveiled at CES 2020. Meanwhile, developments in accessories and interactivity systems promise to expand the immersive experience further and AR headsets take a step forward.
There were a few companies at CES demonstrating ‘pancake lenses’ (when a lens is shorter than it is wide). Pancake lenses mean headsets can be significantly smaller than current designs, with among the most interesting including Panasonic’s Ultra HD VR glasses. Not only do these glasses look pretty steampunk, they also contain some cool technology with a micro OLED panel and optical driver that offers “natural and distortion-free images in super single focus.” It gives us an idea of how VR headsets may evolve to be more wearable in the future.
Not only did Pico Interactive debut their own VR glasses prototype, they also showcased their Neo 2 Eye VR headset, which includes eye-tracking technology in partnership with a company called Tobii. The headset tracks eye movements – and can even do so without calibration – allowing the user to activate aspects in the VR world just by looking at them. What’s more, eye-tracking makes foveated rendering possible – when only the part of the environment the user is looking at directly is rendered in high quality, cutting the processing power needed for high-end VR experiences.
Staying in control
How we interact within a virtual environment is a crucial part of the VR experience – so controllers are key. Pico Interactive’s Neo 2 controllers offer 6DOF using inside-out tracking to track both the headset and touch controllers. It works by combining the data from an electromagnet (EM) and IMU contained within the controller, which gives us a positionally tracked controller that doesn’t suffer from occlusion. Nolo, meanwhile, exhibited a 6DOF controller that you can add to smartphones, PCs or headsets – essentially creating an accessory bundle that enables SteamVR games to benefit from motion tracking. It’s tipped to work with 5G too.
NextMind, a Paris based startup, revealed its Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) developer kit – essentially a non-invasive EEG that the user straps to their head. Eight electrodes detect brainwaves which they connect to the digital world, essentially enabling the user to control a VR environment with just their thoughts. It’s been used in the medical sector already, but this is the first time it is being seen in the immersive space. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
The VR industry is constantly striving to improve the realism of immersive experiences. That’s why there’s been an uptake in 4D systems, and now haptic accessories that give the user physical sensations to match those in the VR world are growing in capability and popularity too. bHaptics introduced their Tactsuit line of wearable haptic accessories, including a vest that gives powerful haptic feedback to the entire torso! This is definitely something to keep an eye on, especially in the gaming and location-based entertainment sectors.
Augmented reality glasses haven’t had an easy ride so far – it’s been challenging to create something comfortable and wearable with accurate tracking. Sometimes even the shape of a nose can undermine the user experience! So it’s interesting to see the praise being heaped on Chinese company Nreal’s Light glasses. These glasses are tethered to an Android phone and have their own touchpad controller, microphones and speakers – and they track the user’s eyes' movements while 3D-mapping the view in front of them, so that digital characters and objects can be seen to interact with the environment. While some called them ‘clunky’, the glasses gave a necessary boost to the possibilities for head-mounted AR.
A genuinely useful tool
While CES is always packed with exciting announcements about all sorts of technology, with lots of interesting ideas about where VR and AR will head in the future, one aspect of the show was clear. VR and AR wasn’t simply limited to product announcements – the technology was frequently used to showcase other technological products, from simulating flying taxis of the future to visualising the next 15 years of the automotive sector, and much more. Which just goes to show that while VR and AR still have a lot of progress to make in terms of future technological developments, they have already proven their worth as a genuinely useful tool.