Stop Calling Google Cardboard’s 360-Degree Videos ‘VR’
I love seeing people get excited about their first taste of VR. The sooner more people experience the transformative power of VR, the better. But if the high-powered, desktop headsets that are coming next year are the main course for virtual reality, then viewing 360-degree video using Google Cardboard is an amuse-bouche at best. It’s a decent first taste, but 360 video is as far from real VR as seeing the Grand Canyon through a Viewmaster is from standing at the edge of the canyon’s South Rim.
With technology as potentially polarizing as VR, I worry that the slightest hiccup will have a negative impact on people’s perception—and adoption—of that tech. And The New York Times giving millions of people access to the limited VR experience of Google Cardboard and 360 video could prove to be a surprising setback for the new technology. Because VR is tightly integrated with your sense of vision, bad experiences have a real, physical impact on users. Unlike a web page, where breaking design rules results in long load times or a page that’s difficult to navigate, breaking the rules in VR can induce nausea and even vomiting. And when bad design can make users physically ill, it’s less than an inconvenience—it’s a threat to the growth of VR itself.
The Golden Rule of VR
At the lowest level, VR uses an array of sensors to precisely track the movement of your head. The computer then perfectly maps your head’s real-world movement onto your view of a virtual world. If you turn your head to the left in the real world, the computer exactly mimics your movement in the rendered world. When executed perfectly, VR tricks your brain into thinking that what you see is real, on both a conscious and subconscious level.
It sounds simple, but perfecting the execution has prove difficult. Most people are highly sensitive to the slightest dissonance between the movement detected by their inner ear and the motion that they see with their eyes. The human brain is sensitive below the level of conscious perception. If your VR game or application consistently shows frames of animation that are off by a few milliseconds, many people will feel ill effects.
The good news is the high-end headsets have solved the motion sickness problem for most people. I’ve used the latest headsets from HTC/Valve and Oculus for hours at a time with no ill effects. In recent weeks, I’ve put 75 people through a 15-minute sequence of demos in the Vive, with only one report of minor discomfort. The high-end headsets can track your head’s orientation and position in space and their displays give the software precise control over the timing for display of individual frames. You only see each frame of animation when the image it contains accurately reflects your head’s position. Unfortunately, phone-based headsets, including the Google Cardboard, lack these refinements, at least for now. They can only track your head’s orientation, not its position, and most lack fine control over display timing.
And even the best hardware in the world can’t help your users if you break the cardinal rule of VR development: Never, ever take control of the camera away from the viewer. Change someone’s viewpoint without them moving their head is a recipe for instant, intense motion sickness.
The Problem with 360 Video
The bad news for applications like the NYT VR application and 360 video as a whole is that it’s impossible to avoid breaking this rule with 360 video. 360 video is inherently limited, and its problems are exacerbated by the other limitations of phone-based platforms like Cardboard. But even on more capable desktop platforms, which support higher frame rates and positional tracking, you won’t be able to get up and walk around in a 360 video. The cameras just can’t capture the data required to allow that.
Even if the director of a 360 film avoids doing something inexcusable like moving the camera, the slight lateral movements that happen when you move your head to look around can be enough to trigger motion sickness. Even if they were tracked by Cardboard, which they aren’t, 360 video cameras can’t capture the data necessary to show you more than one perspective at a time. While the technology can handle some slight head movements, many people will still feel motion sick if they spend too much time in the headset. With VR-induced motion sickness, the effect starts subtle, but is cumulative. What begins as slight discomfort or even a feeling of unease will progress into full-blown nausea. It isn’t something that you can push through or become acclimated to–once it starts, your discomfort won’t end until you remove the headset.
How long is too long for 360 video? In my informal tests, between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the individual’s reported sensitivity to motion sickness. This jibes nicely with the Times’ report that the average user spends 14 minutes and 27 seconds in the NYT VR app. That sounds like a massive success, especially when compared to metrics for web pages and traditional apps, where average sessions are measured in seconds. When you compare it to that other tool that people use to consume video content, the television, it’s laughable. Even in the era of the cord-cutter, the average American watches 2.5 hours of TV daily
Good, Fast, or Easy: Pick Two
In the short term, 360 video offers a relatively cheap bridge to the new medium. It’s fast. You can draft off of the many existing player infrastructures and creating 360 video adds just a few steps to the existing toolchain for video production. It’s easy. Because you can swipe your finger on the screen to explore a 360 video, your potential audience isn’t limited to owners of VR goggles.
It isn’t really good, though. This is just the latest example of content creators shoehorning old formats into new technologies. Like magazines and encyclopedias delivered on CD-ROM or mobile apps that were nothing more than wrappers for websites, 360 video ultimately will be supplanted by native VR content that embraces the medium and delivers new experiences impossible to recreate outside of VR. And they won’t make you feel like you’re going to throw up.
Given the technology we have today, months before the first dedicated headsets ship to users, there’s no reason for developers or hardware manufacturers to give anyone VR-induced motion sickness. That’s why I’m disheartened that the Oculus Store, where you purchase VR apps and games for the Samsung GearVR, includes a comfort meter that purports to let potential customers know in advance how sick their purchase is going to make them. There’s still plenty of work to be done on hardware–headset ergonomics can be improved, pixel density increased, and tethers removed, but there’s no need for motion sickness in modern VR.
In the meantime, if you enjoyed your first taste of VR, courtesy of Cardboard and 360 video, that’s great! Welcome to the future! But if that first taste of VR turned your stomach, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The problems that affected you have been solved—you just need better hardware than comes free with the Sunday paper.