Talking tech – VR hardware options explained

Workplace learning is undergoing a significant change, and technologies such as virtual reality and 3D are at the heart of this. VR in particular, is shaping the immersive learning environment. Whilst more and more people are experiencing Virtual Reality either through gaming or consumer experience, little is understood about the technologies behind it.

Some VR experiences offer an intense, detailed, immersive experience with free full-body movement; some are simple, affordable and accessible with a smartphone. It’s easy to assume that all VR experiences are created equal, but the range of technologies involved create an equally wide range of experiences, each with their own benefits to workplace learning. We’ve reviewed the four biggest names in VR tech and considered the place they have in a learning context.

HTC Vive

Released: April 2016
Price: £759 plus parent PC


Pros

  • Whole body free movement in simulated space
  • Intuitive controllers
  • You can still see the real world through the headset, if you need to

Cons

  • Still tethered in its current incarnation
  • At the top-end, price wise

The HTC Vive is powerful, immersive and offers a more complete virtual reality experience than anything else on this list. If your trainees need to move around and explore an environment in depth, handling a variety of objects and interacting with objects in three dimensions, the Vive is currently your only mass-produced option.

Trainees can kneel and work ‘underneath’ a simulated object, or become used to the layout of a workshop or surgery, by actually kneeling or walking about; it’s the most natural simulator experience on the consumer market, and consequently the most rich from a learning perspective.

The big win for the Vive is the wireless controllers, which offer a realism and sense of immersion which currently can’t be rivalled by other headsets on the market. And with the recent reveal of new, more powerful controllers from Valve, HTC is consolidating its position as the leader of the pack in this regard.

This potential does come at a price, but there’s a reason T3 called the Vive “the stuff of our youthful sci-fi dreams”; there’s currently nothing on the market that touches it. In a learning context, whole body movement can’t be overestimated – it’s closer to the real experience than sitting at a desk with a controller, and closeness to the real experience is the bedrock of VR training.

Oculus Rift


Released: March 2016
Price: £550 plus parent PC. Touch controllers £190


Pros

  • Sleek design, light and robust
  • Usable while seated – doesn’t need much space
  • Easy to setup

Cons

  • No motion controls (yet)
  • Can induce ‘VR sickness’
  • No option for creating a simulated space

The Oculus Rift was the breakout hit for VR gaming tech. Born from a staggeringly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the Rift revived mainstream interest in virtual reality and opened up the ‘arms race’ of VR development. Paired with a gaming-quality PC, the Rift delivers high-resolution images and stereo 3D sound. It also tracks the wearer’s head movements, allowing for greater exploration of the simulated world.

It doesn’t need a huge amount of clear space to work—it’s designed to be used sitting or standing still, using controllers to explore the virtual world rather than wandering around the real one.

The big drawback? On release, the Rift came bundled with an XBox controller, which isn’t the most natural way to interact with a virtual environment. Given that VR training often needs realism and natural interaction, to familiarise learners with the equipment they’re going to use on the job, this is a major drawback. Touch controllers are on the way, which may help to close the gap between the Rift and the Vive for training purposes.

Also, like the Vive, the Oculus is also tethered, although at the recent Oculus Connect developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg announced a new standalone headset which promises to make waves on its release.

Samsung Gear


Released: November 2015
Price: £80 plus parent Samsung device: free with Galaxy or Note 7


Pros

  • Completely wireless
  • More affordable than PC-based options
  • Accurate head tracking means immersive view and motion

Cons

  • Has to be paired with a recent Samsung device
  • Comparatively low resolution
  • Limited by processing power of parent device

Besides the Rift for PC users, Oculus have also collaborated with Samsung to create the Samsung Gear – a VR experience based on Samsung’s flagship Galaxy and Note devices. The Gear has one overwhelming advantage when compared to the Vive or the Rift: users don’t have to sit in front of a desktop computer.

Its overwhelming disadvantage is that users have to own a recent Samsung smartphone. Since the Note 7 has just been put out of production due to safety concerns, this essentially means your trainees have to own a recent Samsung Galaxy – or you have to provide one.

That said, the portability of the Gear makes it an ideal option for distance learning and other out-of-classroom training. Device overheating and battery life are major issues, but short training exercises in the field remain a possibility, as does home-based training as a continuous professional development option. Besides, Samsung have shown themselves willing to refine and improve the Gear in successive iterations without losing backwards compatibility: they may find a way to address the relatively short lifespan of their VR experience, at which point they’ll be a serious contender for VR training.

Google Cardboard


Released: June 2014
Price: as little as £2, plus parent device


Pros

  • Low cost
  • Accessible development kit for building apps and environments
  • Novelty entry-level product for convincing the tech-averse

Cons

  • Limited quality and function
  • Only as good as your phone: no match for VR based on flagship devices like the Gear
  • It’s a cardboard box on your face – can be hard to take seriously

Google Cardboard is the odd duck on this list. It’s not a serious contender for the high-end VR market; it’s a ground-floor product meant to introduce new users to the potential of VR. It works with more or less any Android or iOS smartphone, and it’s basically an app, a couple of lenses and a cardboard box – you can quite cheerfully make your own headset with the templates Google provides.

Cardboard is good for showing people what VR is all about, with a bare minimum of buy-in. It uses a device that your colleagues probably already own, and a process they’re already used to (downloading and installing an app). It has a certain quirky charm, but isn’t making a serious, professional case for VR.

Google Cardboard experiences are limited by the power of the user’s phone. Devices with lower-resolution displays aren’t going to be realistic and are likely to induce visual lag – a delay between the movements you make and what you see in the headset. It’s also, ultimately, a novelty lash-up; it lets users see a virtual simulation, but it doesn’t track a wide range of movements or interactions, and it’s not as comfortable or easy to control as a ‘proper’ VR headset.

Fortunately, Google has just entered the ‘true’ VR fray, with the announcement of Google Daydream. Like the Gear, the Daydream Viewer is designed to work with a proprietary device – Google’s new Pixel smartphone. Key attractions of Daydream include the smooth operation to be expected from having smartphone, headset and operating system designed by the same firm, and Google’s continued emphasis on easy bespoke app development. It’s also more comfortable, though it lags behind the Gear a little in terms of raw power. Google Daydream could well become the top choice for trainers who have the skills to create their own VR content, but lack the budget for gaming-quality PCs or flagship smartphones.

The point of this survey isn’t to find one solution that’s objectively the best. As we’ve said before, training is about the right solution to a skills problem – it’s not about forcing a preferred solution into every situation. We find the platform that’s most beneficial to each client’s training needs. You’ll find some examples in our client portfolio.

 

Featured image credit: SMI Eye Tracking, via Flickr