VR is great, but in its current form, it’s still a long way from being able to replicate the real world. The 3D effect it relies on is the same as the stereoscopic tech behind the now defunct 3D TVs, and cinema 3D movies. Immersed in a virtual reality headset with 180 head tracking, the viewer is certainly tricked a little more into believing what he is seeing is real than when simply looking at a 3D TV screen, but it’s still not quite enough to remove the awareness that one is still looking at a screen nonetheless, rather than completely immersed in another reality. However, this will change when light field technology becomes cheap and simple enough to record VR. Light field cameras capture all the light in the viewer’s field of view, meaning the effect is far more realistic and far more like a holographic replica of the scene rather than a stereo 3D video. Of course, the tech will also be used for actual holographic and augmented reality videos too. When this happens, the distinction between VR and AR will break down to some extent, and the difference between the two will be defined entirely by the degree of immersion, with wearers of headsets or glasses being able to adjust that degree as easily as controlling the audio volume.
This week Google showed that it is working towards perfecting this technology to use in Virtual Reality.
One of the big hurdles with light field photography is how to capture all that information. Compared to the $125,000 light field cinema camera Lytro makes and rents, the solution Google showed off today has a much more clever, hack-y, low-budget vibe. The company’s VR team essentially repurposed one of the 16-camera circular “Jump” rigs that Google developed a few years ago with GoPro. They took the cameras out of the ring setup and positioned them in a vertical arc, and then put that on a platform that spins completely around 360 degrees.
Google shot light field VR imagery of a handful of locations, including the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and so all those scenes are available starting today on the “Welcome to Light Fields” app being released today.
It’s not totally clear what Google will do next with this tech. The company’s VR wing could release a set of plans for the rig, like it did with Jump, though the mix of hardware and software required to make it all work is far more complicated than spherical image stitching. This could also be a precursor to a more consumer-friendly solution, which is what happened with the Jump and VR180 programs.
In another indication of how committed Google are to developing Virtual Reality technology, they also announced this week that they are working in partnership with LG on a ultra high resolution headset that has over twice the pixel resolution of even the HTC Vive Pro.