Yuval Boger is the CEO of Sensics, a company focused on the professional HMD market — used for research, military training, and high-end simulation. Recently I spoke with Boger about the state of virtual reality and the interplay between the consumer and professional fields of head mounted displays.
Yes, this is the same Yuval Boger that took the zSight 810 HMD into the shower! He also maintains a blog on virtual reality and head mounted displays.
Boger brings a great perspective from the professional HMD world. Many of the folks now becoming interested in virtual reality via the Oculus Rift may not realize that the professional market has existed behind the scenes even after the VR crash of the 90’s. They’re not to be blamed for not knowing though — the majority of products in the professional HMD world are cost-prohibitive for most mainstream applications, especially for your everyday gamer. However, there’s insight to be gleaned and lessons to be learned by the consumer market from the professional HMD world — and vice versa, methinks.
Interview with Sensics CEO Yuval Boger
Road to VR: Tell us about yourself and your involvement with Sensics.
Boger: My name is Yuval Boger and I’m the CEO of Sensics. Based in Maryland, Sensics has been in business for about ten years of developing and selling professional-grade products including head-mounted displays (HMDs) and simulated weapon sights. Our customers typically come from the defense industry where our products are used for training, universities that use our products for research and then a companies that use our products for a wide range of applications including automotive design, market research, data visualization and more.
The original Sensics technology was developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A Japanese car company funded a JHU project to develop an HMD with both wide field of view and very high resolution – 8 million pixels per eye. Once that project successfully completed, two key researchers from JHU – Dr. Larry Brown and Marc Shapiro –started Sensics and licensed the technology from JHU. A few of years later, they asked me to join to help them take this technology to market.
I’ve been with Sensics for almost 7 years. How time flies! Before Sensics, I helped start and grow several startup companies spanning medical equipment, communications and software. Some were successful and some were excellent learning experiences.
Previous incarnations of consumer VR were a bit like cicadas – rising from the ashes every few years, making a lot of noise, and then die down.
Boger: I certainly hope so. Previous incarnations of consumer VR were a bit like cicadas – rising from the ashes every few years, making a lot of noise, and then die down. What has prevented consumer VR from taking off in the past was that the visual experience on the lower end of the price range, the combination of field of view and resolution, was just not compelling enough. Good displays were expensive and drove prices to ‘professional market’ levels whereas low-cost displays were just not attractive enough. What has changed this time and gives everyone hope is that cell phone displays are both inexpensive and offer good resolutions. Within reason, larger displays make it easier to design wearable systems with wide field of view, so the optics do not need to be as complex or expensive as they had to be in the past. All of this adds up to being able to create fairly compelling goggles at price ranges that individuals can sometimes afford.
One reason that high-resolution microdisplays that are used in professional goggles are expensive is that there are not many markets outside VR and military eyepieces that need them. As such, quantities were low and price was high. Today, when VR goggles can ride the wave of cell phone displays, the economics change. Kudos to my friend Mark Bolas from USC for building proof of concept prototypes that illustrated the promise and, of course, for the Oculus team for taking this concept and running with it.
Fortunately, there was never a question of whether people want to experience virtual reality goggles.
Boger: Fortunately, there was never a question of whether people want to experience virtual reality goggles. They saw Hollywood versions of them in enough movies to get excited about the concept. However, there are several challenges to tackle:
- Matching the resolution and field of view to the application. Wide field of view generates immersion — which is great — but high resolution especially in the central vision area is important if you want to see detail. For fast-moving games, immersion might be more important than resolution. For other applications, resolution is a must.
- Adapting experiences, or better yet creating them, to take advantage of this new medium. We saw that when people started adapting game to consumer goggles they realized that they need to change the camera position, to understand head tracking well, to move some of the user interface elements to areas that are easier to see, to overcome optical distortions, to enable stereo viewing and more. But, the best games will be those that are built from the ground up for VR and VR goggle. I think the Microsoft Kinect is a good analogy: a new platform at the time and allowed marker-less motion sensing. You could take an existing XBOX game like Madden NFL and make it enhanced a bit with the Kinect, but only Kinect-centric games like many of those created by Microsoft or some of the fitness games truly unleash the power of the platform. Creating VR-centric applications will take time and experimentation.
- Sensors. A consumer VR goggle these days is essentially a “head-mounted monitor with a head tracker”. The interaction with the game is still done with a game controller, mouse, keyboard, etc. There will need to be more comprehensive sensors to help the application understand what the user is doing, what is in the vicinity of the user and allow for more natural interaction. You might be interested in my blog post on the subject called “The barriers for consumer virtual reality may not be what you think”. In professional-market deployments you often see rich sensors: full body tracking, weapon tracking, positional (and not just rotational) head tracking and more.
- Feedback. A driving simulator, for instance, is much more compelling when you feel the tilt of the car as you hit a sharp curve. Beyond the visual experience, the brain is expecting to sense the curve in other ways. The vibrating game controller is an example of non-visual feedback and there will need to be more of that
Boger: Professional VR deployments often have higher resolutions and better displays. For instance, Sensics offers a head-mounted display where each eye has 1920×1200 resolution driven by an OLED display. These OLED displays are very fast – no motion blur – have deep colors and very high contrasts. Over time, such experiences will come to the consumer market. Aside from sensors and feedback that we spoke about earlier, professional deployments often have accessories: you can be virtually driving in an armored vehicle and physically grab a machine gun that feels like the real thing, recoils like the real thing and has a ballistics model that closely resembles live bullets. In professional-market training applications, it is important not to introduce what is called ‘negative training’, meaning not to train you to do something that can’t really be done in actual conditions, or needs to be done differently. This is higher level of realism that requires investments.
Another feature that we see in professional goggles that is yet to make it into consumer VR is eye tracking. The ability to detect the direction of your gaze can have profound implications both as a user-interface paradigm, as making the interaction with virtual characters much more realistic (as in “why are you starting at my nose?!”) and potentially also as a way to render high-resolution images only in the areas that matter.
One more thing is operating conditions. Professional VR sometimes has to withstand a broader temperature range, shock or vibrations and it may not be needed to bring these capabilities into the consumer VR space quite yet.
Boger: I think consumer VR experiences could get more people thinking about what they can do with VR in their organizations – whether it is therapy, data visualization, training and simulation, serious gaming, market research, remote presence or more. Some of these people might find that consumer VR equipment satisfies these needs and others will find that they need the higher performance of professional VR equipment. Overall, I think it will grow the professional market as long as professional-market vendors can clearly demonstrate why a professional goggle is better for certain applications than a consumer goggle.
Boger: Yes, we see opportunities to bring our experience and some of our unique capabilities into the consumer market. We’re happy to speak with partners that want to collaborate with us on that.
How does the market look in 10 years? It is so hard to predict! I am reminded of a Reddit question from a few months ago: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?”. One of the better answers was “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”
Technology moves so fast now that I have no clue what the market will look like in 10 years except that today’s gear will look woefully underpowered and outdated. We hope to play an important role in moving the market forward and injecting innovations into it.
Boger: I think it’s like asking which is better: a car or a plane. Both are useful, one more than other depending on the application. I can see the immediate utility of home-based gaming with a VR goggle. AR goggles, especially in public spaces, come with a lot of safety and privacy challenges. How long before someone is sued because he used AR goggles while driving a car? It’s not that these cannot be solved – they just take time and thought and might slow down AR deployment
Thanks to Yuval for his time. Be sure to check out his blog!