The difference between VR and HMDs

Yesterday, Samsung announced a new 360 degree, 3D camera system. It is ostensibly for capturing content on the Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus. It’s a technical feat, and probably a wonderful product, but it’s not Virtual Reality for me. It’s more accurately a 3D HMD camera system.


The key difference between HMDs (head mounted displays) and actual Virtual Reality is a sense of Presence. For those that have tried the Oculus Crescent Bay demos you have finally felt it, albeit fleetingly. It’s that moment where your brain goes from trying to convince yourself that you are in this other world, to your brain trying to convince yourself that you aren’t. 

Similarly, you know HMD approaches when you see them, there is limited to no presence. The best example is the Google Cardbord VR Kit. It’s immersive and cool in the way that 3D movies are more immersive and cool. But it’s not changing your perception.

Michael Abrash has given great talks on this over the years, most recently at Oculus’ Connect, where he defines the need to advance in areas of persistence, resolution, latency, and positional tracking in order for a real consumer VR product to be able to reliably create presence. 

Virtual reality isn’t seeing something all around us. It’s the technology to hack into the best information gathering system we have: the visual cortex.


Why does fussing about what is and isn’t VR matter?

When we confuse the wording, the impact is that we confuse whether we are on the right path to the solution. 

The most critical issue with the Samsung system is that it doesn’t provide positional tracking, one of the key issues for creating presence. As long as you keep your head perfectly still it might work but if you tilt your head the effect is completely broken. This is similar to most camera system approaches from other companies. 

What I’d really love to see is a camera system that WAS able to capture real life and project it into a virtual space. To create true telepresence: my grandparents visiting their grandchildren, or being at the bottom of the ocean, or in a meeting with my Spark partners in New York. Not a 3D animation of those events with avatars, and not a 3D projection of those events, but really being present in those moments. 

I’m excited about that future.