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Bring the virtual reality experience into your home

Immersive entertainment technology has been developed for TVs, speakers and gaming systems

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 5:33pm

“Immersive entertainment” and “virtual reality” – for many of us, these hi-tech terms still sound like science fiction.  But, today, virtual technology is in fact part of the real world. Tech companies such as Oculus, Sony and Microsoft are bringing digital worlds into our sitting rooms, transforming the way we watch, listen to and interact with our home entertainment systems.

“Immersive entertainment is when immersion within a system is created by blurring the physical world with a digital one,” explains Hong Kong-based technology expert and lecturer Clive Dawes. Think television viewing with 3D pictures that leap out at you, curved screens that make you feel like you’re part of the action, digital sound systems that envelop you from above and behind, and gaming systems that require full body movement in order to play. 

“The more real the immersion, the greater the chance of what is referred to as ‘presence’, an advanced state of spatial immersion,” Dawes says, and this is the ultimate goal of developers.

The obvious platform to experience virtual reality (VR) and total immersion is gaming, one of the tech industry’s fastest growth areas. Companies such as Sony, Oculus and Snail Games are creating hardware and software that transform the space around you into Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, a battle in an active conflict zone, or Old Trafford, where you are Manchester United’s best striker.

In March, Facebook bought Oculus for US$2 billion. The gaming company is behind the Rift VR headset, which looks like a scuba mask and transports the wearer inside a game, allowing them to move around and interact in the virtual world displayed to them. Rift will hit the consumer market in early 2016 - at this stage, the headsets are only available to developers. 

“One of the major headaches for developers of immersive entertainment is convincing game developers to devote time and expertise in producing content,” Dawes says, adding this is why the headset isn’t yet available to the general public. 

Big entertainment brands are also jumping on the bandwagon and developing their own VR sets: “Sony's Project Morpheus VR system will work with the PlayStation 4,” Dawes says, “while Microsoft's Hololens will be a stand-alone headset which blends VR and AR [augmented reality] together.”

Of course, when it comes to movies, the key part of any immersive home entertainment system is the television.  The latest sets include 4K, ultra-high definition (UHD), super ultra-high definition (SUHD) and quantum dot technology (QDot). While these terms may sound confusing, they simply refer to crisper, cleaner pictures that feel more true to life. 

“A UHD TV has a pixel ratio four times greater than a standard HD,” Dawes says. “This gives a clearer picture where, even when you are up close to the set, you see very little pixelation.”  QDot technology, he adds, provides a huge colour palette, such as those you find in the cinema, with the resulting images brighter and more vivid.

But the immersive experience is created by more than what’s inside the TV set – the shape of the latest models is also helping viewers to feel fully present in what they are watching. Curved TV screens have become all the rage, and for good reason.  The curve is supposed to wrap the image around the viewer, engaging their peripheral vision.  When combined with high resolution, this helps to give a 3D-like depth to pictures. 

Once you have the right TV, you need a sound system that will support the technology.  Surround sound is a must, and one of the hottest technologies on the market is Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers.  These are used in cinemas to give movies a more realistic feel, and now the technology is also available for home systems.  Dolby Atmos technology gives a 3D sound experience with speakers placed around the viewing area and in the ceiling to direct sound to any point in the room.  Another option is a good set of headphones, which can be a great way to feel part of what you are viewing with the added benefit of not disturbing others in the room.

The possibilities for immersive entertainment and VR seem endless. “Many retailers have dipped their toes into virtual fitting rooms, where you can try on clothes on an avatar representing yourself prior to purchasing,” Dawes says. “Architecture firms and estate agents are looking at VR to show their designs and also to help sell properties." 

It’s the beginning of a new reality where we can be in our homes physically but experiencing a different world mentally and visually.