In the year since he joined Oculus VR, John Carmack has been working on GearVR, which uses the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 CPU, GPU and 5.7inch 2560x1440 OLED display for VR. The obvious advantage GearVR has over the PC-based Rift headsets is portability; it doesn’t need to be tethered to a PC to run. That also limits its capabilities.
The density of GearVR’s display is an improvement over DK2, but it only refreshes at 60Hz and lacks the crucial head tracking Oculus uses in DK2 and Crescent Bay. Samsung and Oculus have collaborated on software for Gear VR, which has an Xbox One-style dashboard and some simple games and apps. The most engaging place you ‘inside’ 3D photo and video panoramas. There’s no Crescent Bay-like presence, but the apps make a good case for the power of virtual tourism. movement. The moment you take a real, physical step and feel that movement translated into VR, you get presence.
Oculus used a bundle of minute-long demos to show off Crescent Bay’s capabilities, the most powerful of which places you on the ledge of a skyscraper overlooking a steampunk-styled cityscape. Peeking over the edge or trying to step forward instantly triggers the same vertigo acrophobics feel on rooftops.
Another, and by far the most charming, renders a tiny model town in front of you, with a miniature train chugging along a railway and a cute UFO wobbling above its buildings. Moving your face close to the town feels like lording over an adorable SimCity, while also providing a good demonstration of Crescent Bay’s positional audio. The noises of the city fade in and out and move around your head as you get closer and shift focus from one part of the city to another.
Another demo places you inside a forest rendered in simple, pastel polygons with a crackling fire and a grazing deer a few feet away. Standing still and absorbing the ambient noise, which shifts realistically as you look around – or, even better, walking through the threedimensional space – is the closest technology has come to replicating the Star Trek holodeck, at least in a device that almost anyone will be able to own.
‘When’ is the difficult question. According to Mitchell, Oculus VR currently has no plans to sell Crescent Bay. Developers are only now receiving Rift DK2 units. Could Crescent Bay become a DK3 released in 2015? Or is it an early version of the long-awaited consumer unit? If it is, it likely won’t arrive until late 2015 – Paul Bettner, developer of VR platformer Lucky’s Tale, says he plans to release his game in the first half of 2015, before the consumer headset is available. Bettner has commended Oculus VR’s pursuit of perfection, but it seems that the end of 2015 is the earliest the consumer headset will show up.
Even in prototype form, Crescent Bay is the first Rift that seems ready for the masses. There are the significant technological improvements, for starters. Faster and more accurate positional tracking and higher refresh rates minimise the common causes of VR motion sickness. “There are broad ranges of sensitivities [to refresh rate],” John Carmack noted in his Oculus Connect keynote. DK1’s 60Hz made almost everyone motion sick. Crescent Bay’s 90Hz, however, is fast enough to be imperceptible to most users. Its effect, a beguiling sensation of feeling truly present in a 3D environment, seems powerful enough to sell to anyone. But what will it take to turn Oculus VR’s short demos into full experiences that really sell the potential of VR? As the company barrels ahead towards an eventual consumer version, that task will fall to game developers. Devs working on games for DK2 have to contend with stereoscopic rendering at 75Hz, which is far more demanding than running a game at 1080p and 60fps. Crescent Bay runs at an even higher resolution and refresh rate. In his Oculus Connect keynote, Oculus VR chief scientist Michael Abrash noted that 90Hz VR requires “effectively about six times the rendering rate of current games”. Demo units used Intel i7 CPUs and Nvidia’s GTX 980 cards to hit 90Hz in relatively simple demos.