Vir­tual du­al­ity

Two new hard­ware of­fer­ings show how Valve and Sony are map­ping VR’s fu­ture on PC and con­sole

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Hands-on with SteamVR and Sony’s re­designed Mor­pheus

At E3 2012, John Car­mack had a demo room de­voted to a cus­tom build of Doom 3 run­ning in VR. It was in that room that many peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced Ocu­lus Rift for the first time. The head­set was lit­er­ally held to­gether by duct tape. The dis­play was low res­o­lu­tion and slow to re­fresh. But it was real, gen­uine vir­tual re­al­ity. It has ad­vanced an in­cred­i­ble dis­tance since then, but al­most ev­ery word writ­ten about VR in the past three years has been spec­u­la­tive. When you put on a pro­to­type VR head­set, you see the po­ten­tial of great­ness: of what it may be ca­pa­ble of in an­other six months. It’s new and thrilling, but, well, just think how good it’ll be when it’s at a higher res­o­lu­tion. And the re­fresh rate is faster. And the head­set is lighter. It seemed that Ocu­lus’s con­sumer head­set would be the de­vice to make that promis­ing vi­sion a re­al­ity, but af­ter try­ing the SteamVR head­set, it looks like Valve, not Ocu­lus, has the best chance of turn­ing PC VR into a suc­cess­ful con­sumer prod­uct.

Valve’s pro­to­type VR head­set, built in part­ner­ship with HTC for even­tual launch un­der the name Vive, is pock­marked with strate­gi­cally placed sen­sors that are key to its track­ing tech­nol­ogy. Un­like Ocu­lus Rift, which uses an IR cam­era to track head­set move­ments, SteamVR uses lasers for ex­tremely pre­cise, ex­tremely fast po­si­tional track­ing. Not only is this track­ing method quicker and more ac­cu­rate, it cov­ers a greater space. SteamVR works in con­cert with a pair of laser emit­ters placed in op­po­site cor­ners of a room, a sys­tem Valve calls ‘Light­house’. When those lasers make con­tact with the sen­sors on the head­set, the user’s ex­act po­si­tion in space can be determined. This sys­tem is SteamVR’s defin­ing fea­ture: Valve wants you to walk around in vir­tual re­al­ity. It is sell­ing the dream of the Holodeck.

SteamVR in­cludes soft­ware for scan­ning a room in or­der to map its walls. When you ap­proach those walls, a neon-blue grid fades into view on the head­set’s dis­play, warn­ing you that you’re close. It’s in this con­text – when you see that cau­tion­ary blue grid, reach out your hand, and touch a wall pre­cisely where it should be – that the VR goal of ‘pres­ence’ is achieved more con­vinc­ingly than any­thing else seen to date. Valve will also let you pro­gram a ‘safe’ area that’s dis­played around your feet, giv­ing you a smaller zone to stay within for less phys­i­cally ac­tive ap­pli­ca­tions.

Out­side of its track­ing tech­nol­ogy, SteamVR is fairly sim­i­lar to Ocu­lus VR’s lat­est head­set, Cres­cent Bay. Both use a pair of dis­plays re­fresh­ing at 90Hz, though their res­o­lu­tions dif­fer slightly. To our eyes, the Ocu­lus dis­play is slightly higher res­o­lu­tion and clearer, but Valve’s pair of 1080x1200 pan­els are pix­eldense enough for com­fort­able use. It’s the pre­ci­sion of track­ing that makes the dif­fer­ence: for the first time us­ing a mod­ern VR head­set, we ex­pe­ri­ence

no mo­tion sick­ness what­so­ever with SteamVR. While it’s overly op­ti­mistic to say that Valve has solved the prob­lem, nau­sea is sim­ply a non-is­sue in the SteamVR demos we try.

Th­ese demos, which last about 15 min­utes each, have us walk­ing around a 4.5x4.5-me­tre room and com­pletely los­ing our sense of (phys­i­cal) di­rec­tion. In one, we stand un­der­wa­ter on the deck of a di­lap­i­dated ship­wreck, look­ing around the ocean floor and watch­ing fish dart across our field of view. In other demos, we’re not just look­ing, but in­ter­act­ing. The lynch­pin of Valve’s project is its VR con­troller, which looks like a com­bi­na­tion of a PlaySta­tion Move con­troller, Steam con­troller thumb­pad, and satel­lite dish.

The dish-like ar­ray on top of the con­troller wand, which weighs about the same as a Move con­troller, houses sen­sors that de­liver pre­cise po­si­tion­ing via laser emit­ters, just like the head­set. The con­troller has sev­eral in­puts: a trig­ger for most in­ter­ac­tions, a squeeze grip for the palm, and the thumb­pad, which can be di­vided into a num­ber of ‘but­tons’ or serve to repli­cate an ana­logue stick.

With con­trollers in both hands, we’re able to move our hands in VR and in­ter­act with the vir­tual world. In one car­toony demo, we pre­pare a sand­wich by pick­ing up in­gre­di­ents ly­ing around a kitchen. Big, white gloves float in space at the po­si­tion of our hands. We squeeze the trig­gers to pick up and hold ob­jects. In the best demo, set in Por­tal’s Aper­ture Science Fa­cil­ity, we pull levers, lis­ten to some char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally honed Valve dia­logue, and use the con­trollers to open up Por­tal robot At­las and ro­tate its parts as they’re suspended mid-air. Be­fore the SteamVR demo, we knew nor­mal PC con­trollers were in­ef­fec­tive in­put meth­ods for VR, but now we’ve fi­nally ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing that feels ap­pro­pri­ate.

It’s un­likely that SteamVR con­trollers will ship us­ing this pre­cise de­sign in Novem­ber, but func­tion­ally they feel fi­nal. Valve will be putting SteamVR in the hands of de­vel­op­ers this spring, which gives plenty of time to fine tune ev­ery as­pect of its tech­nol­ogy.

Though it’s clear that the base tech­nol­ogy will be ready for the pro­posed late-2015 re­lease, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know if its games will be. How will game de­vel­op­ers de­sign for dif­fer­ent-sized rooms and the abil­ity for play­ers to walk around? It’s dif­fi­cult to over­sell how much be­ing able to stand ce­ments the feel­ing of pres­ence in VR, and to ne­glect this fea­ture would run against one of SteamVR’s core de­sign prin­ci­ples. It seems likely that the first VR killer app will har­ness this ex­pe­ri­ence in a game – some­thing with sim­ple ex­plo­ration but rich en­vi­ron­ments and puzzles, per­haps, a kind of nat­u­ral de­scen­dent of Myst – but most com­plex VR ex­pe­ri­ences will re­main seated while de­vel­op­ers wres­tle with the prospect of mar­ry­ing phys­i­cal and vir­tual spa­ces.

What does Valve’s laser-based track­ing sys­tem do to the price? Will

Valve and Ocu­lus play nicely and de­liver a glo­ri­ous era of vir­tual re­al­ity to­gether, or will they splin­ter the user­base? We don’t know, but since Valve is the first to an­nounce a date for a con­sumer prod­uct, we at least know when we’ll find out.

Given that Vive and Ocu­lus Rift are able to lean on the rel­a­tively un­re­strained power of PCs, Sony’s VR en­deav­ours ap­pear to be at a sig­nif­i­cant dis­ad­van­tage. But while PS4 can’t go toe-to-toe with a de­cent gam­ing rig when it comes to pro­cess­ing power, you’ll be hard pressed to no­tice once strapped into its newly re­designed Mor­pheus head­set.

Even though none of the demos we try at­tempt Vive-style full-room move­ment, they pro­vide ev­i­dence of how se­ri­ously Sony is tak­ing VR. In­deed, SCE’s Shuhei Yoshida re­cently stated that PS4 was de­signed to sup­port 120Hz VR games from the out­set, some­thing con­firmed by SCEI se­nior staff en­gi­neer Chris Nor­den. “The PS4 has sup­ported 120Hz from day one,” he tells us. “It was just a mat­ter of a soft­ware change to en­able that fea­ture. In terms of de­vel­op­ing Mor­pheus games, ide­ally we’d like de­vel­op­ers to tar­get 120Hz, but ob­vi­ously they’ll be some re­duc­tion in the vis­ual qual­ity [at that re­fresh rate] – re­duced shaders or scene com­plex­ity, for ex­am­ple. But as you can tell in the demos we’ve shown, the vis­ual fidelity is ac­tu­ally re­ally nice. There’s a lot you can do, and an amaz­ing amount of games you can cre­ate, at 120Hz.”

Although Sony is pro­vid­ing sev­eral demos to show off its re­vamped kit, only one is run­ning at 120Hz. It’s called Magic Con­troller, and sees us sit­ting in front of a ta­ble within some kind of science bunker. This par­tic­u­lar demo is op­er­ated us­ing a DualShock con­troller, and has been cre­ated to show off a vir­tu­alised con­troller pres­ence in-game. As soon as we begin, we’re able to look down at a polyg­o­nal pad which per­fectly repli­cates ev­ery move­ment of the real-life coun­ter­part sat in our hands.

The float­ing UI high­lights the Square but­ton on the pad – one of many ideas be­ing ex­plored by a Sony Ja­pan Stu­dio team led by EyePet cre­ator Ni­co­las Doucet – which we du­ti­fully press, rais­ing an aerial and trans­form­ing the con­troller into a per­sonal TV, broad­cast­ing ‘ShuTV 24/7’. An­other but­ton press re­veals a hatch un­der the touch­pad, which opens up to re­veal a robot from The Play­room. It beck­ons for us to carry it closer to the ta­ble, and when we do, it leaps out of the con­troller along with 11 friends.

The one-to-one re­sponse of the in-demo con­troller is mes­meris­ing, and re­sults in the same sense of re­in­forced pres­ence that play­ing Elite: Danger­ous with Saitek’s X52 con­troller achieves. The re­la­tion­ship with the vir­tual world is strength­ened fur­ther when the room’s lights dim and our DualShock be­comes a torch. The ro­bots re­coil and cover their eyes when we aim the beam at them, but the rev­e­la­tory mo­ment ar­rives when we lean for­ward and push the light be­hind the first row of chuck­ling ma­chines in an ef­fort to break the demo: rather than trip up Sony’s pro­gram­mers, we in­stead break into a grin when the first line falls into gloom and the light bounces its way through the com­plex shapes of the sec­ond two rows. It might all be com­ing at the cost of less com­plex ge­om­e­try and fewer shaders, but this charm­ing toy looks and feels no less lav­ish for it.

An­other demo dis­cards the vir­tual pad and shrinks The Play­room’s ro­botic cast, in the process up­grad­ing their sta­tus from cute to adorable. We’re sit­ting in a child’s bed­room un­der a large sky­light, and in front of us is a de­tailed dolls house full of tiny ro­bots. Some are us­ing ex­er­cise ma­chines, one’s work­ing on a car out­side, and an­other lounges on an in­flat­able ring in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pool. Bril­liantly, one room con­tains three of the blighters wear­ing Mor­pheus head­sets and clat­ter­ing into each other as they at­tempt to walk around. We lean in closer to the dio­rama to get a bet­ter look, and trig­ger con­tex­tual an­i­ma­tions with our pres­ence. The pool dweller gets at­tacked by a shark, while the me­chanic bangs its head and nearly falls off the edge of the counter on which ev­ery­thing’s bal­anced.

Bed­room Ro­bots is per­haps more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what we can ex­pect from the early wave of Mor­pheus ti­tles. “That ac­tu­ally ren­ders at 60Hz, and the im­age is re­pro­jected to 120,” Nor­den ex­plains. “It’s kind of like frame in­ter­po­la­tion, sim­i­lar to how movies up­scale from one fram­er­ate to the other. That’s a soft­ware process that’s run­ning on the PS4, and it’s a ser­vice that’s pro­vided by the SDK that we’ll give to de­vel­op­ers so that they can turn it on and have a choice of tar­get­ing 60Hz in their game if they want more graph­i­cal fidelity.”

Both demos demon­strate the con­sid­er­able im­prove­ments de­liv­ered by Sony’s new Mor­pheus head­set de­sign, which uses an OLED rather than LCD dis­play. There’s none of the dis­ori­ent­ing blur­ring that we en­coun­tered while play­ing an early Mor­pheus build of EVE:

Valkyrie last year, the re­sults more in line with Ocu­lus’s Cres­cent Bay pro­to­type.

The fi­nal demo we try is Sony’s new­est at­trac­tion, and also a ve­hi­cle to show­case how Move con­trollers work in a VR con­text. Called Lon­don Heist, it be­gins with us stand­ing in front of Frank, a burly gang­ster, who barks: “Sit down!” As­sured by Sony staff on hand nearby that they have a real chair wait­ing, we do as we’re told. We glance to­wards the exit, which en­rages Frank fur­ther, and we shrink into our chair a lit­tle more as he shoots at the il­lu­mi­nated exit sign. Then, just as he’s about to ac­quaint us with a blow­torch, a phone rings. Frank an­swers, and af­ter a quick chat be­grudg­ingly hands the phone to us. We in­stinc­tively reach out our right hand, squeeze the Move trig­ger to take the phone and hold it up to our ear. “Tell us what hap­pened,” says a voice. Ev­ery tech­no­log­i­cal trick be­ing played on us is eas­ily un­der­stood, but in the mo­ment it might as well be magic.

Our near miss with a flame segues into the tit­u­lar heist. Our gloved hands float in front of us as we ri­fle through draw­ers in an or­nate cabi­net. We’re look­ing for a di­a­mond, but so far we’ve only found a gun, a stack of ammunition clips and a flash­light. Then the in­evitable oc­curs: a guard ar­rives and sug­gests that we give our­selves up. With­out think­ing, we place the flash­light down, grab the gun, take aim, and pull the trig­ger. Click. No ammunition, of course. So we dart our left hand to the near­est clip, and load it into the base of the gun. This time our re­sponse is more force­ful, and as more guards join the fight the pre­sum­ably priceless cabi­net we keep duck­ing be­hind grad­u­ally splin­ters into smaller and smaller pieces.

It’s rous­ing stuff, of­fer­ing some guid­ance as to Mor­pheus’s real-world ap­pli­ca­tion in full-blown games, not just tech demos. Com­pared to Valve’s free-mov­ing ex­trav­a­gance, Sony’s com­par­a­tively more familiar, rooted-tothe-spot de­signs feel un­doubt­edly limited, but that does lit­tle to di­min­ish their ca­pac­ity to en­ter­tain, nor tar­nish any ex­cite­ment around PlaySta­tion-pow­ered VR. For all the ad­di­tional pro­cess­ing head­room be­hind Rift and Vive, it could yet be Sony’s closed-plat­form so­lu­tion that takes the most prom­i­nent po­si­tion once mod­ern VR makes its fi­nal steps out of the lab and into the home.

SCEI se­nior staff en­gi­neer Chris Nor­den

Valve’s demo tasks the player with the del­i­cate op­er­a­tion of re­pair­ing Atlus in an ef­fort to pre­vent him be­ing scrapped for parts

FAR LEFT Vive’s con­trollers re­sem­ble Move hand­sets in func­tion, if not looks.

CEN­TRE Vive uses two laser ar­rays to track the user’s po­si­tion.

LEFT Whip­ping up a pot of soup proves an amus­ing VR task

De­spite still be­ing a year away, Sony’s Mor­pheus head­set feels the clos­est to a fin­ished con­sumer prod­uct

ABOVE Tak­ing aim in the vir­tual re­al­ity of Lon­don Heist is more dif­fi­cult than it looks.

FAR LEFT The Bed­room Ro­bots demo is packed with tiny de­tails, en­cour­ag­ing you to poke around.

LEFT The DualShock uses a Mini­Disc when it be­comes a mu­sic player in one demo

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