Oculus and HTC finalise their plans for virtual reality’s revival
There will be no bigger videogame story in 2016 than virtual reality. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR arrive this year with the weight of decades of anticipation on their backs. This time, we’re promised, VR will stick, will change how we play games, and – key to both of those – will be affordable.
The latter goal may already be slipping out of grasp, since it turns out that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey’s $350 estimate for the price of an Oculus Rift retail unit was over-ambitious. During January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the official pricetag was revealed to be an eye-watering $600 (before taxes – and discounting what you may need to add to your PC in order to get the most out of Oculus’s technology). With Rift due to start shipping in March, this expensive future is almost upon us.
The time we’ve spent with both the final Oculus Rift and the second-gen Vive devkit, Pre, reveal that neither is dramatically better than the other, but each has carved out specialities that set it apart from its competitors. The Pre hardware iterates on 2015’s devkit with a smaller and slightly lighter headset (although it still feels heavy and ungainly when compared to Rift’s sleek design), and the recessed sensors that provide positional data through the setup’s laser-based tracking system have been smoothed out, making for a more attractive headset overall. But most notable is Pre’s display, which edges ahead of Oculus’s solution thanks to a large, rounded field of view and a crisp, bright screen.
“We’ve redesigned the strap, and we’ve improved the screen display
system. We’ve implemented mirror correction improvement, and that’s kind of like a turning window field,”
Daniel O’Brien, vice president of HTC’s virtual reality division, tells us. “If you looked at the [first] devkit and then this Vive, you’ll see that there are noticeable differences in the visual experience in the brightness, crispness, and really just feeling like you’re there in the space with your content.”
This refinement has significantly reduced the screen-door effect that blighted early VR headset displays. And, once you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time fiddling with head position and focus, Pre displays visuals that are encouragingly sharp. While this represents important progress, though, the key innovation comes from a different kind of addition to what the hardware displays.
Valve’s Chaperone system uses SteamVR’s room-scale tracking to warn you when you’re too close to a wall by fading a blue-line grid into your virtual view, and once configured it proves highly accurate. But the Pre headset now also includes a camera mounted on its front that feeds Chaperone data from your immediate surroundings. Tap a button on one of the motion controllers, and you can see objects within the camera’s field of view picked out with a shimmering blue outline. HTC demonstrates the feature by asking us to sit on a nearby chair without removing the headset. We locate the ghostly furniture’s outline and manage to plant ourselves without any embarrassing toppling at all.
The camera’s data will also be available to developers, who will be able to use it to craft augmented reality games – a feature that smartly positions Vive between the two extremes of Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens, securing HTC’s device an additional selling point. That camera isn’t just a smart safety feature, then, it’s a vital stepping stone in HTC and Valve’s plan for room-scale virtual reality to work in environments where chairs and coffee tables may lurk menacingly at shin height.
Unlike the retail-ready Consumer Edition of Rift, Pre doesn’t represent final hardware. And while there’s apparently little time left to iterate before Vive’s planned April release, both Oculus and HTC have form when it comes to holding back the latest version of their hardware in favour of showing older, more stable designs. HTC insists that there’s still plenty of scope to use feedback from Pre users to improve its offering further.
“We’ll definitely take feedback in, and we’ve already got this kit out with some developers that have had to update their content that we’re showing [at CES], and we will continue to take that feedback,” O’Brien explains. “It never stops. You never stop learning, especially with something this new. We’ve already learned things that we couldn’t fix in time for this one, and we’ll continue to improve it all the time, as we get to the commercial version.”
Vive’s big screen is all very well, but switching to the Rift headset immediately after some time spent with Pre underscores HTC’s current shortfall when it comes to lightness and comfort. Oculus’s design is undeniably more refined, with soft fabric forming a welcome barrier between your skin and the device’s hard plastic shell, and a simple strap system that makes even fast movements feel secure. But the Rift display is noticeably narrower than HTC’s, which does a better job of enveloping you in its world without immersion-breaking glimpses of black bordering your vision. It may well turn out that Vive’s additional bulk is an unavoidable cost of having this greater screen acreage, but whatever weight HTC manages to shed between now and release will be offset by the addition of as-yet-undemonstrated integrated audio – a feature that Rift already offers, along with that weight advantage.
But despite its obvious selling points, Rift’s $600 price tag becomes less palatable when you consider that its excellent prototype Touch controllers will remain out of reach until later in the year, designers and players instead getting Xbox One controllers. Vive, meanwhile, will include its room-scale tracking base stations and two wand-like controllers. These have undergone a dramatic improvement since the rather industriallooking prototypes were revealed at GDC last year. Each controller retains the early design’s circular touchpad and a pair of buttons for simple actions, but those angular corners have been smoothed off into something that looks like a piece of Sony product design. Even with refinements, though, HTC’s controllers still trail Oculus’s Touch prototypes, which convey a more connected, immediate sense of interacting with virtual worlds.
The two designs are guided by the same principles when it comes to their sparse selection of buttons, but if they seem simplistic when compared to traditional controllers, it’s entirely intentional. “All of a sudden, all of these things that you’ve always done
“We will continue to take feedback. You never stop learning, especially with something this new”
in games and had to remember – hold down this button while you click the left stick – it goes away and it just works,” Valve’s Chet Faliszek tells us. “So having that kind of simplicity allows you to just hand it to somebody else and say, ‘Oh, my god – try this’.”
Getting this progressive technology into the hands of actual players will be the greatest challenge, of course. High prices are likely to limit even early adoption – a clear opportunity for Sony to flourish if it can keep the cost of PlayStation VR down – but with initiatives such as Starbreeze’s newly announced VR arcade and Alton Towers’ world-first VR-based rollercoaster already set in motion, it’s obvious that opportunities to present high-end VR tech to consumers outside of their homes are set to increase. Oculus’s decision to furnish everyone who bought a DK1 headset with a retail headset when it’s released is a shrewd move, then, despite the considerable cost involved.
And it’s worth noting the remarkable speed of iteration that Oculus and HTC have demonstrated. Consider that Oculus Rift has gone from a migraine-inducing proof of concept to a gaming revolution in waiting within four short years. It will be difficult to maintain this rate of progress, but it shouldn’t take long for prices to begin falling. There are other hurdles that will need to be addressed, not least the relative hassle of adjusting your HMD’s setup each time you want to play, and the thorny issue of cables to trip over, but the carefully balanced combination of competition and united front that developers are maintaining, not to mention the enormity of Facebook’s backing of one major player, should ease stumbles along the way. But more than technical innovation, marketing and price point, the factor most likely to drive the VR revolution is the unwavering belief of the people pushing for it.
“The competition is virtual reality [itself] and the vision everyone has of virtual reality,” Faliszek suggests. “That’s what we’re trying to deliver. I don’t care if there are 30 companies making something else, or no one. We have a goal that we’re trying to do, and this is a dream we’ve had of what virtual reality is, right? Walking around, standing in the middle of content, engrossed, having it all around you. That’s what we want to deliver, so that’s what we’re going for.”
Daniel O’Brien, vice president of VR at HTC
HTC’s new Vive Pre HMD (note the unit’s front-facing camera), alongside Lighthouse base stations and revamped controllers
FAR LEFT No VR HMD is complete without an undersea experience, and TheBlu is Vive’s.
CENTRE SecretShop is set in Dota2’ s world.
LEFT Fireproof’s The Room demo is just a proof of concept for now, but the game is a great fit for VR
LEFT Of the various VR controllers to date, Oculus Touch is the most intuitive.
ABOVE The simple Oculus Remote will come bundled with Rift for media control
Valve’s Chet Faliszek has emerged as one of the VR industry’s most vocal champions
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP The concept for Epic’s Bullet Train Rift showcase may lack flair, but it feels good in the hands; Oculus’s Toybox demo lets two people experiment in VR; Lucky’s Tale is one of two games free with every Oculus Rift