Re­al­ity checks

Ocu­lus and HTC fi­nalise their plans for vir­tual re­al­ity’s re­vival

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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

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