Heads up

With the first wave of hard­ware now es­tab­lished in homes, where does the VR in­dus­try go next?


With the first wave of hard­ware now in homes, where next for VR?

Af­ter years of grow­ing ex­pec­ta­tion, and with a cou­ple of prob­lem­atic hard­ware launches now out of the way, the age of vir­tual re­al­ity is fi­nally upon us. From this side of Rift and Vive’s rocky emer­gence, the world feels lit­tle dif­fer­ent, but few ever ex­pected it to be: fore­cast­ers and in­dus­try pi­o­neers have long warned that VR could take five, maybe even ten, years to per­me­ate into main­stream con­scious­ness. The big ques­tion for now, then, is: where do we go from here?

For many early adopters, HTC and Ocu­lus’s fum­bled hard­ware re­leases sul­lied what should have been a tri­umphant cou­ple of months – not least in the case of Rift Kick­starter back­ers, some see­ing hard­ware reach re­tail out­lets be­fore their own pre­orders were hon­oured. HTC did lit­tle bet­ter, ap­par­ently pri­ori­tis­ing or­ders by the date pay­ment was re­ceived rather than when the or­der was ac­tu­ally placed – a mis­judg­ment that meant cus­tomers who paid through PayPal, which trans­fers money in­stantly, were pri­ori­tised over card pay­ments even if the or­der was placed at a later date. Any de­sire to cel­e­brate a head­set’s even­tual ar­rival was fur­ther ex­tin­guished by a pre­dom­i­nantly un­der­whelm­ing launch lineup that failed to make a con­vinc­ing case for the size­able out­lay re­quired for ei­ther setup. The re­al­i­ties of room-scale VR in av­er­age-sized homes also quickly proved more frus­trat­ing than it did rev­e­la­tory. But de­spite all of this, and the grow­ing and in­evitable wave of in­juries sus­tained from fall­ing over or walk­ing into walls, the prom­ise of VR re­mains as po­tent as it has ever been. Bruises and dis­ap­point­ment will fade. The real chal­lenge now fac­ing VR is that of con­vinc­ing ev­ery­one who isn’t pre­pared to stump up £500 for un­proven tech­nol­ogy on faith alone.

“Re­leas­ing new hard­ware, es­pe­cially if it’s not just a new con­sole but a whole new way of de­liv­er­ing en­ter­tain­ment, is al­ways fraught with dan­ger,” Ja­son Kings­ley, CEO of Sniper Elite and Bat­tle­zone stu­dio Re­bel­lion, notes. “Peo­ple are also con­ser­va­tive: they nat­u­rally know what they like and like what they know, and they rarely vote for change. It’s al­ways an up­hill bat­tle to sell some­thing like VR when no­body has VR yet – it’s like when telly was first be­ing in­tro­duced and they were mar­ket­ing it on the ra­dio. It misses the point en­tirely.

“There aren’t any el­e­gant words we can use to de­scribe what we’re talk­ing

about yet, which is both won­der­ful – be­cause it means that we’re at the cut­ting edge – but also slightly awk­ward when we try to com­mu­ni­cate to play­ers what a VR game is.”

One part of

the strat­egy for sur­mount­ing that mar­ket­ing hump is sim­ply get­ting HMDs onto peo­ple’s heads, whether that means demo pods in videogame stores and shop­ping cen­tres, or more ex­cit­ing large-scale en­deav­ours such as Star­breeze’s IMAX VR col­lab­o­ra­tion – which stemmed from ini­tial plans to build an LA-based VR ar­cade called Project Star­cade – Al­ton Tow­ers’ VR roller­coaster Galac­tica, or The Void’s ‘hyper-re­al­ity’ of­fer­ing. In most cases, that first ex­pe­ri­ence is enough to con­vince peo­ple of vir­tual re­al­ity’s po­ten­tial, and even if they don’t rush out im­me­di­ately to buy a setup, their ini­tial im­pres­sions will per­co­late over time and they might just rave about it to friends with more dis­pos­able cash.

“When peo­ple – jour­nal­ists, scep­tics, en­thu­si­asts, and even peo­ple who have no skin in the game – have come to try the head­set [at our stu­dio], al­most ev­ery sin­gle one of them came away con­vinced that there was some­thing very com­pelling and dif­fer­ent about VR,” Kings­ley says. “Now, ob­vi­ously that doesn’t mean that the games them­selves will meet those ex­pec­ta­tions, but it does show that it’s not just about strap­ping a mon­i­tor to your head.”

De­vel­op­ments such as AMD’s $199 VR-ready RX480 graph­ics card, and the com­peti­tors that will surely fol­low in its low-cost trail, will help to lower the bar­rier to en­try and al­low VR set­ups to make the daunt­ing jump from ex­pen­sive cu­rios to must-have kit, but right now Kings­ley’s fo­cused on even more af­ford­able hard­ware: PlayS­ta­tion VR.

“We’re all wait­ing for the first mass­mar­ket units, which will pre­sum­ably be man­u­fac­tured in the mil­lions rather than in the thou­sands,” he says. “And as far as I’m con­cerned, PlayS­ta­tion VR is the first com­mer­cial-scale mass­mar­ket vir­tual re­al­ity head­set that’s be­ing re­leased. The oth­ers are ex­cel­lent pieces of spe­cial­ist hobby kit, but they’re in very lim­ited sup­ply, they’re very ex­pen­sive, and you need a fast PC. None of that is the case with PSVR.”

So where does that leave some­thing such as StarVR? Star­breeze Stu­dios’ panoramic, no holds-barred head­set is aimed squarely at the pre­mium end of an al­ready pre­mium mar­ket, be­ing shaped by a pair of es­tab­lished play­ers that are them­selves about to be un­der­cut by PlayS­ta­tion VR (though Sony’s com­mer­cial ad­van­tage is less­ened if you fac­tor in the cost of re­vised PlayS­ta­tion hard­ware). Up un­til now, the Swedish stu­dio has been hand-build­ing each pro­to­type, but a re­cent deal with Acer means it now has the man­u­fac­tur­ing clout to com­pete on num­bers. Is there room for another high­priced head­set at this early stage?

“Sim­ply put, we’re cre­at­ing a pre­mium ex­pe­ri­ence,” Star­breeze CTO

Em­manuel Mar­quez tells us. “We def­i­nitely have room to dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves, es­pe­cially with the IMAX col­lab­o­ra­tion putting the StarVR head­set in IMAX VR cen­tres all across the world. And there are so many busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions for vir­tual re­al­ity that are more de­mand­ing on specs and not as price sen­si­tive. We’re very com­fort­able cater­ing to the pro mar­ket as our fo­cus.”

Kings­ley takes a sim­i­larly con­fi­dent po­si­tion, liken­ing the VR mar­ket to that of TVs, where there’s a con­tin­ual churn of up­grad­ing in which cus­tomers in­vest at their own pace rather than in step with con­sole-style gen­er­a­tional leaps. It’s worth not­ing, too, that VR is be­ing po­si­tioned as an ad­di­tive ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a re­place­ment for HD mon­i­tors (Kings­ley stresses that VR is only one of Re­bel­lion’s in­ter­ests, and that he loves flatscreen games, too), and that re­moves some of the pres­sure that tech such as 3DTV placed on it­self by try­ing, and fail­ing, to re­place the sta­tus quo. VR is try­ing to carve out a new space, rather than rede­fine an old one.

“I think there’s a lot of room in this in­dus­try,” Kings­ley says. “It’s prob­a­bly go­ing to feel a bit crowded now be­cause we re­ally are at the be­gin­ning of a new form of medium, and games are only one very small piece of that.”

With so many

open goals, then, it’s not sur­pris­ing to see such a wide range of vi­sions for what VR should be. Room scale or seated? Hob­by­ist or mass­mar­ket? Mo­bile or teth­ered? But the other rift in the in­dus­try con­cerns po­si­tional track­ing, and whether ex­pe­ri­ences and games which lack it should be con­sid­ered ‘proper’ VR. There are al­ready a raft of mo­bile-phone-based head­sets on the mar­ket of vary­ing qual­ity, and Sam­sung’s GearVR (which is only com­pat­i­ble with cer­tain Sam­sung phones) rep­re­sents the best of them. But even that rather ex­pen­sive setup – at least if you don’t al­ready have the re­quired phone – can’t achieve the kind of po­si­tional track­ing that makes PSVR, Rift and Vive ses­sions feel so mag­i­cal.

Google’s re­cently an­nounced Day­dream project doesn’t look to ad­dress that prob­lem, ei­ther, but its open-source de­sign leaves space for en­ter­pris­ing cre­ators to rec­tify that.

Low-cost head­sets rep­re­sent an op­por­tu­nity to spread the word, but the gulf be­tween the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence you can have us­ing Google’s Card­board and that which you’d have on an all-singing Vive setup is vast enough that the two things hardly seem re­lated at all. And this, Kings­ley warns, could be a prob­lem.

“I ac­tu­ally think it’s re­ally dan­ger­ous, and that there are a few red her­rings in the VR space,” he says. “The prob­lem with [some of these de­vices] is that they don’t show very com­plex things, and don’t track head move­ment prop­erly in the way that you need in or­der to get proper im­mer­sion, so it sort of gives peo­ple a falsely low-fi ex­pe­ri­ence of what good VR could be. The dan­ger is that they come away from that not con­vinced that VR is a good thing. I’m a lit­tle con­cerned that they might ac­tu­ally not be im­pres­sive enough for peo­ple, and then

“The dan­ger is that peo­ple come away from these de­vices not con­vinced that VR is a good thing”

peo­ple think that they’ve tried VR and then they go, ‘VR’s a bit crap, re­ally.’”

They’re just as likely to be dis­ap­pointed if they play Fi­nal Ap­proach on Vive, how­ever. The shift from videogames’ proven rule­book to VR’s un­charted wa­ters has re­sulted in a kind of awk­ward shuf­fle in which de­vel­op­ers have as­sem­bled new forms from a com­bi­na­tion of sal­vaged old parts and jury-rigged new ones. Some of these cre­ations are greater than the sum of their parts, while oth­ers come apart at the seams. Even an un­der­whelm­ing game can still be a re­mark­able ex­pe­ri­ence in VR, but with the first wave of re­leases re­view­ing quite poorly, do de­vel­op­ers need to re­think their ap­proach, or is this just a nat­u­ral part of be­ing at the be­gin­ning of a tran­si­tional pe­riod?

“I think lots of peo­ple are strug­gling with the lan­guage of VR, and try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with it,” Kings­ley says. “And I think that’s a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of very skilled teams find­ing them­selves with a bunch of es­tab­lished rules that don’t work any­more.”

It will take

time, then, for a new rule­book to be writ­ten, but it’s also the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to ex­per­i­ment. “We, and I mean we as an in­dus­try, def­i­nitely need to keep in mind that we need to keep push­ing for VR’s ‘killer app’,” Mar­quez says. “We need to show the user, con­sumer or oth­er­wise, what the ap­pli­ca­tion is and why it’s so awe­some. We all still have much to learn about VR, what works and what doesn’t, and we need to keep evolv­ing our dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences to ac­com­mo­date for this.

“We’ve al­ways said we wanted to be a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion HMD in this sec­ond age of VR, but we feel that the cur­rent-gen HMDs are do­ing a great job of en­thus­ing peo­ple and spread­ing the gospel of VR. Get­ting it in the hands of as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble is cru­cial for VR to take off, and we have to re­mem­ber that this isn’t 3D glasses or 360 video – peo­ple need to have that first ex­pe­ri­ence in Tilt Brush or be amazed by a full cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence like [Star­breeze’s im­mer­sive cin­e­matic cre­ation] Cock­a­too Spritz to un­der­stand the power of the medium. HMD tech­nol­ogy will cer­tainly con­tin­u­ously evolve, and our im­ple­men­ta­tion of ex­pe­ri­ences for them will evolve to match – we’ll see new leaps of in­no­va­tion hap­pen ev­ery year for a while longer, I think.”

We won’t have to wait very long for the next wave of ad­vance­ment. StarVR isn’t the only head­set gun­ning for the top end of the mar­ket, and AMD’s wire­less Su­lon Q, armed with in­side-out po­si­tional track­ing and pow­er­ful on-board pro­cess­ing, is set to join the fight this year. AMD prom­ises “con­sole-qual­ity” graph­ics in a pow­er­ful VR pack­age, but it also has some re­mark­able AR am­bi­tions, as il­lus­trated by its Magic Beans Demo (www.bit.ly/25Lw9Qf), which brings Jack And The Beanstalk to the Su­lon of­fices. Mi­crosoft, too, has yet to un­leash its AR-fo­cused HoloLens – and it has now re­vealed that it plans to share with other hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers the Win­dows Holo­graphic plat­form that pow­ers it.

Rather than con­verge, the VR land­scape looks set to be­come an in­creas­ingly con­vo­luted space, then, as ev­ery new en­trant in­tro­duces yet another quirk or an­gle. And that, for all the in­evitable mis­steps that will oc­cur along the way, is some­thing to be cel­e­brated.

“See­ing all the dif­fer­ent creative and tech­ni­cal dis­ci­plines try­ing to fig­ure ev­ery­thing out is hugely grat­i­fy­ing,” says Mar­quez. “The most im­por­tant fac­tor to VR’s devel­op­ment is cre­at­ing new ex­pe­ri­ences and tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion.”

Kings­ley agrees: “I’m very im­pressed with what all of the man­u­fac­tur­ers like HTC and Ocu­lus have done in dif­fer­ent ways. They’ve re­ally pushed the high end of VR. I felt such an in­cred­i­ble sense of im­mer­sion when that Aper­ture ro­bot came through the door – it was awe­some, and a bit fright­en­ing that Pan­dora’s box has been opened. We’re at the be­gin­ning of prop­erly sim­u­lat­ing real ex­pe­ri­ences. We’re ob­vi­ously not there yet, be­cause it’s dis­tin­guish­able from real life, but we’re some­way down that slope. I mean, we’re now talk­ing about syn­thetic en­vi­ron­ments that can con­vince the early hu­man that’s deep within our brain stem, the one that grew up on the sa­van­nas of Africa, that we’re some­where dif­fer­ent.”

FROM TOP Ja­son Kings­ley, CEO of Re­bel­lion; Star­breeze CTO Em­manuel Mar­quez

FROM LEFT Google’s Day­dream – not ready for con­sumer test­ing just yet; AMD’s wire­less Su­lon Q, which has am­bi­tions in both VR and AR; Sony’s PSVR, due out in Oc­to­ber

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