Vive leads way in Ve­gas

Where are the in­no­va­tions hap­pen­ing in VR right now? CES 2017 held some answers

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CES 2017 of­fers a view on in­no­va­tions in vir­tual re­al­ity

The 12 months of 2016 saw vir­tual re­al­ity emerge as a con­sumer tech­nol­ogy to take se­ri­ously, giv­ing us HTC’s Vive, Ocu­lus’s Rift (and sub­se­quently its Touch con­trollers), and Sony’s PlayS­ta­tion VR. But de­spite these de­vices’ many in­no­va­tions, we’ve al­ways known that they rep­re­sent just the first steps on the road to­wards VR’s emer­gence as a must-have life­style choice for ev­ery­one rather than a play­thing for hob­by­ists and the cu­ri­ous. In five years’ time, the VR land­scape will have changed en­tirely. For now, we’re tak­ing baby steps – and CES 2017 was the venue at which to wit­ness the in­cre­men­tal progress first­hand.

More than 100,000 en­thu­si­asts con­verged on Las Ve­gas for this year’s CES, where VR was bid­ding for at­ten­tion against a gal­axy of new OLED TVs from ev­ery ma­jor player in the mar­ket. Though VR’s pres­ence was re­duced in com­par­i­son to 2016’s CES, there was none­the­less plenty to dig into if you knew where to look, in­clud­ing HTC’s Vive Tracker, a se­lec­tion of in­trigu­ing VR games, and the tech­nol­ogy we’re go­ing to need to fi­nally cut the an­noy­ing cable teth­er­ing our head­sets to our PCs.

The best VR-re­lated go­ings-on weren’t hap­pen­ing on the showfloor; if you wanted to see one po­ten­tial fu­ture for the tech­nol­ogy, you had to check out HTC’s pri­vate suite, where its demos showed how its Vive Tracker al­lows you to bring

There’s no es­cap­ing the de­mand for hard­ware to be made lighter, less bulky, and more con­ve­nient

any ob­ject into a vir­tual world. The the­ory is straight­for­ward: if you want to play, say, a game of base­ball in vir­tual re­al­ity, in­stead of us­ing Vive’s an­gu­lar mo­tion con­trollers, you can at­tach a Vive Tracker to the end of a real-life bat, and the Vive hard­ware’s sen­sor ar­ray can track it ap­pro­pri­ately. An­other ex­am­ple sees a Blue­tooth-en­abled gun con­troller in place of the stan­dard Vive con­troller; just strap the Tracker on top or on the muz­zle, and you’re ready to go.

Us­ing real-world ob­jects that have com­pa­ra­ble weights to the ones you’re see­ing in VR is in­tended to add to the user’s sense of im­mer­sion and dampen the feel­ings of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion that some peo­ple feel when they first step into VR. There are lim­i­ta­tions, how­ever. First, de­vel­op­ers must cre­ate soft­ware that re­pro­duces the ap­pro­pri­ate ob­ject, since the Tracker hard­ware clearly can­not de­tect what it’s at­tached to. Se­cond, the hard­ware is to be an op­tional pe­riph­eral rather than a stan­dard part of the Vive setup, so if you’re about to take the plunge with HTC’s vi­sion for VR, be pre­pared to shell out ex­tra.

A num­ber of CES demos il­lus­trated why you might be happy to make the in­vest­ment, from a one-of-a-kind mul­ti­player first­per­son shooter that com­bined a smart­phone and a Tracker, to a fire­fight­ing sim­u­la­tor that teaches the ba­sics of the pro­fes­sion us­ing a hap­ticfeed­back-en­abled fire­hose. The demos were short, much like the ex­am­ples that were used to demo Vive on its de­but, but nev­er­the­less con­vinc­ing, and point to all sorts of ap­pli­ca­tions where de­vel­op­ers might im­ple­ment Tracker tech­nol­ogy down the road.

HTC’s other big VR-fo­cused an­nounce­ment at CES in­volved TPCast, the Chi­nese com­pany work­ing on a so­lu­tion that en­ables the Vive head­set to op­er­ate wire­lessly: ap­par­ently the hard­ware will be ready to ship world­wide in the first half of this year. CES chat­ter sur­round­ing wire­less (non-mo­bile-pow­ered) VR was a mix of ex­cite­ment and scep­ti­cism. The ad­van­tages are clear, but nei­ther HTC nor Ocu­lus is of­fer­ing its own so­lu­tions, and re­ly­ing on third­party sup­port for such key el­e­ments hardly in­spires con­fi­dence.

TPCast’s Wire­less Adapter works by plug­ging into the con­trol pack that sits on the Vive’s top strap; a wire­less re­ceiver then plugs into your PC. TPCast says that you should be able to es­cape to the vir­tual world sans cord for up to 120 min­utes on a sin­gle battery charge, al­though a higher-ca­pac­ity battery, of­fer­ing up to five hours of charge, will also be avail­able. HTC and TPCast claim that, de­spite be­ing wire­less, lag isn’t an is­sue, and our short demo holds up well. We’ll need to spend ex­ten­sive time with the fi­nal hard­ware to fully as­sess its ca­pa­bil­i­ties; cer­tainly it’ll have to de­liver to jus­tify its pro­posed $250 pric­etag.

In terms of new VR soft­ware, not many of the game in­dus­try’s big­gest play­ers turned up to CES, but there were both main­stream and in­die ti­tles to sam­ple if you knew where to look. Sony showed off a new demo of Far­point, its Aim Con­troller-op­ti­mised sci-fi shooter, while HTC hosted demos of Ubisoft’s Star Trek: Bridge Com­man­der, see­ing you and four friends at the helm of the En­ter­prise. On the in­die side, fu­tur­is­tic rac­quet­ball game Racket:

NX stood out on Vive, while adult film stu­dio Naughty Amer­ica ped­dled its own par­tic­u­lar brand of wares in a room just off the main showfloor.

Some ob­servers may have found the lack of new VR games at CES cause for con­cern – a sign, per­haps, that de­vel­op­ers are fail­ing to main­tain their early pace. Hav­ing de­liv­ered their first wave of ti­tles in 2016, many of them are now in the pro­duc­tion stages of their fol­low-up works but are not yet ready to show them in pub­lic. Daniel O’Brien, gen­eral man­ager of Vive at HTC, was quick to point out that over 30 new pieces of Vive con­tent are ar­riv­ing per week, al­though ‘con­tent’ is a broad term. Hav­ing launched later than Vive and Rift, PlayS­ta­tion VR is not keep­ing pace with its com­peti­tors in terms of re­leases, but its su­pe­rior in­stalled base will en­sure that it re­ceives a steady flow of con­ver­sions to go with the ex­clu­sives that Sony is ac­tively sign­ing for the plat­form.

In terms of the longer-term pic­ture for VR, there’s no es­cap­ing the con­tin­ued de­mand among main­stream con­sumers for hard­ware to be made lighter, less bulky, and more con­ve­nient. CES pro­vided a re­sponse to one of those re­quests, at least. A small amount of progress is clearly prefer­able to stag­na­tion. Is it rea­son­able to ex­pect more in­no­va­tions at E3 in June?

The Vive Tracker hard­ware will be launched in Q2, but HTC has yet to an­nounce the unit’s of­fi­cial price

HTC’s Deluxe Au­dio Strap also made its de­but at CES, of­fer­ing em­bed­ded au­dio and im­proved com­fort over the stan­dard unit

TPCast’s Wire­less Adapter will be ex­pen­sive when it ar­rives in Q2, but it ad­dresses an is­sue that is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant with Vive, whose room-scale ap­proach to VR en­cour­ages users to move around

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