Vive leads way in Vegas
Where are the innovations happening in VR right now? CES 2017 held some answers
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