The real thing
At CES, Vive Pro and its peers kick off the next generation of VR
Later this issue, in An Audience With…, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda sounds a familiar refrain from big-publisher bigwigs. Asked about his and his company’s current stance towards VR, he joins the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft and EA in saying that, while virtual reality is an area in which his firm has a keen interest, the tech just isn’t there yet. It’s too expensive, requiring, at the top end at least, a premium-priced HMD and a beefy PC. Headsets are too bulky to be comfortable, and too inconvenient, trailing wires everywhere. Xbox head Phil Spencer said, at last year’s E3, that the industry was “a few years away” from cutting the VR cord. Yet January’s Consumer Electronics Show suggested Spencer’s prediction may in fact have been a few years out of whack. The future is now.
CES has always been a bit bonkers, and not just for the way it summons a tech industry still getting over the turkey sweats to Las Vegas, of all places, in the first week of January. Every year it yields another crazy crop of because-we-can innovations – robot dogs, ovens that run on Android and, this year, a fingernail-mounted sensor with a sleek, nail-art finish that lets sun-worshippers moderate their UV intake. Yet it is the perfect setting in which to unveil new innovations in virtual reality; while the technology may be grounded in videogames, it’s long been expected that it will extend far further than the field of play. This year’s event showed how the second generation of high-end VR hardware is shaping up.
And it is doing so, in part, by looking to the low end. Sure, HTC’s newly announced Vive Pro ticks all the right boxes, its dual-OLED, 2880x1600, 615ppi display representing an immediately noticeable 78 per cent jump in fidelity over the launch model. Yet the overhauled design of the now-navy-blue headset suggests that HTC’s R&D bods have looked at the competition, and liked what they saw. It now sports in-built headphones, for instance, something the Rift managed elegantly at launch. And the weight of the hardware has been shifted from the original model’s frontheavy design towards the back, an idea Sony’s experienced industrial-design teams identified as optimal for PlayStation VR. A PSVR-style tightening dial on the rear headstrap completes the picture of a headset that, for all its obvious leaps forward, also borrows liberally from the recent past. They may be rivals, but they’re all working towards the same goal: discovering the optimal hardware for a fascinating new technology.
Elsewhere, Vive Pro
contains some new features ostensibly aimed at attracting developers to the platform – dual microphones and front-facing cameras, plus support for up to four tracking stations (which have also been redesigned). And there’s an intriguing
pitch to consumers too, with an overhaul to the Viveport store; while HTC’s Valve hook-up means most Vive owners buy their games through Steam, the hardware maker’s own software storefront will now offer roomscale previews of apps and games so you can try before you buy. No doubt most will use that as a testing ground for things they’ll then simply go off and add to their Steam wishlists, but you have to appreciate the effort.
What, then, of the wires? While plenty of thirdparty companies have devised workarounds for the biggest immersion killer in roomscale VR, Valve and HTC have watched on from the sidelines – until now. Okay, the logically named Vive Wireless Adapter clamps to the headset’s rear, and adds further weight to your set-up. But the effect it has on fast-paced games in which you move around a lot is transformative nonetheless. Nothing yanks you out of a roomscale world quite like tripping over a real-world cable python cutting off the circulation in your calves because you’ve turned around too much.
Vive’s updates are nothing out of the ordinary; the second generation was always going to be lighter, more powerful and more convenient. In VR, it’s the thirdparty startups that are pushing at the boundaries, and CES 2018 yielded glimpses of Vive support for the astonishing eye tracking from Swedish firm Tobii, and a remarkably low-profile, but high-powered reference headset, codenamed Elf, from Massachussets-based Kopin. With 2k resolution per eye beating even Vive Pro in terms of fidelity, this lightweight display technology could provide real competition to the established players – or at least provoke a buyout from them, which for many start-ups is the real point of a show like CES.
The most likely acquisition target of the show, however, was Contact CI, whose Maestro controller, if you can call it that, offered a mouth-watering glimpse of VR’s future that goes far beyond biennial resolution bumps. Perhaps best described as a 2018 version of the NES Power Glove, Maestro uses finger restriction, vibration and mechanical tracking to put your entire hand, fingers and all, into a VR world. Touch a virtual object and it’ll respond properly; not only can you pick things up, but you can bend and reshape them, with haptic feedback at your fingertips to deepen the sensation. It’s absurd, ridiculous, transcendentally brilliant stuff – the sort of thing, along with mad robots and needlessly overpowered kitchen goods, at which CES excels.
Maestro uses finger restriction, vibration and mechanical tracking to put your entire hand into a VR world
Clockwise from top left: Vive Pro’s new onboard headphones, redesigned headset and official Wireless Adapter usher in a new era of top-end VR
Maestro is already being used in such diverse fields as training, robotics and, of course, games