The real thing

At CES, Vive Pro and its peers kick off the next gen­er­a­tion of VR

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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

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