Vir­tual Re­al­ity at the In­ter­na­tional CES

New VR Head­sets, Ex­pe­ri­ences, Back­pack Com­put­ers and Ac­ces­sories

NOVO - - AUDIO VECTOR - by Jeremy Phan

Re­mem­ber

that scene from Back to the Fu­ture II when the McFlys are sit­ting around the kitchen table, with both kids don­ning VR head­sets? While to­day’s vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy isn’t quite as com­pact, light­weight, and wire­less as the head­sets in the sec­ond movie of that clas­sic tril­ogy, vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity are gain­ing steam and poised to move from niche to con­sumer main­stream in the very near fu­ture.

Last win­ter’s re­lease of the PlayS­ta­tion VR head­set and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing games has al­lowed video gamers to im­merse them­selves in var­i­ous VR ex­pe­ri­ences at a price point that’s fi­nally be­low four fig­ures. For the non-gamers, the PlayS­ta­tion VR al­lows you to watch movies or other stream­ing con­tent in a gi­ant vir­tual the­atre as well. While a ded­i­cated VR head­set for the Xbox con­sole is miss­ing, Mi­crosoft has opted to sup­port the Ocu­lus Rift in­stead of de­vel­op­ing an­other VR head­set be­yond their own HoloLens. At the same time, con­tent for the high-end Ocu­lus Rift and HTC Vive VR head­sets con­tin­ues to grow and im­press con­sumers. There are al­ready plenty of first-per­son shoot­ers, 360-plat­form games and flight sim­u­la­tors in the mar­ket for these head­sets. But what’s re­ally amaz­ing is phys­i­cally-in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing in which play­ers wear mo­tion cap­ture mark­ers and ac­tu­ally walk around a phys­i­cal space but see and in­ter­act with a vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment, wield­ing gam­ing con­trollers that turn into vir­tual weapons in the gam­ing world. At the 2016 TAVES Con­sumers Elec­tron­ics Show, Cana­dian com­pany Mi­rage VR show­cased this with a fantasy game that put play­ers on a pi­rate ship, fight­ing off vir­tual en­e­mies.

De­spite Mi­crosoft’s omis­sion in VR gam­ing hard­ware, they’re un­doubt­edly help­ing to ex­tend VR’s reach into the home with the Win­dows Holo­graphic Plat­form. This up­com­ing up­date to Win­dows 10 will bring both vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity, which Mi­crosoft dubs “mixed re­al­ity”. The min­i­mum desk­top com­put­ing re­quire­ments of only 4GB of RAM, a graph­ics card sup­port­ing DirectX 12, a quad-core CPU, and 1GB of free disk space make it in­cred­i­bly ac­ces­si­ble. In­tel, who worked in part­ner­ship with Mi­crosoft to cre­ate the plat­form, has show­cased it run­ning at a but­tery-smooth 90 frames-per­sec­ond on one of their com­pact NUC mini­com­put­ers.

To ac­com­pany this new Win­dows func­tion­al­ity, at this year’s In­ter­na­tional Con­sumers Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas, nu­mer­ous VR head­sets have been an­nounced by fa­mil­iar names such as Acer, Len­ovo, Dell, and HP as well as new­comer 3Glasses. In a bid to max­i­mize ac­ces­si­bil­ity, Mi­crosoft has stated that head­sets will

start at only $299 US but sim­i­lar to PCs, higher priced head­sets will of­fer in­creased per­for­mance. Premium VR head­sets in this space will fea­ture higher res­o­lu­tions, wider fields of view, higher re­fresh rates, and built-in head­phones. Premium versus bud­get mod­els aside, all head­sets will have the fol­low­ing in com­mon: they’ll be teth­ered (wired) to the user’s PC, use cam­eras for ges­ture con­trol, and mi­cro­phones for voice con­trol. De­spite be­ing teth­ered via a wire, the head­sets have com­plete full 6-axis (X, Y, Z) track­ing as well as in­side-out track­ing which makes the head­set aware of the user’s lo­ca­tion in their phys­i­cal space. The first head­sets in this cat­e­gory are slated to start ship­ping this April. 3Glasses hopes to dis­rupt the es­tab­lished PC ac­ces­sory mak­ers with their S1 Blubur VR head­set ($449 US) which fea­tures a light­ning-fast 120 Hz re­fresh rate, 2880 x 1440 res­o­lu­tion (Dual 2K), and 110° field-of-view. They also tout a built-in blue light fil­ter to re­duce eye strain sim­i­lar to iOS’s “Night Shift” mode or An­droid’s “Night Mode”. These up­com­ing head­sets will bring VR out of the realm of the ex­ist­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers such as the Ocu­lus Rift ($599 US), which has to date sold 5M units, and HTC Vive ($799 US) by low­er­ing both the price and high com­put­ing power bar­rier to en­try. Pre­vi­ously, it took a ro­bust gam­ing com­puter cost­ing at least $1,200 US to power the Rift or Vive but now main­stream com­put­ers will be ca­pa­ble of sup­ply­ing con­tent for the up­com­ing Win­dows VR head­sets. To make sure there’s enough con­tent and use cases for these new head­sets, Mi­crosoft is adding “mixed re­al­ity” sup­port

to all its core Win­dows ap­pli­ca­tions from the Edge browser to Skype to a soon-to-be-re­leased “Movies and TV” app with sup­port for 360° videos. It’s also work­ing to bring over HoloLens ap­pli­ca­tions. Users look­ing to max­i­mize their vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence should aim for at least a Core i5 Sky­lake pro­ces­sor on desk­top com­put­ers and a Core i5 Kaby Lake pro­ces­sor on lap­tops. It takes a lot of com­put­ing power to draw all those pix­els and all head­sets op­er­ate at a min­i­mum of 60 frames-per-sec­ond to re­duce blur and other graph­i­cal arte­facts. This helps to elim­i­nate dis­com­fort­ing ef­fects such as dizzi­ness, nausea, and mo­tion sick­ness.

For those look­ing to take their VR ex­plo­rations away from the desk­top, three choices are avail­able from Zo­tac, MSI, and HP: VR-ca­pa­ble com­put­ers housed in­side back­packs tot­ing gi­ant, hot-swap­pable bat­ter­ies. Zo­tac’s new­est ver­sion of their VR Go back­pack com­puter is a $2,000 US wear­able com­puter that comes equipped with a beefy Core i7-6700T CPU, an Nvidia GTX 1070 graph­ics card, 16 GB of RAM, and a speedy 240 GB M.2 solid state drive. The huge bat­ter­ies are the ma­jor­ity of the back­pack’s 10 pound weight and of­fer two hours of mo­bile VR free­dom. The slightly more ex­pen­sive MSI VR One 6RE comes in at $2,200 US but ups the hard­ware to an un­locked Core i7-6820HK and a 512 GB solid state drive. HP will also be re­leas­ing their own back­pack com­puter called the HP Omen VR this year but ex­act de­tails are yet to be an­nounced.

To fur­ther blur the lines be­tween re­al­ity and the vir­tual world, HTC, mak­ers of the Vive head­set, show­cased the HTC Vive Tracker, an ac­ces­sory that at­taches to any real-world ob­ject like a golf club, fake weapon, or even a fire hose. The Vive Tracker cap­tures the move­ment of the at­tached ob­ject and projects it in real-time into

the vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment. In­stead of us­ing a puny stick con­troller to sim­u­late a ri­fle in a shoot­ing game, users are able to hold a plas­tic ri­fle for a more re­al­is­tic feel. HTC also de­moed a fire­fighter train­ing sim­u­la­tion com­plete with a heat-em­a­nat­ing, hap­ticfeed­back equipped fire­fighter’s jacket. The hap­tic feed­back-equipped hose, with the Tracker at­tached, sim­u­lated the pres­sure from the vir­tual fire­hose and even re­tracted or ex­tended to sim­u­late the move­ment of wa­ter. The Tracker will al­low de­vel­op­ers to insert any ob­ject (once dig­i­tally mod­elled) into their VR worlds, adding in that tac­tile sen­sa­tion of wield­ing a phys­i­cal ob­ject.

An­other com­pany com­bin­ing VR with the real world is Hyper­suit. This com­pany has de­vel­oped a plat­form that al­lows the user to lie down and con­trol two han­dle­bars in front of them to sim­u­late fly­ing, hang glid­ing, or other move­ment - essen­tially be­com­ing like Iron Man or Su­per­man, fly­ing through the air. The com­pany hopes to have their padded lie-flat plat­forms in VR ar­cades by Q3 and is work­ing with de­vel­op­ers on more “fly­ing”cen­tric con­tent.

At the low­est end – in price but not ex­pe­ri­ence – head­sets which uti­lize smart­phones as their screens con­tinue to be up­dated by com­pa­nies such as Sam­sung and Google. Google’s in­dus­try-first cloth VR head­set, the Day­dream View, is avail­able for un­der $90 US and al­lows users to fly through Google Earth, watch Net­flix and YouTube on a gi­ant screen in­clud­ing 360° videos, ex­plore the Harry Pot­ter world of Fan­tas­tic Beasts, and ex­plore cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions cap­tured through Google’s Arts & Culture pro­gram. Qual­comm’s up­com­ing flag­ship mo­bile pro­ces­sor, the Snap­dragon 835, was show­cased at CES ren­der­ing vivid 4K mo­bile con­tent which will al­low the next generation of 2K/4K dis­play-equipped smart­phones to dou­ble as mo­bile VR dis­plays when used with any of the in­ex­pen­sive head­sets.

As prices con­tinue to drop and is­sues such as la­tency, field-of-view, and graph­ics pro­cess­ing power con­tinue to im­prove, vir­tual re­al­ity will be­come more ac­ces­si­ble. In­stead of buy­ing a large-screen tele­vi­sion cost­ing thou­sands, an ex­ist­ing PC or video game con­sole will en­able users to travel to ex­otic lo­cales, giv­ing im­mense free­dom to those less mo­bile or with phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions. VR will also al­low work­ers to be more ef­fec­tive thanks to aug­mented re­al­ity ap­pli­ca­tions that dis­play live, real-time in­for­ma­tion aug­ment­ing their phys­i­cal world. And if you love to travel to ex­otic places, VR will let you ex­pe­ri­ence things such as ex­plor­ing space or deepsea div­ing. De­spite the ad­vances, it’ll still be sum­mer 2018 be­fore per­for­mance and cost reach an in­flec­tion point to truly make it main­stream in­stead of be­ing a some­what premium prod­uct for early adopters. Be­ing able to walk through a UNESCO World Her­itage site from the com­fort of one’s liv­ing room is an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence that more and more con­sumers will soon have the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in. 2017 is sure

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