Vir­tual re­al­ity, 1 year on

What went right and what didn’t. Brad Cha­cos re­ports

PC Advisor - - CONTENTS -

De­spite be­ing around for just a hand­ful of months, VR has in­spired new gen­res of com­put­ers, wormed its way deep into Win­dows, and sent the price of graphics cards plum­met­ing

Af­ter years of teases, tan­ta­lis­ing prom­ises, and Kick­starter cam­paigns, vir­tual re­al­ity fi­nally be­came ac­tual re­al­ity in 2016, with VR’s mere ex­is­tence thrust­ing the en­tire PC in­dus­try into glo­ri­ous, won­der­ful tur­moil. De­spite be­ing around for just a hand­ful of months, it has al­ready in­spired new gen­res of com­put­ers, wormed its way deep into Win­dows, and sent the price of graphics cards plum­met­ing.

Not too shabby for its first real year on the streets, though the im­ple­men­ta­tions could still use some fine-tun­ing. Let’s look back at how this wild new fron­tier blos­somed in 2016.

The birth of con­sumer VR

From the very start of 2016, it was clear that the dawn of proper PC-pow­ered VR had ar­rived. You could see ev­i­dence of this fact all over CES 2016 in Jan­uary, where EVGA in­tro­duced a spe­cialised graphics card de­signed to fit VR head­set er­gonomics; Nvidia rolled out a VR cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram; and seem­ingly ev­ery booth boasted some sort of vir­tu­al­re­al­ity hook, from VR tread­mills to Ever­est climbs (the lat­ter be­ing mind-blow­ing).

The PC world was ready. But vir­tual re­al­ity it­self wasn’t, at least un­til the Ocu­lus Rift’s big con­sumer launch later that spring.

Well, big in the­ory. While we praised the Ocu­lus Rift in its re­view – vir­tual re­al­ity was here, and it was mag­i­cal – the launch was far from per­fect. The rum­bling be­gan in the run-up to the head­set’s re­lease, with Rift’s £500 launch price far ex­ceed­ing the £200 to £400 range that Ocu­lus higher-ups had teased re­peat­edly. Once it ac­tu­ally launched, the head­set was plagued by hard­ware short­ages and sig­nif­i­cant ship­ment de­lays, which didn’t go over well at all.

But the big­gest prob­lem for the Rift was that even at launch its days al­ready felt num­bered – not a vibe you want from £500 hard­ware. The Rift was de­signed pri­mar­ily as a seated VR ex­pe­ri­ence, with a con­troller in your hands. By the time it launched on 28 March, en­thu­si­asts and in­dus­try press had al­ready spent time play­ing with the SteamVR-pow­ered HTC Vive, which used made-for-VR con­trollers and ded­i­cated track­ing sta­tions to en­able room-scale VR ex­pe­ri­ences that let you wan­der around and ac­tu­ally touch things. Af­ter try­ing Vive, go­ing back to the Rift’s seden­tary ex­pe­ri­ence felt far less sat­is­fy­ing.

And the HTC-Valve duo didn’t waste any time cap­i­tal­is­ing on its advantage. The HTC Vive launched on 5 April, roughly a week af­ter the Ocu­lus Rift, and im­me­di­ately seized the crown as PC Ad­vi­sor’s pre­ferred VR so­lu­tion.

De­spite that, we rec­om­mend pass­ing on the Rift and the Vive, and for very good rea­son. While VR can be noth­ing short of awe-in­spir­ing, th­ese first-gen­er­a­tion prod­ucts also have some ob­vi­ous flaws.

Prices and PCs

Vir­tual-re­al­ity head­sets are ex­pen­sive, which is to be ex­pected with cut­ting-edge hard­ware, but £500 for the Ocu­lus Rift or £800 for the HTC Vive puts them firmly in the ‘1 per­cent’ cat­e­gory. The re­cent re­lease of Ocu­lus’s £100 Touch con­trollers drove the cost of a full Rift set-up to the Vive’s level, or even more if you want room-scale ex­pe­ri­ences and need an ex­tra sen­sor. VR ex­pe­ri­ences tend to be high-priced and rel­a­tively short-lived com­pared to tra­di­tional PC games. This is not a cheap hobby. That ex­pense was ex­ac­er­bated by the need to con­nect th­ese head­sets to a pretty pow­er­ful PC – that cost of which was roughly £1,000 to £1,500 at the time of the head­sets’ launch. For­tu­nately, while the Vive and Rift them­selves have stayed at the same lofty prices, the cost of a com­puter to run them ab­so­lutely plunged as the year car­ried on.

The plunge be­gan with the launch of AMD’s Radeon RX 480, which rev­o­lu­tionised what’s pos­si­ble with a £200 graphics card. Be­fore its re­lease, VR-ca­pa­ble cards cost nearly twice that amount. (Nvidia fol­lowed suit with the £225 GeForce GTX 1060.) Jump­ing for­ward two tech­no­log­i­cal gen­er­a­tions paid div­i­dends for graphics cards. Soft­ware tricks helped democra­tise VR just as much. At the Ocu­lus Con­nect con­fer­ence in Oc­to­ber, the com­pany re­vealed a new fea­ture dubbed Asyn­chronous Space­warp that used tech­ni­cal tricks to drive the bar­rier to en­try for Rift VR right down – all the way to an AMD AM4 or In­tel Core i3-6100 pro­ces­sor, and a GeForce GTX 960 graphics card. In March, a Rift-ready PC cost at least £800; af­ter Ocu­lus Con­nect, Rift-ready PCs started at £400.

The HTC Vive and Ocu­lus Rift both drive very high­fi­delity gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, and head­sets need to be phys­i­cally teth­ered to your com­puter in or­der to work

Wired woes

The HTC Vive and Ocu­lus Rift both drive very high-fi­delity gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, and head­sets need to be phys­i­cally teth­ered to your PC in or­der to work. That’s less than ideal as it’s all too easy to trip over the thick ca­bles while you’re wan­der­ing around the room en­sconced in a vir­tual world, or to twist and turn so much that the

cord even­tu­ally jerks your head back. That (some­times lit­eral) headache in­spired the birth of a whole new class of gam­ing PCs – ones that you wear on your back. You’re still wired up, but those wires travel with you in­stead of get­ting tan­gled be­tween your feet. Zo­tac, MSI, Alien­ware and HP have all re­vealed back­pack PCs of var­i­ous de­signs, though none have ac­tu­ally hit the street yet.

As nifty as they are, how­ever, back­pack PCs feel like a stop­gap so­lu­tion – a fix to a prob­lem that will dis­ap­pear when more ro­bust wire­less dis­play tech­nolo­gies or more po­tent mo­bile graphics ar­rive. And you can al­ready see that wire­less fu­ture on the hori­zon, with Ocu­lus test­ing a fully self-con­tained mo­bile Rift pro­to­type and HTC back­ing a £200 add-on kit that makes the Vive wire­less.

Be­yond PCs

While pow­er­ful PC-based VR ex­pe­ri­ences may be teth­ered, the more mod­est world of phone-driven mo­bile VR has al­ready left cords far be­hind. Sam­sung’s Gear VR head­set (which only works with Sam­sung Gal­axy phones) blazed the An­droid VR trail, while Google’s low-cost Card­board brought it to the masses. In late 2016 Google stomped into the Gear VR’s turf with Day­dream VR, an An­droid­cen­tric ini­tia­tive that brings pre­mium mo­bile VR to the en­tire ecosys­tem rather than Sam­sung’s phones alone.

Day­dream cen­tres on a trio of pil­lars: pow­er­ful phones, Day­dream VR head­sets, and An­droid Nougat’s new VR fea­tures. While Google’s own Day­dream View head­set and Pixel phone kicked off the pro­gramme, Day­dream isn’t its alone. HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, Al­ca­tel, Len­ovo and yes, even Sam­sung have pledged to cre­ate Day­dream mo­bile de­vices.

Mi­crosoft’s HoloLens is a mix of PC and mo­bile VR, while also a dif­fer­ent beast en­tirely. It’s a por­ta­ble, fully self-con­tained sys­tem that doesn’t need to con­nect to a PC, but HoloLens utilises aug­mented re­al­ity, not vir­tual re­al­ity. Vir­tual re­al­ity sits you in fully re­alised vir­tual worlds; aug­mented re­al­ity, as the name im­plies, aug­ments the real world with over­laid ob­jects, such as a Minecraft world sprout­ing from your cof­fee ta­ble or a Skype video chat ap­pear­ing on your wall.

Mi­crosoft still hasn’t re­vealed de­tails about when (or if) HoloLens will be avail­able

As nifty as they are, how­ever, back­pack PCs feel like a stop­gap so­lu­tion – a fix to a prob­lem that will dis­ap­pear when more ro­bust wire­less dis­play tech­nolo­gies

to con­sumer users, or how much it would cost, but deep-pock­eted de­vel­op­ers and en­ter­prise users can al­ready pick up the head­set for a cool $3,000 (£TBC).

The fu­ture

The pricey HoloLens head­set isn’t Mi­crosoft’s only foray into vir­tual re­al­ity. The forth­com­ing mas­sive Win­dows 10 Cre­ators Up­date will bake aug­mented re­al­ity fea­tures much more deeply into the flag­ship PC op­er­at­ing sys­tem, and it’ll be ac­com­pa­nied by an army of new Win­dows 10 VR head­sets at launch – head­sets that will start at just £300 and run on sur­pris­ingly mod­est PCs. Mean­while, In­tel and Mi­crosoft’s Project Evo part­ner­ship aims to change how com­put­ers ‘think, see, and hear’, with a spe­cific goal of driv­ing mixed re­al­ity for­ward.

If 2016 was the birth of a vir­tual-re­al­ity rev­o­lu­tion, look for 2017 to be a year of VR re­fine­ment. Wit­ness the new, Ocu­lus Touch-es­que Vive con­trollers that Valve al­ready be­gan to tease, and bookmark the hol­i­day 2017 launch of Mi­crosoft’s pow­er­ful Xbox Scorpio con­sole, which could very pos­si­bly lever­age the Win­dows 10 Cre­ators Up­date to run the Ocu­lus Rift or Win­dows 10 VR head­sets as a counter to Sony’s sur­pris­ingly okay PlaySta­tion VR.

Next year, VR games should only get bet­ter as de­vel­op­ers gain more ex­pe­ri­ence, if they can nav­i­gate the com­pli­cated world of con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions and dis­cover what peo­ple re­ally want from the medium, that is. The cost of VR-ca­pa­ble PCs will only keep go­ing down. Ex­pect aug­mented re­al­ity to con­tinue mak­ing in­roads in car tech. The Vive and Rift may even come down in price. In fact, with enough ad­vances, 2017 may be the year PC Ad­vi­sor of­fi­cially rec­om­mends you buy a VR head­set.

Or it could all come crash­ing down like pre­vi­ous vir­tual-re­al­ity at­tempts. (Re­mem­ber Sega VR) Liv­ing on the cut­ting edge may be ex­pen­sive and ex­cit­ing, but it’s not al­ways a sure bet, though with so many of tech’s big­gest names spend­ing bil­lions on vir­tual re­al­ity, it’s hard to imag­ine this lat­est push fiz­zling com­pletely. Time will tell.

Win­dows 10 Cre­ators Up­date will bake aug­mented re­al­ity fea­tures much more deeply into the flag­ship PC op­er­at­ing sys­tem, and it’ll be ac­com­pa­nied by an army of VR head­sets

Ocu­lus Rift with Touch con­trollers

AMD Radeon RX 480

Play­ers en­joy a VR ex­pe­ri­ence at HTC’s Vive­land ar­cade in Tai­wan

HTC Vive

Ocu­lus Rift

The stand­alone Ocu­lus ‘Santa Cruz’ pro­to­type

HP’s Omen X VR PC

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