Virtual reality, 1 year on
What went right and what didn’t. Brad Chacos reports
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
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.
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 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
The standalone Oculus ‘Santa Cruz’ prototype
HP’s Omen X VR PC