Setting the Pieces: the VR race is on

The advent of widespread virtual reality (VR) is fast approaching and it’s bringing with it enormous potential for re-writing the playbook on how we interact, work and play with digital media. Of the collection of truly disruptive technologies on the horizon these days, VR is most certainly one of them.

In the last year especially VR development has been the hot-topic of tech and gaming conventions – arguably eclipsing anticipation for next-generation consoles. And there’s been good reason for this. VR is as true a game-changer as one can imagine. Whilst what we’ve seen so far is largely constrained to demos, development kits, and iterations of hardware, what’s been demonstrated has set the scene for an explosion in the consumer technology world with applications as broad in scope as one can possibly imagine.

With countless reasons for getting excited about VR’s coming of age, it’s a welcoming thought to realise that we’re not going to have to wait too long. Just this week there have several long-awaited announcements and reveals from leading VR developers. So with this in mind, it’s high time to consider the forerunners in the emerging industry of VR.

vr line up square

The four major VR systems. Clockwise from top left: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Oculus Gear VR, Playstation Project Morpheus.

 

Oculus Rift

It almost goes without saying that Oculus Rift would be mentioned first. The company (now owned by Facebook) have been pioneering VR for several years now and arguably introduced the first high-fidelity VR system to the scene in a manner that captured the world’s attention.

Last September Oculus revealed their Crescent Bay prototype, and with it they raised the benchmark further still for VR. Oculus have succeeded in delivering some of the most impressive experiences of immersion and persistent states of presence – in part through excellent graphics, 360 degree tracking and a good range of content aided in no small part by their partnership with games producer Unreal. For a full review of Crescent Bay, see this Phlebas post. With the arrival of contenders though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not a given that Oculus will remain on top.

Oculus Rift Crescent Bay.

Oculus Rift Crescent Bay. Image rights: Oculus.

Crescent Bay (and preceding development kits) is only available to developers, but they’ve been offering up tantalising glimpses on what to expect from VR, and indeed what Oculus is capable of. After much speculation about when Oculus would begin mass-marketing a product, it’s been confirmed that a commercial Oculus model should be expected later this year (ArsTechnica).

 

The Vive

Vive is the most recent headset to enter the VR race, having only been unveiled this past week at the Game Developers Conference, March 4-6 in San Francisco. A product of partnership – Vive has been built by smartphone giant HTC and is powered by Valve’s new Steam VR platform.

Image rights: The Verge.

The HTC Vive has been built in partnership with games producer Valve. Image rights: The Verge.

Vive is slated to be one of the earliest arrivals into the market; with shipments to developers this spring, and a full commercial version launch before the end of 2015. A Vive website was launched on March 1 too – www.htcvr.com – under the promising tagline of ‘re-think reality’.

Distinguishing the Vive from its aforementioned competitiors is that it’s designed to incorporate a user’s movement into the VR experience. Most VR headsets are meant for use whilst sitting or standing – virtual movement, in a game for instance, is made possible using an external controller, while head movements determine gaze direction. Departing from this model, Vive developers have produced a system which allows for a user to quite literally walk around their virtual surroundings – delivering a “full room-scale” experience.

When the Vive is paired with a pair of ‘Steam VR base stations’, the system can track the wearer’s location and movement, as well as map the dimensions of its environment to a spatial extent of 15 feet square. That’s what those small reflective panels on the front of the headset are for – they’re receptors for the lasers that support 360 degree tracking. An accelerometer and gyrosensor embedded within the headset provide additional data, monitoring head movement over both axes to an accuracy of 1/10th of a degree.

Being able to walk around, duck, jump and so on carries enormous possibilities for exploring and interacting with virtual worlds in a manner not currently supported by other devices. More so because the technology also adds hand and gesture capabilities to the system. These have been shown off in several of the Vive demos and the experience was apparently outstanding – great visual performance coupled with a sense of immersion that could only be accomplished with having free reign to explore virtual scenes and interact with virtual objects (see The Verge).

In case you’re wondering, the system also has a neat solution to avoid users walking into walls – imminent collision is avoided by having the outlines of real-world obstacles overlaid within the VR scene.

There was another aspect to the Vive unveiled at the conference that ought to be mentioned too – the Valve Steam controller, which has been designed for use in conjunction with Vive. It’s already attracted considerable attention on its own (See Polygon).  There aren’t any traditional directional pads, but instead dual track pads which offer full customisation of finger swipe inertia settings, vibration intensity, and control bindings. The controller is due out in November, probably around the same time as the Vive itself.

 

Gear VR

Gear VR (from Samsung & Oculus) is the one product that’s already commercially available, at least it its ‘Innovator’s Edition’. However, while on sale to the public, this third-edition Gear VR variant comes with a caveat that it’s intended for early adopters and those who don’t mind an incomplete VR experience. In other words, bugs may be present and content, which is invariably independently produced, is limited.

While it’s received modest reviews (see The Verge), the lack of expansive, high-quality software has proven a significant drawback to consumers. Still Samsung & Oculus have been candid in acknowledging this fact – noting that it’s with a full commercial launch later this year, when they expect to deliver a complete consumer experience.

Oculus Gear VR. Image rights: Oculus.

Oculus Gear VR. Image rights: Oculus.

Gear VR relies on fitting a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to the front, which provides the system its screen – a feature that’s not going to change with the commercial model; although that model will be designed to work with the latest Galaxy phones to be released later this year. In ways the Gear VR may be considered the baby-brother to the Oculus Rift – it’s considerably cheaper and of lower spec – but it’s likely to hold appeal in groups outside the hardcore gamer community.

 

Project Morpheus

Last but by no means least is Sony Playstation’s Project Morpheus. Just this week, a Sony press release stated their intention to launch in the first half of 2016 (Sony Press Release). It may be coming later than others, but it might well be worth waiting for – the Morpheus prototype already boosts some impressive specifications: a 1080 x 1920 RGB OLED display, a super quick refresh rate of 120Hz, a 5.7-inch display with 100 degree field of view, and 360 degree tracking.

We know that the Morpheus headset will be working as an accessory to the existing Playstation 4 platform – an advantage for similar reasons as with the Vive’s support from Valve. It remains to be seen how games are designed for making use of Morpheus VR though – will they be fully VR, or instead will traditional games be featuring ‘additional’ VR contents? Likely scenario – it’ll be a bit of both, at least in the beginning.

 

Overview of VR System Specifications

We’ve compiled known specifications of existing models of the key VR devices in the table below – you can click the table for full resolution. It ought to be noted that whilst in development some models’ specifications haven’t been made available to the public. This is especially true in the case of the Oculus Crescent Bay prototype, where extrapolations about its hardware have been drawn from prior Developer Kit models. In all instances we should treat specifications with caution, acknowledging they may be subject to change before commercial models are launched.

Known specifications of exiting models of the key VR devices. It ought to be noted that whilst in development some specifications haven't been made available; while others are subject to change before commercial models are launched.

 

Applications & Games – VR Software Development

Aside from the development of VR systems and hardware, software developers are working with pace on developing a broad collection of applications and content for the arrival of VR into the mainstream.

First and foremost, there is the gaming scene – sufficed to say that Oculus has been pioneering this effort, largely in conjunction with gaming giant Unreal who’ve developed a novel gaming engine to harness the potential of VR. In so-doing they have already published several Oculus compatible titles including VR enabled Half Life 2 and Doom 3, and the ‘Crescent Bay Experiences’ pack. Beyond this, there’s a wide raft of gaming content available, especially for Oculus (just YouTube it and you’ll get the idea), much of which has been on show at various expositions. The contributions of independent producers shouldn’t be understated – demonstrating the diversity afforded by VR, even before mainstream producers get involved.

That being the case, the arrival of Valve (and its gaming service Steam) into the VR scene is a significant development. That’s because Valve is a leading games producer – the powerful force behind some of the most successful franchises in the gaming industry, including Half Life and Portal.

Steam

Valve’s Steam is a fully supported gaming platform – a store, a community, and a producer all under one roof. Such infrastructure will give the Vive a massive jumpstart – enabling them to swiftly deliver VR content to its users in a manner that Oculus haven’t yet developed. It may a couple years before other games producers get fully invested in VR as they’re likely to want to see how VR performs in commercial markets before fully embracing it. Still, there’s a sense of inevitability here – virtual gaming is arguable what some gaming platforms, especially FPS, was always meant to be. At least with Steam involved, we can be sure of high quality content already being under development.

Portal-2

While release of developer kits may frustrate the average gamer – it’s actually a very smart business model. In making developer kits available, VR manufactures have enveloped game designers into the evolution of their systems from the ground up, fostered an early VR community and gotten gamers especially hooked on the notion before it’s even available to them. At the same time, opening up to independent developers has nurtured a mutually profitable knowledge base, one that’s got the ball rolling in development of real applications such that content is ready, and beta-tested, in time for product launches.

Shifting the focus away from hardcore gaming, Facebook have been pursuing VR compatible apps. Building apps which dovetail with VR is likely a major aspect to the social media enterprise’s vision for VR. Facebook have been noted as seeing VR as the platform within which a large proportion of media sharing will eventually evolve to.

Lastly there is VR film and narrative – a medium that’s sure to emerge as a third major aspect to VR markets. VR cinema is most easily described as an immersive movie experience in which the viewer themselves is in control over the perspective they take as the movie unfolds. There are several avenues to approach producing VR film; one is to capture real time film, the second is CGI. Both are incredibly exciting topics, that will undoubtedly come to greater prominence in the near future.

The short VR film ‘Lost’ from Oculus Studio House – a fascinating insight into the future of CGI film when paired with the capabilities of VR. Image rights: Oculus Story Studio.

For its own part Oculus have invested in it’s own VR film production house ‘Story Studio‘ (announced January 2015, see the Verge). So far they’ve produced Lost (review at The Verge), but they have at least three more titles in the works.

 

In Summation

So three of the largest players in the VR world expect to have products on the shelves before the end of the year; while Playstation will follow up in early 2016 with Project Morpheus.

It’s worth briefly considering how rapid actual uptake of VR might be. In spite of the massive potential with VR and avid following from gamers, there grounds for a conservative take on growth. Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe outlined his views on this matter in an E3 interview last year that’s worth a read (Ars Technica). Iribe, perhaps cautiously, is hoping for lifetime sales of their first generation commercial model to be around the one million mark. If this were the case, there’s a considerable way to go before shifting units on the scale that consoles assure their manufacturers of (for comparison’s sake, Playstation 4 – the leading console – had sold 13.5 millions systems since its launch in late 2013 through to September 2014 (Ars Technica)).

Still, we’re considering a whole new platform. Albeit a platform with broad application beyond one modality, be it gaming, social media or communication, VR is nevertheless a technology that’s going to take some time grow into its own, moving from niche to the mainstream. A major determining factor for this growth will be availability of content – something that we’re sure to see much more of as the products themselves gear up for launch later this year. The year will also yield other important information including final specification for commercial models and prices. Whatever scenario we see over the next 24 months, it’s only going to the opening play for VR’s coming to significance as a revolutionary, ubiquitous technology.

 

Resources

HTC Vive – Official Site

Oculus Rift – Official Site

Samsung Gear VR – Official Site

Sony Playstation Project Morpheus press release

Wired – Samsung Oculus Gear VR article

Ars Technica – Oculus Rift article

The Verge – Vive article

Polygon – Vive article