Aural Imbalance; More Affordable VR Is On The Way
Last week I picked up EVE Valkyrie for the PSVR, but didn’t get to partake of it until a few days ago. I had played the demo included on the disk that came with the headset but it was a poor showing since it only allowed me to fly around and shoot at things for a few seconds before it artificially self-destructed (my character, not the disk). I had been on the fence about Valkyrie mainly because it’s a primarily a multiplayer game, but I like the EVE universe and I love space sims.
Part of the reason for my love of flying around in space is the immersion. Sitting in the cockpit and (mentally) flipping all the switches and punching all the buttons while hurtling through the endless void of space is both peaceful and nerve-wracking. I’ve been playing a lot of Elite Dangerous recently alongside the Infamous CMDR Benjeth (a.k.a. Talyn328 of Pumping Irony fame), and have tried — successfully, I might add! — to get the PSVR working with the game for the spacial benefits as well as the head tracking. It’s been the realization of everything I’d long wanted in a space sim.
When I got around to Valkyrie, I found it difficult mainly because I’m not so good with the control pad, but at least the game itself wasn’t nausea inducing. I have had balance issues in a few games, but almost always up front as I find myself getting accustomed to the new sensory input. I have stopped turning on the projector unless someone else is in the room, but I had been pumping the audio through the receiver to allow the sounds through the room’s speakers. I had been, up until last night when I finally decided to go whole-hog and plug the earbuds into the PSVR for the up-close-and-personal audio experience.
That turned out to be a whole different ball of wax. Having audio right in my ear-holes threw me way off balance. Valkyrie is a dogfighting game (ships, not actual dogs) so you’re tasked with flipping your ship along all axis to both avoid and to catch up to your targets. In my earliest attempts while using the amplifier audio I had only experienced disorientation when starting out — racing out of the carrier launch tubes and into the wide expanse of space. I suspect that this physical setup was the safety net; I still had some level of grounding because while my eyes were trying to convince me that I was in a nimble space-fighter performing all of these acrobatic motions, my ears knew that I was in the basement because the acoustics were familiar from my time sitting on the couch. Once I put the earbuds in, with whatever limited positional audio I could get from them and the PSVR, all bets were off: I was totally immersed in the situation and my mental processes had no anchor to the real world. As I was bobbing and weaving through the struts of the Gallente shipyard to avoid enemy missiles, I found myself getting slightly dizzy and disoriented.
Now, as painful as this realization was, it was also kind of cool because this was probably about as close to an actual high-speed flying experience as I’m willing to get. If the gameplay was making me truly nauseous to the point where I couldn’t continue, then I’d certainly take out the earbuds and go back to the momentary disorientation of room audio. I don’t know if people who have tried VR with the nauseating effects were using close-to-the-head audio, but if so it might be worth a shot to try it without earbuds or headphones and see if the conflicting messages to the brain can help smooth things out.
More Affordable VR Is On The Way
Last week Microsoft had a dog and pony show which I missed, but during that time period, I got wind of a product that Acer was working on. It apparently came up during Microsoft’s discussion of what they are calling “mixed reality”.
Regardless of the silly naming tricks, Microsoft is forging ahead in the VR/AR space. While the tech world was talking about Vive/Oculus, Microsoft was showing off their Hololens augmented reality glasses that overlaid computer output on top of what you normally see…basically creating “holograms”. When everyone who was going anywhere with this tech was going left, Microsoft was going right, and that seemed to garner some excitement and tentative good will. But the Vive and the Oculus had issues. First, they were expensive. The Vive is about $800, and the Oculus is now down to around $600. Second, you need a really beefy PC to use them: USB 3.0 or better, a top-of-the-line video card, enough RAM, and a beefy processor. For gamers, upgrading to this level on top of spending to get a VR headset would have put them well over the $2000 mark, and a lot of gamers don’t have or aren’t willing to spend that kind of cash on a nascent technology.
One of the best/worst things about Microsoft is their partners. Unlike Apple, Microsoft hasn’t really been in the business of creating their own hardware. They’ve traditionally worked with companies like Dell, Acer, and HP for the hardware while Microsoft created the software. It was this talk of the “mixed reality” brought Acer’s project to my attention.
Acer’s mixed reality bundle is basically a VR headset with two “wands”, which is really no different from what we get with the Vive or Oculus. It’s specs, however, are impressive: 350g, compared to 470g for the Vive and the Oculus, and 610g for the PSVR. From the images, it looks like the Acer VR headset has a lower profile than any of the existing headsets. Where it counts — resolution — the Acer is said to be sporting 1440×1440 resolution (per eye), which is a total of 2880×1440 compared to the Vive and Oculus’ 2160×1200. The PSVR resolution is only 960×180 per eye, for a total of 1920×1080. What really sounds attractive, though, are the reported minimum PC specs to use the Acer headset:
- Mobile i5 dual core with hyperthreading equivalent
- Integrated Intel HD 620 or better (DX12 capable) graphics
- 8GB of ram
- HDMI port that can pump out 2880×1440 at 60Hz, or better
- USB 3.0
- Bluetooth 4.0 for accessories.
Now, any gamer who has upgraded his or her system within the past…say 5 years, is probably going to clear these hurdles without breaking a sweat. USB 3.0 came around a while ago, and anyone interested in PC gaming is always going to be upgrading RAM and a better GPU ahead of most everything else to a point beyond what the minimum recommendations list here unless he or she is really on a tight budget. But let’s face it: an entry level GTX card is still going to be better than an integrated GPU.
Acer’s purported icing on the cake, though? Starting $399. The details about availability is very thin right now, with nothing more than a marketing blurb available on Acer’s site, but if that price holds and doesn’t represent a budget version of the device then what Acer has is the first of a second generation of VR headsets that seems to indicate that the technology is going to improve in performance, requirements, and price, which are three of the four areas where VR needs to improve in order to get more people on board.
The fourth, software, is going to be a more difficult hurdle but outside of Acer’s control. Devs who are developing for current VR will need to continue, while those who have been on the fence or who have scoffed at the technology will need to make a final decision as to which way they’re going to fall. One thing I was thinking of yesterday, though: I hope that we don’t see the continuation of the “walled garden” and techno-pissing matches that plague tablet and smartphone markets. Having worked a little bit with SteamVR I’ve seen how the software is designed to favor the Vive (natch) and Oculus. Being that Microsoft and Valve have a love-hate relationship, it would be some very sour grapes if Valve opted to ignore direct support of headsets like the Acer offering simply because it’s a Microsoft initiative.