A tale of two cities…if by “cities” we mean “VR experiences”.
On one shore, we have the high-end solutions like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Microsoft’s third-party HMDs. These devices are the forerunners of the 21st century VR push, with high-resolution displays requiring beefy PCs to run. While users can enjoy six degrees of freedom (6DoF), it comes at the price of being tethered to a desktop or high-end laptop.
On the other shore, the lower-end solutions like Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR. These offerings require that you have a compatible smartphone that you insert into a face-mounted frame. Most of the input for these devices is handled by a small remote control, although you can find bargain-bin headsets on Amazon that will hold your phone and offer a mediocre but passable VR experience.
While the tech sites have been focusing mostly on the higher-end devices and the promises they’ve been making for the future of VR, it’s the lower end solutions that have had the most wiggle room. Enter the HTC Vive Focus, and the Oculus Go.
These two devices are either the natural evolution of smartphone-based VR or a head-smackingly obvious answer to what seemed to be a hack: instead of relying on a headset that works with the phone you have, why not just build the processing into the headset itself? Not only does this give you the same (or, ideally, better) experience that you get with the phone VR, it’s 100% portable and smaller than their higher-powered cousins. While the HTC Vive Focus is going to be launching first in China in order to serve the exploding Chinese VR market, the Oculus Go is set to launch elsewhere sometime in 2018 for around $199.
I’ve tried phone-based VR, and it worked well, although I only had a cheap headset with no Bluetooth support. The biggest issue with these phone-holder headsets is that unless the set is designed specifically for the model of phone you have, you’re going to be fitting a square peg in an octagonal hole; yes, it will probably fit, but you won’t get the best experience possible. Another issue was device heat. Pushing pixels required for VR on a smartphone is no simple task, and doing so makes the phone incredibly hot. And although phone VR can offer some engaging experiences, I say that only because I expect that it can, not that I actually experienced anything mind-blowing. There were only so many roller-coaster simulators I could stand. But this is the same issue the higher-end VR headsets have: feeling-out content as devs come to grips with the limits of the tech, and what consumers are willing and able to consume.
I like this step, though. $199 is, as stated, almost an “impulse buy”. According to the articles linked above, John Carmack believes that the phone-based VR will continue to dominate this level mainly because everyone already has a smartphone, and that means docking headsets can be offered for so much cheaper. My Google Pixel has Daydream pre-installed, although I don’t have a headset that can take advantage of it. As the tech improves (as is always the caveat), then the experience can improve, and so while we will certainly continue to improve on the high-end devices, it may be these lower-end, self-contained headsets that make VR palatable for the masses in the end.
I am struggling hard with two questions regarding VR.
First: Why I like it. I spent a good chunk of this weekend with the Odyssey. I played Space Pirate Trainer and realized how out of shape I am. I was astounded by the puzzle game FORM. I shrugged my way through Halo Recruit. I ended the weekend by preparing for this week’s beta release of SteamVR support by looking through the VR games on that platform and wishlisting the ones I felt might be worth looking into. At the end of the day, though, the catalog seems rather lacking.
Second: Why I should recommend VR to someone who is otherwise on the fence about it. I dislike being put into this position, as it amounts to being asked to justify someone else’s spending. Really, I cannot recommend VR to someone who is ambivalent about it, just as I can’t recommend a movie, TV show, or beer to someone based on my preferences alone…especially in this case, where I cannot even explain my own interest to my satisfaction.
This leaves me in an uncomfortable space. I’ve spent money on something I’m not sure I have an ongoing use for and am constantly reminded by this whenever I see someone shrug their shoulders when talking about VR.
So I started thinking about what VR does, what it does well, and what it falls down on, and how this relates to me and to those around me. I think I might have a foundation excuse.
VR adds depth to our experiences. Literal depth. When you see an object pointed at you, it really looks like it’s pointed at you. I watched my daughter move around the room playing FORM as she navigated a puzzle from different points of view as if there were a physical object in the room. That is primarily what VR offers.
What VR does well is telepresence, or putting yourself somewhere else. We accept that “we are the character” in first person shooters or games like Skyrim, but we don’t have (or apparently need) that full-on suspension of disbelief because we are stopped at the bounds of a 2D monitor. With VR, however, we gain depth, so that tower on the hill literally is a tower, on a hill, in the distance, and not just a graphical trick to make it seem like it’s tall and far away. We can become the character in the game right up to the point where we feel our environments (which is another hard stop to complete immersion, but I’m not in the market for feeling the stabbing of a dagger, thank you very much), and in doing so we trick our brains into believing that the virtual is more real than we’re able to do when we’re limited to a 2D screen.
What VR falls down on is bridging the gap between, say, Skyrim and what can currently be done with the technology. Yes, Skyrim VR releases this week, which is exciting, but that’s an outlier despite having had 40 years of technological improvement that brought us to the “pinnacle” of immersive gaming like Fallout 4, GTA V and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Most of what is currently available on VR equates to sensory toys for toddlers: levers, buttons, and sliders that are included because there’s something satisfying about pulling levers, pushing buttons, and sliding sliders with reality-based movement translated into a virtual environment. This works well in puzzle games, and only then in moderation, but has limited application in actual “games”.
How does all of this relate to me and others? For me, I’m excited about the telepresence aspect. Having an actual (virtual) sense of scale in situations where graphical trickery had traditionally been employed to impart the same feeling is mind-blowing — even frightening. Gaming has become a zero-sum scenario for a huge number of people, boiling down the more fantastic elements to minimizing risk of failure through memorization of strategies and guides, and thus removing the actual “experience” of the experience. With VR, you can’t help but get those feels no matter how much prep work you do, and that’s exciting.
While I can’t speak for everyone, I get the feeling that a lot of the people who are on the fence about VR, or who are dismissing it entirely, are looking for a continuation of the 40 year trajectory that we’ve enjoyed. What they see are experiences that aren’t really games, don’t pick up where our top of the line games left off, and therefor don’t evolve the gaming experience beyond what satisfies them on a 2D screen. Paying for promise is something that “early access” and Kickstarters have asked us to believe in, and there’s practically no one out there who hasn’t been sufficiently burned through those avenues to the point where paying for promise is no longer worth the risk.
I’ve heard people (developers) say that VR is a new paradigm entirely and that it requires a whole new way of thinking about how games are designed. If function follows form, that means that developers must adapt existing games to “fit” into VR, or they have to come up with totally new game modes that are natively suited to VR. Space Pirate Trainer is a good example of a game that is designed well for VR, but which wouldn’t fare so well with any other environment (except, sadly, mobile). Is SPTenough of a game to make someone decide to buy a HMD? I can’t imagine so, and simply copying the SPT template of carnival shooter fills up the marketplace well enough, but only with derivatives of a mediocre experience. If designing for VR means that developers strike out away from what gamers are currently satisfied with, it’s going to be an up-hill battle for VR (again). Gamers — like many developers — are risk-averse and aren’t known to take chances that move them away from what they feel comfortable with.
Today (yesterday) is the day, folks! For the two of you in this 5000 seat arena, settle back and feast your eyes…on this!
There it is…the Samsung Odyssey HMD, the highest resolution HMD on the market today. Overall, the thing is lighter in the hand than one might expect from something that’s packing two tiny screens and sensor hardware. There’s about a 6-foot long cord attached to the HMD which terminates in a USB 3.0 and HDMI plug, so you need both of those ports in order for the thing to work. Of course, my luck was that my secondary monitor uses that HDMI port, meaning I have to dive under the desk to unplug the monitor when I hook this thing up.
The package also comes with two controllers. Each controller sports a trigger, touchpad, D-stick, a menu button, and a Windows button. The little dots around the cups light up and are used in tracking.
Speaking of tracking, you might notice there are two outward facing sensors on the front panel of the device (just one is shown in the photo below).
Those are the “inside out” sensors. I suspect these work very much like the Kinect, shooting infrared beams all over the room and tracking depth, and certainly tracking the location of the illuminated controllers.
One of the cool features of this headset over others from Dell, HP, and Acer is the built-in earphones.
They don’t cover the ears entirely — or don’t cover my ears entirely — but there’s no issue with poor audio if you can’t get them on like proper earmuffs. The sound is good. There’s even a built-in microphone that allows you to use voice commands, so you don’t even need to use the controllers (or Xbox gamepad, or even keyboard and mouse) if you don’t want to.
Inside the device, you have the two lenses. The nose-guard is a flexible flap that serves to block light through that avenue. The padding around the faceplate is nice and comfy, as is the padded headrest. Because this is a headband style device, all of the weight of the device sits on your forehead, and although the HMD is surprisingly light in the hands, on your face it can be uncomfortable on the head and on the neck if worn for an extended period of time.
As I wear glasses, it’s always a question of whether or not I must wear glasses, and if I must, how well will the HMD fit. The good news is that even with my hipster-style glasses, the HMD works, although the official manual says (and I quote): “Do not put on the HMD when you are wearing glasses. If you need corrective lenses, it is recommended that you wear contact lenses…” Believe me, Sammy, I would if I could, but I can’t, so I won’t. The problem, however, is that even without the glasses on, the faceplate of the HMD doesn’t actually rest on the face. The PSVR at least has some kind of gentle seal around the face, but unless I’m missing some mechanical setting somewhere, the Odyssey does not move inward towards the face enough. You can pull the mask outwards a bit on a spring in order to adjust it, but when it snaps back there’s still a good amount of open air at the bottom of the mask. Maybe it’s that there’s too much padding up front. Maybe my head is just too damned big.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the actual experience with the Odyssey, at least as far as I’m able to take at the current moment.
This past weekend was the official Extra Life streaming marathon. Overall, the Combat Wombat team did very well, bringing in 3/4 of our goal! GO GO WOMBATS! Personally, I didn’t help much. I get most of my donations through my wife’s co-workers, but there was a conflicting family fund-raiser for our daughter circulating at the same time. I also didn’t send out my customary emails to friends and family. Still, I brought in a little more than 1/5th of my goal. I’m considering asking for donations from family in lieu of Christmas gifts this year.
Also, thank you to those who donated, both to me, and to all of the other participants!
My first four hours of the stream on Saturday was Destiny 2. I “finished” Titan’s story zone and was pushed to Io, where I did enough to unlock the social zone there. I also made it to level 20 thanks to the public events. Destiny 2 can get kind of crazy, but during those four hours, I think I died just once, during a public event, despite some of the seemingly overwhelming numbers of enemies in some of those story areas (namely the Fallen on Io that just keep zipping around). So I got my sparrow(s), unlocked a whole lot of weapons, shaders, et al., and will keep on keeping on with the story.
Folks in the clan are talking about raiding and nightfalls, but I don’t think I’ll be down for either of those. I like Destiny 2 OK, but I’m liking it as a solo experience right now. Moving outside of the story arcs means paying attention and formulating plans and all that, and I really don’t think I’m down for that level of engagement with this game. I expect that I’ll finish the story with this character, and then put the game to bed. I’ll have to evaluate DLC when it comes, but right now I’m not sure that’s on my radar.
After taking a few breaks from the stream, I came back with RimWorld because if there’s a game that’s fun to watch, this is it. The reason is because it’s random: you either get the fates to smile upon you, or you get the fates to kick you to the curb.
Luckily after having watched Stargrace play for several hours, I’ve learned a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to RimWorld. I also set the game to have fewer “interruptions” in the form of disasters and raiders. My colonists are pretty good — no one has died yet, knock on wood — and we’ve expanded the base to about as large as we need it currently. Once we unlock more research stations I’m going to need to open up some new areas.
I’m currently playing without mods, although I’d like to see if there’s a mod that can teach skills or improve skills of colonists. I know part of the game is to do more with less, but it’d be nice to be able to have the “more” mean “have one colonist teach another so we can have fewer idle people and more productivity”.
Today is the day! A proclamation that falls on deaf ears, apparently. I think I’m one of a mere handful of people I know who is excited about VR; for everyone else, it’s a write-off.
I’m still not entirely sure what or why. What, as in “what the hell am I going to use this for”, or why, as in “in light of the question of what, why?” I expect that I’ll pick up something like Space Pirate Trainer to have because the Steam VR integration for Microsoft Mixed Reality devices isn’t quite there yet. I’m hoping that maybe Elite Dangerous‘ native VR mode can work, although I’m not holding my breath quite yet. There’s a few other apps on the Microsoft Store that I might try.
I’m of the mind that anything can be successful if you help it to be, and since I’d like to see VR be successful, I’ll help it. Sadly, I don’t think too many other people care, for various reasons.