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.
So, Player.me is a thing that exists. It’s another social posting place for gamers, like Anook and…eh…probably others. Whenever we (the Combat Wombat We) hear about these things we tend to sign up if for nothing else than to reserve our names, although we do tend to give the services a once-over to evaluate if the service has any benefit for us. We’re a flighty group, always looking for a Service of Best Fit, and at one point Player.me was a contender. We opted not to park there mainly because of…let’s call them “differences of attitude” with the kinds of clients the service was attracting.
Recently, though, there were rumblings from streaming powerhouse SplitMedia Labs, makers of XSplit streaming software, about Player.me. Turns out SML acquired the service and had an ace up its sleeve: the service was creating an online stream overlay creator, creatively called Create. Using entirely web-based tools, streamers can upload images, videos, and audio to create the sexy overlays that all the serious streamers use. Because Player.me is service agnostic, it can pull data from Twitch, Mixer, and possibly others now and over time. And because Player.me is now owned by SML, there’s a hint of XSplit integration in the way PME Create can help manage your video feeds from XSplit. Once the overlay has been created, you add it as a source in your streaming app (XSplit or OBS) as a web source, and away you go!
The Wombats have been working with Create since yesterday, and we’ve discovered a lot of features beyond what’s available in the tutorial, so I might do a stream this afternoon to talk about the service. I’ll probably re-create my XSplit-based overlay in Create, just so we can test how the service works and what it can do for us.
The event that no one has been waiting for: I pulled the trigger on the Samsung Odyssey head mounted display this morning. So far it’s the best spec’d HMD on the market, despite not being on the market until November 6th (planned, at least, barring unforeseen Samsung-specific debacles), so I pumped up the shipping to Superman Delivery, because…
Yes, we’re hosting another LAN Party, LANronomicon 2017, on November 11th. After the last event I swore I wouldn’t host another. I don’t mind doing the work of cleaning the house, washing the floors, and so on; that stuff doesn’t get done enough in my house, to be honest, and this is a great excuse. I’m not sure why I didn’t want to host another event because I enjoy them and the company. Maybe it’s because we also drink a lot and at my age, that’s not as satisfying as it used to be, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it.
I hope to have the HMD in time for the party, but knowing how these things work I wouldn’t be surprised if the delivery was delayed, or if the “shipping date” is when they optimistically start but isn’t when they get around to boxing and shipping mine.
Samsung has thrown its hat — head mounted display — into the virtual ring. Starting on October 6th we’ll be able to order their new Windows-compatible “mixed reality” device with controllers for $499, putting it on the same price-footing as the technology’s recent forerunner, the Oculus Rift.
There’s a lot of HMDs hitting the streets these days, from Acer, Dell, and HP to name a few, all which are lining up behind Microsoft’s MR nomenclature, and all with lower system requirements, higher resolution, and lower prices than the flagship HTC Vive. The Samsung Odyssey HMD above will be displaying at 1440×1600 per OLED eye screen, with a 110-degree field of view. The other recent HMDs are displaying at 1440×1440 with a 95-degree field of view, according to an article on The Verge. The Oculus and Vive displays are only 1080×1200 each and have the 110-degree field of vision. In addition, the Odyssey, like the second gen HMDs, do not use external “lighthouses” or markers that need to be placed around the room, and instead, rely on internal tracking in order to help orient the user in real space which makes these HMDs far more portable than their first gen counterparts.
I’ve been really on the fence about PC VR. Prior to now, I would have preferred the Vive mainly because of its tight association with Valve, and because of the BS surrounding the Oculus. However, the price was always going to be a sticking point, even after I upgraded my PC to be able to handle the technical needs of either device. Being as these two devices were “first gen”, only having two options, and the admittedly lackluster software available made it relatively easy to pass up knowing that if VR caught on in any way, there would be another wave of devices that were easier on the requirements, easier on the wallet, and that there would hopefully more reasons to have a VR device.
Mainly it’s been the reasons, though. The PSVR is pretty good; better than the Samsung Gear or anything requiring a cell phone to handle the duties of a binocular display if we want to create a hierarchy. Thing is, I don’t really use the PSVR very much, and I can’t decide if it’s that I’m not using the PSVR, or that I’m not using the PS4. I suspect that it’s the latter because if I could get myself to sit down for the console, I could easily use the headset. In looking at what’s available for the PC, the offerings are of an order of magnitude more plentiful, although a lot of the software is still “game jam” level quality and barely above the fidelity that we had during the Lawnmower Man era of VR. There’s promise — always promise — in projects like Sansar from Linden Labs, makers of Second Life, which places Sansar in exactly the right place for wider VR adoption. Microsoft recently acquired AltspaceVR which is already pumping out shared VR spaces. Although both Altspace and Sansar are bringing the stereotypical VR experiences that we envision when we hear “virtual reality”, they’re also going to have to deal with the Brave New World of a more physical sensation in an era where 4chan exists, something that visionary Raph Koster is already talking about. That’s not appealing, but it’s something we must confront and deal with if we want to have these Nice Things.
I have two days from the posting of this article to consider my options in regards to the Odyssey if I want to get in on the pre-order bandwagon before the first round is sold out. As someone who loves technology, the thought of VR and MR is exciting as hell. From a practical standpoint, though, I’m not entirely sure that it’s worthwhile, and that bothers me. No, I’m not looking for something to throw money at, but I also don’t want to see a technology dismissed — again — prematurely. I want VR to do well, and I feel that supporting it when it needs it the most is a good way to show that, but I also have enough pricey tech gathering dust and I don’t need to add to that pile.