As someone who lurvs technology, virtual reality has always been a Holy Grail. Of course, the end-game of being able to plug a cable directly into the brain to not just see a generated reality, but to experience it is a long ways away (a matter of when, not if) so in the meanwhile I thought I could subsist on the Oculus and the Vive.
On one side, there’s Rog Dolos who was lucky enough to score a Vive and has been providing a steady stream of personal experience accounts and insights into the current generation of VR experiences. Because I don’t have either a capable machine nor the money to pick up a Vive of my own, I’ve been living vicariously through Rog’s posts.
On the other side, Pete of Dragonchaser’s fame has been raising many good, common-sense concerns about the way we’re being asked to use VR. Specifically, how it’s encouraging an inadvertent anti-social experience which is not just difficult to share with other people around us, but puts us into a capsule which makes things really difficult for other people who might want to get our attention (without scaring the crap out of us).
Which is why Pete’s recent posting of a certain Facebook video really caught my attention and made me think that augmented reality might be the better option than virtual reality.
The benefits of AR were immediately obvious: you aren’t sequestering yourself in a closed environment, which means you can see your actual hands, can reach for items nearby, and can use different control schemes. It also makes you easier to get ahold of if someone needs your attention; they can just pop their head into your field of vision and talk with you.
The one downside that I can imagine, though, is that you’ll need to create a physical theater around yourself like the guy in this video has with the greenscreen. You’ll need at least a whole corner of the room, learn to hang a greenscreen and light it appropriately, and then learn to work with chroma replacement techniques to get your video to properly “project” onto the screen. I’ve tried using a greenscreen with normal video, and it’s as much an art as it is a science.
One thing I want to keep in mind is that the video above is perfect for seeing what the user is seeing, or at least what I think the user is seeing. With VR goggles, we external observers are limited to the dual fish-eye view, or a normal, flat representation as we watch the action on a standard monitor. We the observer don’t get the proper VR experience without the VR goggles, and a lot of the excitement of what we’re seeing is lost because of our “normal” experience. At least with the setup shown above, the AR experience translates well for external observers watching on another monitor. We see pretty much what we’d expect to see if we were in the user’s place. That makes me wonder if the video above was rendered specifically for the external viewer, or if that is exactly what the user sees. AR examples that we’ve been shown thus far have mostly been about CGI overlays in the “real world”, like robots busting through walls, or holographic Mincraft examples on a coffee table, and since I’ve not had the opportunity to use either VR or AR solutions, I’m not entirely sure what the limits are of an AR headset like Hololens.
After the announcement of the Oculus’s release date, I really got to thinking about VR. I assumed that the Oculus device would be big bucks, and I knew I didn’t have the machine specs to drive it anyway so my options at this point would be pretty limited. Like pretty much anything tech, there’s going to be items representing the high end, and there’ll be items representing cheap knock-offs that are designed to trick uneducated grandparents into buying them for their grand-kids at Christmas. Still, even if the kids end up getting an “ePad” under the tree next year, the ePad should be able to do something, right? Without the cash or the rig to run the Oculus, I figured that I’d have to start at the bottom, but not so much at the bottom that I’d be soured on the entire concept. I just needed to get a VR device that did something, even if it didn’t do everything that the Oculus did, or the way that the Oculus does it.
I’ve already written about the path I took to my budget VR solution, and yesterday my package was delivered. Behold! The [Insert Whatever Name You Want Here Because It Doesn’t Actually Have an Official Brand] VR Box! It looks like what we’ve come to expect from a VR headset: oblong in shape, it has three straps with a plastic stability panel at the back to wrap around your head to keep the padded visor squished against your face. Unlike the Oculus, though, it has a tray that slides out from the side and into which you squeeze your cellphone. Slide the tray back into the visor, and you’re in business.
Stand Alone Complex
When I took the headset out of the box, my daughter was in the kitchen with me and because she’s My Daughter she was excited to try it out as well. I downloaded a Google Cardboard app from the Play store — a roller-coaster simulator — and slid the phone into the tray.
I have to say, the effect was pretty decent. The graphics themselves weren’t stellar, and I didn’t get motion sick or feel freaked out by the sensation of being on a roller-coaster, but I could look around, up, and down thanks to gyroscope tracking, and there was at least some sense of 3D. I also downloaded a “tour of the solar system” which took full advantage of the motion sensors to let me examine Our Celestial Neighborhood as if I were Unicron pondering which planet to eat next. Because these are smartphone apps, neither was going to provide Crysis (or whatever the benchmark is for 2016) level visuals, so the expectations were tempered from the get go, and it was pretty acceptable based on what it was.
The downside to the slide-in tray design is that I have no control over the phone itself. Some of these cut-rate visors come with a Bluetooth remote that allows you to control a pointer on the screen, but this version doesn’t. The roller-coaster and solar system apps allowed me to use the motion of my head to move the pointer to the desired menu items where pausing on an option for a few seconds made the selection, and while the official Google Cardboard app had a ribbon menu that allowed me to select an option by moving my head, I couldn’t pause on it to make a selection. Bad form, Goog! Several Google Cardboard models features a button that can make selections, and I found it weird that this upscale molded plastic job doesn’t feature something similar.
Of course, the real reason I bought the thing was to try using Trinus, the client-server setup that allows us to stream PC visuals to the phone.
My first stop was — of course — Elite Dangerous, because it has Oculus and stereoscopic support right out the box. Trinus is very picky about how the apps it streams are played. In order to get the app to work with the game, I had to reduce the resolution of the game and run it windowed. That right there threw some of the visuals out of whack, so the stereoscopic view made the text very hard to read when coupled with the “barrel view” that I was receiving on the phone. Trinus also has a setting called Fake3D which supposedly turns a non-stereoscopic app into a dual-paneled VR marvel and is supposed to be used with apps that don’t have their own 3D mode. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get either the natural or Fake 3D modes to work with any kind of reliability. In the end, I had to play Elite Dangerous in an acceptable-aspect window and use Trinus’ lens calibration features to get the screen to flatten out and cover the viewport. At that point, things worked pretty well, except the head tracking was set incorrectly and was giving me a minor head wobble when I moved. Setting up gyroscopic tracking is a whole other can of worms I didn’t want to get into until I got the visuals working, but it seems fairly robust if you’re willing to jump through a lot of open source hoops and run some additional ancillary software. Visually, things were a bit darker than normal for a space sim, and this caused me to almost smash into another ship on my way into a station because he blended in with the background. I am certain that I could get this to work with the proper (read: a lot more) time to dedicate to A) learning the jargon being thrown around on forums regarding VR setups, and B) some tweaking of the game itself.
Next, I tried Mechwarrior Online, which doesn’t have native 3D quite yet. The option is there, but disabled and currently unsupported (or so I read). This would be a great game to use with VR, and after some lens calibration, I got it working quite nicely, although again, not with actual 3D. Some of the finer aspects of the screen were a bit fuzzy, but this is streaming visuals to a cell phone over WiFi so I can’t really complain. There was some conflict between the number keys used to fire weapons and the calibration options of the head tracking which made every shot fired kick me to the right or the left, but nothing that a serious investigative session couldn’t fix.
For $30 and about two hours of just playing around mostly to get the visuals acceptable enough to be able to read text, use menus, and not make myself vomit, I feel that the No-Name Brand VR Box 2.0 was a worthwhile investment. I don’t see myself using the VR Box for Cardboard smartphone apps, partly because they suck, and partly because I don’t have a way of controlling the phone while it’s installed in the visor. I could use it as a cool way to view photos taken using the camera’s funky 360 degree image feature, but that’s really only cool once before it becomes a PITA to take pictures that way.
I still want to work on mastering the Trinus application because I think I’m missing some key understanding of how to configure it to work best with applications. A game like Distance would be amazing with this setup, and I still want to try other apps like Guild Wars 2 and maybe some Call of Duty: Black Ops III streaming from the Xbox One. The caveat is that none of the apps I used were displaying in what I’d be comfortable calling 3D. At best, I felt like I was viewing a movie screen from about 2/3 of the way up the theater, which was pretty cool in it’s own right, but there has to be something I’m not understanding about VR and Trinus that I need to grasp in order to get the stereoscopic view working.
The biggest problem with VR is going to be brand independent, though: accessing physical controls. If playing with a joystick or a gamepad (or the custom controllers that work with the Oculus and Vive), then the controls are always going to be centralized and within reach. When you have to resort to using the keyboard, however, you’re going to have a very bad time. I had to place my fingers on WASD and my other hand on the mouse with the understanding that I could not move my hands away from those positions, but in MWO, for example, I also needed to recenter my torso (C and F keys), target an enemy (R), and fire weapons (1,2,3, etc). At one point I had to power up my ‘mech (P), and once I moved my left hand, I was totally discombobulated to the point where I had to peek out from under the visor to see where my fingers needed to be. Going forward, my plan is to fall back to the Razor Nostromo for my key clicking, because it presents a limited set of keys in a specific and easy-to-reach configuration.
The VR Box 2.0 can be a bit unwieldy on the face. When I needed to look out from underneath, I couldn’t rest it on my head like a pair of sunglasses because it’s too heavy to stay put. The foam is comfy, but after a while you understand that it’s not really foam, but rather some kind of plastic material that feels funny when you eventually peel it from your face. One of the best features that I didn’t expect from a cut-rate visor was that the lenses adjust independent of one another, so you can change the focal and interpupilary distance of each lens for the best focus and convergence. The 2.0 version of the VR Box has a cool feature that I’m not sure I’ll ever get to use: the front panel slides open to let you use your phone’s camera (assuming the phone’s camera is situated at one end of the phone’s body and it’s inserted into the visor properly) for augmented reality applications. Bring on Pokemon GO!
If you have an Android or iPhone (there are some limited stereoscopic apps for WinPho, but not official Cardboard because of Google’s political stance on Windows Phone), $30 for the VR Box 2.0 is a fair price for a nice distraction. Coupled with the Trinus, you might have some luck streaming PC games direct to your face for a while, but it won’t be a go-to setup for hardcore gaming even though Trinus performed like a champ in terms of framerate and even acceptable visuals. I managed to play with the setup for about two hours, but not two consecutive hours because I started to get a headache from having two lenses magnifying the LED screen so close to my face. I don’t know if watching a full length movie is a good idea with this thing on, or playing a marathon of World of Warcraft, but if you want to try out pseudo-3D, or to get the feeling that you’re playing on a 90″ TV, then this is a pretty good way to try out VR on a budget.
I was fortunate enough to be able to buy an LG G Watch R from a friend who was changing carriers and phones. Smartwatches have been on my radar for a while because I like technology, especially if it’s got both form and function. I had actually stopped wearing watches back in the mid 90’s when I worked at a liquor store, because reaching between glass bottles with a bulky growth on my arm tended to sweep bottles of expensive booze onto the tile floor, and no one would have been happy about that.
The watch does what you’d expect it to: connects to your smartphone (Galaxy S6 in my case) and gives you weather updates, notifications, and can run some apps pushed from the phone. For example, I can use Google Maps to navigate with turn-by-turn instructions delivered to the watch face. Not great for driving, but it’s a godsend when navigating an unfamiliar city and not looking like a tourist. I’ve come to rely on the watch more than the phone (the fact that the phone is still in the loop notwithstanding) because it’s just more convienient than having to dig into my pocket to tell the time or to see who’s sending me messages.
Like any watch, though, there’s also an element of presentation. The G Watch R isn’t as bulky as I thought it would be, and since the body of the watch is basic black with white markings around the bezel, the best way to get your fashionable bang for your buck is to switch out the watch faces.
There’s a good amount of nice faces you can download for free or for a nominal fee from the Google Play store via the Android Wear application (which handles the interface between the watch and phone), but I came across an app on the Store called Watchmaker. This is an app that runs on your Android device and allows you to create your own watch faces. Basically, a watch face is just layers of elements that are built up to create the display. In my Wildstar example that I posted on Twitter last night, the face is made up of an image of the planet Nexus, the Wildstar logo, the band of numbers, the tick marks, and hour and minute hands, all in that order. Watchmaker really has no requirements for coding knowledge (although it does allow you to script features in Lua), nor does it require a lot of intense graphical work. All of the elements in the face above are stock, downloaded from the Internet or made available from the Watchmaker element repository. You can tweak the layers in different ways for different effects. The Wildstar logo has a lower opacity setting, for example, in an attempt to reduce the “busy-ness” of the face. The number font was an option within Watchmaker, and it looked pretty “Nexian” to me. The hour and minute hand colors are also customizable. Although I didn’t include an image to illustrate it, the watch has a dimming feature, and in this case it just shows the tick marks and the faded Wildstar logo with the watch hands on a black background. Stylish!
Since last night, I’ve been thinking about other watch faces I could make. I’m not entirely pleased with this one, since I actually slapped it together while I was waiting for dinner to cook. I’m planning on maybe creating some racial representations for Wildstar, and also factional faces for The Secret World.
If you’ve got an Android powered smartwatch, check out Watchmaker. There’s a free and a premium version; I believe the free version allows you to use Watchmaker faces, while the premium version allows you to build them. If you would like to use the Wildstar face above, you can download it from the WatchAware website and import it through Watchmaker. The wiki says that faces can be made into APKs, but that requires a lot of hoops to jump through that I don’t have the time for at the moment. Maybe once I get several faces done, and am happy with them, I’ll see about setting up a Google Developer account with all that it entails.
The only real gaming I was able to do this weekend was a little bit of the Guild Wars 2 expansion beta, and some Skyforge.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns Beta Weekend
The GW2 beta was something I told myself I wouldn’t do because A) I trust Anet to work things out, as I haven’t personally had any issues with GW2 sans expansion, and B) I didn’t want to ruin anything for myself later. But I’m kind of glad that I did jump in because I’m sensing a trend either with Anet, or with my ability to comprehend what the heck is going on.
I created a revenant character at level 80, but didn’t like it in the least. Deleting that guy, I created a level 80 ranger so I could get a taste of what post-80 would be like for my main character. I started off in the Silverwastes, an area I generally like because of the capture and hold mechanics of the various camps out there, and plowed through the zone until I got to the actual start of the expansion content that started with the whole business of the defeat of the Pact army and the defection of a good chunk of the Sylvari.
The actual starting zone for the expansion is well documented in screenshots and videos, and I assume that if you’re at all interested in the HoT expac you’re familiar with the new jungle setting. This is where I started to get lost, much like how I was constantly being turned around in Dry Top even without the sandstorms going on. I ended up in the tree village of the Itzel. There we had to tackle several zone missions like collecting grubs to feed the starving population. Unfortunately, it was bugged (no pun intended) and we couldn’t get the system to register more than 2/5 baskets filled. I then managed to find my way back to the jungle floor and saw that zone chat was going on about needing more people up on top of a mesa, so I swung my way up there to find a group of folks trying to take down a compliment of Mordremoth’s larger minions. Unfortunately, the spawn would never stop and the progress wasn’t kicking over, so folks kind of drifted away from another buggy system.
Yes, it’s beta, so I was A-OK with these things not working. I was confused, though, by the zone, which is entirely the fault of my crappy sense of direction. I also wasn’t sure how the Mastery system worked until I parsed it from the chat window. Post level 80, any XP you earn doesn’t go towards your level, but goes towards a zone mastery. The “level 81” mastery you get in the first zone is the basic gliding. As you level up through that zone, you unlock other aspects. However, when you move to another zone, I believe you have to start over again to unlock those individual masteries. I didn’t even get my gliding in the course of the weekend, so I’m not sure if I’m misunderstanding the zone differences, but I was glad I understood it, and got the lay of the land (so much as I did) before the expansion actually launches.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with Skyforge this weekend, though, mainly because I was out of the house most of the time. I am now in the cycle of “log in to deal with minions”, collecting their spoils and sending them out on new missions. It’s kind of a waste of the Premium time, though; I’ve just not had the time to put into it.
Saturday was a really nice day so we took the kayaks out to the Nashua River. It’s a fairly slow-moving river with sparse population along the banks and a whole lot of algae and other aquatic plant life. We were out for maybe two hours, but came home with some injuries: sunburns, a strained tendon in my elbow from hoisting the kayaks to the roof of our van, and a dead cell phone.
Even though we were out on the water, I didn’t want to be incommunicado should something terrible happen so I had put my phone in a zip lock bag and stowed it in the sorta-sealed-but-not-really hatch on my boat. When we got back to shore, my daughter noticed that the bag had some water in it, and that my phone was pretty soaked. Later, I couldn’t get the device to stay active; it would reboot itself constantly. I put it in a bag of rice when I got home and left it there overnight, but when I checked on it the next morning…nothing.
After our usual Sunday breakfast meeting with my father, we headed to the AT&T store and sat around for about an hour until our number came up. I had already been eyeballing the Galaxy S6, and when I related the situation to our sales rep Erin, she suggested the “active” edition, which has built in drop proofing, waterproofing, and all that. I opted to go that route, only to be told they were out. So I opted for the standard S6, but they were out of the 32GB. I don’t store things on my phone, so the 64GB was just overkill, and the additional $100 was just making it worse. But my wife said that so long as I don’t try and upgrade my phone before this contract is up, we might as we do it since I’d be phoneless otherwise, and we just can abide by that.
Sunday was spent rebuilding my mobile footprint, which despite the providers attempting to make things easy, is really just a slog. Some of my purchased apps weren’t registering as having been purchased, so I had to push them to the device from the website. I had to go through the unfamiliar settings UI to find the various bells and whistles that needed to be turned on or off (supposedly the S6 has abysmal battery life out of the box anyway). I had to log in to various services. Worst of all, I had to cancel and re-subscribe to different authenticators. Thankfully I have my Battle.net restoration codes, and both Anet (for GW2) and Carbine (for Wildstar) got back to me within hours of my filing tickets to have the authenticators removed. HOURS. On a SUNDAY EVENING.
At this point I think I’m back to operating strength, so it’s just a matter of learning how much performance I can get out of this phone before I have to schedule charging time.
It seems the days of being tethered to your platform of choice directly are pretty much over.
The PC’s domineering distribution channel Steam has it’s in-home streaming option which requires you to have a Steam Machine* on the receiving end. Of course, you can also get a supported Nvidia card and it’s own set-top device to stream any** game to any other viewing rectangle of your choice.
The Playstation 4 has streaming to a limited number of devices. The Vita is one, although you have to contend with the remapping of the controller’s shoulder buttons to the back touch panel on the Vita, which is something you need to practice with. There’s also the PSTV, a slip of a box that can be hidden almost anywhere, sports the Vita’s UI, and can receive PS4’s signals.
Upcoming Windows 10 has XBox One streaming baked in. While Microsoft has gotten hammered in the past for tight coupling of products and services to their OS, I think this one is a real winner. The only problem is that you need to have a Windows 10 device connected to your viewing rectangle, so unless you invest in a dedicated box to hook up to your TV’s and monitors, you’ll be gaming on the couch (at the XB1) or at your desk (via Win 10).
However, in playing with the Windows 10 preview and streaming XB1 to the PC, I wondered what the options were for connecting devices to other TVs in my house. In essence, it’s not at all different from what you’d have to do for Steam’s In Home Streaming, since SteamOS can run on a PC. The PS4 streaming is a no-brainer: you just need to buy a bunch of PSTVs and connect them to the TVs in your home. But there might be a bit more work involved in streaming XB1 or Steam.
According to the FAQ on the subject, the destination device must have the following specs:
For best performance, we recommend that your Windows 10 PC have:
- At least 2 gigabytes of RAM
- 1.5-GHz CPU or faster
- Network connection to your home network:
- Best performance: Wired Ethernet connection
- Good performance: Wireless – 5-GHz 802.11 N or 802.11 AC wireless access point
- Limited performance: Wireless – 2.4-GHz 802.11 N or 802.11 AC wireless access point
My first choice was the Raspberry Pi 2. Microsoft has a Windows 10 “Internet of Things” (IoT) edition that will run on the Pi. The Pi itself doesn’t measure up to the “best performance” specs, which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t work, only that your performance might suffer. Upon investigation into Win 10 IoT, however, I learned that it’s not a “Windows 10” so much as it is the Windows 10 bedrock: the libraries and base OS, but no UI and therefor no features that would allow for streaming.
The next investigation lead me to the “PC on a stick”. These look a little more promising, such as the Intel version which features a 1.3Ghz ATOM processor, 2GB of RAM, built in wi-fi and Bluetooth, SDXC slot, USB 2 port, and 32 GB of onboard storage. The linked product comes pre-installed with Windows 8.1, which should qualify for a free upgrade to Windows 10. Other manufacturers are pumping out their own sticks with roughly similar specs:
While the specs on these aren’t a dead-match for the “best performance” recommendations for Xbox One streaming, they’re pretty close. With 32GB of on board space, and for those who support an SD card, you could even install Steam and have the device perform double duty Xbox One and Steam In Home Streaming. Of course, this is speculation based solely on the “on the box” specifications and requirements for the setup to perform; these sticks will not sport the best GPU, but it seems that both XB1 and Steam requires H.264 encoding and 1080p video support — which I believe these sticks do, though I’m not a hardware guy — so they just might work.
* “Steam Machine” meaning a machine running the dedicated SteamOS, or another system running Steam client (I believe)
** Not sure if there’s a laundry list of restrictions on the games you can stream via Nvidia’s “Shield” technology.