Yesterday was a Big Day for the Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) crowd, as Microsoft opened up the gates to the beta of their SteamVR Bridge. Now, I’m not well versed in this corner of the technological world, although I’m getting there, so I believe that Microsoft being Microsoft, they’re not just adopting someone else’s work. Rather, their “mixed reality” initiative is driving them down an alternative — but parallel — road to the SDKs used by the Vive and Oculus. In an ideal world, all WMR HMDs would simply work with SteamVR right out of the box. That is not the case, and rather than Valve assuming the burden of updating their core SDK to include WMR support, Microsoft is creating something that users will need to download and install in order to translate the inner workings of the WMR devices to something SteamVR can recognize. Or so I believe.
As such, what dropped yesterday isn’t 100% ready for prime time as no one can account for all of the VR offerings that need to be tested with the bridge in just a single day. In most cases, whenever the handheld controller is shown as part of the software, it’s invariably a Vive handheld controller that is shown. One of the issues this causes is that the buttons differ from the Vive to the WMR controller. SteamVR’s “menu” button is a click of the thumb-stick for the Vive and Oculus, while the WMR has a dedicated menu button that would be a more logical analogue. Naturally, we wouldn’t expect Valve to update SteamVR to handle these differences when offering the tutorial, and in the end, it’s a minor inconvenience to be accepted in exchange for access to the larger Steam library.
My first stop in testing out the bridge was, quite frankly, to get it working. Rumor had it that the SteamVR tutorial should start when I fire up the bridge alongside SteamVR, but I didn’t get that to happen until I brute forced it later on. So I went for the gusto and jumped back into the cockpit of my ASP Explorer for some quality Elite Dangerous VR time.
When starting SteamVR, you’re presented with a grid plane beneath you, and a grid dome above you. It’s non-descript, and I believe that there’s some way to layer on some visuals but I couldn’t get that to work. Elite fired up but was off-center from the physical orientation I needed in order to use my HOTAS. Facing is a problem with VR, I’ve noticed, and unlike the PSVR, there’s no obvious one-button-push method to recenter any view to your physical orientation. Time was short, so I ran with it since it wasn’t that off-center.
Sorry, not my screenshot. And not in VR.
It sounds like a broken record, but there is no way to describe the sensation of your brain being tricked into believing that your physical self is sitting in a cockpit of a spaceship. I left the hangar on the lift and was granted a panoramic view of the surface of the planet at which I’d last docked. But taking off was the butter on the bread. Not only was there full head tracking that allowed me to look around the cockpit and through all of the windows (in the ASPEx, there’s a lot of windows) but aligning with the gravity exit vector was slightly vertigo-inducing. I managed to make it to the nearest orbital station, and I was in awe at the relative size of the structure as I landed my ship on the designated pad. This really was the Holy Grail for space simulation junkies, without a doubt.
I tried Steam’s “Cliff House” edition which doesn’t seem to offer much. I could choose the furnishings from a menu and could jump around using teleport, but that was mostly about it. The odd thing is that because the SteamVR support for WMR’s is a bit of a hack, I had to load Cliff House for the WMR, then could enter SteamVR apps including the Steam House. A house within a house, in other words.
Next up: Subnautica, a beautiful game that I was terrified to try. I am a certified SCUBA diver, so being underwater doesn’t faze me much, but any diver is lying if he or she tells you that they have never experienced a moment of terror as they stare off into the murky haze of the ocean and envisions something horrific emerging. For some reason, this was my entire Subnautica experience, mainly because I’d encountered such creatures in previous play-throughs. It’s one thing to be startled by an aggressive creature the size of a school bus when you’re looking at it in 2D but in 3D? I dog-paddled around outside the sub for a bit and then decided that I needed to go make dinner. Quickly.
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Later, I tried Everspace because it’s something I own and has VR support. Everspace is a kind of rogue-like mixed with a bit of FTL and is presented as a space dogfighting sim. Basically, if you want a game that’ll both blow you away in VR and make you vomit, this fits the bill. The good news is that because the headset allows for head-tracking within the game it’s a lot easier to keep the guns on your targets as they whiz past. The bad news is that rapid movements such as those required by dogfighting with six degrees of freedom is going to seriously make you want to puke. I played through the first map but then had to stop because my head hurt and I was feeling dizzy.
Of course, after staring at deep space for the duration, taking the headset off was kind of a shock, as the lights were on in the basement. This made me question the suitability of VR for some games. While Elite Dangerous and Everspace are examples of games that will really bowl you over in VR, neither one is really suited for healthy long-term immersion, I think. Being in an enclosed space (the HMD’s facemask) with little to look at but the darkness of space, is like staring at a phone or tablet in a dark room for long periods of times — something experts say you should not do. I also want to blame the positioning of the HMD on my head, because due to the design of this particular device, the weight is resting on my forehead…which happened to be one of the locations that hurt, but which also happens to be the point right above my eyes where eyestrain tends to settle and cause issues.
There are a few other things I tried. I downloaded The Lab, which is Valve’s VR demo space, but I couldn’t get it working well with my control scheme. I managed to find a way — through the layers of Steam menus — to recenter the HMD’s view to my seated orientation (at least I think so). I spent a lot of time poking through settings, but several of them did nothing. I don’t know if that’s a case of the WMR Bridge not implementing that level of integration yet, or if I was just expecting one thing while getting none of it. There are a few other lower-tier experiences I want to try, like social spaces such as Sansar and AltspaceVR, or the recently released Rec Room. I hope those will be easier on the eyes, and less sickening in the process.
At this point, though, I am thinking that I’ll need to stagger my HMD use. I think that if such intense staring that games require is enhanced when using an HMD, then eyestrain is going to be a huge issue. I could play Elite for several hours with the monitor but was only able to kick around for about 30 minutes with the headset. I doubt I’ll even give Everspace another go since the issues after that were far more pronounced. I’d like to get some less-intense games in the mix though, just so I can have a wider swath of experiences to benchmark by.
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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.
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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 SPT enough 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.
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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.
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