VR: A lot more fun than VD!
Gaming’s next big technological evolution is nearly upon us! VR claims to give gamers a level of immersion that has never been achieved before. But don’t be fooled, these aren’t the 3d headsets that have existed in the past. The technology that is enabling these devices simply hasn’t existed until the last few years. High resolution, yet small screens and very accurate motion sensors.
So, just like any other burgeoning technology, there’s several very large competing companies releasing their own products. Right now, we’re looking at 3 major competitors (plus one that’s a bit different..but we’ll get to it later). Valve/HTC Vive, Facebook and it’s Oculus Rift, and Sony’s Playstation VR.
The Rift is the reason we’re talking about this. It’s a beautiful piece of garage engineering that kickstarted the idea of usable VR. It was originally designed using 2 HD cell phone screens and some motion sensors wired together in a makeshift headset. The original kickstarter was over 3 years ago now. Since then, they’ve been bought out by Facebook (to the tune of $2 billion.) There’s really not a whole lot to say about the Rift, other than “it works.” Pretty much everyone that’s tried it (with special exceptions) has said it works great.
The Rift is now up for preorder to the tune of $600, with a shipping date of 3/28 for the initial batch. However, that doesn’t come with the motion controllers (which are not mandatory, they just add additional immersion.) The price for the controllers has not yet been announced, but preordering the Rift gets you on a waiting list for the controllers for when they’re released. With the Rift, you get 2 free Rift enabled games; EVE:Valkyrie and Lucky’s Tale
EVE:Valkyrie is a space combat simulator set in the universe of the huge MMO, EVE Online. However, instead of piloting around massive battleships and cruisers, you’re flying in the fast and nimble fighters, zipping around the large scale battles. Unfortunately, this is a stand alone version of EVE. The game is not connected at all to the MMO. Maybe some day you’ll be able to zip around your buddie’s Titan class warship, while flying a small scale fighter,…but not yet.
Lucky’s Tale is a 3d platformer that lets you view the game space in VR. You’re able to look at the world from any angle and adjust your view simply by moving around. You play as a creature that (to me) looks very similar to Tales from the Sonic games.
The Vive is a joint project between Valve and HTC, and the big competitor to the Rift. From design to controls, it’s also very similar to the Rift. However, it has a couple of features that set it apart.
First, it comes with 2 wireless infrared sensors that you have to mount in whatever room you’ll be playing in. If you look at the headset, you’ll notice a dozen or so dimples all over it. These are all infrared lasers. They’re also present on the motion controllers. With these, you’re able to actually get up and walk around in whatever space you’re playing in, and have it represented in game. The sensors will track the headset and controllers, and replicate your movement in real time. This allows you to have a 15’x15′ space to get up and move around in.
I know what you’re worried about. Getting up and walking around while wearing a big headset that blocks your vision sounds…dangerous. HTC already thought about this. Along side all the infrared lasers, there’s also a front mounted camera. Using this camera, the Vive will give you a faint overlay of your surroundings if you get too close to bumping into something, or approaching the edge of your play space.
As of now, there’s not really any release date or pricing information available. Most are expecting it to be priced similarly with the Rift, so I wouldn’t expect it to beat the pricing by much. All that I really expect is for it to come with the motion controllers and to maybe marginally beat out the combined price of the Rift and it’s controllers.
This is the VR entry from Sony, designed to be used with the Playstation 4. As such, it also requires the new Playstation camera addon. As for motion controllers, Sony is using their existing Playstation Move motion controllers. It’s good that they’re using established hardware, to save on cost both on their part and the 5 of us that actually have PS Move hardware still laying around.
The big difference with the Playstation headset is the screen. The Rift and Vive are both using 2160×1200 resolution displays. However, since the PS4 only really does 1080p, the headset is limited to that. The benefit being that framerates could hit 120FPS and provide a much smoother experience than a similar VR game on the Vive/Rift.
Current rumors have the Playstation VR coming out sometime this summer, and so far, it looks like it could be considerably cheaper than the Rift and Vive. Early estimates are suggesting $1-200 cheaper than it’s competitors. And, if it’s true that Sony will leverage their existing Playstation Camera and Move hardware, that’s even bigger savings. I frequently see the camera on sale for $30-40, and the Move controllers have frequently been in clearance sections of your favorite retailers. Who knows, these things may come bundled in with the headset though.
Here’s where things get a bit different. This isn’t a VR headset, technically. It’s more an Augmented Reality headset. The Hololens uses projected images inside a transparent headset (similar in concept to how Google Glass worked), to create the appearance of computer images that are part of your normal environment. I could try to explain the nuances of the augmented reality experience they’re delivering, but Microsoft has done an amazing job with a couple of demonstrations of HoloLens at the major conferences. I refer you to exhibits A, B and C:
The one complaint that I’ve heard from several sources is that the field of view isn’t very good for the “holograms” (their term, not mine). You pretty much have to be looking at them almost straight on. But the device is still in development, so that could improve. On the flip side, one great thing that it’s doing is ditching the wires. With the Hololens, you’re untethered and able to move around. All the image processing is done in the headset itself, so you may not get the most advanced “holograms”, but you can at least not have to worry about tripping over all the cords.
As for release information, there really isn’t any. The only information we have right now is that Microsoft has released developer kits of the hardware for a pretty penny ($3000). I’m assuming/praying this is designed to keep it limited to actual developers, and not Frank, who lives in his mom’s basement and does some coding on the side.
This is where things can get expensive (aside from the already pricy headsets themselves). The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both require pretty powerful PCs in order to be able to render at a reasonable framerate. The Framerate is very important to the experience. Even more so than when playing on your monitor. You need that 60FPS to get the true immersive feel, otherwise you’ll get pulled out of the experience, or even potentially feel uneasy from the stuttering.
That being said, if your PC couldn’t reasonably play the game at 4k resolutions (that’s 3840×2160) then you probably can’t run the game in VR. Oculus has released recommended computer specs, and you can expect the Vive to require essentially the same. This is where things will probably get fairly expensive for most people. I Just built my PC within the last year or so, and it barely meets the requirements for this. I’m probably going to have to upgrade my video card at least.
Video Card NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD R9 290 equivalent or greater
CPU Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
Memory 8GB+ RAM
Video Output Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
USB Ports 3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port
OS Windows 7 SP1 64 bit or newer
They offer a tool that you can download to test and see if your hardware is up to snuff. You can find it here:
The good(ish) news is that you can buy a discounted bundle that includes a VR ready PC and the headset all at once, and save a couple hundred dollars. For the Playstation VR headset, you need a PS4, the Playstation camera, and a controller or motion controls. That could be comparitively cheaper for some folks that already have a Playstation. For the Hololens…well, it doesn’t sound like you need much other than the headset itself.
Here’s the rub. Not everyone is able to enjoy VR. And I don’t just mean the people who don’t care about the tech or have no interest in it. There’s a condition called Stereo Blindness that affects a small percentage of the population. If you have this condition, you will not be able to enjoy VR as your eyes cannot focus properly on the images in front of you. A buddy of mine had tried an Oculus Rift development kit and hated it. Said it made him super nauseous. He researched more into it, and using a test, confirmed that he has stereo blindness. So before you get all hot and bothered about the possibility of VR, do yourself a favor and take one of these little self tests that I’ve linked below.
Wikipedia information about Stereo Blindness: