It’s been a while since I’ve covered anything in the VR and AR markets, so here’s a very quick catch-up on the main products I have been following on-and-off in these pages, and about which I’d been meaning to write about during October / November.
Oculus Rift: Touch and AWS
In October 2016, Oculus Rift opened the doors to pre-orders of the Touch, their hand controller system, due to start shipping on December 6th, 2016. The Touch price point is US $199.00 (approx. £189 / €187 / AU $265), which includes of Toybox, the multiplayer sandbox application designed specifically to show-off the controllers, and five Touch-ready game tiles.
Alongside of the Touch, Oculus announced additional Rift sensors would also be shipping on December 6th, 2016, at a price of US $79 (approx. £62.55 / €74.18 / AU $106.47), offering similar room-sized scanning capability as the HTC Vive. A new earbud system, designed to replace the earphones on the headset for a more immersive sound experience, was also made available for pre-order (again shipping on December 6th, at a cost of $49 (approx. £38.81 / €46 / AU $66).
As a rough-and-ready price comparison. The HTC Vive, which includes a headset with front-mounted “see-through” camera, two controllers and two room sensors for tracking) is prices at about US $800. The Oculus Rift (which ships with one sensor) + touch + and additional sensor comes to roughly US $877, with some recommending two additional sensors offer optimal scanning bringing that total to US $956. Obviously, the latter package also includes a hefty amount of additional software, including Toybox.
On November 10th 2016, Oculus VR confirmed they were lowering the minimum specification for hardware needed to run an Oculus VR experience comfortably, as a result of something called Asynchronous Spacewarp, or AWS. The announcement came with a long and involved description of what AWS is, which the press announcement summarised down to a TL;DR summary:
Oculus is releasing a new technology aimed at reducing system hardware requirements while maintaining content quality across a wider array of hardware. Asynchronous Spacewarp (ASW) is a frame-rate smoothing technique that almost halves the CPU/GPU time required to produce nearly the same output from the same content. Like Asynchronous Timewarp (ATW), ASW is automatic and enabled without any additional effort from developers.
In other words, and to summarise the summary, AWS allows VR experiences remain fluid to the eye by “making up” the “in-between” animation frames, reducing the demand of continued, heavy processing on the part of the CPU / GPU.
This is turn means that “lower end” systems can now in theory run VR experiences which incorporate AWS. Although it has to be said that “lower end” must be approached with something of a caveat: it reduces the GPU requirement from a minimum of a NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 and Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater to a NVIDIA GTX 960 / AMD Radeon RX 470 or greater and Intel i3-6100 / AMD FX4350 or greater – which some might consider a small move of the needle.
Finally, Oculus VR is working on an untethered version of the Rift headset, currently called Santa Cruz. It appeared in prototype form in October 2016, and includes a built-in processing system mounted with the headset, removing the need for it to be connected to a PC. Initial reports from those able to try the prototype were mixed, with several reporters noting their evaluations were carefully controlled, and that Oculus engineers were evasive when asked about the actual processing power and performance of the headset.
On November 11th, 2016, HTC announced pre-orders were open for a “tether-less” kit for the Vive headset, produced by TPCAST, a Vive X Accelerator invested company. The kit comprises a wireless relay unit and battery pack to power the headset, bot of which attach to the headset harness, removing the need to connect it to a PC via USB cables. In difference to claims that wireless is “unsuitable” for VR due to factors such as latency, TPCAST is said to have no “noticeable difference” when using it with a Vive headset when compared to using the headset tethered directly to a PC.
The wireless kit, which will ship in Q1 2017 was made available for pre-order on Friday, November 11th, at a cost of US $220, with priority given to those who could provide a valid Vive serial number with their order. The first batch sold out in just 18 minutes, and an additional batch may be made available on pre-order in December 2016.
CastAR, the augmented reality (AR) start-up is now aiming for a 2017 launch, and has undergone some significant changes since my last article on them in August 2015.
At that time, the company had just received some US $15 million in venture money from Playground Global, an investment fund run by Android creator Andy Rubin, and the company was gearing-up to start delivering initial kits to Kickstarter supporters who raised the initial US $1 million to get the company – then called Technical Illusions – off the ground. However, by December 2015, those plans had been hugely revised.
With the influx of finance, the company decided to shift gears towards a consumer product, and as a result not ship the initial developer kits to Kickstarter supporters. Instead, then CEO David Henkel-Wallace announced that all those who helped fund the company would receive their money back in full, and a free set of the consumer glasses once available in 2017.
By August 2016, Henkel-Wallace had departed the company, and it was announced that former LucasArts chief Darrell Rodriguez was taking over as CastAR’s CEO, with former Disney executive Steve Parkis as its president and chief operating officer.
Then, in September 2016 it was announced the company was opening a new mixed reality studio in Salt Lake City with talent recruited from the former developers of Disney’s Infinity toy-game franchise. This move was supplemented in November 2016 by the addition of the entire Eat Sleep Play development team, responsible for the Twisted Metal series and god of War, and allows CastAR to start developing a complete package: headsets, controllers (“wands” as CastAR call them), game surfaces and games.
For the launch, CastAR’s vision is for the package to be priced at a comparable level to console systems. “We’re about fun, and part of the fun experience is that we can serve a large demographic and it’s affordable,” company co-founder, Jeri Ellsworth said recently. “Our target is what you would consider paying for a console, not a $1,000 PC that you have to lug out to your living room. The vision is people get this, open the game board, hit the power button, it’ll be pre-loaded with games, and you will just play.”
Magic Leap remains the dark horse of the higher profile new “reality” technology companies. Few, outside of the company and those under very strict NDAs, have directly seen what the system will be capable of (or what it might look like) – although there have been a number of very high profile videos demonstrating the system’s capabilities in overlaying the real world with digital images in a mixed reality format.
Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the company, based in Floria, from raising $1.4 billion in capital from investors at this point, including Alibaba, Andreessen Horowitz, and Google, As I’ve previously reported, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO on the company’s board, and counts business colleagues Sir Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson as advisers.
Like the other major players in the VR / AR / MR field, Magic Leap is focusing attention in entertainment: games, films (several of the investors are from the film industry, such as Legendary Pictures, and Disney’s Lucasfilm is now a strategic partner) and television (particularly the immersive sharing of sporting events), but they’re also looking a much broader horizon: true mixed reality working environments, where virtual screens replace physical monitors and people can move effortlessly between “physical” and “virtual” information and displays.
The heart of the system is the “photonics chip”. It might look like a lens to you and me, but it is far more. It’s an optical system that creates the illusion of depth in such a way that your eyes focus far for far things, and near for near, and will converge or diverge at the correct distances. Those who have tried it say it creates a feeling of realism far beyond current VR systems.
Also, while Magic Leap projects virtual elements from a light source at the edge of the “chip” and reflects into the user’s eyes by the beam-splitting nano-ridges, those who have tried it say the resultant image that is again a step beyond anything which can be experienced with VR systems in terms of sheer realism and offer crisp, “real” experiences. So real, in fact that founder and CEO, Rony Abovitz, claims the company is thinking of rendering virtual people “a little brighter, a little hyper-real” to help “distinguish between what’s Magic Leap and what’s not.”
Nothing is really known about the Magic Leap headset, other than it is “lightweight”, and that – again as some of the few able to try things to date have reported – transitioning between using the system and the physical world is “as effortless as slipping off a pair of sunglasses”. Nor is the company revealing when it might debut a product, other than saying it will be “soonish”.
It may all sound smoke and mirrors, but with US $1.4 billion, a team of some 600 people, and the involvement of the likes of Lucasfilm, Magic Leap and its vision of Mixed Reality continue to be the most intriguing of the new technology start-up / “reality” formats sitting on the horizon.