VR and MR catch-up: March 2017

The Oculus CR-1 - US $100 drop in price, and US $100 reduction for Touch controllers

The Oculus CR-1 – US $100 drop in price, and US $100 reduction for Touch controllers

Here’s another rapid-fire update on the worlds of VR and MR as I’ve been able to track a few things.

Oculus Rift

Oculus VR has dropped the price of the Oculus Rift headset and the Oculus Touch controller by $100 each. At launch, the headset cost Us $599 and the controllers, released later and a crucial part of the system, were priced at US $199. The new pricing brings the price for both down to the US $598 mark – just US $100 more than the Playstation VR bundle, and makes the Rift headset much cheaper than its main rival – the HTC Vive.

“Cheaper” is of course a relative term. Despite work to allow the Rift operate with lower-specifications systems (see my last round-up), to get the fullest out of the system you still need a heft PC with a hefty price.

There is still no news on when the untethered version of the Rift, with the project name Santa Cruz, will be ready for consumers. The only major update is that when it does appear, it will be marketed via Oculus VR’s “lower end” mobile division.

Speaking at the announcement of the price drop, Oculus VR’s former CEO (now head of Desktop VR), Brendan Iribe, indicated that the company is focusing on the next generation of VR systems, which he defines as being “a very big leap from where we are today”. However, consumers are unlikely to see anything on this front for at least another two years.

On February 1st, the ZeniNax case against Facebook / Oculus drew to a close, with the plaintiff being awarded US $500 million in damages over alleged code theft. While Facebook is seeking to have the verdict set aside, on February 24th, ZeniMax filed an injunction seeking to block Oculus VR from using the disputed code in its products. The news came via several outlets at the time, including Ars Technica, which pointed out that the injunction probably won’t succeed, but that if it does, it could be massively disruptive to both Oculus and Samsung, as the code is also used in the Gear VR.

HTC Vive 2?

Rumours are circulating that HTC are working on the “Vive 2”, an improved version of their headset.  Details have been sketchy and a little confused; one early report from November 2016 suggested the “Vive 2” would be a wireless / WiFi system, but given this came out shortly before HTC and Vive X Accelerator company TPCAST announced a “tether-less” WiFi kit for the existing Vive, (see me last round-up, linked to above) that report many have been incorrect.

However, other sources have indicated that “Vive 2” is in development, but has not release date. It is also said to have the internal code-name of “Oasis”. Has someone at HTC been reading Ready Player One?

In the meantime, HTC aren’t cutting the Vive’s price – but they are offering a new finance plan to help purchase it. They’ve also announced two new accessories: a Deluxe Audio Strap and the Tracker. Both are priced at a “mere” US $99. The Deluxe Audio Strap is in fact a rigid, Oculus-style head mount for the headset, complete with headphones.

Vive's new rigid head mount for the display, complete with audio headphones. Your for US $99

Vive’s new rigid head mount for the display, complete with audio headphones. Yours for US $99

The Tracker, due to ship in Q2 2017, is essentially a sensor unit  which allows game and hardware developers to turn real-life props into virtual weapons / gaming pieces, from guns to swords, to bats and so on.  Once connected to a peripheral, it allows the Vive’s lighthouse sensors to detect and track it, enabling it to be visualised in-game.

Headset Sales

As has been widely reported, sales of VR headsets have been far slower than the early hype predicted. No surprises there in many respects. Currently, Sony’s Playstation VR system is the highest-selling – but that’s just about to hit the million units mark. Oculus Rift and Vive are some way behind, with 243,00 and 420,00 unit sales respectively at the end of 2016.

This plateauing of sales has led to some pundits almost writing-off VR. However, while it would seem likely VR will be a niche product when compared to the everyday potential of Augmented Reality / Mixed Reality (AR / MR), it’s worth remembering that consumer-centric VR is only at the first generation stage. It is hampered by cost and the need to be hooked into a high-specification PC. Over time, some of these aspects – especially cost – will come down, encouraging more widespread interest / adoption, especially in those markets outside of games where VR could have a real impact: education, training, simulation, design, architecture. So it is perhaps a little premature to be pointing at current sales figures and declaring VR a “fad” or similar.

Microsoft & Acer to Start Shipping First Windows Mixed Reality Dev Kit

The Acer Mixed Reality Headset and Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality developer edition

The Acer Mixed Reality Headset and Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality developer edition. Credit: Microsoft

On the subject of Mixed Reality, Microsoft has announced the first of its Windows-powered Mixed Reality development kit, produced in partnership with Acer. In all, Microsoft has currently signed deals with five hardware makers including Acer to help in the development of their Mixed Reality platform, which will be a core element of Windows 10.

Mixed reality is essentially a blending of AR and VR that can let you both bring real-world objects into a virtual space and render virtual objects in a real-world environment. For the new Windows 10-powered systems, this means utilising some of the technology found in the Microsoft HoloLens, but with some important differences.

Acer's headset (centre) is one of five being developed in support of Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality. The others will be supplied by Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo

Acer’s headset (centre) is one of five being developed in support of Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality. The others will be supplied by Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo

For one thing the new headsets are one tenth of the cost of the HoloLens development kit, at US $300. However, they rely on being tethered to a Windows 10 system – although not necessarily one as powerful as required by either the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. The headset  – and the others which will follow it – is also entirely opaque, rather than see-through like the HoloLens, although Acer’s features a “flip-up” front piece for a “real world” view. The new headsets also support a much wider field of view than the HoloLens.

The broad specifications for the devices – include Acer’s – are:

  • Two high-resolution liquid crystal displays at 1,440 x 1,440 pixels
  • A display refresh rate of up to 90 Hz (native)
  • Built-in audio out and microphone support through 3.5 mm jack
  • Single cable with HDMI 2.0 (display) and USB 3.0 (data) for connectivity
  • HoloLens-style  “inside-out” tracking using sensors and cameras on the device to determine a user’s position, rather than relying on external trackers to gather that information.

The purpose of the development kits is to allow developers – specifically games developers, as Microsoft see games as the primary market for the headsets – to start working with the new Windows Mixed Reality shell (formerly Windows Holographic), which will be available to Windows 10 users when the Windows 10 Creators Update. The overall goal for Windows Mixed Reality is to provide a consistent substrate for building apps that run in 3D virtual spaces, whether they’re displayed by headsets with transparent or with opaque visors.

So, does this mean that games for the Oculus and Vive will run on the new Windows headsets? Not exactly – although Microsoft will apparently be providing advice to developers on porting games and applications from other VR platforms. Instead, Microsoft is looking to build its own ecosystem which will encompass both VR-like opaque headsets like Acer’s, capable of mapping the physical world on to a virtual environment, and see-through headsets like the HoloLens, which pins a virtual environment onto the physical world.

There are already plans to provide compatible controllers to go with the headsets, with the emphasis that users will be able to mix-and-match hardware to suit their needs, rather than being locked-in to a single headset / controller supplier.

Further down the road, Microsoft plan to extend their Mixed Reality environment into the Xbox / Project Scorpio “4K-campable VR-ready” console arena.  With this initial headset system, it is already possible to stream traditional “flat screen” Xbox games to the headset and play them as if the headset is your own personal game theatre.

Magic Leap: Sexism and Misleading Marketing Lawsuit

Coming on the heels of The Information’s negative look at Magic Leap (see here for more), the company is now being sued by a former executive.

As reported by Forbes, the case has been brought by Tannen Campbell, Magic Leap’s former vice president of strategic marketing and brand identity. The primary matter is that of sexism in the workplace at Magic Leap, so of which appears to be corroborated by a third-party. It also points to the idea that the company is producing marketing material which doesn’t match the capabilities of its technology – something The Information pointed to in their piece.  So far, the company has refused to respond to media requests for comment on the lawsuit.

It’s not the first time the Magic Leap has been embroiled in lawsuits with former employees. In 2016, the company was sued by two former employees over wrongful termination – and counter-sued in return. Campbell’s lawsuit paints a particularly poor picture of the working environment at Magic Leap, from the top on down.

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