Category Archives: AR and VR

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.

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Magic Leap: DOA, over-hyped or still possible?

Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype

Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype. Credit: Wired.

Magic Leap has been the most controversial company in the emerging market of new VR, AR and MR technologies. Super-secretive but boasting an influx of US $1.4 billion in capital from leading technical and entertainments companies  – including Google – it has drawn a lot of attention, despite almost nothing of its technology being generally revealed.

Magic Leap promises a headset system which will be as easy to wear and remove as a pair of glass – but crucially, and despite several years of development work , has not revealed anything of what this headset might look like beyond various patent filings. In the meantime, the company has continued to release astonishing videos of their product’s apparent capabilities. Some of these were undeniably special effects enhanced pieces – but it now appears that this might be the case with more of the videos than the company were actually willing to let on.

In particular, on December 8th, the paywalled site The Information published a report on Magic Leap indicating that at least one of the more recent videos – that of office workers playing a shoot-’em-up game which was stated as being filmed using Magic Leap’s own technology was actually enhanced by Magic Leap partner, Weta Workshop (Weta’s head, Sir Richard Taylor, was an early investor in the company, and his business partner, director Peter Jackson, is an advisor). This has led to questions being raised over just how genuine Magic Leap is, and how real their product might in fact be.

The Verge summarises the report from The Information, pointing to the less-than-honest video and making mention of Magic Leap’s massive test rig, called The Beast, and the fact that as yet, the company hasn’t moved beyond a tethered headset style device which is claimed to give an inferior result when compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens. This has prompted others to question whether Magic Leap is dead – or potentially could be DOA, given it appears to lag behind what might be somewhat comparable products such as the HoloLens.

Magic Leap haven't been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired

Magic Leap haven’t been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired

As it is, the report from The Information stands sharply at odds with those from the likes of Wired, where Peter Yang from Wired spent time with Magic Leap back in April 2016, using that experience to tell The Untold Story of Magic Leap. Then, shortly ahead of The Information’s piece, and at the end of November, Forbes’ David Ewalt sat down with Magic Leap’s founder, Romy Abovitz. Like The Information’s Reed Albergotti, both Yang and Ewalt reference the fact that Magic leap utilises a headset rather than “glasses”, but that’s about all their articles have in common with Albergotti’s view. So where does that leave us?

First off, scepticism is healthy. There are many promises being made around VR / AR and MR, many of which could well be a mix of hype, hope and wishful endeavour. WE also have little ide just what reporters are being shown – and there is no denying Abovitz enjoys his role as unconventional showman.

Even so, it’s hard to see Magic Leap as purely being smoke and mirrors and flimflam; Abovitz has a track record of innovation and product delivery – he sold his medical robotic company for US $1.7 billion in 2009. Magic Leap has also made no secret of being in things for a long haul, developing a new paradigm in computing, while Albergotti acknowledges the company is now working towards a pair of glasses type of headset, albeit with different technology for their earlier work. Thus, writing them off entirely could be a premature.

A final point is that the company has never gone beyond saying a consumer product will be appearing “soonish”. Ewalt, writing for Forbes, estimates Magic Leap has perhaps another 18 months to go before a consumer launch. That’s a long time, given the HoloLens and Meta’s offerings will be out will before then. but the latter two are liable to have price tags of US $1,000 or more. If this is the case, are they really liable to corner the market, particularly if Magic Leap comes up with a product as user-friendly (and potentially superior) as Peter Yang at Wired feels will be the case – and at a lower price point, even if it is based on technology other than the hyped “Digital Lightfield™”?

The only thing we perhaps can say as a result of this is the hype trains – positive and negative – on what VR / AR / MR might or might not deliver will likely continue to rumble forward for a while yet.

With thanks to Roblem VR

VR and AR catch-up

Oculus Touch: shipping December 6yh, price: US $199.00

Oculus Touch: shipping December 6th, price: US $199.00

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).

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift

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.

On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the

On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the “in-between” animation frames, where the direction of the fox’s motion is “known”. Credit: TechRadar

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.

HTC Vive

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 TPCAST wireless kit mounted on an HTC Vive

The TPCAST wireless kit mounted on a HTC Vive. Credit: HTC / TPCast

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HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens available for pre-order

The HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens: available to pre-order (sort-of in the case of the HoloLens)

The HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens: available to pre-order (sort-of in the case of the HoloLens) – credits; Vive via HTC, HoloLens via Microsoft

Monday, February 29th 2016 saw HTC / Valve open the doors for pre-ordering of the consumer version of the Vive VR headset, while Microsoft started accepting pre-orders for the Development Edition of the AR / mixed reality HoloLens system.

The first batches of each system are expected to start shipping around the same time as Oculus VR commences the first shipments of the Rift headset, which was made available for pre-order in January: the Rift is expected to start shipping on March 28th, world-wide, with the Vive starting on April 5th, also world-wide (although the latest update on the UK order page now states shipping will be in May 2016, possibly as a result of initial order received). The HoloLens will commence shipping on March 30th – but only to developers in the USA and Canada.

HTC initially announced the US consumer price for the Vive  – US $799 excluding sales and shipping –  on Sunday February 21st. This is some US $200 more than the Oculus Rift, but the prices does includes two wireless hand controllers; Rift buyers will have to purchase similar controllers separately, either from a third-party or through Oculus VR when their Touch system launches some time in Q2 2016. While no prices have been confirmed for the latter, many are taking Palmer Luckey’s comments that bundling Touch with the Rift would have “significantly” raised the price of the latter to mean that Touch is liable to cost between US $100 and US $200 – markedly closing the gap between the two systems.

The Vive pre-order kit comprises the headset unit, two wireless hand controllers, two room sensors and a pair of ear buds (the headset includes a jack socket for those wishing to use their own headsets / ear buds

The Vive pre-order kit comprises the headset unit, two wireless hand controllers, two room sensors and a pair of ear buds – although the headset includes a jack socket for those wishing to use their own headsets / ear buds (credit: HTC)

On February 28th, 2016, HTC further announced the Vive’s international pre-order pricing. This see the Vive pitched at £689 (around US $960) in the UK and €899 (US $977) in Europe, both inclusive of VAT but exclusive of shipping costs (£57.60 for UK customers). Customers in Canada can expect to pay CAD $1149 + tax and shipping.

The Vive package includes the headset, which has a similar technical specification to the Oculus Rift (but with a 9:5 aspect ratio rather than 16:9, the former being said to result in a more natural and convincing “feel” to images on the headset’s screens), the two wireless controllers,  a pair of Vive base station sensors, a Vive Link Box, and a pair of Vive ear buds. For a “limited period” pre-order units will additionally ship with two free VR games: Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives and Fantastic Contraption and will also include Google’s Tilt Brush VR painting system.

As an added sweetener for developers, and as reported by Tech News World, Unity Technologies has announced their game platform will have native support for the HTC Vive and Steam VR, while Valve have introduced an advanced rendering plug-in developed for Unity. There is also a Vive Developer’s portal, which includes support for Unreal Engine.

The computer hardware specifications for the Vive also pretty much resemble those of for the Oculus Rift, and like Oculus VR, Steam are offering an application that potential purchasers can download to test whether their PC is “VR ready”, while HTC offer a page of recommended PC hardware suppliers who can provide “Vive optimised systems” to US customers.

The Vive Pre consumer edition now available for pre-order

The Vive Pre consumer edition now available for pre-order (credit: HTC)

As I reported in January, the headset includes two interesting additions. The first is the front mounted “pass through” camera, which allows the user to see an overlay of the room around them projected into their virtual view. This fades in if they approach a physical object (e.g. a wall or desk, etc.), or can be manually triggered via the hand controllers, and allows for collision avoidance when using the headset with the room sensors to move around within a VR environment. The second is “Mura correction” (“mura” being a Japanese term meaning “unevenness” or “lack of uniformity”), which removes the inconsistent brightness levels between one pixel and the next on earlier Vive headsets, presenting a far more uniform and cleaner image.

Further information can be obtained from the HTC Vive pre-order website and via Valve’s Steam website.

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