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

Continue reading “VR and AR catch-up”

HTC: Vive pre-orders open Feb 29; company split denied

The HTC Vive Pre (image: HTC)
The HTC Vive Pre (image: HTC)

Following the end of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier in January, HTC announced that their Vive VR system will be available for pre-order from February 29th, with shipping to commence in April.

The Vive demonstrated at CES was the “2nd generation” Vive Pre, which boasted significant improvements over the first development unit in terms of headset sized, general ergonomics, fit, comfort and capabilities. In particular the unit boasts a front-mounted pass through camera, (which HTC has sometimes referred to as the “chaperone system”), and a correction tool to present a clearer view of the VR environment on the headset screens.

The Vive Pre features a central, front mounted pass through camera system (image: HTC)
The Vive Pre features a central, front mounted pass through camera system (image: HTC)

The pass through camera 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. While some have critiqued it as “breaking” the VR experience, others have seen it as a useful means for a Vive user to re-orient themselves within their physical space.

Mura correction” (“mura” being a Japanese term meaning “unevenness” or “lack of uniformity”) removes the inconsistent brightness levels between one pixel and the next on earlier Vive headsets, giving rise to what HTC called a “linen like quality” to VR scenes. The result is a far more uniform and cleaner image, as shown in the exaggerated image below, courtesy of Road to VR.

"Mura correction" improves the VR image seen on the Vive's headset lenses, as illutrated by this exaggerated representation, courtesy of Road to VR - click to enlarge
“Mura correction” improves the VR image seen on the Vive’s headset lenses, as illustrated by this exaggerated representation, courtesy of Road to VR – click to enlarge

The pre-order price for the Vive has yet to be confirmed, but it is anticipated it will be somewhat more that the Oculus Rift. Even allowing for the  fact the price will include hand controllers and room sensors, this leaves HTC with a potentially awkward situation.

While the US $599 (+ tax and shipping) for the Rift took many by surprise, the take-up among early adopters has been positive; so much so that orders are now being backdated to July 2016. That’s good for Oculus VR – but it also means HTC could find the market for early adopters considerably smaller given so many have pre-ordered the Rift; and if the Vive does come in at a significantly higher price, they could find those who have held by from placing an order with Oculus VR to see what HTC do offer, swinging back towards it in favour of the Vive. Nor do the problems necessarily end there.

As I recently noted, tethered VR systems could face an uphill battle in trying to reach a more general market among the populace at large when compared to the cheaper, more accessible opportunities available through mobile VR.

Nvidia plan a "GeForce GTX VR Ready" logo for computer systems capable of meeting tethered VR requirements, and will be offering Nvidia has set out specific minimum requirements that must be met in order for consumer PCs to be able to cope with virtual reality graphics
Nvidia will offer a “GeForce GTX VR Ready” label for consumer PCs capable of meeting tethered VR requirements, and is working on a new range of GPUs specifically to meet the needs of VR (image: Nvidia)

While the latter may limited in capability and scope in comparison to tethered rigs, they are far more affordable and accessible, dampening any interest people have in paying for the tethered rig and the necessary hardware on which to run it. Particularly given that Nvidia estimate less than 1% of computers in household use will be capable of running tethered VR systems. Thus, HTC could find themselves right out in the cold if the Vive is significantly more expensive that the Rift among the wider public who might have a system capable of supporting VR headsets and are willing to give it a go as units hit retail outlets.

HTC was also the subject of intense, if brief, speculation on Sunday, January 18th and Monday, January 19th 2016. It started when the Chinese language Commercial Times, Taiwan’s largest financial newspaper ran a story claiming HTC’s Chairwoman, Cher Wang, was considering spinning-off the fledgling VR business into a separate company.

HTC Chairwoman Cher Wang: enthusiastic about VR, but not planning to split it into a separate entity.
HTC Chairwoman Cher Wang: enthusiastic about VR, but not planning to split it into a separate entity.

The report was picked-up through other news outlets, and gained widespread reporting in the VR media, and saw HTC’s share price rise by 5.23%. However, on Monday, January 19th, the company issued a statement to investors, labelling the media claims as incorrect, and stating the company has no plans to split the VR business into a separate entity.

At what price VR?

Oculus CR-1 with microphone, Oculus Remote and Xbox wireless controller
Oculus CR-1 package (image: Oculus VR)

On Wednesday, January 6th, and as I reported, Oculus VR announced the price of the first generation Oculus Rift VR headset as being US $599 (€699 in Europe and £499 in the UK) + shipping at applicable taxes, with the unit available for pre-order.

The price has caused some consternation around the globe, even though Palmer Luckey had, since September 2015, been indicating the headset would be more than the assumed price of US $350, as my colleague Ben Lang over at The Road to VR quoted Luckey saying at the time.

As it is, the Oculus Rift is apparently heavily subsidised by Facebook; had it not been so, then the price might have been north of the US $1,000 mark . Further, and like it or not, the HTC / Valve Vive is likely to have a price point somewhat more than the Rift – although it will include hand controllers and room sensors, which the Rift does not. In addition, the latest version of the Vive sports a “chaperone system”: a front-mounted camera which allows the user to overlay their VR environment with images of the room around them, making for easier physical movement when using the headset.

Elsewhere, there has been speculation about the possible price of Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR), particularly after Forbes reported Amazon Canada had it listed at CAN $1,125 (roughly US $800). The listing price was later removed, with Sony stating it was an error and that the final price of the PSVR has yet to be determined – but it has left people wondering.

And while the Oculus Rift price may seem steep, it might be worth pointing out that the Vuzix iWear, an OSVR-based headset initially aimed at the immersive film experience, but capable of supporting VR games and applications, is currently available for pre-order at US $499, and comes with a specification somewhat below that of the Rift.

Sony PSVR - Amazon Canada quoted a price of US $800, quickly countered by Sony - but some speculate it might be accurate
Sony PSVR – Amazon Canada quoted a price of US $800, quickly countered by Sony – but some speculate it might be accurate or at least close to the truth (image: Sony Computer Entertainment)

So does this mean the US $599 price tag for the Oculus Rift is justified? Given that the first pre-order batch apparently sold-out within minutes, one might be tempted to say “yes”. However, the initial rush could be deceptive; while there are undoubtedly a lot of early adopters out there willing to pay a premium for the hardware, they aren’t likely to be in the majority.

And here is where consumer-focused VR could end-up being hoist by its own petard, and in a number of ways, some of which are pointed to by Chris Kohler, writing at Wired.

The first is that VR as a term is already being badly abused.Much is made of 360-degree video (already a thing through Google Cardboard systems), but it really isn’t VR as many would accept it.

The second is there is already a rising tide of headsets offering “VR experiences”. Most of these are (again) Cardboard-based and utilised a mobile ‘phone. The problem here is that inevitably, the quality of the experience isn’t all it could be. What’s more, it often hooks back into the idea that VR is pretty much stuff like 360-degree video.

Samsung's Gear VR sits at the top of the mobile VR pyramid, and could be said to be indicative of where Oculus VR would like to go: a self-contained, lightweight system which doesn't necessarily tether the user to their computer
Samsung’s Gear VR sits at the top of the mobile VR pyramid, and could be said to be indicative of where Oculus VR would like to go: a self-contained, lightweight system which doesn’t necessarily tether the user to their computer (image: Samsung)

The issue here is that despite these factors, these low-end headsets and units such as Samsung’s Gear VR, are presenting VR as something that’s easily affordable (given most people are liable to have a suitable ‘phone to use with them). The experience may not be terribly clever when compared to the Rift or the Vive – but it is there, and it is coupled with a possible perception that VR is about 360 film / sports experiences.

Thus, unless the Rift and the Vive et al can convince the greater populace they offer a truly unique, high-end, head-and shoulders-above-the-rest type of VR experience that instantly compels people to shell out the readies for them, there is a risk that they could be seen a “just another headset”, and passed by in favour of the cheaper albeit less capable headsets, at least until the price point is seen to come down – and that could put something of a pin in the side of the VR bubble, if only in the short-term.

VR: HTC Vive hands-on

The Vive from HTC:  a VR headset developed with Valve
The Vive from HTC: a VR headset developed with Valve

On Sunday, March 1st, HTC held a presentation on the eve of the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona. During the course of the event, they revealed a new VR headset they’re developing in partnership with Valve.

I pulled together news on the announcement from a variety of sources a few hours after it was made. Since then, more information has hit the media, the results of numerous opportunities for hands-on demonstrations. And going by the feedback, it would appear Oculus VR has some very series competition on its hands.

The big thing everyone has been pointing to as being the real secret sauce for VR is a sense of presence. With so many different systems in so many different states of development, how this will be properly achieved has perhaps been hard to judge. Some headsets are managing it in part, some third-party peripheral makers are looking at various means of providing it with room sensors, body kits, etc. However, from all the hands-on reports, it would seem that HTC are the first to nail it in one fairly straight forward package.

“With the original Oculus Rift and things like Samsung Gear VR, that sensation of really being somewhere else is present, but fleeting,” Carlos Rebato says, writing for Gizmodo. “Those can’t track your body, so as soon as you lean just slightly, the illusion is shattered. The Oculus Rift DK2 did it better, with a motion tracking camera that at least let you lean, but you were still a sort of an armless half-body. Sony’s Project Morpheus improved it further by using controllers keep track of your hands.

“But the Vive? It’s like nothing that’s ever come before.”

The HTC Vive headset with a pair of "base station" scanner below and to the left of it, and a pair of the hand controllers in the foreground (image courtesy of PC Gamer)
The HTC Vive headset with a pair of “base station” scanner below and to the left of it, and a pair of the hand controllers in the foreground (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

Gareth Beavis, over at Techradar, is equally gushing. “There’s a TV show from the early 1990s called Red Dwarf that depicted the last human (and a group of humanoids) that were lost in space in the future, desperate to get home. One of the big ways they stayed entertained was with a holographic headset that let them play in hyper real worlds, like they were living in the action sequence … I always thought that idea, that experience, would never be real.

“But with the HTC Vive I took my first steps into that world.”

Both reports – and others in a similar vein – point to the distinguishing factors that make the Vive the complete package: the laser “base station” scanners and the dedicated hand controllers. Details of both of these were rough at the time of HTC’s announcement, but the various hands-on demonstrations taking place at the MWC and, under the Valve banner, as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, more information on them has filtered into the tech media.

The scanners are small, box-like objects designed to be mounted on wall at 90-degrees to one another. As noted in my original article ion the Vive, these can then scan a square area up to 4.6 metres (15ft on a side), accurately tracking multiple sensors on the headset, and the motions of the wearer’s body and recreating them within a virtual environment, allowing the wearer to move around “inside” a virtual space. To reduce the risk of collisions with physical objects, the scanner also map the location of walls and furniture, and the system fades these into the wearer’s field of view should they get too close.

A closer look at one of the "base station" laser  scanners used with the Vive (image courtesy of PC Gamer)
A closer look at one of the “base station” laser scanners used with the Vive (image courtesy of PC Gamer)

Continue reading “VR: HTC Vive hands-on”