We're getting sick of hearing “VR” at every meeting. It's not that the technology is bad – it's just getting a little exhausting to hear as a tag-along to literally anything. Everything is VR premium, VR-ready, VR approved, VR, VR, VR.
Despite this, we're still posting some coverage of a few VR trends that make more sense than empty badges or paid-for certifications. MSI's VR backpack is one of the noteworthy creations, seemingly inspired from Intel's prototype VR backpack at CES 2016, and arrives at Computex alongside immediate competitors from ASUS and Zotac.
"VR is a fad" was the pull-quote which propagated through the internet when Warren Spector made the comment last year, reinforcing it at ECGC a few days ago. The veteran designer indicated a belief that virtual reality could generate "interest among hardcore gamers," but remained cautious to grant too much early praise given personal experience with earlier VR attempts. Spector's decades-long industry experience grants weight to the statement, and made us curious what some long-time colleagues of Spector's might believe. Richard Garriott is one of those – friend and former employer of Spector – and has previously spoken to us about a history of effectively inventing MMOs, new graphics techniques, and more.
Richard Garriott joined us at PAX East 2016 for an impromptu discussion on the viability of virtual reality. The conversation started as small talk – "what do you think of VR?" – but evolved into an in-depth look at the challenges faced by the emergent technology. We rolled with it; you can find the video and some of the transcript below:
We've not been shy in our fierce criticisms of VR from a gaming perspective, but the maturation of development has yielded increasingly more mechanically-focused titles targeted at gamers. Mars 2030 aims to be more than a “VR Experience,” as most titles are, and we had the opportunity to get hands-on with the new game at GTC 2016.
Mars 2030 is developed by Fusion and was first shown at the GTC keynote, the Mars rover helmed by industry icon Steve Wozniak. The open-world game takes place on the surface of Mars and deploys unique techniques to match surface color, heights, and physical interaction with terrain. It's playable on non-VR displays as well (and it does look good on 21:9 aspect ratios, based on the keynote), but hopes to stake its flag into the VR market with an agnostic disposition toward the Vive and Rift. Mars 2030 will work on both major devices.
Our hands-on impressions with Mars 2030 left us reasonably impressed with the early demonstration of Fusion's attempt to cast players as astronauts.
Ivan Sutherland's “Sword of Domacles” head-mounted display lurched above its user as a spider above its prey; the contraption, as most technology of its era, was room-sized. The Sword of Domacles wasn't meant to be a user-accessible VR solution. It produced primitive wireframes of a room's interior and was strictly observational, demonstrated in awkward photos with the wearer's hands neatly clasped behind his back. This was Ground Zero for VR.
Sutherland later joined David Evans to build the University of Utah's Computer Science and Computer Graphics divisions, responsible for students who'd later create the world's first computer-animated 3D graphics. Through Sutherland and Evans – and their students – the foundation for Adobe, Pixar, and Silicon Graphics (SGI) was set, later producing companies like the modern nVidia. All this history of VR is recapped more thoroughly in our “History of Virtual Reality” article.
Oculus VR and Valve are makers of the modern-day HMD incarnates. Billions of dollars are backing these new ventures and, for the first time in history, viable VR solutions don't cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They're also not military-owned, another common theme of previous virtual reality attempts.
Our team has spent a considerable amount of time in virtual reality demos. The technology is an impressive fusion of display advancements, frametime pacing optimization, input latency management, and IR scanning. Just the display tech alone is nearly unrivaled, the Rift packing 2160x1200 pixels into a space smaller than a phone screen. Screen Door Effect issues have been largely resolved or circumvented on each of the major two VR solutions, and timewarp has been navigated with clever GPU processing techniques by both AMD and nVidia. Everything's lining-up to be a serious push into virtual reality and, this time, there's enough money behind the concept that it's not another “3D glasses” fad. Probably, anyway.
But I don't think VR is ready for day-one adoption by the general gaming audience. Impressive – yes; here to stay – yes. But not ready for gamers. The Vive and Rift both experience similar versions of the same problems: Hardware requirements and prices that rival more affordable displays, logistical and use case limitations, and the industry's myopic understanding of game design.
HTC's Vive and Oculus VR's Rift are the two big players that we're focusing on today.
Oculus Rift CEO Palmer Luckey took fire all throughout last week's CES, a show we covered extensively, thanks to his company's near-doubled Oculus Rift pricing over the initial $350 estimate. The company claims it's selling the Rift at “almost cost” with its $600 price-point, and has definitely tempered its financial hit with the inclusion of a free Xbox controller.
For Australians, the pricing is significantly worse. Residents of Australia are currently paying $130 just to ship the $600 Rift, which sees what appears to be a US tax add that raises price to $685; after this, Australians are paying an additional GST (Goods & Services Tax) of ~10%. The price exceeds 1000AUD thanks to the massive shipping charge, which is triggering additional consumer taxes for the import.
The latest HTC Vive demo plants players within the photorealistic outcroppings of Mount Everest, an atmosphere which serves more as an “experience” than an outright “game.” Mechanics are effectively boiled-down to look at stuff and move the sticks, with the full bore of virtual reality graphics processing stealing the spotlight. Developers Solfar Studios stitched together tens of thousands of frames from the real mountain, accurately height-mapped the mountain, and firmly represent Everest’s actual crevices, ravines, and spine-like ridgelines to the Vive wearer.
This is the final iteration of the HTC Vive. We previously published a deep-dive on the headset’s technological inner-workings, but substantial changes have been made in just the few months following. Core concepts and objectives remain largely unchanged, yet execution and design have received additional development focus thanks to delays from initial Xmas ’15 launch targets. The Vive isn’t the first HMD to push back launch into 2016, either; Oculus VR’s Rift will post its public pre-order page on Wednesday, 1/6, finally nearing its own launch target of 2Q16.
The VR juggernauts are going head-to-head, then, with launch dates fully aligning and graphics vendors supporting all viable technologies. Our initial user impressions are above, GN’s Patrick Stone joining for a different perspective. Carry on for the split-author impressions editorial.
Patrick Stone covers all Oculus Rift sections (demarcated with parenthetical notation); Steve Burke covers the HTC Vive.
Oculus VR is aiming for official sale of its Rift head-mounted display (HMD) in 1Q16, with pre-orders opening shortly after the new year. This launch is delayed from initial (moving) targets, but will coincide with the 2Q16 HTC/Valve “Vive” HMD product and ensure a competitive space on day-one.
Despite the season's best efforts to give weary editors a rest, last week remained active as ever, producing some major news items that impact 1H16.
As quickly as possible, then our news recap video:
Oculus and Crytek have teamed up to challenge the acrophobia of anyone with an Oculus Rift VR system. Crytek’s new game, aptly named The Climb, allows players to virtually free-climb dangerous cliffs. Now players can take on one of the world’s riskiest sports, with the only risk of falling being from one’s own chair.
The short trailer released by Crytek displays the game’s signature CryEngine visuals, as well as a pair of “Master Hands.” Speaking about The Climb and the Oculus Rift, Crytek founder and CEO Cevat Yerli said:
Oculus VR recently announced its plans for “systems [starting] at a variety of price points under $1000,” speaking to the cost viability of VR-ready configurations. The company is working closely with system integrators (SIs) to ship a range of PC builds, stretching all the way into the sub-$1000 market. These prices do not include the VR headset itself, said to be “at least $300,” but strictly refer to the start-up cost of a VR-ready computer.
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