The Difference Between Two Realities

Speaking of VR, the two leading virtual reality head-mounted displays (HMD) are very different in how they’re intended to be used.

Although the Oculus Rift has head-tracking, it is intended more for playing games in a seated or standing position with extremely limited amounts of head movement. You can think of this as being limited to a cockpit in a jet or the passenger area of a car or mech. The player can look out, and control movement of the vehicle they’re in with a gamepad, but if they get up and walk around they’re still trapped inside that vehicle or cockpit. This is perfect for games like Elite: Dangerous and the Eve: Valkyrie game that will be included with the Rift.

You can also display something with a more traditional third-person camera viewpoint outside of the avatar and have player movement bound to analog sticks on a gamepad or some other controller. That is what you have with Lucky’s Tale:

Many traditional 3D games involve a lot of player movement and a first-person perspective, so being limited to one position in the physical world isn’t quite as immersive as being able to move in a physical space and have that movement be reflected in the virtual world. This is more of the holodeck, or room-scale style of VR. I received a brief demo of this at Valve a few years ago. It is amazing when experienced in action. Valve’s SteamVR system offers this in addition to the ability to play cockpit-style games in a seated or standing position. It’s the main difference between the two headsets. Some games can work on both types.

Holodeck experiences have their downsides. Players need a fairly large space that is empty of obstructions in which to move. You’ll also need to install devices that Valve and HTC are calling lighthouses to define the physical space in which you’ll move and track your physical movement in that space. It’s not something everyone has space for, and although you can adjust the amount of physical space for use with this system you basically need a multi-room house or office to set up that experience. Valve had a few dedicated rooms for it.

It’s been almost impossible to demonstrate that room-scale experience without using it. The Northways, Colin and Sarah, have a video up that demonstrates the perspective of a player in the HTC/SteamVR Vive HMD while playing their Fantastic Contraption:

That’s a clip from a longer stream that you can watch here. The only difference between this and the real thing is that she can’t see the people on the couch while playing, and it’s way more fun to play in-person than watch on a stream.

Oculus Rift Pre-orders At Pricey $600

The only head-mounted displays (HMD) for virtual reality games and other activities available last year were pre-release versions for developers only (the $350 Oculus Development Kit 1 & 2, limited quantities of the HTC/SteamVR Vive), through crowdfunding campaigns, or scraped together garbage used to fill in the features and benefits lists of terrible smartphones.

This year the HTC ViveOculus Rift, and Playstation VR are supposed to be more widely available and will be of a higher quality level than the versions developers had access to. We’ve been warned that they will be expensive, and so they are. Facebook’s Oculus is the first to announce the price of their Rift HMD and make their product available for purchase at $600. Though it won’t actually be available to anyone before June at the earliest. When it does ship, it will include two games (3D platformer Lucky’s Tale, starfighter Eve: Valkyrie), an Xbox One controller, external sensors for head tracking, removable headphones, and a simpler remote control option.

People who participated in the original crowdfunding campaign will receive the first public version of the Oculus Rift HMD for free, everyone else who was interested and didn’t participate is kicking themselves right now.

The price is high, but the Rift device is going to be at a higher quality and performance level than the development kits that preceded it, and it is cheaper than the PC you’ll need to run it. As the internet’s Daniel Gibson points out, the Rift is even more expensive after including the cost of shipping, taxes, and other fees. To get it in Germany, the total price goes up about $200 to $808, and the total after tax and shipping just to California’s Oakland is $688. This is all after you acquire the correct hardware to match the specifications in the downloadable compatibility checker. I expect many people will be very disappointed when they attempt to use the Rift with an underpowered computer having ignored the system requirements. Even my gaming computer’s CPU is not up to the task according to the compatibility checker. PC gaming is not cheap, and although I expect the price of all of these components to drop, I would be very surprised if the Rift’s price lowered before 2018. It is unlikely that the HTC/SteamVR Vive will be cheaper or have more limited hardware demands. The only device that could possibly be less expensive is Sony’s Playstation VR, and then it would be a more limited experience in terms of technical capabilities than anything on the PC.

It’s exciting that we’re finally going to have widely available HMDs, even at that price, but there are still unresolved issues.

Oculus first announced cross-platform support for their platform during their extremely successful crowdfunding campaign with logos for Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android. The pre-order campaign only includes a downloadable compatibility checker for Windows and though it would be ridiculous to expect the hardware to work with the limited power available on devices without active cooling systems like smartphones, it is kind of outrageous how quickly they’ve dropped support for Mac and Linux. Linux is promised to be supported post-launch, and OS X support is supposed to be limited by the hardware currently on offer from Apple.

Software availability is going to be an issue. Besides the two games shipping with the system, and a broad range of technical demo software, it isn’t clear what compatibility will be like for software between headsets and what complete software will be available soon after launch. Most complete games take 1-3 years to develop, and the software that truly takes advantage of hardware available through the SteamVR system might not be compatible with the Rift at all. Valve is trying to resolve compatibility with their OpenVR program, but theVive hardware developed with HTC is more like walking around a holodeck than the limited-to-a-cockpit experiences of the Rift.

Finally, as an expectant father, I cannot imagine a scenario in the next two years where I will be able to use a completely-detached experience like the Rift while my family needs my attention. This product seems to be only targeted at people who are either totally alone or have no responsibilities in the outside world for extended periods of time. Awareness of the world around you is going to be a big problem with every HMD. The only ones that are looking to avoid that issue so far are Microsoft with their Hololens augmented-reality HMD and a few other companies developing AR devices instead of VR. Augmented-reality will be for completely different, less immersive, kinds of experiences from virtual reality.

I recommend that anyone considering the purchase of this headset wait until more of these issues are resolved, especially the software availability and compatibility as that is going to be the largest roadblock.

Valve’s VR Headset Announcement

HTC and Valve announced the HTC Vive today, a headset similar to the Oculus Rift. The differences are in the head tracking, a slight increase to resolution compared to the Oculus Rift DK2, and a custom game controller.

Similar to the VR room demo Valve had at Steam Dev Days, the HTC Vive will have tracking for your location relative to the physical room you’re in. The VR room demo used something similar to QR codes printed out on the walls to do this, the HTC Vive uses SteamVR base stations. The SteamVR demo at dev days was super impressive when I got to try it, and kind of ruined the experience of trying the Oculus Rift. Nothing on the Rift could match the feeling of scale I got from the SteamVR demo. It must be even more impressive on this new hardware.

Developer kit ships this spring, user version late in the year. Between this, Oculus, Nvidia announcing something soon, and Sony’s headset, some standard API will need to emerge to support all of them and I bet that’s what Valve will focus on fixing.