The Near Future of Consumer VR
A rundown of what’s coming up.
It’s August 2015. Over the next year, three brand-new, major VR headsets will be released to the public that are different than any other VR headset you could buy, ever, because:
- They won’t make you sick.
- They have customized controllers, so they’re easier to use.
- They’re pretty great for how cheap they are.
They also come with a host of dedicated games, apps, and experiences, some of which are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
The major players are the HTC Valve Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s Project Morpheus. To give you an idea of how new this all is, the latest versions of all three have only been demoed in the last few months, at GDC or E3.
It’s fascinating to see how each company has approached the huge challenge of creating real, consumer-ready VR systems. Generally, the biggest problems in VR — that is, aside from all the crazy technical hurdles — are:
- How to interact with the VR world. Do you use gestures? Do you have a controllers? How do you track motion? Do you show people their hands, their bodies, or avatars?
- How do you let people move around without running into stuff?
- What are the best new experiences we can make for VR?
Everything’s really new, there are a ton of unanswered questions, and nothing has been standardized yet. It’s a pretty exciting time to be in VR. There’s a lot to say about the future of cinematics, games, and applications for virtual reality and augmented reality, but for now, let’s focus on the basics of hardware and inputs.
Lots of folks are familiar with the shining star that is Oculus: in 2012, they raised 2.4 million on Kickstarter, and were bought out for two billion dollars by Facebook in March 2014. Six months later, Oculus announced their newest prototype, Crescent Bay. The final consumer product, the Rift, is slated to come out Q1 2016.
The headset uses two AMOLED 90Hz, low-persistence 1080x1200 displays. The front of the headset is covered in infrared-transparent headset fabric, under which there’s a constellation of infrared LED light emitters.
This constellation of LEDs is tracked by desktop IR cameras (see left), which identify and calculate the position of each individual LED on the headset to know where you are in space. Other things can have LEDs, too — for example, controllers, props, gloves, maybe your dog.
Oculus hasn’t specified the amount of area the cameras can track, but say it’s “room sized”.
Oculus has two new handheld controllers via their acquisition of Carbon Design, the same team that designed the xBox controllers. They’re called Oculus Touch (below) and support natural gestures as well as having a traditional analog thumbstick, two buttons, and an analog trigger. They’re tracked using the same infrared LED combo as the headset, and the controllers have haptic feedback — that is, they vibrate.
More subtle finger gestures are tracked with sensors in the controllers themselves, but at this point the finger sensors only track two fingers and thumb. Frankly it’s a big deal they track fingers at all — no other conventional controllers do that — but it is kind of odd to only track three. We’ll see if they ship that way.
There were some reports of perhaps third-party specialized controllers (eg, the green one some folks reported at E3) that are used as guns, lasers or pointers. Presumably this tech will be integrated into one controller by next year — or maybe they’re counting on custom peripherals for games, a la Rock Band. Oculus also just bought the Israeli motion tracking company Pebble, which indicates they’re focusing heavily on bringing a digital copy of the user into the VR space. Pebble already does hand presence really well.
The consumer Rift will also ship with an Xbox controller, which makes sense since they are partnering with Microsoft — Valve is partnering with Microsoft, too. Microsoft isn’t making a VR headset of their own, by they way: they are focused on augmented reality with their own Hololens headset.
HTC Vive (Valve)
On some levels it seems inevitable that Valve, one of the most innovative game companies out there, would come up with their own VR headset. They announced the Vive in March 2015. Valve is working hand in hand with HTC to create the Vive hardware, but the UI, games, inputs, and dev support is all Valve.
The headset has a variety of sensors: at least seventy, including a MEMS gyroscope, accelerometer and laser position sensors. Its passive laser sensor system, Lighthouse, requires at least two SteamVR base stations to avoid occlusion, but combined they cover 15 x 15 feet.
The motion system is the opposite of Oculus, “inside-out” rather than outside-in. Small photon detectors are in the headset, and they pick up laser waves from the lighthouse emitters. The positioning is therefore externally calculated by the headset.
If you’re having a hard time visualizing how this system works, check out this awesome video by MissStabby.
So we’re gonna just give that away. What we want is for that to be like USB. It’s not some special secret sauce. It’s like everybody in the PC community will benefit if there’s this useful technology out there.
— Gabe Newell
Vive’s VR-specific controllers have LEDs on top, trigger buttons, and big touchpads, similar to Valve’s upcoming Steam Controller. It’s unclear exactly how the VR controllers are tracked, but likely some clever combo of LEDs/light sensors/lasers. Like the Oculus Touch controllers, Vive’s VR controllers have haptic feedback.
On the audio side, no specs yet, but there has been some confirmation that the Vive will ship with integrated 3D audio. This is frankly a given, but we’ll see who they partner with.
In terms of space tracking, both Oculus and Vive have built-in grid alert systems to warn you when you’re running into a wall. But the Vive also has a forward-facing camera, so you don’t step on your cat as he walks past.
The Vive has no formal release date yet, but Valve has confirmed Q4 2015, so get ready for Christmas.
Sony’s Project Morpheus
The Morpheus’ display has a OLED 1920x1080 display with an RGB subpixel matrix, 120fps. The display feed is a single video, piped in from the Playstation as opposed to a souped-up PC. Combined with the fact Sony has sold over 20 million Playstation 4s, Morpheus is certainly on track to capture the market.
The headset has nine LEDs on the headset for motion tracking. For input, the Morpheus uses the PlayStation Move, Sony’s standard game motion-tracking controller. Stay tuned, though: it’s expected they’ll come up with something custom for VR at some point. Morpheus also works with the Dualshock 4, much like how the other two headsets work with standard console controllers.
For motion tracking, Morpheus uses the PlayStation Camera, a dual-camera system that can either be used for motion tracking or for stereoscopics.
Though not as groundbreakingly sexy as the other two motion tracking systems, general reviews from GDC were really positive. Sony has announced they’ll be demoing Morpheus at the GameStop Expo in September. The expected release date is sometime in the first half of 2016, so it will be interesting to see how sales of the Morpheus go after both other headsets have been on the market.
What about the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard?
Both the Gear VR and Cardboard are available now, and only require a phone to use — no PC or console needed. Cardboard costs anywhere from zero dollars to eighty for the high-end versions, and works with most phones, though not all can use its magnetic button — looking at you, Moto G.
Google has partnered with some amazing creators to produce content, most notably for Google’s Spotlight Stories .
The Samsung Gear VR works with Galaxy Note 4 & S6, and you can buy the Innovator Edition today for $200. They’re partnering with Oculus for software, and work with a wide variety of controllers. Presumably when you use it, you, like this woman to the left, will be inexplicably cheery the entire time. Be forewarned if you have jaw or happiness issues.
The Innovator Edition was released in May, and although there’s no release date for the consumer version, the dev version is close to consumer ready if you feel like taking the plunge right now. The Gear has Oculus’ headtracking system built in, so although it uses a mobile display, it doesn’t feel as janky as you’d expect from a phone display.
There’s no dedicated inputs or controllers, though the Gear works with a wide range of bluetooth peripherals. We’ll see if the consumer edition comes bundled with one of Samsung’s many controllers — it would be smart.
TL;DR: VR headsets have been the dream of the future for a long long time and there’s finally three major, bazillion-dollar-backed headsets coming to market this winter. They have new motion trackers that are better, new controllers that are better, and and new displays that are better and that hopefully won’t make you sick. The kits require either a really fast PC or a console, but on their own, they all cost less than $1,500, and a lot of smart people have been working to solve problems around the UI, space, and how you can interact with stuff that doesn’t actually exist.
And now that you’ve read all this, I’ll add that the day-to-day, ordinary future of VR is probably actually AR, augmented reality. But that’s a post for another day.
Ps. Fellow Siggraph attendees, see you in LA next week!