Opinion: Competing for Virtual Reality Head Space

The age of virtual reality will soon be upon us, but how fast will this technology catch on when it does? Here are some the challenges Oculus, Sony, and HTC must overcome.

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This week kicked off with the announcement of Vive by HTC and Valve, the newest entry in what is becoming an increasingly crowded field of virtual reality headsets. Before this year's Games Developer's Conference, the most prominent names in VR were Oculus and Sony with Project Morpheus. Now HTC is out to steal some of that spotlight by introducing a device that is not only backed by Valve, but releasing as early as this November. Morpheus is expected to release during the first half of 2016. That doesn't even include Microsoft's left-field Augmented Reality approach using the HoloLens. Combined with other announcements, like how AMD will develop software that will run different headset types, it becomes clear that VR will be a prominent part of video game development discussions for a long time to come.

The age of VR may be soon upon us, but how fast will the technology catch on? Despite the positive accounts Oculus Rift DK2, Morpheus, and Vive users have reported, the technology still has some kinks to work out. But regardless of the various states of readiness each headset is in, there’s a race going on, and so far, it looks like Vive might win it.

So, let’s break down the two top contenders to see which has the highest chance of leading us into the new age, starting with Oculus. The Oculus Rift has been the longtime darling pioneer of virtual reality since it secured over $2.4 million in crowdfunded dollars two years ago, and gained even greater legitimacy (and funding) when it was acquired by Facebook. With legendary developers like John Carmack among its staff, Oculus VR is regarded by most as the lead pioneer in the field of virtual reality, and is a favored among independent game developers.

Despite the long head start and plenty of public attention, Oculus is in danger of being surpassed in a field that it helped pioneer. Although the DK2 headset generally works well, it still has a list of technical problems that John Carmack discussed during his GDC presentation. With no sense of when we might see a final retail version, its competitors have a big chance of pulling ahead. Furthermore, there’s the matter of interaction. While promising devices like the Sixsense and the Myo gesture control available (each must be purchased separately), Oculus applications still rely on a mouse and keyboard or gamepad for interaction. Until Oculus makes a formal declaration what its preferred input method might be, it will be associated by this disconnect from virtual reality.

Project Morpheus, with its recently updated specifications, has a few advantages. While it remains to be seen whether its PS4 exclusivity will ultimately end up being a strength or weakness, it definitely has a leg up by using PlayStation Move controllers as input devices. Having a Move controller in each hand makes for a sense of interaction that doesn't yet exist for Oculus. Beyond that, the Morpheus boasts the best refresh rate of any VR headset so far, and since it's designed for a console with fixed hardware, it doesn't have the same hurdles Oculus has to overcome with infinitely varying PC and Mac specifications and software. If the retail launch of Morpheus goes well, then it will be a matter of creating enticing experiences to convince users to pick up the device. At the same time, being limited to the PS4 might also limit its all-around appeal, and many may end up seeing it as an expensive toy (especially with the PS Move controllers' glowing bulbs).

Lastly, there's Vive by HTC and Valve. Although it has been in the public's view for less than a week, it is already being regarded as the most impressive VR headset shown to date. Besides the hardware itself, this is due in no small part to the Lighthouse technology, which can track multiple objects (including people) and bring them into virtual reality. All they need are the proper sensors attached to them. When used with the two special controllers, users have called Vive the most realistic virtual reality experience they have ever had. But the real kicker is, Lighthouse is being given away for free, to be used by anyone, which is a surprising move for a supposedly heated VR war.

Gabe Newell says he wants the Lighthouse technology to be as pervasive and game changing as the USB. In order for that to happen, it has to be readily available for people to use. Therefore, he's giving it away. With that, Valve shakes up the playing field and evens it out at the same time. Oculus could use Lighthouse for its input, leaving the developers free to work on the VR headset and software itself, instead of trying to figure out interactive methods.

If virtual reality takes off, it could lead to a technological shift that rivals how 3D acceleration started with video games and branched out to influence multiple industries afterward. Everything from movies to cartoon shows benefitted from 3D animated graphics, and the same could be said for VR. Facebook has dreams for Oculus that extend beyond games, like virtually attending live events or visiting far off locations without leaving your home. So, maybe Oculus can afford to fall behind a little and be the tortuous that wins the race.

But even with the technological obstacles overcome, there's still one major problem that every VR headset has in common: Each person only has one head. With the nature of VR right now is a pretty solitary experience. Even though the headset's images may be mirrored on a monitor, what's shown there is a shallow representation of what the experience is truly like. Only one person can enter a virtual world at a time.

While exploring the surface of Mars or "swimming" the ocean's depths might be great, experiences are often improved when there's someone around to share them with. Something is lost in a shared experience when you have to pass a headset back and forth. Although it would be nice to believe that people would buy more than one headset (along with multiple machines to run them), like a collection of very expensive hats, the reality is that most people will probably just settle for one (even with a very compelling argument for Samsung GearVR), if any at all.

The big advantage 3D acceleration had was that it was something that could be shown to large groups of people at a time, and the benefits were immediately apparent. Until buyers have the opportunity to put a headset on, they have to rely on other peoples' reactions and recommendations. Next comes the issue of transforming games and other entertainment so that they support VR, which I imagine might be a little more complicated than patching 3D games to support accelerated technology. Then there's issue of bumping into real world things while interacting with your virtual environment, which leads to a host of other concerns.

Virtual reality still has a long road that stretches beyond this fall's release of Vive and next year's release of Morpheus. There are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the technology and its use. It can't be denied that the virtual age may be on its way, but whether it'll start with a bang or a sputter remains to be seen.

Managing Editor
From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 6, 2015 12:30 PM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Competing for Head Space

    • reply
      March 6, 2015 2:27 PM

      Has VR solved the problem of the reticle? That and other UI element were pretty tricky piece to solve the last time I looked at 3D displays, so I assume VR will have the same issues.

      • reply
        March 6, 2015 4:17 PM

        I've seen decent UI elements even in hacked-together stuff like TF2- really all that needs to be done most of the time is to lock the UI to the screen direction and make the text big enough. You can shove hud stuff way into the corners and it works fine.

        The reticule, though, was been janky on almost everything. They tend to make it float at some medium distance in front of you, when it would work better for me if it was always at infinity. That's the whole point of those holographic sights on guns and fighter planes, anyway.

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        March 7, 2015 5:20 AM

        Everything in VR is formative and unsolved at this point. I have seen multiple implementations thus far with the oculus rift demos:

        Laser sight
        Aim down sights
        Traditional floating reticle

        As for UI, the best implementations in my opinion don't float in front of you but integrate this into the environment. For example, here is an example of HL2 VR's implementation:
        http://www.twitch.tv/sergeonmd/c/5012489

        I think as developers make VR games from the ground up we will see more creativity in UI and interactivity

      • rms legacy 10 years mercury super mega
        reply
        March 7, 2015 8:24 AM

        Another issue is the inter-ocular distance, which I saw a comment on elsewhere. Do all these devices account for such variability...

    • reply
      March 7, 2015 5:26 AM

      I agree that VR experiences will be more challenging to disseminate because of the singular nature of the HMD. I think that's why it just has to be so damn good that people will want to try it. I can tell you that current implementations only interest a subset of people who are tech fans or gamers. When I demo the oculus there are a fair number of people who say to me "that's nice" very politely.

      The consumer release really needs something that has more universal appeal for the first experience otherwise I can see VR being a niche product for sure. I think it is wise to try to partner with popular media and go beyond gaming to provide a wide range of experiences.

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