It’s been a busy week for VR with two major conferences and two standalone headset releases. Facebook started the week with F8, their general developer conference, where they announced the long-awaited release of Oculus Go (every attendee went home with one). Friday and Saturday brought VRLA and the release of the Google Daydream and Snapdragon-powered Lenovo Mirage Solo standalone headset.
While the Oculus Go announcement was expected, Facebook had some VR-related surprises in store. They spent a few minutes talking about a new prototype PC-based headset, a potential successor to the Rift, called “Half Dome” (given that they’ve both started naming products after California landmarks, what’s going to happen when Oculus and Apple start accidentally using the same code names?). The new HMD features a 140-degree field of view. Eye tracking tells the headset what pixels you are focusing on, and the screens physically move forward and back to allow your eyes to focus naturally. This “varifocal” display technology should enable much more comfortable viewing of closeup interfaces and miniature scenes and an overall reduction in eyestrain. There were also brief glimpses of new AI-powered hand and face tracking technologies.
Mentioned briefly was the fact that Santa Cruz standalone fully-tracked headsets are already in the hands of some third party developers! You can watch the video on this Facebook page. The relevant sections are at the 26 minute mark and the last 12 minutes.
Oculus announced some new software projects as well: a revamped Oculus Rooms, a new Oculus TV app which will offer streaming shows and act as a dedicated launcher for other video apps, Oculus Venues, for watching sports with other avatars, and a bunch of new mobile launches timed with the Oculus Go release.
Oculus Go Review
I was able to try out the Oculus Go at VRLA — briefly – but I think it was long enough to reach a conclusion: the Go is excellent and a great buy. It’s light and comfortable to wear. The new lenses are the best I’ve seen, with a much bigger sweet spot than Rift. (Lenses matter a great deal to the effective resolution of the display, as Oliver Kreylos explained in a blog post this week.) Along with better pixel fill from the LCD, its a marked improvement over Gear VR and Daydream. Performance from the Snapdragon 821 processor will be superior to an equivalent phone thanks to Oculus’ improved control over the hardware and OS, although it won’t match the latest Snapdragon processors. However, because developers need to target the widest possible set of devices, the Galaxy S6 or S7 will be setting the limits on graphical performance for the foreseeable future.
As for the rest, the experience is basically identical to the one you’re familiar with on Gear VR with the controller accessory. The built in microphone should be a boon for social VR apps if the Go is a success — audio input was less than reliable on Gear VR thanks to the wide variety of possible microphones in use.
For $200 it’s an unbeatable value; even a used Galaxy device with a Gear VR would cost more and would be a far inferior experience. The only competition is the Pico Goblin, which costs $70 more and is hobbled by a lack of content in its own app store, as well as a general lack of refinement in its OS when compared to the Go.
Lenovo Mirage Solo Hands-On
I also had plenty of time with the Lenovo Mirage Solo at the show. The inside-out tracking did not work well, but this was a problem that every inside-out tracked device brought to VRLA was suffering from. A combination of shimmering concrete floors, passers-by, flashing monitors, and decorative laser beams wreaked havoc. The Mirage Solo actually fared better than some Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality glasses in use at another booth, but the environment left me unable to pass judgement on the tracking quality (reports from more controlled environments are favorable).
Other than that, it’s a powerful standalone Daydream device, but at $400 the value proposition is poor. The Daydream app store does not have enough paying customers to make it a viable 1st-choice platform for developers, so aside from Google-funded content, everything will be a port from Gear VR and not built to take advantage of the full power of the Mirage Solo’s hardware. Most importantly, for the moment, Google has hobbled the 6DoF tracking by restricting the user to a rather small “bubble” in which they are allowed to move. If you get too close to the edge of that volume, your entire view fades to a gray void with an arrow pointing you “back to safety”. It’s absolutely infuriating, and completely negates the potential freedom of movement that the inside-out tracking technology should enable. The one nice feature it does over the Oculus Go is the ability to broadcast to a Chromecast device, so others can see what the user in VR is looking at.
The hardware can best be described as OK. It apes the PSVR’s design almost exactly but the headset doesn’t slide back and forth enough for me to get a good fit over my eyes. The halo mount does a good job of placing the weight on one’s forehead, but there’s still a distracting sensation of front-heaviness. Unfortunately it also won’t grip my head well enough to allow me to tilt back and look at the sky without it shifting up and sliding backwards. The thick ratcheting mechanism at the back of the head would also prevent using the device while lying down or reclining in a relaxation experience.
Even if it cost the same, I would personally choose the Go for its better comfort and content library. The Mirage Solo’s 6 DoF tracking adds little to the experience with the current lock-out mechanism in place. If full freedom of movement was allowed then it would probably be a fun devkit to experiment with big play areas, but I still would hesitate to recommend it to consumers.
At VRLA I also had a chance to try out a few in-development headsets. The $750! Pico Neo is extremely similar to the Mirage Solo, but the hardware is nicer across the board, easier to fit and more comfortable. My understanding is that it uses the same Snapdragon inside out tracking tech, but the OS does not lock you out of wandering around as much as you like. Unfortunately it was suffering from the same tracking glitches as every other inside-out tracked device on the show floor so I can’t pass judgement from my less-than-acceptable experience. Pico’s pre-release OS suffered a bug making it unable to place the representation of the 3DoF controller correctly, making the demo unplayable.
vrgineers VRHero 5K
I had plenty of time to play with the vrgineers VRHero 5K headset. This massive beast hails from Prague and is intended for professional use. It has canted 2560×1440 displays for each eye and utilizes Steam VR tracking. Unfortunately, the design compromises everything in pursuit of that resolution. The purported 150-170 field of view is undermined by extreme optical distortion on the far left and right edges, narrowing the field of view to something more like 110 horizontally, and the vertical field of view seems far more constricted than on consumer headsets. Tracking and latency seemed fine when I supported the HMD with my hands, but the massive momentum of the incredibly heavy headset meant that when I stopped turning my head, the screens kept moving, creating an effect not unlike that of poor motion-to-photons latency and quickly leading to sim sickness (I had a similar if less obvious problem with the Dell MR headset). The screens can be slid around individually to adjust for IPD and focus, but the settings are not passed electronically to the Steam VR compositor, so in the demonstration, IPD mismatch led to all the objects appearing unnaturally small. A built in 2nd-generation Leap Motion sensor worked well.
At the end of the day the only people buying these are either buying them sight-unseen or have never tried a Vive or Oculus and are purchasing based on specifications alone. I can’t see anyone continuing to use it if they had the option of using a Vive Pro instead.
AntVR brought a prototype of their MixAR headset, which they are planning to start pre-selling as a devkit on Kickstarter later this month. The device does live up to its claims of a 95-degree field of view and is extremely light and comfortable to wear. There is no built-in tracking technology, though, so there isn’t much to the device, which is little more than a frame, a pair of lenses, and two screens pointing down at two half-silvered mirrors. Developers will need to attach a Vive tracking puck. The demo was using tracking technology from their partner company NOLO VR, which I’m sorry to report did not work well at all.
Other VRLA Discoveries
I’m awarding my personal Best In Show award to Cleanbox. The company is selling hardware designed to clean and dry HMDs in location-based and show floor environments. It was in use at Survios’ booth for their Creed boxing game demo, which had every participant breaking a sweat. The system consists of fans, a compressed air blower, and UV LEDs to eliminate bacteria. The headset is sprayed with a “nanotech” coating to prevent sweat and oil from sticking to it easily (I think it must be similar to the oleophobic coating on the iPhone screen or hydrophobic additives in car wash rinses). Survios was wiping down the soft straps with alcohol as well.
Cleanbox is offering bespoke equipment as a lease, starting at around $1,300 per year for a single-headset model. Clearly if the equipment could be manufactured rather than handmade it would be a lot less expensive given its simple design, so hopefully Cleanbox will be able to partner with someone to get the device out to everyone that needs it. But as a past sufferer of HMD-borne diseases I’m glad that a company is addressing the issue.
In general there was more professionalism regarding keeping headsets clean this year, thanks to evidence of consolidation towards location based entertainment providers. Neurogaming had an impressive space set up and their demo team was highly professional, cleaning and cycling the headsets, keeping the setup process very efficient.
Neurogaming brought what is probably the most sophisticated multiplayer LBE experience in existence, Polygon VR (Ian Hamilton’s review). It doesn’t have environmental effects, but it has extremely high graphical fidelity and multiplayer across multiple locations spread around the globe. There is also a broadcasting system that shows the match from multiple camera angles as it progresses. It uses backpack PCs, StrikerVR rifles and OptiTrack technology.
Location Based VR Entertainment Is Profitable
Besides Neurogaming, multiple LBE companies were present. The representatives were bullish on the industry, saying that current locations were profitable and expansions were planned. Virtual Room for example, already has a dozen locations with many more planned including a second Hollywood location.
VRMotion has a four-player “Black Badge” experience where you blast aliens, either from an “elevator” with Vive headsets and controllers, or in a PhaseSpace tracking volume with backpack PCs and StrikerVR rifles. It has three locations including those in Seoul and Tokyo.
SPHERES Looks Stunning
Intel was showing off SPHERES: A Song of Spacetime in its “virtual classroom”, a VR series narrated by Jessica Chastain and produced by Darren Aronofsky among others, which made waves at Sundance when rights to it were sold in a seven-figure deal. It looks like the production value justifies that kind of money; although I didn’t have a chance to experience it first hand, the mirrored imagery on the computer screens was already extremely impressive. You can learn more about it and its director Eliza McNitt, in an Oculus blog post from January.
VRLA Was Quieter Than Usual
VRLA ran very smoothly this year. It expanded to halls H & J, with J given over to keynotes. In previous conferences the “Pro Pass” was restricted to just the morning of each day, but this time Pro Pass holders got Friday to themselves. The result was a perhaps too-quiet show floor the first day. Day 2 saw significantly more people with some lines stretching to an hour, but it was far less crowded than it has been in the past. That’s both good and bad — it was hard not to interpret it as flagging public interest, especially given that the recent release of Ready Player One should have stoked the flames a bit.
More to Come?
This has been an unusually long issue, but this coming week promises even more announcements with the Microsoft Build and Google IO conferences competing for developers’ attendance.