A consumer perspective of VR hardware

(The following article appears in my monthly VR wrap-up for Bright Metallic magazine. Bright Metallic is a Second Life in-world magazine spanning the realms of sci-fi, dystopia, futuristic, industrial and cyberpunk genres featuring articles, events, photography and art from Second Life residents. Metallic Magazine is also available outside of Second life on Issuu.)

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As a consumer you have been able to get a virtual reality experience for some time now. However your choices have been somewhat limited. Google Cardboard is a great starting point for anyone wanting to get a taste for VR. Leveraging the power of the smartphone in your pocket with enough cardboard to support a couple of lenses over the screen and you are on your way. Millions of Cardboard units have been sold or given way as part of promotions. Want something more substantial?  Dozens of companies have made units out of plastic with various extra features, such as the View-master VR and the Gear VR. However if you wanted a more advanced VR experience powered by your desktop computer you choices have been limited to prototype hardware intended for developers. This all changed this year with Oculus, HTC, and Sony all starting to take pre-orders and starting to ship consumer versions of their VR headsets. So if you want to jump in to VR today what are your choices?

HTC Vive

At arguably the highest end of the spectrum is the HTC Vive. The biggest feature of the Vive is what’s being called “room scale” VR. Rather than sitting or standing in front of a camera that tracks your movements, the Vive can track you in a room as large as 3 by 3 Meters. (15 by 15 feet)  A pair of laser transmitters are placed at opposite corners of a room and the headset and controllers have sensors to pick up the laser signals and work out their positions. Right now HTC is the only headset using this aptly named “lighthouse” system, but say they are willing to license it out to other platforms. The headset itself includes dual 1080 x 1200 screens, running at 90 Hz with an approximate 110 degrees of view with two motion controllers included. This impressive system comes with a high end price tag of $799US. Orders placed as I write this are expected to ship around June 2016.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift has spec very similar to the HTC Vive, dual 1080 x 1200 screens, running at 90 Hz with an approximate 100-110 degrees of view. The Rift includes integrated headphones that the Vive does not. (The Rift headphones are removable if you want to use your own) Head tracking is done with a USB camera (included) that works seated or standing but doesn’t allow for the freedom of motion of the Vive. Notably missing are motion controllers that are expected to be available in the 2nd half of 2016. Instead you get an “Oculus Remote” for simple navigation and volume control as well as an Xbox One controller. Price tag is $599US with new orders expecting to ship in August 2016.

PSVR

Finally we come to the PlayStation VR. Rather than 2 displays the PSVR has a single 1920 x 1080 screen that gives each eye 960 x 1080 at 90 Hz with an approximate 100 degrees of view. The base price for the PSVR is $399US but this doesn’t include the motion controllers or the PlayStation Camera (that you may or may not already have) that are another $100US.

To make an informed decision when buying one of these VR platforms you have to consider the total cost, meaning the base computer to run these headset. Unless you have a very high end gamer PC you are very likely to at least need a new video card to run the Rift or Vive. The recommended NVIDIA GTX 970 or equivalent will run you something over $300US. If you need a whole new system you will want to check out one of the many “Oculus Ready Certified” systems that start around $1000US. This of course is where the PlayStation VR shines as you can get a new PS4 for about $350US. Total costs of a new VR system would be around $849US for PSVR, $1599US for Rift and $1799US for the Vive.

Why you need to be watching The Real Virtual Show

So I started following The Real Virtual Show’s host Malia Probst last year when she posted an article to the Virtual Reality community on ZapChain where I am a moderator. She is well informed in the current state of VR with a great enthusiasm for the subject. (Exactly what we need) For a relatively new show she has already gotten some great members of the VR community including people from AltSpaceVR, OtherworldVR, Cubicle Ninjas, and 360HEROS just to name a few.

The Real Virtual Show starts out interview, works its way into conversational with incorporated audience questions as it goes, it’s a great informal format. The live show happens over on Blab.im, a great live conversation site that brings live video feeds and audience chat together with some clever little features that bring it all together. Recorded audio podcast of the show are available on iTunes for free, you can read my iTunes review below. Personally I can’t wait to catch the next show with Dora Cheng Cofounder of uForis VR: Virtual Reality solution provider. Let’s all support women in VR and check out the next episode of The Real Virtual Show.

RVS iTunes Review

Oculus price put focus on HTC and Sony pricing

Yes Oculus started taking pre orders for the Oculus Rift on January 6, for $599US not including shipping and handling. The price announcement, as they say, broke the Internet. Many claimed that the price was far more than they were planning to pay and that’s not without reason. While Oculus had never given out a price specifically there was lot of round about talk of a price point of the “DK2” developer kit price of $350. Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey had even stated at one point that the consumer version of the rift would be, “roughly in that ballpark … but it’s going to cost more than that.” The problem being no one, including me quite frankly, thought it was going to be that much more.

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Palmer defended the price by saying, “…you have to decide what tradeoffs you’re going to make, are you going to optimize for absolute lowest price possible, even if it’s going to be a lower quality experience?” and  “This is the best possible experience that we were able to make. No compromises were made in terms of quality.” In the end Palmer apologized for “assuming we had been clear enough about setting expectations” for the headset’s price, saying “I handled the messaging poorly.”

As the initial sticker shock wore off people rationalized the price by both the amount of technology that has gone into the unit, and comparing higher price points for things like early HDTVs and current iPhones. Of course early adopters and developers just shrugged and put in their pre orders anyway. While no hard numbers have been given as to how many Rifts have been presold, it seems to have exceeded Oculus’ expectation. Preorder shipment date had been set for March 28, but within days that expected shipment date increased by weeks and months. As I write this, about 3 weeks after the preorder start, the expected ship date has been pushed out to July 2016 for any preorders made today.

One of the basic rules of negotiation is the first person to name a price loses in the end. So with the price for a high end VR headset fixed at $599 what will that mean for the HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. Rumors and “price leaks” are all over the map with most putting the price of the Vive higher than the Rift and PSVR lower. Last year HTC had stated that the Vive would be more expensive than the Rift but that was back when the price on the table was $350.

Personally this is how I think the prices will break down. I see the Vive as being the same or only slightly higher than the Rift. The 2 headsets, while having very different head position tracking systems, are very similar in most other aspects. PSVR will be less because the PlayStation can focus on making their money back on games sold and sell their hardware for a loss as they have in the past.  For the PSVR base headset around $300 and more for PS4 systems that do not already have the motion camera and controllers around $450 total, with a likely discounted new PS4+PSVR bundle as low as $700.

The previous article appeared in my monthly VR wrap-up for Bright Metallic magazine. Bright Metallic is a Second Life in-world magazine spanning the realms of sci-fi, dystopia, futuristic, industrial and cyberpunk genres featuring articles, events, photography and art from Second Life residents. Bright Metallic Magazine is also available outside of Second life on Issuu.

The Virtual Reality of Survival Horror

Survival horror is a favorite genre of mine and one that is particularly well suited to Virtual Reality.  Horror games generally have a slower, more methodical pacing, punctuated with creepy or intense moments. This all works well with the immersion of VR with many users saying that horror in VR is much more intense than the traditional set up. In VR you no longer have the distractions of real life, it’s just you, alone, in a strange environment… Wait. Are you alone?

Beyond the increased immersion, VR opens up many new possibilities. Rather than seeing a bunch of bats swarming around your avatar’s head, THE BATS ARE SWARMING AROUND YOUR HEAD!  With spatialized audio and freely moving your head around, you can, slowly, work out where sounds are coming from, just like in real life. “Is that scratching sound coming from behind that door on the left?” “Did something just sneak up behind me?” From a game design perspective there are all sorts of new possibilities as well. In addition to knowing where a player is standing like in a normal game you can tell where a player is looking. This information can be used to drive the story and make it more responsive. A painting on the wall seems normal enough until you look directly at it. A ghostly child that follows you as you walk around, but runs away when you look at it.

With the slower overall pacing of horror it tends to not have as many issues as far as VR induced nausea, always a good thing. However the extreme intensity of the VR Horror experience does big about a new issue, that of the “Jump Scare”. You have likely seen more than one “reaction video” were some unsuspecting victim experiences a jump scare, or experienced one yourself. The jump scare is a technique used in horror films and video games where you scare the viewer by surprising them with an abrupt or startling event. While some people love jump scares others hate them and there is the questionable possibility of it causing issues with someone with a bad heart. This is considered to be enough of an issue that Oculus is covering it in their “Comfort Rating” given to all games in the official Oculus store. In addition to telling how likely an experience may cause VR sickness, it will inform the user on the level of intensity, or fear they can possibly expect from a particular VR experience.

Finally I’m going to give you a short list of Horror VR experiences to try out. To make the list as accessible as possible I’m keeping it to Free Google VR Cardboard experiences that do not require a controller to use. All of these are available on Android from the Google play store with some available now or coming out for iOS. (If you don’t have a compatible smartphone or a Google VR Cardboard yet, YouTube is your friend)

Chair In A Room – Ryan Bousfield

VR Silent Home : Horror House – SuperMonkeyFun

VR Horror House – Dong3D.com

11:57 – Wemersive Ltd.

Sisters – Otherworld Interactive

Please remember these are all Horror VR experiences so expect jump scares and other intense situations. Headphones are a must and I recommend you be seated in an office chair with the lights out.

Mycestro Wearable Mouse Product Review

I had the opportunity to try out the Mycestro wearable mouse for the last couple of weeks as part of the sproutup product trial program and it’s a pretty interesting device. The Mycestro fits around your right index or middle finger giving you full 3 button mouse capability. On your computers end it connects via a standard dongle and Bluetooth connection. Recharging and configuration are done via a mini USB port. (Cable included) I have used every flavor of mouse type input device under the sun, and this one is defiantly different.

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In order to move the cursor you need to touch the thumb pad and move your hand. This simple sounding action probably took me the longest to get the hang of.  After getting the hang of touching the thumb pad at the right time and not waving my whole arm around like a lunatic it’s actually pretty simple to use. You only need to make small movements with your hand to cursor around and it’s pretty accurate. In addition to the 3 mouse buttons swiping your thumb back and forth on the top area of the thumb pad acts like a scroll wheel.

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The Mycestro is lightweight (1/2 ounce or about 14 grams) and while it doesn’t interfere with typing, but you do notice it is there. I wasn’t able to detect any kind of lag in using the device however I did notice that it does seem to skip if you move your hand too quickly. My original impression was that this was a 3D mouse but that actually isn’t the case, despite the number of reviewers that insist on calling it that. While you do move your hand around in 3D space to make it work, it only functions as a normal 2D mouse. So if you were hoping for this to work like a mini SpaceMouse or SpaceNavigator you are out of luck.

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I do like the Mycestro but it does have a few shortcomings. Charging is easy enough, and 3 hours of charging will buy you 2 days of normal use. However there is no way to turn the unit off or tell when it needs to be charged. So while the Mycestro is perfect as an alternative to the touchpad on a laptop it’s likely to need recharging after living in your laptop bag for a while. You can use it with the cable attached but it’s beyond awkward.

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It’s also not really useful for playing games. Like I mentioned before it has a tendency to skip if you move it too fast. Also the thumb pad arrangement is ill suited to games that require you to click more than one button at a time. I was unable to pair the unit with my Android phone so I was not able to test it as a controller for Google Cardboard. But from what I have read it’s not compatible with most Android devices.

If you have a laptop that you use often the Mycestro is a great alternative to using a touch pad. It’s perfect to more casual applications like surfing the web and reading documents. Overall it’s a good alternative mouse to have but I wouldn’t want to use it as my only mouse.

The Mycestro and related gear (check out the little gift box) is avalable on their website @ http://www.mycestro.com/shop/

What Google Cardboard is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important.

There is always a fair amount of confusion when it comes to Virtual Reality and related technologies. This is not exactly surprising as what has been going on in the last few years has been coming at a breakneck pace.  However nothing seems to be more confusing to individuals and media outlets than Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard was revealed on Jun 26 during the 2014 Google I/O conference. At its basics Google Cardboard is a simple enclosure, and an open source Software Development Kit (SDK) that transforms a smartphone into a simple virtual reality headset.

The physical “cardboard” part of Google Cardboard is first a method of suspending a paired set of lenses, at the correct focal length, over your smartphone so half of the screen is in focus for each eye giving you the ability to see a stereo 3D view.  The second feature of the physical cardboard is a method for triggering an event. On the original or Cardboard V1 design this was a pair of magnets attached to the side of the device that could be shifted and detected by your smartphones magnetic field sensor. This trigger can also be done via a direct or indirect touch of the screen. The cardboard 2.0 design features a soft screen touch button enabled with a clever use of conductive foam and tape. (Something covered in the original cardboard specification but not implemented)

On the software end google has provided a pair of software development kits, (SDK) one for Android and one for the Unity Game engine. These SDKs provide a developer an easier path to creating google cardboard experiences by handling the basics such as user head tracking, stereo rendering, and lens distortion correction. Use of these SDKs is not a requirement to create a google cardboard app and other companies such as Durovis, makers of the dive VR headset, provide their own SDKs with their own set of features.

Google Cardboard is not a product sold by google. The cardboard specifications were created by Google, but there is no official producer or retailer for the device. Many media outlets get this entire concept wrong and refer to various vendors efforts as “knock offs” or “challenges” to google when it simply isn’t true. In fact if you go to the official google cardboard site you can’t buy the device from google. You will find plans to make your own cardboard device from scratch or to buy kits or finished designs from other companies. As there isn’t a specific design standard for google cardboard manufactures are free to experiment with material and design.

The importance of this simple folded cardboard box is easy to dismiss and google cardboard was considered by many to just be a prank by google at the 2014 Google I/O conference. Of course the amazing part of google cardboard has nothing to do with the cardboard but has everything to do with the smartphone inside of it. Most modern smartphones include a screen with a size & resolution good enough to be used as a stereo display, a gyroscope & accelerometer good enough to do head tracking and stereo audio good enough to do spatialized audio. All of this technology that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have in their pockets is more than enough to drive a fairly compelling VR experience. The fact is a google cardboard headset more or less rivals most VR systems from the from the 90’s costing many thousands of dollars

Of course this shift in price is the real importance of google cardboard. High end VR systems for the consumer market are on the way, but will cost several hundreds to over a thousand of dollars for a complete system. A basic google cardboard case can be had for a few dollars and are often given away by the thousands as promotions at events. Google has stated that over a million cardboard units have been sold already and with the Mattel’s View-Master cardboard device coming out for the 2015 holiday season the devices are going to be common by next year.  5 to 10 years from now when VR is commonplace we will look back on cardboard as the spark that got most people interested in VR much like we look back at the oversized cellphones that lead to the smartphone age we live in today.