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.

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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.