Oculus VR: No Ready to talk about a final consumer mode - Games Weekly

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Oculus VR: No Ready to talk about a final consumer mode

The Oculus Rift DK2 headset  an enormous, game-changing improvement over Oculus VR’s first development kit from 2012 is in the process of reaching developers and consumers, but it’s already outdated.

Cosying your eyeballs up against the optics of the Oculus Rift DK2 headset can be like strapping on Keanu Reeves’ head mounted display in 1995 cyberpunk flick Johnny Mnemonic. It’s virtual reality, all right, but it’s VR through the lens of low budget ’90s CGI. In comparison, Oculus VR’s new prototype headset, Crescent Bay, shown off at the Oculus Connect event in Los Angeles, is more like
becoming Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

At Connect, the VR company’s first developer event, CEO Brendan Iribe talked about “presence” in VR: that sensation of reality that the virtual still can’t quite match. Presence isn’t about photorealistic graphics, but rather tricking the senses and making them buy into the headset’s array of pixels. “Presence” may have seemed like a marketing buzzword during the new era of VR development, but using a Crescent Bay unit brings its importance into focus.

The new prototype is significantly lighter than previous Rifts, with a simplified strap system that tightens over the top of the head with a strip of velcro. A pair of vintage-Walkman-style earphones descends flimsily from the sides of the prototype, but they remove the awkward which do I put on first  dance of Rift and headphones. More importantly, the earphones signal a new focus for Oculus on positional audio, a key ingredient in achieving presence in VR. Oculus has licensed RealSpace 3D’s audio technology, a library that allows game developers to program positional sound data for Rift applications.

The biggest changes to Oculus Rift are inside. The display now runs at 90 Hz, ramped up from the DK2 unit’s 75Hz. It’s also a higher-resolution display, its pixel density improved enormously over DK2’s 1920x1080 array (which, split between two sections, makes for  a resolution of 960 x 1080 per eye).

The original Oculus Rift development kit offers an even lower 720p resolution, and suffers greatly from a ‘screen-door’ effect thanks to the black grid separating each pixel in the low-density array. Using DK2, by comparison, is like staring through a much finer mesh, and in Crescent Bay the grid is nearly invisible. Though Oculus VR has not confirmed its precise resolution, the new display seems
better even than the 2560x1440 display of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, the phone powering Oculus’s mobile project, Gear VR. Part of that clarity, says Oculus VP of product Nate Mitchell, is down to
the improved optics that sit between eyeball and display. He won’t disclose the exact resolution, but Crescent Bay may be using a 2560 x 1440 display, with some clever engineering in the lenses minimising the screen-door effect.

Mitchell is keen to talk about the “experience” of Crescent Bay rather than its specific components. Again, it sounds like it may be marketing spin, until you actually put on the headset and experience the combination of the clearer optics, denser display, positional audio, and 360-degree head tracking, which is the last major addition to Crescent Bay. LEDs on the front, sides and rear strap of the headset allow a positional tracking camera to follow your every head movement. The moment you take a real, physical step and feel that movement translated into VR, you get presence.

Oculus used a bundle of minute-long demos to show off Crescent Bay’s capabilities, the most powerful of which places you on the ledge of a skyscraper overlooking a steampunk-styled cityscape. Peeking over the edge or trying to step forward instantly triggers the same  vertigo acrophobics feel on rooftops.

Another, and by far the most charming, renders a tiny model town in front of you, with a miniature train chugging along a railway and a cute UFO wobbling above its buildings. Moving your face close to the town feels like lording over an adorable SimCity, while also providing a good demonstration of Crescent Bay’s positional audio. The noises of the city fade in and out and move around your head as you get closer and shift focus from one part of the city to another.

Another demo places you inside a forest rendered in simple, pastel polygons with a crackling fire and a grazing deer a few feet away. Standing still and absorbing the ambient noise, which shifts realistically as you look around or, even better, walking through the three dimensional space is the closest technology has come to replicating the Star Trek holodeck, at least in a device that almost anyone will be able to own.

‘When’ is the difficult question. According to Mitchell, Oculus VR currently has no plans to sell Crescent Bay. Developers are only now receiving Rift DK2 units. Could Crescent Bay become a DK3 released in 2015? Or is it an early version of the long-awaited consumer unit? If it is, it likely won’t arrive until late 2015 Paul Bettner, developer of VR platformer Lucky’s Tale, says he plans to release his game in the first half of 2015, before the consumer headset is available. Bettner has commended Oculus VR’s pursuit of perfection, but it seems that the end of 2015 is the earliest the consumer headset will show up.

Even in prototype form, Crescent Bay is the first Rift that seems ready for the masses. There are the significant technological improvements, for starters. Faster and more accurate positional tracking and higher refresh rates minimise the common causes of VR motion sickness. “There are broad ranges of
sensitivities [to refresh rate],” John Carmack noted in his Oculus Connect keynote. DK1’s 60Hz made almost everyone motion sick. Crescent Bay’s 90Hz, however, is fast enough to be imperceptible to most users. Its effect,  a beguiling sensation of feeling truly present in a 3D environment, seems powerful enough to sell to anyone.

But what will it take to turn Oculus VR’s short demos into full experiences that really sell the potential of VR? As the company barrels ahead towards an eventual consumer version, that task will fall to game developers. Devs working on games for DK2 have to contend with stereoscopic rendering at 75Hz, which is far more demanding than running a game at 1080p and 60fps. Crescent Bay runs at an even higher resolution and refresh rate. In his Oculus Connect keynote, Oculus VR chief scientist Michael Abrash noted that 90Hz VR requires “effectively about six times the rendering rate of current games”. Demo units used Intel i7 CPUs and Nvidia’s GTX 980 cards to hit 90 Hz in relatively simple demos.

“I can summarise VR graphics in four words: a lot more everything,” Abrash said. “We’re going to need higher-quality graphics, we’re going to need more graphics, and we’re going to need faster graphics. Hardware and software throughout the pipeline will have to change massively, causing a re-evaluation of the techniques that have been worked out so carefully over 30 years. For a while, graphics will be the Wild West again, as a slew of experiments get run to find out the new graphics sweet  spots for the VR world.”

The technology industry is clearly up to the task the likes of Intel and Nvidia never stand still, and they will rise to meet the demands of VR. Oculus VR’s biggest obstacle is more nebulous: how will it bring the immersion of standing VR to consumers in their homes?

“The Oculus Rift is a seated experience,” said Palmer Luckey at Oculus Connect. “The Oculus Rift is a seated experience right now, and we encourage people to not stand. Because we don’t support that.”

Why, then, were all of the Crescent Bay demos built around the ability to stand? “Technically speaking, our camera is very wide field of view; we can cover an entire room with just one camera,” Luckey continued. “But we don’t encourage people to use it that way.”
Even Oculus VR may not know exactly what shape the first consumer ready Oculus Rift will take
Read between the lines, and you’ll see a company aiming to bring that standing experience to consumers somehow. It’s not going to be easy. There’s still the issue of the power and HDMI cables running to the headset, and many users won’t have a powerful PC in an open space where they can stumble around wearing a Rift. At this point, even Oculus VR may not know exactly what shape the first consumer-ready Oculus Rift will take.

But it will need games, clearly. Developers may not all be able to deliver the incredible sensation of presence when they release their first Rift titles, but everyone who buys the tech will be eager for games to play. Now that most developers interested in VR have Oculus Rift DK2s, the real work is just beginning.

Luckey: “A game usually takes years to put together and polish, so many of the [developers at Connect] are at the point where they have one level or one demo that’s a core gameplay mechanic that proves that it works well, but it hasn’t been built into a full game yet. I’m looking forward to those little core mechanics being built into real content that are things people want to play.”

Oculus VR’s internal content team built the demos for Connect, several of which ran on Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. According to Luckey, the team is developing first party games in addition to tech demos. “We have them building a wide range of experiences, seeing what works and what doesn’t. For every one of those demos you saw, there’s five more on the cutting-room floor that either didn’t work at all or didn’t work well enough yet to show at Connect. But some of those things might be more than just tech demos. A few years from now, you’ll  look back like, ‘Oh, I remember seeing that when it wasn't a game.’”

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