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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Oculus Rift DK2

head-tracking solutions like TrackIR.
The Development Kit 2 is, as the name suggests, a device for developers, not consumers. As such, it is not representative of the final polished product that Oculus still hope to launch in 2015. However, it is freely available for the public to buy at www.oculus.com simply check the box that reads ‘I understand this hardware is intended for developers and it is not a consumer product’ and your very own VR headset will find its way to your door.

For some, this early opportunity to try virtual reality has been difficult to resist. Many kits are already in the hands of enthusiasts, but Oculus are keen to stress that you should wait for the consumer version unless you are a developer or prepared to deal with all kinds of quirks and issues. After an hour of testing, it was easy to understand their concern, and even today, with months of in-depth DK2 usage under my belt, I am still troubleshooting on a regular basis. The device has many hardware and software flaws, from the initial setup through to the final experience. VR content is in short supply; ‘tech demos’ at various stages of completion appear regularly, but there are barely any fully-polished games available at this stage.


With all that clarification out of the way, what is it actually like for sim racing right now? The good news is, the support from the majority of sim studios has been very positive. I’ve been able to test the DK2 in Live For Speed, RaceRoom Racing Experience, Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, iRacing, GRID Autosport and even Richard Burns Rally over the past few months and as an experience, it is incredible. Undeniably, the wow-factor is very high indeed. But as a tool for serious racing, it’s
only passable. Not only are the implementations of VR quite variable and at different stages of completion across sims, the DK2 specification itself is not ready for prime-time. The resolution is poor, the ‘screendoor effect’ (from seeing the grid of gaps between sub-pixels) is distracting, the overall latency of the system isn’t quite low enough to avoid nausea entirely for everyone (the causes of nausea/sim-sickness are wide-ranging and the effects vary significantly between individuals),
and there are plenty of optical problems still to be resolved. Looking down the track towards your next braking point, the lack of fidelity becomes apparent, and unfortunately that middle-distance is where a driver tends to look the majority of the time. It’s a huge step forward from the original development kit, but still less than ideal for picking out finer details.

The list of drawbacks continue. It is quite heavy; 379g might seem light compared to the cumbersome head-mounted displays of the 90s, but it still needs to be tightly strapped to avoid the unit shifting slightly on your head as you glace around (even a slight shift can cause the lenses to move away from the minuscule sweet spot in front your eyes). Most of the weight is towards the front, and with a basic ‘ski goggle’ design, the device feels like it is forcibly strapped to the front your face, putting constant pressure on your cheeks, rather than sitting on your head like a helmet (as shown with Sony’s Morpheus headset). The DK2’s enclosure and strap design can result in discomfort over longer sessions and sweat can be an issue, particularly if you are grappling with a heavy FFB wheel over a race distance.

Live For Speed was one of the quickest to implement DK2 support; their solution remains one of the most impressive, and it helps that their graphics engine is undemanding, meaning the essential 75fps can be achieved with very modest PC hardware. ‘Essential’ is not an overstatement; dropping framerate in VR is unacceptable, being one of the primary causes of nausea. Assetto Corsa has the graphical chops to truly bring VR to the next level, and Kunos’ implementation is currently very limited in terms of menu support but makes for an incredible demo. Richard Burns Rally deserves a special mention it didn’t seem likely that an older sim with no official developer support could receive the VR treatment, but the RBR community is full of surprises popular Finnish modder ‘Kegetys’ created a magnificent VR mode complete with virtual desk and monitors for navigating the VR-unfriendly menus. Retro-fitting games with VR support can be disastrous (playing a fast-paced first person shooter in VR is a very quick way to lose your lunch for example), but the RBR mod shows that driving sims can be retro-fitted very successfully.

iRacing currently has the most seamless support, in theory at least. It feels the most ‘plug and play’ of all the software and hopefully we will see that level of polish across the board once consumer VR takes off. But many people have had performance problems with iRacing in particular, which is likely due to their unique VR implementation on an old DX9 engine. With iRacing promising to move to DX11 soon, the hope is that this will allow for more efficient VR rendering.

When it works well, it is an astonishing experience. It quite simply feels like you are in a car. It is very difficult to even compare the sensation to triple-screen setups; their days are surely numbered. Some will still prefer the triple-screen experience at this stage, with monitors being capable of much higher image quality. But once the resolution problems are overcome, and the comfort of wearing the headset improves, it will become harder to argue a case for triple screens. Despite the poor resolution, the increased spatial awareness is already very apparent something impossible to achieve with even the most perfectly-calibrated triple-screen setup. No longer are there any concerns about setting the correct FOV for example it just works in VR. The scale of every object is correct, the cockpit details suddenly have believable depth, you can judge distances without thinking, and wheel-to-wheel racing is massively enhanced.

One common concern that crops up in discussions about VR sim racing is the inability to see your controls keyboards, shifters, button boxes, etc. It is certainly an inconvenience in some situations, but less of a problem than you might imagine. Most of your sim inputs are performed with the help of muscle memory, and you are probably already finding things by feel more often than you realise. A button box with distinctively-shaped switches helps matters, and software like Voice Attack is very
effective for controlling various settings with simple voice commands, if you want to avoid feeling around for buttons. It is also possible that the consumer version will have a pass-through camera if you really need to see the outside world, but it would be very dangerous to switch mid-race. A simpler solution would be a hinge that allows the wearer to flip up the front section of the headset so that they can see the real world without having to remove the headset entirely, as shown on Sony’s VR prototype, Project Morpheus.

Oculus’ recent ‘Crescent Bay’ feature prototype was shown to the public at CES in January. It represents the VR experience they hope to achieve with the first consumer version, and the reactions have been very positive. The resolution is higher, ‘screendoor’ is almost entirely eliminated, the headset is much lighter and the responsiveness has improved once again. Since its initial reveal at Oculus Connect last year, the headset has been updated with true spatial audio, having licensed VisiSonics’ RealSpace 3D technology. Being able to combine audio with the head tracking sensors promises to deliver a surround sound sensation much more believable than any traditional surround solution. The potential of spatial audio in sim racing is not to be underestimated. The result of all these headset improvements amounts to a much stronger feeling of ‘presence’ the unique feature of VR where your brain is convinced, at a subconscious level, that you have been transported to another place. I have experienced fleeting glimpses of ‘presence’ using DK2 but it will only be truly convincing with the improved performance of the consumer headsets.

Sim racing is an ideal fit for the Rift. It is easiest to set up as a seated experience, there are many dedicated controllers already available, offering essential haptic feedback that they are struggling to achieve for other genres, the cockpit views rendered by driving sims are already perfectly suited to VR, and many sims are already optimised to run at the essential high framerates. However, system requirements are a point of concern. With a powerful GPU (such as a Radeon 290X or an Nvidia GTX 970), most DK2-supported software works fairly well, maintaining the 75fps target. But with the consumer version promising a higher resolution, as well has an even higher refresh rate that needs to be maintained (at least 90Hz), the requirements will be very high, similar to that of running high-refresh triple screens. If you are waiting for the consumer Rift, it would be wise to wait to upgrade your hardware nearer the time too.

But if there was one reason to jump into VR headset ownership early, it’s driving simulators. On the one hand, the DK2 is already an incredible device the best VR headset available today by a comfortable margin. The tracking is superb, and the contrast and motion fidelity is likely to be better than any display you currently own thanks to the low persistence OLED. By all means, jump in now, but be aware that the DK2 is already out of date and the real deal is still due to arrive this year. It would be wise to wait; sim racing is on the verge of a new era.

MORPHEUS & VIVE
Oculus have spearheaded the latest VR revolution, but with a genuine chance of spawning a new industry, this was never going to be a one-horse race. Sony were quick to announce Project Morpheus last year, a VR headset for PlayStation 4, due to hit the shelves in early 2016. This isn’t seen as a direct competitor to the Rift, as in the short term at least, Sony’s main rival is Microsoft’s Xbox One, while Oculus tries to win the hearts of the PC gamer. However a new challenger has appeared on PC, with HTC teaming up with Valve to create the Vive, which saw a surprise announcement at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

Valve have experimented with VR since 2012, and information and technology was shared between Valve and Oculus during the early days. The partnership is still an amicable one, but it is clear that there was a recent change of heart, with Valve moving from ‘we’re not interested in making a headset’ to becoming a major player in the race to bring VR to the masses. As it stands, the Vive is due to launch in November 2015, whereas Oculus are still floundering without a date, although it is still due ‘this year’. The idea that Valve can turn up with an initial announcement in March and have a consumer headset ready by November seems somewhat far-fetched, but keep those fingers crossed that we see at least one consumer headset before 2016.

The Morpheus, Rift and Vive are fairly similar in terms of how they deliver visuals, with optically-corrected stereo rendering sent through a pair of lenses combined with various forms of low latency tracking. This is no coincidence these companies have shared a great deal of information together and arrived at similar solutions deliberately, so that VR development has a common ground between platforms. There are more than just these three headsets to discuss, such as FOVE, Gear VR, Cardboard, OSVR, Glyph; the list goes on, and no doubt there are some in development yet to be revealed. But at this early stage, discussing the potential of too many products can be confusing, particularly as some of these prototypes may never make it to market, or are simply not suitable for sim racing. What is clear is that Oculus now have some serious competition, and this is surely good news for the consumer. We will be covering the most relevant headsets in future issues, so watch this space!

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