Two big trends at CES 2016 were 3D printing and drones, but during my visit, I paid special attention to something very close to my heart: PC gaming. NVIDIA, MSI, Razer, Corsair, Rosewill, Logitech, Mad Catz… I hit up as many names in the PC gaming space as I could in order to report back with the most exciting devices and technologies for us gamers. While I saw a lot of impressive hardware and some top-quality peripherals, here are five that made an exceptional particular impression on me.
1. Star Destroyer PC Case
PC gamers who build their own gaming rigs tend to want their computers to look a little more stylized than their standard-issue Dell at the office. Be it a case with flashy LEDs or something more subtle, it’s natural to want a system that cost hundreds – or possibly thousands – of dollars to sit in a case that is worthy of its power. Enter the most impressive case I’ve ever witnessed: one shaped like a Star Wars Star Destroyer.
We’ve covered this astonishing 3D-printed Star Destroyer case back when it went viral, but experiencing it in-person was something else entirely. It is massive. And this is coming from someone who has a full-tower case big enough to take cover behind in a firefight.
I spoke with its creator, Sander van der Velden, who submitted the case as an entry for MSI’s PRO MOD Season 3 contest. MSI decided to showcase the impressive creation at CES, where it was ultimately auctioned off after accumulating a pool of envy-drool on the floor around it.
The next PC case project that van der Velden wants to tackle? The Millennium Falcon. A daunting project, he said, because while he was able to take certain artistic liberties with the Star Destroyer, the Millennium Falcon is so iconic and so well-known that any inconsistencies with the original design will be pointed out mercilessly.
(PS. Yes, this isn’t the standard Star Destroyer, but it is a Venator-class Star Destroyer, aka Republic attack cruiser).
2. Selecting Things On-Screen with Your EYES
You’re at your PC. Your left hand is working the keyboard; your right sits on the mouse. Be it in a game or simply regular use of your operating system, your hands cooperate fluidly in a practiced workflow. But how can we make that workflow even more efficient? Short of some form of robotic arm attachments a la Doctor Octopus – which would be awesome – there isn’t much more room for mechanical input. And that’s where Tobii eye tracking comes in.
I tried an Assassin’s Creed demo using a Tobii eye tracking device built into an MSI laptop, and after some quick and simple calibration, found myself zip-lining from rooftop to rooftop more efficiently than I ever could using a controller. Rather than have to use a thumbstick to slowly rotate to select a spot to zip to, I simply looked where I wanted to go, and the area was instantly selected. While I didn’t get to experience it, selecting among various enemies would work the same way, avoiding the clumsy mechanic of cycling through targets and instead pinpointing without delay the target you have in mind. Similarly, outside of game, when ALT+tabbing between open windows, rather than have to cycle through each, you can just look at the thumbnail of the window you want to open and it is automatically selected.
I must admit that I was skeptical of the eye tracking technology, thinking that it would simply allow you to move the cursor with your eyes and knowing that the tech couldn’t be advanced enough to be more precise than fine hand motions. And while that is a function you can enable, the more innovative use of the tech lies in functions specifically designed to make use of the eye-tracking, as I outlined above. When used properly, it is an elegant system that can increase the efficiency of your workflow or increase your actions-per-minute in a game by giving you a third “hand.” The uses I experienced were beyond intuitive, since your gaze naturally falls to the things you want to select anyhow, and I can easily see eye tracking eventually becoming a standard part of a PC setup, alongside the keyboard and mouse.
3. Virtual Reality so Real You Can Touch It
I wasn’t completely sold on VR until I experienced the HTC Vive. Powered by an MSI gaming PC, the Vive demo immersed me in a Portal-themed world embedded with the charm we’ve come to expect from the franchise and a degree of realism that had me physically reacting to events as though they were real.
The great thing about the Vive versus, say, the Oculus, is that two “lighthouse stations” – sensors mounted on tall poles – track your position in a 15 foot by 15 foot space. This gives you an entire room to walk around in in virtual space, allowing you to use your actual feet to move rather than an alternative, immersion-breaking mechanic. Additionally, the Vive’s head-mounted display feels more immersive by allowing the image to extend further along the periphery of your vision, which really made me feel as though the world stretched on around me in all directions.
Two handheld controllers tracked the position of my hands in space and allowed me to feel as though I was interacting with objects in the virtual world. I reached out to open a drawer, and the tactile response of having to press the trigger on the controller actually made me feel as though I was grabbing onto the drawer’s handle. But what was most telling, to me, about how immersive (there’s that word again!) the experience was, was when the floor began to open up beneath my feet, and I instinctively backed away to avoid falling. My brain was so completely captivated by the illusion that survival instincts kicked in.
The obvious downside of the Vive is that you need to dedicate up to 15 by 15 feet of space to it – that’s effectively giving up a room in your house just for VR. I’m not sure the living rooms of America are ready for the Vive just yet, but I’d love a future in which we have dedicated VR rooms in our homes.
4. Catching Virtual Bullets
The Oculus Rift has been in the public’s eye for years now – I remember trying out the tech at E3 2012 in a demo of the mech-game Hawken – but I’ve seldom seen examples of VR experiences that actually take advantage of the technology to introduce fun gameplay mechanics that you couldn’t get with traditional games. Epic’s Bullet Train demo at CES, powered by an NVIDIA gaming rig, had me grinning from ear to ear by introducing something I’d never experienced before in an FPS game: slowing down time to catch bullets and hurl them back at opponents.
This was accomplished using the Oculus Touch handheld input devices – two mini controllers that you hold in order for the engine to process the position of your hands in space. This not only allowed for a simulation of the experience of reaching out to pluck a bullet out of the air, which is just oodles of fun, but also for the realistic miming of reloading a pump-action shotgun. (Though I must admit that last one was getting tiring on the arms after a while).
There are limitations to the technology, however. To move around, for instance, you can’t actually walk. Instead, you have to teleport from one location to another, which is at once an engaging mechanic and an immersion-breaking reminder that you are not, in fact, Neo from The Matrix. The teleport worked best when it wasn’t used to simply move fifteen feet further into an area, but rather when I’d use it to teleport up to a second level, or away from enemies and behind cover, or even to leapfrog around to confuse and distracted enemies, drawing fire to one direction before teleporting to another and taking aim.
Still, the demo ended with a boss fight against a giant flying robot in which I got to slow down time, pluck inbound missiles out of the air, and hurl them back at the oversized combat drone like the world’s deadliest quarterback. Fun!
5. A Fully Customizable, Modular Gaming Mouse
I visited a number of PC gaming peripheral manufacturers during my CES trip, and while I saw many quality products that I’d love to get my hands on, I didn’t imagine I’d be reporting on any of them with the same degree of excitement I’d have for a Star Destroyer PC case. That was until I visited Mad Catz and saw their R.A.T. PRO X gaming mouse, a peripheral so innovative that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it spark a new trend in the industry.
The R.A.T. PRO X’s claim to fame? Complete customizability and modularity. As it was disassembled before my eyes and rebuilt with alternate components, I was reminded of my childhood K’NEX construction toys – just instead of a hot rod, we were building a gaming mouse to my specifications. How customizable is it? You can swap between three different sensors, including both laser and optical options, three different scroll wheels, each with their own size, shape, and material, two different thumbs rests and three different pinky rests, two types of feet (teflon and ceramic), as well as three different palm rests, all with different textures and materials in order to meet your preferences.
But wait – there’s more! The palm rest can also be rotated up to 15 degrees to better fit your hand shape or grip style. And if the three palm rests that come with the mouse aren’t enough for you, you can even 3D print your own, because… why not? While certainly a gimmick without much practical application right now, the fantasy of 3D printing my own custom palm grip makes my inner child giddy.
The MSI Vortex: Amidst a slew of impressive laptops, graphics cards and motherboards, including a combo graphics card that comes with a Corsair case fan attached to it, MSI showed off an upgradable gaming tower with a unique design, dual SLI graphics support, and a 360 degree silent cooling system.
The Corsair Bulldog & Lapdog: The Bulldog is a 4k-ready gaming system for your living room, and the Lapdog is an ergonomic surface for your keyboard and mouse that you can rest on your lap while sitting on the couch. It was surprisingly light and comfortable!
Moving Hazard: An upcoming PvP zombie FPS game with a twist: the zombies can be weaponized in various ways against other players. While zombies may be overdone, I feel the ideas in this game are different enough to give it a shot – we’ll just have to see how well they execute on their novel concepts.
Razer Blade Stealth & Core, and Stargazer: Razer had some great tech on display this year, including the Razer Blade Stealth, a powerful yet incredibly light gaming laptop that can be superpowered with the Razer Core, a mini-tower addon that turns it into a full-on gaming PC. There was also the Stargazer, a webcam with built-in gesture and facial expression recognition, as well as the ability to dynamically remove backgrounds without the need of a green screen. Impressive stuff!