With the power of Facebook behind them, Oculus embraces iteration, newfound resources, developers, and the future.
Oculus VR held its inaugural “Oculus Connect” developer event last weekend in Los Angeles. A lot has changed for Oculus now, and when Connect was originally announced in July. The latest developer kit (DK2) shipped in August. The company’s acquisition by Facebook has settled, to the point where Oculus staff positions are popping up in Menlo Park (Facebook HQ). Most important, however, was the introduction of Samsung Gear VR, but we’ll dig deeper into the mobile VR experience later on.
Lots of change and a dash of stability for the firm that’s trying to pull our thoughts on VR out of the cheesy days of the early 90’s and into the technologically-focused, blindingly fast paradigm shifts of the 2010’s.
In what direction is Oculus headed? How has Facebook truly changed the day-to-day at the company? What’s the hardware like? And how do developers factor into the equation? Answers were abound at Oculus Connect, and for the first time, we have a clear vision of the company’s future.
Crescent Bay Prototype: A Glimpse of Consumer Hardware to Come
The star of the Connect show was undoubtedly Oculus’ latest publicly-shown prototype. Code-named “Crescent Bay,” the latest hardware iteration of the Rift headset adds two crucially important features: Integrated audio, and 360-degree tracking.
Surround sound has always been an important cornerstone in many gaming genres. Whether you’re tracking an enemy on a Counter-Strike map, or awash in your favorite RPG, audio can make or break even the most visually engaging experience. Dropping audio into the VR equation takes the fresh, interesting experience, and makes it whole. If you’re supposed to be standing in the middle of a virtual room, battlefield, or movie theater, the audio software included by Oculus makes for a smooth surround sound experience. And since your head is now turning in any direction it pleases, the surround sound isn’t handicapped moving on an X or Y axis – the 3D world has effortless 3D audio to go with it. It’s amazing how properly integrated audio can take an Unreal Engine 4 VR demo from good to great, and that’s exactly what happened during my Crescent Bay demo.
Tracking has also been upgraded, from basic following of head movement to full-on, 360-degree body tracking. The new tracking tech means a complete turn in the real world translates into the virtual world – no more empty/unused screen space, or lack of movement in-game if you look behind you. The IR LEDs that have always lived on the front of the Oculus hardware now populate the back of the head strap, which allows the tracking camera to see the back of your head. The new LEDs mean “standing experiences” are coming in a big way. You can walk around, turn around, crouch – everything is there except for limb tracking, which can only be achieved via third-party hardware at the moment (such as with Razer Hydra). But moving your body around in VR is a necessary step to retail, and to a wholly enjoyable experience.
There’s a lot to be done with Crescent Bay before Oculus pushes out a retail unit (or rumored retail beta). 360-degree tracking and audio are two of the cornerstones here, but there’s still a blurring/smearing effect when looking at text with the Oculus while moving your head. Oculus has always preached “low persistence” in its hardware, another term for reducing or eliminating motion blur. Every new Oculus model pushes low persistence harder and further, and Crescent Bay is no different, even if it’s not perfection just yet.
Image popping is also a problem, caused by a lack of fine-tuning in the new IR LED array. Sometimes the camera will misjudge how far away your head is, and will “pop” in the environment image closer to you, or pull it farther away. The issue should be fixed with some more clever software down the road, and additional IR LED placement.
There are additional, smaller problems, like the head strap being a bit uncomfortable at times, likely due to harder materials used where the rear IR sensors live. In spite of its shortcomings, Crescent Bay is a sizable leap over DK2. The improved resolution (not confirmed, but I’ve heard it’s 2560×1440, or dual side-by-side 1080p panels), 90 Hz refresh rate, the laser-focus on low persistence, and Oculus’ evolution into a standing experience are all huge steps in the right direction.
Crescent Bay Demos: VR is Ready for Gaming Prime Time
Most of the demos I stood in with the new Crescent Bay hardware prototype were made by the Oculus content team, and they’re crafted to show how 360-degree tracking is changing VR in a profound manner. Whether I was standing in a submarine, or staring a T-Rex in the face and walking underneath its feet, being able to look around my virtual world unhindered (physical walls excluded) was an amazing experience.
The demo that stood out among the rest was Epic’s Showdown, built with Unreal Engine 4. Walking down a street, flanked by future soldiers battling an oversized Destroyer Droid, you can literally walk around and in-between the detail. Bullets with contrails following behind, beer cans flying past your face… even an exploding car sailing above you, terrified driver trapped inside. It reminded me of the interactive bullet demo that shipped before Killzone 3, but instead of focusing on one bullet, you can focus on literally anything visible in the world.
That deep level of interaction is what’s going to sell everyone on VR, be it on a developer kit, or on a retail unit. As someone who’s always chased some sort of twisted sci-fi virtual reality inside first-person titles, this brand of VR is exactly what I’ve been looking for.
Samsung Gear VR: An Oculus Rift Software Preview
The Crescent Bay prototype wasn’t the only new hardware on display at Oculus Connect. I also got plenty of face time with Samsung’s Gear VR headset, the mobile baby brother to the Rift. Gear VR made its debut at IFA last month, but this was my first experience with the hardware.
Gear VR is a two-part system: The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is dropped into a standalone, wireless VR headset, which utilizes every hardware feature on the Note 4. The forthcoming phablet is more than powerful enough to take on VR, thanks to a quad-core Snapdragon 805 CPU, 3 GB of RAM, and a gorgeous 5.7-inch 2560×1440 AMOLED display. The display is the killer feature in Gear VR, as it eliminates any noticeable pixels, and pushes the low persistence that Oculus has always preached.
The head unit that the Note 4 sits in also packs some unique hardware, including a touch pad that acts as your primary input function (along with one physical button). The whole experience turns you into a VR Cyclops, tapping the side of your head to execute commands as you visually scan the menu strapped to your face.
The hardware is impressive for such a small, wireless package, but the software is where Gear VR really shines. The interface smacks of the Xbox One, but it’s simple to navigate, from swipe to swipe to tapping a selection. It’s designed to be explored with one finger, so simplicity is key here, and Samsung’s simplicity works. When Oculus moves beyond its prototype phase, however public its prototypes may be, it can only hope that its software is as easy to use. In fact, you can bet that the Rift UI will take some cues from Samsung, although positional tracking will play a role here, too.
Once you get beyond the UI, the apps and games included with Gear VR really show off the potential of VR. Some games like Lucky’s Tale been on the VR block for a while now, but there’s new experiences abound. Harmonix Music VR was one of the more impressive apps available, as it takes your jams (or in this case, pre-loaded music) and drops on you on a beach where you interact with your surroundings. Focusing in on the moon yields a pulsating ball – prime fodder for anyone going virtual in an, um, altered state of mind.
There are games, too, like a VR version of Breakout (Proton Pulse), or sitting in a World War II plane turret. It’s a lot of the same kinds of demos that sell people on the Rift, and that’s okay! What really shines are the non-gaming applications, like Harmonix Music VR, or Oculus Cinema. The latter drops you into a movie theater setting of your choice – the moon included – as you watch trailers, or full-length movies in VR. It really does feel like you’re sitting in a theater, sans-annoying cell phones and plot spoilers.
But Gear VR is a niche product. I’ve heard (unofficially) that Gear VR will be $199, on top of the (presumed) Note 4 contract price of $199 or $299. That’s a lot of cash for a VR experience with developer support even more limited than the Rift developer kits, no positional tracking whatsoever, and a required phone that isn’t going to be Samsung’s biggest 2014 seller. The hardware is impressive, as is the UI, but this has even more audience limitations than the Rift.
So when is mobile VR going to take off? When the next Gear VR ships in 2015, next to the more mainstream Samsung Galaxy S6. An educated guess, but a move that’s unavoidable if Samsung wants to take VR seriously.
Developers, Developers, Developers, Developers
Steve Ballmer would have been right at home at Oculus Connect. I was among a group of about three dozen or so press and bloggers, but the lion’s share of those in attendance were developers working on VR content, or looking to put some skin in the VR game.
The developer lounge at Oculus Connect was a never-ending rotation of bite-size virtual demos, from the light cycle arena of TronVR, to the Myst-like world of Xing, to sitting in Café Âme, looking at your robotic persona in a glass reflection – and seeing your head move, perplexed, because of position tracking. Every demo sold me on the VR experience more and more.
Smaller developers are where VR has the potential to be a long-lasting success, but the lack of noise on the big publisher side is concerning, to say the least. We have Valve and its Source ports, and CCP with its fantastic EVE: Valkyrie, but that’s it (outside of Sony’s plans). Big publisher support is going to be important in the future, but such a vibrant indie ecosystem cannot be ignored here. It’s something consoles have lusted after since broadband came to the game-playing boxes, yet it’s popped up around Oculus in less than 18 months.
But content is a big part of Oculus’ internal plans, too. “[Oculus has] been working on a lot of things, including singular game experiences,” said Palmer Luckey while we chatted in the press room during the conference. “We have a lot of other projects internally. You will see real, actual first-party Oculus content.” When I pressed him about Carmack working on a game, now that he’s nearly done with his Gear VR objectives? “I can’t comment on who’s working on particular teams, but… it’s important.”
And now you know why Zenimax is so cross about the Oculus-Carmack relationship.
The table is set for Oculus. The hardware is better every time I strap a new model to my face. The software, if Gear VR is any indication, will not be holding that hardware back anytime soon. The developer community, however indie, is ready and waiting. And big partnerships with the likes of Samsung show that serious money, time, and resources are in play here, even if Microsoft hasn’t yet made its VR intentions clear (assuming they even exist).
VR’s biggest problem hasn’t changed a bit since I first put the ski goggle and duct tape prototype on my head back in 2012: You need to try it to really understand. I think Gear VR, however limited its rollout, will help with this problem – no wires and no PC required will help spread the Oculus gospel. So take my word for it, however overly enthusiastic you think my word may be. If VR isn’t a flop, it’s going to change the world. There is no middle ground scenario here.