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A year ago, virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR was barely noticeable at the 2014 International CES, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas. This year, thanks to its $2 billion acquisition by Facebook, it had a giant booth that dominated the gaming section of the sprawling show floor. And it had a demo, dubbed “Crescent Bay,” that rocked.
Virtual reality was a hot trend at CES because it promises to deliver experiences to gamers and nongamers alike that they’ve never been able to have before. It represents one more step toward the illusion that we can all live alternate lives in a cyberworld, like in the film The Matrix. Maybe because our own lives may be a little too drab, we all want VR to succeed.
Long lines of convention-goers snaked around the Oculus VR booth at all times. Oculus VR revealed the Crescent Bay demo for about 1,000 developers and some members of the press last September. Nate Mitchell, the cofounder of Oculus VR, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the team beefed up the demos with 3D positional audio. Now it has directional sound, so that it feels like noises are coming at you from different directions. This adds to the immersiveness of virtual reality, where you can look around and maneuver through a 3D animated world.
“You’re going to be able to pinpoint sounds above, below, out in front of your, in full 3D,” Mitchell said.
The state-of-the-art Crescent Bay demo was pretty cool. I saw it and was amazed at how far the quality had come since the DK2 (development kit 2) I saw at the E3 trade show this summer and the “Crystal Cove” demo that I saw a year ago at CES. The show was the first time consumers could view the latest Crescent Bay technology from Oculus in public. The developer isn’t releasing Crescent Bay as a development kit, since it is now pressing forward on creating its consumer product.
I put on the Oculus Rift headset, which also came with earpads on either side. In the demo, Oculus showed a series of scenes in which I couldn’t manipulate the environment. But I could look around in any direction to see the full depth of the 3D scenes. Each vignette was tuned to show off a feature of VR. The wire for the headset led upward to a boom on a swivel, allowing me to turn around in 360 degrees without becoming entangled by the wire.
I immediately noticed that the sharpness and realism of the 3D graphics was much better than in the previous versions. With DK2, you could see the virtual reality equivalent of pixelation, as if you were looking at everything through a screen door. This “screen door” effect was still barely there in the Crescent Bay version, but it was much reduced. When I concentrated on the illusion, I barely noticed the lines.
I saw an alien with a big head who looked like E.T. As I moved from side to side, his big eyes followed me. In another scene, I saw a cartoon world with cute animals. I also stood on the edge of a skyscraper, looking around at a bunch of other buildings. I also a realistic rendering of a T-rex in a museum; it let out a huge roar and then charged straight at me, its feet thundering.
In the final scene produced by Epic Games (makers of blockbuster shooters like Gears of War and Unreal), a demo dubbed “Showdown” depicted a giant spidery robot attacking a bunch of soldiers on a street. The quality of the graphics was unbelievably good, but that was because it was slowed down. In slow-motion, I could see bullets whizzing by and explosions taking out the soldiers around me. As I was propelled forward through the scene, I could look from side to side. A car was flying through the air. I could see a man being bounced around inside it as it went by. The technology may not be there to do that scene at full speed yet, but it gave a tantalizing taste of what was to come.
“We are trying to show a diverse set of things you can experience in VR,” Mitchell said. “And they are all new.”
The experience ran at 90 hertz, or 90 frames per second. That helped get rid of the feeling of seasickness that people associated with earlier versions, which had too much lag. The Crystal Cove version ran at 76 hertz. The Crescent Bay demo didn’t make me feel nauseated at all.
This demo showed why Oculus, now fully integrated within Facebook, is still the king of virtual reality. It is attracting the star developer talent that is creating cool prototypes. But it once again showed there is a long way to go before virtual reality fulfills its promise of creating a believable alternate reality. Next to the giant Oculus VR booth at the show, everything else in the gaming exhibit section looked small. The statement from Oculus and Facebook was clear: Oculus was there to command the mindshare.
People have plenty of questions about what comes next and how fast Oculus will do it. Mitchell was pretty transparent about them. He said the team wasn’t yet close to locking down final specifications for the product. Oculus has brought aboard a lot of VR talent, and they’re all working hard.
Mitchell confirmed there is a chance that Oculus will ship a consumer version in 2015. But he acknowledged that the pipeline from finishing a final design to shipping a product to consumers could be as long as eight months. Oculus still has to create input systems, better graphics, and a wireless system.
Mitchell said that a lot of developers were releasing free demos, but a lot of others are holding their content back because Oculus has no commerce system yet. It still has to create its store so that developers can profit from their creativity.
“Input is really the big missing piece,” Mitchell said. “It has to be there for the great consumer VR. It is the elephant in the room, and we want to deliver it. It’s something we are working on.”
Close to the Oculus booth at CES was Virtuix, which makes the Omni Treadmill platform that allows you much more freedom of movement in a virtual world. Lots of people were watching the Virtuix booth, where two trained players were dueling with each other. You can run your heart out while strapped into the Omni Treadmill, which is now in its final form. In contrast to the Rift, which is a seated experience for the most part, the Omni Treadmill gives you a lot of freedom of movement. The Omni tracks you through sensors placed on low-friction shoes that you wear. The Omni is an omnidirectional treadmill with no moving parts, and those shoes help you walk more easily. While you are strapped into the treadmill, your hands are free to hold a gun.
“We hope our backers and customers will be impressed,” said Jan Goetgeluk, the CEO of Virtuix, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We’ve been working on it for three years, and I’m very happy to show the final product.”
I also saw lines at Razer’s booth to view the Open Source Virtual Reality demo, another virtual reality tech platform that supports open standards. Razer is going to provide an OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, and it will be available for public release for $200 in the second quarter, said Min-Liang Tan, CEO of Razer, in an interview with GamesBeat. Other companies are banding together to support the open platform, which provides an alternative to Oculus.
“We have been working on VR for a long time,” Tan said. “We are standardizing the interfaces so that anyone can build for VR easily, whether it uses Oculus or something else.”
Samsung also had a big line of people waiting to view its Milk VR demo with its Samsung Gear VR headset, which uses an Oculus Rift with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. The Gear VR debuted last fall, and it has sold out. But it hasn’t produced a windfall for developers, as the content on the Gear VR is free for now.
Oculus VR released an Innovator’s Edition of its headset for developers in December to go with the Samsung Gear VR. And at the show, Samsung made a big splash about Milk VR, which is a service that has a collection of VR-oriented videos. They give you an experience of skydiving or riding in a jet. It is part of a strategy to bring a broader group of consumers into the VR experience, beyond gamers.
Sony did not show its Project Morpheus VR headset, after making a big deal about it at a couple of events in 2014. Sony’s headset is head-to-head competition for Oculus. Valve, which is also exploring VR, also wasn’t at CES.
Sulon Technologies, a startup in Toronto, showed up to demonstrate Cortex, which uses a very different way of handling VR. Cortex uses a headset, but you are not confined to a small space as you are with the Oculus Rift. Rather, Cortex takes advantage of the entire room, creating “spatial gaming.”
Dhanushan (Dhan) Balachandreswaran, the CEO of Sulon, and investor Albert Lai showed me the demo. You wear a headset with goggles that cover your eyes. It then uses magnetic technology to detect the borders of the room. It can then take game imagery and virtually paint those images on the walls of the real room. So it’s like layering a fantasy world on top of the real world. After you put on the goggles, you can walk around the room, and it will seem like you’re moving around in the virtual environment. The room can be as big as you want it to be, as Sulon transforms the room by mapping a fantasy world on top of the real room. It works both indoors and outdoors.
The company’s vision is to create something like a Holodeck, a simulated reality facility from Star Trek. For now, the Cortex is pretty big, with a big ball behind the headset, which has some cool blue colors on its black screen. It has no wires, and it is a “wear and play” device that transports you into a virtual existence with minimal setup. It uses a proprietary spatial scanner to create its experiences, which are contextually aware. It’s faster than it was before, and it is a standalone system. But you can plug it into a high-end PC if you want to get higher-resolution imagery.
The demo wasn’t working well at the show because of all of the radio frequency interference from other devices. But I wore the headset and saw one demo where you could use your hands to pull apart or push together the pieces of an engine. It worked reasonably well, and it was quite cool to use my hands as the gesture-controlled system.
If Sulon and other rivals move fast enough, they might very well beat Oculus to market. If they create lousy experiences in their rush to market, some of those early entrants may poison the well by providing a bad experience for consumers.
“No one has poisoned it yet. What we have shown is it’s incredibly hard to deliver a great experience,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been working on Gear VR for over a year. We have a huge team working on the PC. We have 250 of the best engineers in the world eating, sleeping, dreaming VR. We have been iterating on this for 2.5 years. We have proven that it is hard to do right. Everyone else has proven it is easy to do poorly.”
Virtual reality isn’t the only way to make use of cool new personalized visualization technologies. Augmented reality is another opportunity, and it might be an equally big market.
As I noted last week, one of the cool new directions for games debuted at CES with the unveiling of Osterhout Design Group’s consumer version of its R-6S augmented reality smartglasses. The San Francisco company spent six years and $60 million refining its military and enterprise technology for the consumer market, and it’s finally ready to show off the R-6S. A consumer version of the glasses could hit the market this year for under $1,000. While it isn’t primarily for games, the sunglasses allow you to view high-definition video on the inside of the lenses of a pair of sunglasses. The possible applications include simple augmented reality games and 3D location apps.
This may not sound that exciting to hardcore gamers, but it fits with the trend of making gaming more accessible from any location. That trend is helping to expand the universe of gamers to many people would never otherwise play a game with a console and a game controller in front of a big-screen TV. The possibilities are endless, and VR and AR are getting more exciting. That’s what I learned at CES.
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