Virtual Reality is very fascinating to me. For one, its both a brand new technology given our current state of hardware that makes it possible AND also old as heck. I remember playing “Dactyl Nightmare” back before I graduated high school 20 years ago.
It’s now 2016, and the difference between then and now is that we seem poised to get VR in the hands of everyone. Both high end VR experiences because of powerful graphics cards and computers, and lower end VR experiences because everyone has a cellphone and Google Cardboard is virtually free.
Besides the coolness factor, I’m interested in VR because early adopters and developers have the opportunity to invent a medium, but more specifically for user experience nerds like myself, we have the opportunity to re-invent many user interface paradigms. We can even question the whole notion of traditional user interfaces in general.
Before we get deep into using VR, I want to cover one possible way consumers have to experience it right now. There are a few.
The HTC Vive is one and offers a pretty stellar experience. It’s inclusion of hand tracking allows users to reach out and touch virtual objects. You may be surprised at how much lack of seeing your own body detracts from the experience. When you look down and don’t see your chest and feet or reach out to try to touch something and don’t see your hands it feels a bit uneasy.
The Vive also offers a bigger area to roam around. There’s quite a bit to set up here – but once you put the positional trackers in the corners of your room, VR experiences can track your body moving through a wide area giving you more freedom to virtually move around.
Additionally (and apparently not well advertised because a co-worker just told me), the Vive has a front facing camera which can create a form of Augmented Reality (although future AR promises to be way cooler than having to look through a camera to see the real world).
Other than the Vive, the major player are the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR, and Google Cardboard. I won’t get into the latter two, because I unfortunately haven’t had the pleasure of using the Gear, and the Cardboard…well, it’s nifty, not the best, and you can easily use it today with really no cost if you have a smartphone. I highly recommend trying it, but don’t think for a second Cardboard is as good as VR gets.
I was pretty psyched for VR back when the Oculus Rift was a Kickstarter campaign, before Facebook bought them. So, I backed both the development kits (the DK1 and DK2). Imagine my surprise when I found out that I’d get the Consumer version (CV1) for free!
Well, its been delivered and shipped and setup at my apartment. One major problem I had was that my slim Yoga 2 Windows laptop didn’t even come close to the minimum specs noted on the Rift. So my first task was to build a desktop gaming computer for myself. I spent around $820 to build it out – meeting (not really exceeding) their specs. I’ll put my parts list at the end of this post. This is all on top of the $600 most people will have to pay for the Rift itself. Unfortunately, its certainly not a casual purchase yet. The price, coupled with the fact that people won’t see the value without being able to experience it first means that adoption might be a bit difficult.
So with a fresh pair of eyes, before we get deep into specific games and experiences. Let me show you what you get when you buy the Oculus Rift CV1.
First, the headset:
The headset is the main piece of equipment you’d expect for VR. There’s a few more pieces I’ll get into after talking about the headset. I don’t want to get too far into specs and numbers that you can lookup elsewhere, but I do want to mention a few things.
First, the screen door effect. It doesn’t seem to exist. That’s awesome! The so called screen door effect can be seen in older versions of the Rift. In the DK1 and 2, it used to be that you could see the black grid between the pixels because the screen was so close to your face. It was almost as if you were looking through a screen door to see VR. To be fair, some have said you can still see the effect on the new Rift if you squint hard enough – but honestly, I think the Rift’s new resolution is pretty awesome.
Another critique of the older Rift was that headtracking could be slow. When your head movement doesn’t match the rate of the 3D scene movement, this can be disconcerting even if off by a miniscule amount. It commonly leads to feeling a bit nauseous. To be honest, I never really had that problem with the DK2. It felt fine for the most part, and when it didn’t, it was most likely a sub par application. Of course with the new Rift, headtracking STILL seems perfect to me, and also in every experience. This may be due to Oculus firming up their SDK for release. When everyone runs the same code and everyone uses the same head tracking, its probably more consistent.
Another nice attention to detail is the head sensor on the rift. When you put the Rift on, it turns on automatically (likewise when you take it off). Here’s an inside shot of the Rift – the sensor is centered above the lenses.
The new Rift for me has all the promise of the old Rift, and none of the more prominent pitfalls. Of course that’s a big statement. As we get more used to VR and what it offers we’ll most likely see problems with any given platform that we never anticipated – and “no pitfalls” will turn into “many pitfalls”.
One of those pitfalls on the horizon is input. Seeing and experiencing VR is great and all, but we need to interact with our virtual world. How we do this is a main differentiating feature of the major players. The Vive’s world is room scale, which means you can roam around a pre-defined space much larger than the not-much-more-than-standing space the Rift affords you. The Vive also offers hand tracking which means you can ever so clumsily use your real hands (each gripping a controller) in the virtual world.
The Rift is rumored to offer both of these features soon, but what does it have now? Well here it is…all the extra stuff shipping with it (OK fine it comes with a lens cleaner and handy carrying case too, not pictured):
So, this little guy you’d mount on your desk or somewhere reasonably high and point it at where you intend to use your Rift. It’s camera-ish….meaning I don’t know if it’s technically a real RGB camera, whether it uses depth sensing, if it’s simple infrared, or really what it is. But it certainly does track your body movement well. This means when you lean or move around in your small space, your movements are reflected in the virtual world. It sounds like a small thing, but the older Rift didn’t have it, and your ability to move felt very rigid and limited.
Input Devices (for now)
Two input devices ship with the Rift. The controller is what it appears – an XBOX controller. It almost feels like a copout! But I guess until we get imaginative enough with our VR experiences (like the Vive is starting to do), we’ll have to settle for treating VR content like our old school consoles for now.
Pictured to the left is a simpler controller. Its most likely powered by a watch battery and I can’t really tell how it connects – I guess it’s probably Bluetooth? Either way, its a simple remote. Most of the experiences I’ve seen (that don’t rely on the XBOX controller) don’t use more than the central button that you’d press with your thumb.
And that brings us to actually using the thing. What kinds of experiences does it offer? Well, for absolute starters, you can check out the “Dream Deck” These are example short experiences that give you a good feel for what’s possible. To navigate through them, you basically point your face (with a dot for a cursor) at the menu item you want and press the main button on your clicker.
Sound archaic? Yeah, it kind of is – but again: room to improve and invent! This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll cover the Dream Deck in another one.
Also, as promised, here’s my parts list for the Windows desktop I built to accommodate this. My disclaimer is that I’ve never really cared to build a gaming machine – so I don’t know how mine compares to any other gamer’s machine. I also know that the parts I bought meet the minimum of what Oculus recommends. I ALSO bought them as a package from newegg.com because buying separate components that may or may not work together stressed me out.
LITE-ON DVD Burner SATA Model iHAS124-14 – OEM