Oculus Connect 2
Virtual Reality is a quickly developing technology promising many novel experiences. As the releases of first consumer VR headset are approaching, it is interesting to see what we can expect. Last week, Oculus VR, developers of Oculus Rift, held a second Oculus Connect conference. It consisted of keynote, news announcements and technical talks.
A lot of time and attention was spent on Oculus Touch – motion sensitive controllers allowing an intuitive interaction with the virtual worlds. Utilising the same position tracking solution as the Rift headset, Touch allows you to see an accurate representation of your hands in VR. Such control method is definitely necessary for VR experience. Unfortunately, for the earliest adopters, while consumer Rift is expected to be available in Q1 2016, they will have to wait another several months for Touch controller.
Some uses of Touch controller were shown extra attention at the conference. Epic demonstrated their VR Rail Shooter demo called Bullet Train. Just as in the old arcade days, rail shooters are a nice fit for current state of Oculus Rift, where you can look around and control your arms, but not walk by yourself.
Another fitting example for VR hand control is Oculus’ sculpting app called Medium.
As running VR games requires both stable high framerates and high resolution, it is very demanding on hardware. Oculus recommends PCs with GTX 970/R9 290 or better, fast quad core i5-4590 or faster. For people who feel that they will mess something up or are afraid to deal with PCs themselves (they exist), Oculus has another solution. Oculus VR has partnered with Dell and Asus to produce Oculus-Ready PCs starting at $1000. They will be marked with Oculus Ready logo and should have VR capable hardware. Considering the target audience, it will be interesting to see how well it will work in several years’ time, as VR hardware, CPUs and requirements advance. The first batch will not be enough by then.
On a technical side, one of the reasons Oculus Rift is expected to be affordable is the components. The mass penetration of smartphones led to mass production of many components VR headsets need on a massive scale, driving down their prices. This is especially important with small, high-resolution screens. Oculus Rift prototypes have moved in step with phones, going through 1280x720, 1920x1080, up to 2560x1440 at the moment. 3820x2160 is a next expected step (some phones already have that resolution.)
As many of us already have those high-resolution smartphones, they can be used for a more affordable VR right now. The cheapest path to VR, as you have bought your phone for other reasons, is far from optimal. While phones’ sensors do a decent job, the result lags too much to be usable for the long term. Samsung has added another partial step last year with Gear VR last year. A headset holds the phone, supplies it with power and provides more accurate sensors as well as the additional controls. There were separate Gear VR models for Note 4 and S6. At this Oculus Connect, Samsung has presented Gear VR2, which supports any high-end Samsung phone from Note 4, S6 and newer. It is also priced at $99, making it a more attractive option for turning your phone into a VR headset. As Gear VR relies on a smartphone for processing as well, it is not suited for demanding games. Oculus and Samsung position it as a platform for graphically simple VR games and a way to consume VR media.
Overall, Oculus Connect 2 does not shatter our imaginations with something we have never seen before. The path to the initial stage of consumer Virtual Reality is steady and there will be videos to watch and games to experience in a new way. It will not be perfect in the first iteration, but that will not stop it from being exciting. The only worrying part is the possible vendor lock-in. While the hardware competition is very welcome for consumers, having games only compatible with a single VR solution may become a much bigger annoyance than AMD or Nvidia specific graphics settings.