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How does the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit stand up?

W hile Oculus VR’s Crescent Bay prototype is the near-future of VR, Razer's $200 Hacker Dev Kit, shipping in June, looks very much the present. Putting it on is a lot like wearing an Oculus DK2. The 1080p screen is high enough in resolution to be workable, but the pixel grid is prominent. Magnifying lenses sit between your eyes and the display, and require a little fiddling to be put into focus. Refresh rate, meanwhile, isn’t sickening, but it’s not as smooth as Crescent Bay, either. And there’s no positional tracking in space, which Crescent Bay has by virtue of an external camera.

Razer has made some smart decisions in the design of its Dev Kit, though, with lens controls allowing users to adjust their focus easily. And while it wasn't being demoed at CES, Razer’s hardware will be configurable and upgradeable: developers will be able to swap out the optics, the display, or most other components to create a different headset. It all fits neatly into Razer’s plan to spur hardware-agnostic development of VR games.

At CES, Razer demoed the Hacker Dev Kit with a LeapMotion camera clipped onto the front. The camera picks up hand motions and maps them in-game, allowing you to move your real hands around and mime throwing fireballs at a target that floats around a snowy woodscape. It proves hard to aim and track a moving object in three-dimensional space, especially given the delay between physical and digital action. And the demo itself isn’t a game that would sell anyone on VR (unless being a goalkeeper in Kinect Sports sold you on Kinect in which case, get ready to fall in love). But it does showcase the immersive potential of motion sensing in VR. When the technology improves, a game such as Myst could work beautifully in VR with nothing but motion controls. as a barrier to entry may result in only more serious developers contributing.

“OSVR is still at a very early stage, although it is usable right now,” Mitchell says. “The end goal is to make it so simple that developers would not have to spend much on writing code. We also hope to get contributions from the community so that when new devices come out, we don’t have to be the first to implement it. The community can add support [itself]. We’re not there yet. It’s fair to say we’re at an alpha stage. But it’s a working alpha.”

OSVR’s end goal of hardware-agnostic VR development pointedly proposes there will be an array of VR hardware outside of Oculus Rift. It assumes that the consumer Oculus Rift headset will be a flavour of VR hardware rather than a platform unto itself. And yet there is currently no serious competitor for Oculus Rift bar Sony’s Project Morpheus, which targets a very different platform. And OSVR likely won’t support Morpheus, because it’s removed from its supported OSes of Windows, Linux and Android.

So is OSVR, or something like it, truly integral to the survival of VR? Or, at least, integral to the growth and prosperity of VR as a medium?

That might be pushing it. However, Buckwald points out that OSVR is a big plus for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), which will potentially be able to build VR hardware that stands a chance of success in the market a few years from now. Without any OEMs in the picture, the VR hardware market may end up being small, featuring just Oculus and Sony alongside a few much smaller companies unable to compete on an even footing.
“We are not anti-Oculus. We are pro-VR, and Oculus has an important part to play ”
Razer’s relationship to Oculus VR in all this seems strange, too. According to Razer, the OSVR SDK already supports Rift DK2, so there’s no real reason for developers to make VR games exclusively with Oculus APIs when they could develop for a broader range of hardware and support Rift, too. But according to Sensics CEO Boger in a Reddit Ask Me Anything focused on OSVR, the company didn’t attempt to get Oculus on board before the launch. “We did not contact Oculus prior to announcing OSVR but would welcome their contribution and participation in it,” Boger said. “We are not anti-Oculus. We are pro-VR, and Oculus has an important part to play in the pro-VR movement.”

Razer and Sensics may not be trying to compete with Oculus VR directly, but OSVR’s founders aren’t going out of their way to work with Oculus, either. There’s another concern, too: when it comes to slightly nebulous projects debuted at CES, history is not on Razer’s side. At CES 2011, it introduced Switch Blade, a portable gaming system with dynamic LED keys. It won Best Of CES awards, but was never sold outside of China. At CES 2014, Razer introduced Project Christine, a modular gaming PC system. It won Best Of CES awards, but shows no signs of ever becoming a real product. Razer’s Hydra motion controller, another CES darling, is no longer on sale. Razer is, however, using Hydra to demonstrate VR, and we may see the controller returning in some form in the future.

OSVR, then, should be viewed with some scepticism. But unlike Switch Blade or Project Christine, which were never likely to be big sellers for Razer, OSVR represents a gateway to build a popular VR peripheral perhaps even the de facto input device for VR gaming, which is still a crucial unsolved problem.

“On the peripheral side and the HMD [head-mounted display] side, there’s a ton of different technologies being thrown around, and it’s very difficult to figure out what is the best technology for each of those things,” Mitchell says. “Once we roll [OSVR] out and it’s in the market for a while, we’ll see the community coming in and trying different technologies. That’s when we figure out what’s the best technology to then bring into the consumer space, which is our ultimate goal… Ultimately, what we’re interested in is making virtual reality a reality. [That sounds] cliché and cheesy as hell, but that’s what we want to do. Get it to the consumer space, get it ready, and for us, because we’re not entirely altruistic, [the aim] is to be part of the ecosystem on the peripheral side of things. It’s not crucial for us to be in the HMD space.”

Razer’s longest-lasting contribution to virtual reality is most likely to be that inevitable peripheral, then: something combining Razer’s research into VR, its Hydra, and more than a decade of experience making gaming mice. In a way, that would solve a problem much like OSVR aims to. The sooner we figure out the best way to control virtual reality, the sooner developers can get on with creating VR games that use it.

AR, She blows
While Oculus Rift competitors were absent at CES 2015, several augmented reality headsets were on display. Where virtual reality HMDs aim to completely immerse you in a virtual world, AR headsets typically use a transparent display to layer information atop the real world. Gaming is, at least currently, in the  realm of VR, not AR.

CastAR, funded by a 2013 Kickstarter from engineers who worked on VR at Valve, was at CES with hardware that’s on its way to campaign backers.  CastAR is the smallest HMD (AR or VR)  we’ve seen to date, looking like a chunkier Google Glass than a Rift. The flashiest AR headset at CES, by comparison, was Caputer Labs’ Seer, looking like a cross between Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and a motorcycle helmet.

The Seer headset runs off a smartphone, but unlike Oculus and Samsung’s GearVR, the smartphone screen doesn’t sit right in front of your face. Instead, it slots into the headset and has its screen reflected onto a visor, which gives you an AR overlay. Seer is an early prototype, with imminent plans for a Kickstarter campaign.

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