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Analyzes The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Latest VR Prototypes

After years of prototypes, hype, and venture capital investments, we’re finally nearing the moment when virtual reality transitions from a developer dream to a retail reality. The Game Developers Conference served as the latest platform for manufacturers to showcase cutting-edge prototypes, introduce new VR demos, and finally commit to launch windows. .

The biggest realization we had after trying the latest prototypes from Oculus, Sony, and HTC/Valve is how much this technology has improved since John Carmack showed off a Rift demo of Doom 3 at E3 in 2012. That shaky demo didn’t look particularly great, and many people left the experience feeling nauseated. After sitting through countless previews and pitches with multiple headsets over the course of GDC, I didn’t have one instance where I walked away feeling queasy, and the graphical fidelity has improved drastically. The tech may need a few more tweaks to be ready for release, namely in form factor, but the power under the hood has reached a tipping point at which you can simply enjoy the feeling of presence in the virtual reality experience.

“The only barriers to doing [VR] perfectly are the latency of the hardware, and the resolution of the screen and the quality of the objects, and all these human engineering parameters that will be improved over time,” says Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney. “I think we will be at a point where in 10 years the quality of the hardware and the polish it has achieved will be so high that it will be genuinely indistinguishable from reality.”

That promise has everyone from professional sports leagues and Hollywood to tourism officials and game developers drooling at the possibilities this technology will enable. By the end of the decade we may see professional quarterbacks practice reading defenses with VR, movies that put you right in the middle of the action, historical recreations that allow you to see what the ancient Roman ruins looked like when the Empire was in its prime, and, of course, games that bring you closer to the action than ever before.

“VR is really a different way of looking at the world,” Sweeney says. “I think it is going to be a completely new medium for storytelling that is going to span games and traditional movies and everything else. It lets us experience those things in an entirely new way. The other incredible thing about VR is the feeling that it is actually you. When you can look down and see your hands and see them responding to your movement, you really feel like it’s your body and you have this physical attachment to the hand that you see moving around in VR. That’s going to be a major area of innovation, it’s going to really change the way we are going to think about computers entirely.”

The excitement continues to ramp for VR, but for most consumers it still sounds like a fantasy. Given the previous failures in the field, many approach it with a skeptical eye. You truly have to experience it to understand its power, but in the absence of getting each of you a developer kit we wanted to share our thoughts on where each of the primary offerings stand and discuss the potential pitfalls that still exist in keeping the tech from mainstream adoption.


PROJECT MORPHEUS
One year removed from its emergence, Sony’s VR solution for the PlayStation 4 has come a long way. The company’s engineers have been busy over the past 12 months, improving the tech in several critical ways and also refining the headset design.

The recent prototype unveiled at GDC sports a new 5.7-inch OLED display capable of outputting 1080p images at 120 frames per second. By adding three more LEDs to the headset exterior, the engineers improved the head tracking to a full 360 degrees.

The technical jargon of these improvements may be lost on some, but after putting the headset on I can confirm there is a substantial improvement over the previous design. Whether I was coming face to face with a great white shark under the ocean or peering into a dollhouse filled with adorable robots going about their daily business, I truly felt present in the moments. The headset was also more comfortable to wear.

Most of the different headsets on display at GDC still look like prototypes, but the sleek new Project Morpheus model looks ready for store shelves. A single-band design makes it easy to put the headset on, and adjusting the fit is as simple as clicking a button on the back of the unit. The new design shifts the weight to the top of your head, so the goggles don’t feel so unwieldy. Perhaps the best design decision was giving players a way to move the visual panel away from their faces at the click of a button. This feature is critical to allowing a player to take a drink, answer a phone call, or locate a controller without having to remove the entire  headset.

Sony has opted against integrating audio into the headset, which means players will need their own audio solution to have the true VR experience. The demos on display at the show used either the DualShock 4 or Move controllers, which leads us to wonder whether Sony plans to offer different bundles to players.

Look for Project Morpheus to release in the first half of 2016, with some of the game lineup being revealed at E3 in June. One critical element to the launch still hasn’t been revealed price.

“The most important thing for us was to develop the personal experience, so we wouldn’t compromise that to hit a certain price point,” says Sony president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida. “So now we have done that, the challenge is how to bring it to the lowest price point possible for us.”

HTC VIVE
After years of hearing developers speak in whispers about Valve’s amazing virtual reality tech, we finally got to see it for ourselves at GDC in a  behind-closed-door  demonstration.

A few days before our appointment, Valve and HTC announced a partnership to create the Vive, a new virtual reality headset powered by SteamVR. This head-set features two 1200 x 1080 displays, 90 frames per second refresh rates, and 360 degree tracking.

The vast majority of VR demos I’ve experienced to this point have involved a headset, a chair, and a controller. Valve’s is considerably more complicated. Two small base stations positioned on the top of shelves in the corners of the room are set up to track the player location with laser sensors. The headset isn’t considerably different feeling than the Rift, with straps that hold the goggles in place on your face.

The player uses two wand-like controllers that are currently tethered to the Vive with cords. I had to wear a belt that keeps the cords from tripping me up, but Valve says the final retail model will be wireless. The laser sensors track the position of each controller as well, which means developers can render the wands into the virtual reality experience. Rather than fumble blindly for the controllers when the headset is on, I could look down and locate them as the person running the demo walked them over to me.

The Vive demo took place in a wide room to allow some freedom of movement. Using the base stations, the SteamVR technology allows developers to use a 15 x 15-foot space in gameplay. Valve ensures the player doesn’t run into walls while on the move with a clever technology that creates a virtual barrier that appears if you move too far in any direction. The user can modify these boundaries to accommodate a variety of rooms.

Being able to move during the VR demos helped deepen the feeling of being present in the various experiences. Standing on the deck of a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, I was able to walk up to the railings, giving me a closer view at the towering blue whale swimming past. The Google Earth demo positioned me directly on top of a city, allowing me to walk over to different districts and lean down to get a closer view of the street. This technology could be a game changer for titles like SimCity or Populous.

HTC plans to release the Vive by the end of the year, but as with the Morpheus, we have no idea how much it will cost.

OCULUS RIFT
After a large media presence at CES this past January, Oculus took a lower profile at GDC, taking no press appointments. Though we may not have had face time with Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition, several booths featured Crescent Bay, the latest iteration of the headset.

Oculus hasn’t publicly shared the technical specs of Crescent Bay, but the performance is on par with the other two headsets we tried at GDC. Some demos were set up with a 5x5-foot rubber mat, which means the head tracking is improved to the stage where, like Valve, they are testing player movement within game experiences.

Two demos at the Epic Games booth took advantage of this newfound movement. The Epic-produced “Showdown” demo places players in the thick of a shootout between a huge mech and a team of near-future soldiers. The player is on a conveyor belt of sorts, moving slowly toward the menacing mech, dodging incoming ordinance and the shrapnel flying through the environment after explosions.

Designed by Weta Digital, the “Thief in the Shadows” demo places you in the gold-filled chambers of Smaug, the fearsome dragon from The Hobbit. The demo begins with a low rumble as the dragon rises from its bed of golden coins, spreads its wings, and starts to circle your position. The impressive sense of scale makes you feel vulnerable and insignificant, and you can’t help but wince when he inevitably rains fire down upon you.

The Crescent Bay headset is lighter and more comfortable than the previous models, and it now features integrated headphones with 3D positional audio that developers can access while programming. This is the only model we’ve used that opts for audio integration rather than requiring an additional headset.

Oculus still hasn’t committed to an input device, release window, or price, but with both of the other major contenders laying out their timelines, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the company address this at E3.

NEW VR EXPERIENCES ON THE HORIZON
While the technology is coming into focus, we still know next to nothing about the game libraries for Project Morpheus, Oculus Rift, or Vive. Here are a few of the demos that caught our eye at GDC. Though they may not all be games in development, we hope they end up there.

Aperture Science Test Facility
The Valve demo that takes place in the Portal universe was the best VR experience we had at GDC. The demo places you in the role of a robot repairman at the Aperture Science test facility. Filled with the series’ signature humor, it walks the player though the humbling experience of trying to repair an Atlas.

When the malfunctioning robot walked into the room I felt it was really in the same space I was inhabiting, moving to the side to let it come into the repair bay. My attempts at repairing the Atlas proved fruitless, which earned me a scolding from none other than GLaDOS herself. As the floor tiles of the room fell away and GLaDOS appeared above, I took a moment away from worrying about my pending doom to soak in just how cool it was to be standing in this universe.

Valve was quick to point out that this is only a demo, not a slice of a larger game, but we’re having a hard time thinking of a more alluring Vive launch game than a Portal spin-off. I'd love to see how the studio could extrapolate this into a full experience.

Time Machine
A fan of virtual reality since the early years of the tech, Minority creative director Vander Caballero is following up the tearjerker Papo & Yo with a very different project for Oculus Rift. Written in collaboration with Sekret Agent Productions’ Corey May (Assassin’s Creed), Time Machine transports players back in time to come eye-to-eye with some of the biggest and most dangerous prehistotic underwater beasts that ever lived. Players are not there to hunt these massive beasts, but to watch and learn more about their physiology than paleontologists can glean from fossils.

Players must use scanners, trackers, and other devices to collect information, being careful to avoid being a prehistoric snack in the process. Trying to dodge the sharp-toothed snap of a pliosaurus is a heart-pounding affair made all the more exciting in VR.

London Heist
The star demo of the Project Morpheus event was this London Studio production that calls to mind The Getaway. The demo begins with the player being tied to a chair. The muscle-bound thug who put you there is taunting you with a blowtorch, waving it too close for comfort by your crotch, blowing smoke in your face, and flicking his cigarette in your eye.

The demo eventually transitions to a flashback heist sequence where you must use two Move controllers to interact with a desk to grab a lime-sized diamond and a handgun, which you inevitably use in a gunfight seconds after you lift the prize. Crouching in real life to hide behind the desk, you must use one Move controller to line up shots and take down enemies while you supply new magazines for the gun with the other hand. This light-gun style VR experience proves that developers can apply the technology to more traditional triple-A games.

THE VIRTUAL GAUNTLET
If manufacturers want to bring virtual reality to the mainstream, these potential pitfalls must be addressed.

The Living Room Dilemma
Microsoft’s Kinect sold well out of the gate, but many users eventually realized they didn’t have the proper lighting or enough space in their living room for the tech to work properly. This could also be an inhibitor to mainstream adoption of virtual reality, as several demos we’ve seen allow the player to move around a virtual space. This could prove impossible for those who live in smaller, urban apartments or have cluttered living spaces.

Sony realizes this may be a problem for some, but it isn’t deterring them from bringing the technology to market. “There are certain situations like houses in Japan for example, there are certain physical size limitations,” says Sony president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida. “Especially if you are single and young, your income is limited, you live in a small apartment, and I could see that could be a potential problem. But the VR doesn't require that much space. In terms of if people would be willing to move their furniture and sofas, if they experience is so compelling, I think they would be willing to do that. I think the most crucial factor is how compelling the experience is.”

A Solitary Experience
Over the past 10 years gaming has gotten more inclusive with the creation of motion controls, adoption of tablet devices, and increase in online gaming. Virtual reality runs counter to that by isolating the player in a headset and headphones.

Though his company is bullish on the technology and offers Rift support for Elite: Dangerous, Frontier founder David Braben realizes this could be an inhibitor to adoption. “When I'm playing Oculus and I've got headphones on as well and I hear my phone ring, I go ‘Oh no,’" he says. “There's that whole side of the thing. I'm sure seeing our kids play with Oculus, that's even more...they're already remote enough when they are playing a game and very focused. So I think those are issues that the industry has to think about.”

Some are already looking at ways to bring more players into the fold. Sony, for one, has experimented with connecting Project Morpheus users for online play and also explored ways to involve more people in couch play.

“There's also the social screen where other people can see what you're doing, so it's not just that they're cut off and there's this one person who gets in on the experience,” says Sony senior researcher Richard Marks. “They actually can see this kind of thing from their screens.”

Yoshida says some of his teams are trying to design games so another person can participate without needing to wear a headset as well. “Something similar to what Nintendo has done with the Wii U,” Yoshida says. “One person has the large controller, the other has the other controller, looking at the TV. I think that works really well with VR.”

Real-World Dangers
When a player puts on a virtual reality headset and headphones, they are essentially in sensory deprivation, cut off from whatever happens in the living room. This could prove to be a brilliant source of practical jokes, but it also carries some real-world dangers.

What’s to prevent a pet from lying down in front of the person with the headset on? It will only take a matter of weeks before we likely start hearing tales of players falling over and hurting themselves or not hearing a fire alarm until it’s too late because they were so immersed in a VR experience.

Another safety scenario that needs monitoring is emotionally charged experiences for the faint of heart. The sense of presence that these new headsets deliver is remarkable, which means someone could be susceptible to a heart attack when a shark rips through a diving tank and lunges at the player or Smaug charges toward a player breathing fire. You can be sure lawyers for each of the VR headset manufacturers are seriously considering these scenarios and writing user agreements that protect the companies from legal blowback should something go awry during a VR experience.

Keeping Your Lunch Down
As the virtual reality technology has improved over the last two years, my personal experiences with nausea have all but dissipated. This is largely due to the aggressive leaps in technology, as well as developers getting a better understanding of what types of experiences could make a player lose their stomach. But even with the tech minimizing the barf factor, those who get motion sickness in real life will probably be susceptible to the same sensation, dubbed “simulation sickness,” in virtual reality.

“That can be a killer,” Braben says. “We've learned such a lot about what things give you nausea and what don't in terms of how to do it, and it's not just a matter of framerate/resolution. It's also how you process the head tracking and that sort of thing. There are a lot of things like that that are quite subtle that are a product of time.”

Sony thinks these concerns are blown out of proportion. “We can make it safe for 100 percent of people,” Yoshida says. “Some people just cannot try a roller coaster, or something similar. But we are trying our best to minimize.”

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