It’s strange to think that just over 2 years ago that the idea of VR headsets was still something of a gimmick that was unlikely to take off. Then enter the Oculus Rift Kickstarter which managed to grab almost 10 times the funds it asked for and revamped an industry that really hadn’t seen much action since the late 90s. Whilst consumer level units are still a ways off it’s still shaping up to be an industry with robust competition with numerous competitors vying for the top spot. The latest of which comes to us via HTC who’ve partnered with Valve to deliver their Steam VR platform.
Valve partnering with another company for the hardware isn’t surprising as they let go a number of personnel in their hardware section not too long ago although their choice of partner is quite interesting. Most of the other consumer electronics giants have already made a play into the VR game: Samsung with Gear VR, Sony with Project Morpheus and Google with their (admittedly limited) Cardboard. So whilst I wouldn’t say that we’ve been waiting for HTC to release something it’s definitely not unexpected that they’d eventually make a play for this space. The fact that they’ve managed to partner with Valve, who already has major buy in with nearly all PC gamers thanks to Steam, is definitely a win for them and judging by the hardware it seems like Valve is pretty happy with the partnership too.
The HTC/Valve VR headset has been dubbed the Re Vive and looks pretty similar to the prototypes of the Oculus DK2. The specs are pretty interesting with it sporting 2, 1200 x 1080 screens which are capable of a 90hz refresh rate, well above what your standard computer monitor is capable of. The front is also littered with numerous sensors including your standard gyroscopes, accelerometers and a laser position tracker which all combine together to provide head tracking to 1/10th of a degree. There’s also additional Steam VR base stations which can provide full body tracking as well, allowing you to get up and move around in your environment.
There’s also been rumblings of additional “controllers’ that come with the headset although I’ve been unable to find any pictures of them or details on how they work. Supposedly they work to track your hand motions so you can interact with objects within the environment. Taking a wild guess here I think they might be based off something like the MYO as other solutions limit you to small spaces in order to do hand tracking properly whilst the MYO seems to fit more inline with the Re Vive’s idea of full movement tracking within a larger environment. I’ll be interested to see what their actual solution for this is as it has the potential to set Valve and HTC apart from everyone else who’s still yet to come up with a solution.
Suffice to say this piece of HTC kit has seen quite a bit of development work thrown into it, more than I think anyone had expected when this announcement was first made. It’ll be hard to judge the platform before anyone can get their hands on it as with all things VR you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you give it a go. The pressure really is now on to be the first to market a consumer level solution that works seamlessly with games that support VR as all these prototypes and dev kits are great but we’re still lacking that one implementation that really sells the idea. HTC and Valve are well positioned to do that but so is nearly everyone else.
Ever since the Nintendo Wii was released back in 2006 there seems to have been a resurgence in non-standard peripherals for consoles although most are simply motion based controllers in a fancy case. The issue with non-standard hardware was, and still is, that game developers can’t rely on a consumer having it and thus many choose to simply not use them. It’s for this (and other) reasons that Donkey Kong 64 had to include the Expansion Pak as their game was inoperable without it and its distribution in the market place could not be relied on. However it seems that manufacturing costs have become cheap enough to make custom peripherals like this viable and thus they have returned in greater numbers than ever before.
The big issue I see with things like this is that once a good idea comes along it’s guaranteed that there will be a lot of copy cat ideas that come out not too long after. In the absence of any interface standards governing their interactions with the consoles this inevitably turns into an arms race of who can win the most support from developers, most often ending in a duopoly of two competing standards that will likely never completely agree with one another. Whilst I’m all for competition in the consumer space I’m also for an open set of standards so that I’m not forced to choose between two functionally equivalent products based on who or what they support.
Which is why Sony’s announcement today of Project Morpheus, their virtual reality headset, is slightly troubling to me.
Since it’s still in the prototype phase details are pretty scant on what its specifications will be but it’s apparently rocking a 1080p display (I’m guessing there’s 2 of them in there) and can apparently do full 360 degree tracking. Predictably the motion tracking relies on the PlayStation Eye accessory indicating that it’s probably got most of the same technology in it that the DualShock4/PlayStation Move controllers do. There doesn’t appear to be any headphones built into it but if it’s got all the same core bits and pieces as a regular PlayStation controller than I’m sure there’ll be a headphone port on it. Essentially it looks like the Oculus Rift did way back when it first debuted on Kickstarter, albeit far more reliant on Sony technology than their product will ever be.
Therein lies the crux of the issue with peripherals of this nature. Sure they add functionality and experiences that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish on the platform by their own but when they’re built like Sony’s, reliant on a whole bunch of things that are only available on that platform, I almost immediately lose interest. As someone who plays across multiple platforms in the space of a year the last thing I want to do is flood my living room with all sorts of one shot peripherals that have no use outside a couple narrow scenarios. Instead I’d prefer one that works across a multitude, something which is technically possible (I won’t tell you how much research I did into finding a cross platform compatible arcade stick for the fighting games I play) but rarely occurs in the wild.
What I’m really getting at here is that whilst I’m super excited for these kinds of virtual reality devices to become commonplace I also want a set of open standards so that when you buy one you’ll be able to use it pretty much everywhere. Oculus Rift has a big head start on everyone in this regard so I really hope that they’ve seen this problem on the horizon and are working towards a solution for it. With something like that in place companies could then focus on making the better headsets rather than trying to coax everyone into their ecosystem. It’s probably a pipe dream, I know, but it would be to the benefit of everyone if it happened.