After years of speculation we are finally on the cusp of a wave of virtual reality hardware that hopes to usher in a true digital escape. Big names in tech have been developing the technology with anxious consumers vying to get any word on when, and for how much, they can get their hands on them. Facebook, Sony, Valve, and Microsoft are some of the big names to apply their gigantic budgets at VR.
With all the hub-bub about VR, there has been a lack of compilation of which headsets do what, when they will be available, and how much they will cost. Not to mention what they may specifically bring to the video game space. This list will hopefully give a quick look at who the major players are, and what you can expect from each.
Name: Oculus Rift
Developer: Oculus (purchased by Facebook)
Release: Q1 2016
The Oculus Rift has managed to be a flagship of the VR movement; especially after a large investment by Facebook to the tune of $2,000,000,000. The product was originally a prototype creation under a Kickstarter campaign, before John Carmarck (of id Software fame) stepped in to help develop the technology.
Oculus Rift is a PC-based, head-mounted display with integrated headphones for audio. The device must be connected to a PC running Windows, and requires pretty powerful specs: the equivalent of a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 and CPU in the realm of an i5-4590. This could create a pricey entry fee with purchase of both PC upgrades and the purchase of the headset. An Xbox One wireless controller will be included with the headset, along with a pair of dedicated controllers called Oculus Touch. These controllers will supposedly mimic real life hand movements, and will be visible in-game. Lastly, the kit requires a small camera on a stand, which assists in tracking your head movements to match the corresponding 3D environment.
So, what about the games? One category will be developers willing to devote the effort to porting games over to the new technology. Several games are already playable on the developer kit models including Alien: Isolation, Elite: Dangerous, and Half Life 2 (full list of support here). Further, mods have allowed games like Minecraft to be playable with the headset.
The other, and more exciting, category includes the dedicated Rift titles. More and more announcements from big time developers have leaked out, showing that the industry is giving a hard look at the Oculus and VR technology. This article details some of the confirmed games, along with YouTube clips of gameplay. Bullet Train seems particularly interesting, as you can catch bullets, teleport, and slow time. If the initial launch of the Rift goes well, you can be sure that developers will follow with greater investment in dedicated games.
“I have to say, as much as I want my own Oculus Rift right now, I genuinely appreciate the time and effort Oculus has put into its headset. Every time I use the Rift and Touch controllers, it makes me even more excited for virtual reality.” (source)
“I used to be firmly in the HTC Vive camp, but the Oculus Rift is blowing its competition out of the waters. Virtual reality really is becoming a reality and the Oculus Rift is right on the cusp of being in your home.” (source)
Name: Playstation VR (formally Project Morpheus)
Price: “Similar to a new gaming console” (roughly ~$400)
Release: First half of 2016
The Playstation VR, formally known as Project Morpheus, is Sony’s dive into the VR market. Sony has originally tried its hand in the VR space with 1997’s Glasstron which, needless to say, did not pan out.
Compared with the Rift, Playstation VR will be tied to the PS4 and PS Vita. While this means its exclusive to the console, it also allows for the VR system to be working and compatible out of the box.
One of the biggest differences Playstation VR has shown is the potential multiplayer design ability. One leaked design idea puts the VR user as a monster with the task of hunting the remaining players. These players are playing on the regular TV, with typical Dualshock controllers. The monster must hunt the players, who must work together on the separate screen to avoid the monster. The VR headset also utilizes the Playstation Move controllers, whose effectiveness remains to be seen.
Game-wise, there has been a large focus on dedicated Playstation VR titles. At the recent Playstation Experience, Sony revealed a list of confirmed titles (article). This will go along with some ports such as Final Fantasy XIV, but will lack the mods possible on the PC-based Rift.
“Sony has far more experience building consumer electronics than its competitors, and it shows in the PlayStation VR’s comfortable design. The well-padded headset easily and securely cinches up to your head, just by turning a clicky, bike-helmet like dial on the back of the device.” (source)
“A more important upgrade here is to the refresh rate, which runs at a 120Hz instead of 60Hz – higher than both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive’s 90Hz. Early games won’t natively run at 120 FPS – instead the PlayStation4’s reprojection software will add an extra “tween” every frame to make it feel like they are, but the overall experience should be silky-smooth.” (source)
“The Project Morpheus headset is the best VR headset that I’ve tried to date, and that’s partly because it’s so light, and also because the weight is properly distributed between the front and the back to avoid you feeling like you have a massive brick pulling your bonce down. The unit’s also got this small gap – or slit – just at the bottom of the headset, so if you ever find yourself feeling motion sick or dizzy, you can simply look down and you see yourself, outside of the game world, which really helps to ground you. However, once you’ve had your first minute in the VR world, you won’t really need to do this, because everything really starts falling into place and feeling natural.” (source)
Name: HTC Vive
Developer: HTC and Valve
Release: Q1 2016 (likely April)
The Vive is a joint project between HTC and Valve as part of the Valve’s SteamVR initiative. The headset venture appears to be structured similar to Valve’s project with its Steam boxes – outside help on the hardware while utilizing Valve’s software. Success has been elusive for the Steam boxes so far, but that is not necessarily a dispositive indicator for their VR technology.
One unique feature will be “Lightstations” set-up in the space the user will occupy. These cameras will help track and map the area to help assist the user from running into objects, and the configurations can be saved per user, per room. The stations are accompanied by two handheld controllers that replicate the user’s hand movements in-game. Like the Rift, the Vive will have built-in headphones.
Games for the Vive include this curated list. But, its system requirements are steep: GTX 980, 16 GB RAM, and CPUs in the i7 family (according to the specs for Elite: Dangerous). While this may not represent the minimums, it certainly sets a standard for what many games may ultimately require.
“This is a game changer. When it ended, I wanted to go again. HTC and Valve just took the next step in virtual reality.” (source)
“The Vive needs work, but revolutionary technology isn’t born fully mature. It must evolve and develop. Given time, this joint effort by HTC and Valve could become the VR experience to beat.” (source)
“However, we’re prepared to say that HTC is stretching the boundaries set by the likes of Oculus, Samsung and Sony.” (source)
Name: Microsoft HoloLens
Release: Development Kit available in Q1 2016 (Consumer version to follow)
The last upcoming headset is a bit different than those above – the Microsoft HoloLens is actually an “augmented reality” experience, meaning it uses parts of the real world in projecting its display. While less a Google glass and closer to the VR headsets, the HoloLens will project holograms into the world for the user to see and interact with.
HoloLens has the fewest details so far, as its development is not on pace with the gaming-based headsets. The HoloLens aims to integrate all of the new Windows 10 technology into its display, and have a broader consumer application base than a focus on gaming potential.
That’s not to say there isn’t gaming development possible. Here is one such (albeit rudimentary) possibility: Halo on the HoloLens. Most astounding, to me, was the augmented Minecraft experience, where you can see the landscape as a hologram and interact with it as if it were sitting on the table. Interesting stuff to keep an eye on.
“HoloLens offers a unique AR experience. It’s great build quality and attention to detail are pluses, and the application potential feels limitless. It’s now a matter of whether Microsoft can fix some nagging issues, and how much it will cost.” (source)
“The cynic in me says that HoloLens becomes the Kinect of the smartphone: an amazing technology that ends up with little real-world impact. I just slapped that cynic. Let’s see what you have in store for us, Microsoft.” (source)
“I certainly hope that’s true, because while I’ve done my best to describe the experience, words will never be adequate. Photos and video also fail, despite the clever cameras shown at demos. You can’t really understand until it’s you who, with a click of a button, has suddenly teleported to a location halfway across the country. Once you do, you’ll understand why HoloLens could be the future of computers.” (source)
“Once I had my Minecraft world on the table, I didn’t want to take it off.” (source)
Given the praise and excitement attributable to all of the different headset technology, it remains to be seen if VR can stick around in its debut in 2016, and redeem itself for a failure to launch in the 90s. The ability to make smaller, more powerful headsets, along with the controls for motion sickness and (more) consumer friendly pricing, VR has the tools in place to make a splash. That or it will go the way of its more recent cousins, the Kinect and Move.