At this year's Game Developers Conference, currently underway in San Francisco, one idea has dominated the field: virtual reality.
Could the tech's time truly, finally, be here?
On Tuesday night, at a Sony session on the "future of innovation at Sony Computer Entertainment," Sony researcher Richard Marks and Sony Computer Entertainment president of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida revealed the existence of a new prototype VR headset for the PlayStation 4, called Project Morpheus. Using the existing PlayStation Eye camera for positional tracking and the PlayStation Move for 3-D motion controls, the current Morpheus prototype has specs on par with other VR headsets: 1080p screen, 90 degree field of view, and head-tracking at 1000hz. The price and release date of the new model were not yet released.
Now the question is: Can Sony, among many others, catch up with Oculus VR? Oculus has controlled the virtual reality conversation since its debut in July 2012. And Oculus revealed a second version of the Oculus Rift development kit earlier today. Besides the basic features of the Crystal Cove prototype they showed at CES, including positional tracking using an external camera and a low persistence 1080p OLED screen that reduces blur, has improved optics for the magnification of the screen. The company also dropped the clunky control box, so cables plug directly into the headset. Preorders start today, but the $350 kit will be released in July to help developers create VR games for the consumer launch of the Rift, presumably by the end of the year.
You are in Tuscany. You walk into a rustic home and examine the aged furniture. Perhaps you lean toward the fire in the hearth, or walk upstairs to the rest of the house. Eventually you walk outside to the gardens surrounding the building. Soon enough you are cliffside, turning your head every which way to take in the vista before you, the verdant valleys stretching into the distance.
The Tuscany demo is one of the first virtual experiences made for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
The experience I described above—rather naturally looking around an artificial space that immerses you—can now be had with the purchase of a $300 Oculus Rift prototype development kit. By the time the actual consumer version of the Rift is released, there will be many more such experiences. The immersive quality of such experiences and the subsequent success of the Rift—$2.4 million raised on Kickstarter in September 2012 and nearly $100 million raised from investors since—has had a ripple effect, with other VR-based companies emerging. These many companies, most of them orbiting around Oculus VR, are creating a new galaxy of technology.
"People are building so many cool things," says Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR. "It's awesome because a few years ago a lot of this stuff couldn't have existed. There was no way to drive it. There would be nobody who would buy it. We are all creating this VR future together."
These VR companies are trying to be part of what may be the next big innovation in tech. Various other Kickstarter VR projects have raised millions. One such example is the Omni treadmill, from a company called Virtuix. The company was started before Oculus VR, but it didn't start getting any real attention until it was perceived as something that could be paired with the Oculus Rift. Virtuix raised $1.1 million on Kickstarter in July 2013.
"The Oculus Rift certainly reinvigorated the virtual reality notion, so it was a good sign for us," says Jan Goetgeluk, CEO of Virtuix. "The thought that I had, that we would see a virtual reality revolution, that was reinforced by the Oculus Rift's Kickstarter campaign. It validated that what we were doing would be worthwhile."
The idea is simple. The Oculus Rift is made to be used while sitting in a chair, the ability to turn your head and tilt your body giving you a sense of presence. But to travel around a virtual world, you would still need to use a game controller like games of the past. The Omni, instead, lets you stand in a circular frame and walk, a harness keeping you centered and sensors detecting your movement. The sensors' readings are used to move you through the virtual world. These $500 treadmills will be released in June.
And Goetgeluk sees Omni's potential in more than just games. "Every form of entertainment has the objective to take your mind out of the real world and put it somewhere else," he says. "You can't be more immersed in different worlds then putting a headset on and then using the Omni to walk around in that different world. It's way beyond gaming. You can think of virtual tourism, museum visits, interactive adventures. It will disrupt our daily lives beyond gaming."
Another firm, Cyberith, has a similar VR treadmill called the Virtualizer, which is expect to ship by the end of this year (the price has not yet been revealed.) There is also the WizDish, a platform to walk on without a frame or sensors, but one that would work with other companies' motion control sensors to let VR enthusiasts travel through the brave new worlds of virtual reality.
Walking is just the beginning. What about touching? Just like you can move your head around a virtual space and walk around it either via controller or with a treadmill, there are products coming to let you manipulate objects in virtual reality. The problem of virtual input devices is the next big hurdle, according to Luckey. "Input technology for us is a high priority. It's something we are working on. We don't have anything to announce right now, but it's not something we are planning on ignoring or just giving up on and letting other people do it the way they think is necessarily the best way."
Several companies are addressing the input problem now. Sixense was started in 2007 as a way to bring motion controls to computing. By 2011 the company had a viable tech platform using magnetic fields, not unlike the motion controls used in Hollywood motion capture to bring actors' movements to computer imagery. Sixense, along with peripheral maker Razer, released the Hydra. Picture two remote controls connected by wires to a center base, the complete three-dimensional movement and orientation of the controls utilized to control art programs, games, whatever. Sales of the Razer Hydra took off in early 2013 with the release of the Rift development kit.
Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense, says, "When you have a virtual reality headset on you, you can't see the keyboard and mouse. You have to utilize another input device, and an input device that approximates the movement of your hands into the virtual world, that is clearly the most effectual way to control an application in VR."
Now Sixense has been able to use ever-more-powerful and affordable components to create the wireless technology they have always envisioned, the STEM system. A series of rectangular sensors that can be attached to the body or used in controllers to track three dimensional movement and orientation, sending the data back wirelessly to a computer. The STEM system raised a total of $605,000 on Kickstarter last October, pre-selling units from $150 to $1,000, based on how many sensors or controllers you wanted. These are scheduled to be released in July or August of this year.
Sixense is not the only one looking into controlling virtual avatars. YEI Technology is releasing the PrioVR motion control suit that uses a variety of sensors not unlike a cellphone's to track movement ($230,000 raised on Kickstarter so far). Another firm called Survios, formerly Project Holodeck, is combining various hardware and original software to track your movement in a small room. And Thalmic Labs created the Myo armband, which registers arm motion and then can read your electrical impulses to detect when your hand does certain gestures, which will be released this summer for $149.
Meanwhile, Technical Illusions—more on them later—created a wand controller that has a camera picking up infrared LEDs on a table to record the motion the wand makes.
And there are more specialized controllers being made for VR, such as faux guns to be used in virtual first-person shooters. Avenger Advantage Kickstarted a motion-controlled machine gun peripheral called the Delta Six that has various bell and whistles to make your first-person shooter in VR that much immersive—the company raised $198,000 on Kickstarter, with the $245 faux-guns shipping soon. A VR enthusiast named Chris Gallizzi created the Alpha Gun, another motion controlled gun peripheral mean to be used with the Rift.
Companies like Avenger see themselves as adding something to the VR experience to make it more than what you see, but what you are doing and where you are going. "It's like Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie Total Recall, where you are fully immersed into the virtual world," says Sixense's Rubin. "Suddenly, you can become that character and go through that experience."
The giant, virtual elephant in the room is the fact that none of these products are currently available to consumers, including the off-the-shelf version of the Oculus Rift itself. Palmer believes these early maneuvers in VR hardware can be risky.
"It's really easy to make an announcement that you are working on something and doing a Kickstarter, but it's much harder to actually ship a consumer-ready, polished, and working product," says Luckey. "I think some of these things that are coming into existence might be a little bit early because they are coming as we've only shipped the developer kit. There's not all that many people out there that have a Rift yet."
Being at the center of the emerging ecosystem, Oculus VR is getting both the benefit of consumer hopes and desires and also all of the growing pains—and not only from their own hardware. "We can't develop our technologies to work with everything," says Luckey. "There's always going to be conflict when there's multiple technologies being developed simultaneously. I think some of these companies are going to run into conflicts that they are going to have a hard time solving. And there's not much we can do to help them because we're trying to pursue the best VR experience we can create, not make a degraded experience that works with everyone else's stuff."
Oculus VR may not be alone as the supplier of VR visuals as the ecosystem matures into an actual market. A company called Avegant was formed in November 2012 with the idea of building a head-mounted display that used micro-mirrors to beam an image directly into your eye. The prototype of the Glyph was created in 2013 and the company raised $1.5 million last month. The Glyph is being designed more for watching mobile media on your laptop, tablet, or phone, but it will be able to play mobile VR games as well. The Avegant Glyph is on target to be sent to Kickstarter backers by the end of the year, with $500 pre-orders from the company site being delivered early 2015.
"There was a clearly a lot of interest in head-mounted displays," says Ed Tang, CEO of Avegant. "Google Glass came out and you can see how much excitement there was for that. We felt pretty confident as long as we had something really cool and something really new that we were bringing to the table, that people would be excited about what we are doing."
Tang doesn't see the Glyph as a competitor to the Rift, but a different kind of headset to appeal to a different market. "More and more people are consuming their movies and videos and their games on their mobile devices: their laptops, their tablets, their smartphones. So we really wanted to create the best experience for the mobile user," says Tang.
Another Rift competitor is GameFace, an Android-based headset that has it's own standalone parts derived from cellphones, which limits graphical quality, but doesn't require the headset to be attached to a computer. Yet another headset is the InfinitEye, which uses additional screens to add peripheral vision to the VR experience, though it is only a prototype without any price or availability info. There is also Technical Illusions, whose CastAR headset ($1,052,000 raised on Kickstarter and coming this September for $190) is made for augmented reality and virtual reality experiences. The two creators were part of computer gaming giant Valve, but left to concentrate on this headset technology.
Valve themselves have been an integral part of Oculus from the beginning. They were interested in Luckey's tech before he even founded the company and launched the project on Kickstarter. The company was the first developer to go back and add Rift compatibility to its archive of games. In the years since, Valve and Oculus VR have shared virtual reality research. Earlier this year, Valve added a VR category to its Steam download service, as well as the ability to run the Steam software directly on the Rift.
Though they may be the biggest, Valve is not the only software company betting on VR. CCP are the creators of the space MMO named Eve Online. The developer made a spaceship shooter demo called Eve: Valkyrie that was one of the first original demos to be made for the Oculus Rift development kit. You sit in your spaceship's cockpit. You look around your panels, look out at the hangar. Then you accelerate into outer space and a chaotic dogfight. The immersiveness of the Rift makes you feel like you are actually a pilot. The buzz around the demo has led it being developed into a full game, and with Oculus VR themselves co-publishing the game as a launch title for when the Rift is released.
Another notable game is The Gallery: Six Elements from indie developer Cloudhead Games. It's an exploration and puzzle game in the vein of the hugely influential 1993 title Myst. It was one of the first games announced for the Rift, with early demos also using the Razer Hydra for three-dimensional control. It too was on Kickstarter, back in April 2013, raising a modest $83,000. Denny Unger, Cloudhead's president and creative director, decided to make a first-person exploration game since that was the best fit for virtual reality.
"We hope that it will set the bar in terms of how to handle VR body persistence, locomotion, interaction, audio, presence, and pacing," says Unger. "The VR movement will build steam very quickly once heads are in headsets and the VR marketplace will be the norm, not the sideshow. This is an amazing time to be a developer."
Beyond CCP and CloudHead, there are hundreds of indie games in development for the Oculus Rift. There are also a variety of software solutions that will convert games not made for the Rift to work in virtual reality, with varying results based on the game, such as VorpX, Vireio, and TriDef. And with over 60,000 development kits sold, it would be unsurprising if some AAA-companies announced VR-compatible games later this year at the huge E3 video game conference in L.A. this June.
Whatever developments come out the next few months, all of these companies and products indicate that virtual reality has hit a critical mass in the tech community. And they are all working toward creating products that will capture the public and entice them into virtual worlds. Yet, as evidenced by these hardware makers software creators, playing games could just be the beginning.
"The Omni, beyond gaming, is also a fun way to burn calories and stay in shape and exercise," says Goetgeluk.
"I envision moving from gaming to education, from education to rehab, from those markets to any applications that finds VR meaningful for their business," Rubin says, sounding like the ultimate true believer. "VR will become the most effective way to achieve any objective you have with digital media."
So what does this all mean to the man that invented the Oculus Rift, the catalyst for so much innovation?
"As a virtual reality enthusiast, I love seeing people making all of this stuff," Luckey says. "I just love to nerd out about new hardware— even hardware that isn't necessarily the best way to do things is really fascinating."
And then Luckey strikes a cautionary note.
"It's going to be a long time before we have truly perfect virtual reality. A lot of these things people are making are getting us closer in some ways, but I think that some people may be imagining a greater benefit than there really is with current technology."
[Images: Flickr user Sergey Galyonkin]