“Right now, you seeing a lot of exploration of things. We are learning about the interaction mechanisms, what feels good to do and what’s not good to do,” said Richard Marks, the head of the Sony PlayStation research team behind the Morpheus virtual reality headset. “Once the mechanics start to be well understood, then you will really see the high-quality storytelling and experiences that are crafted, not just with the mechanics, but with the emotions underneath. It becomes about whomever can create the best experience or tell the best story.”
Sony may be one of the biggest players at the E3 conference, but Oculus got the show started early. The company that kicked off the revival of VR held a special event in San Francisco a few days before E3 began. There, it unveiled the final version of its Oculus Rift headset, due to arrive in that first quarter of 2016. Oculus also announced a partnership with Microsoft: bundled with the Rift and its camera sensor would be an Xbox controller to use with PCs running the headset. The company also unveiled the Oculus Touch motion controllers, which would also be released in the first half of 2016, albeit some time after the VR headset.
Days later, the Rift headset–which was streamlined after Oculus acquired the Carbon Design Group last year–and a Touch prototype were on the floor for demos at E3. The gaming fans and industry professionals on hand found a VR headset with a refined design, comfortable ergonomics, and a bevy of technical and software improvements over the developer kits previously sold online to companies looking to make VR software. Here was virtual reality that was almost ready for retail and then people’s homes.
“It has crossed the threshold where it delivers a comfortable, sustained presence. The ergonomics are highly defined,” says Nate Mitchell, VP of Product at Oculus. “We tried to focus on making it incredibly easy to set up and use. You can drop the sensor on your desk, put on the headset like a baseball cap, and you are good to go.”
Sony’s PlayStation will also enter the ring in the first half of 2016 with Morpheus, a VR headset to be used with the PlayStation 4. The latest prototype was technologically competitive with the Rift, though with somewhat lower specs to match the PS4’s power instead of the fairly powerful PC required for the Rift. And the demos available showed that the Morpheus coupled with the PlayStation Move motion controllers provide immersive experiences.
Marks says, “We are in a different situation than the other VR companies because we are on a console and we have a known platform with known controllers. We have a well-established distribution mechanism. For us, it’s more of what we do. It’s a new big area of media, but it fits into our ecosystem very well.”
The FOVE headset, from Fove Inc., looked to distinguish itself by offering a new approach to the VR experience. The FOVE headset is equipped with two little cameras that track your eyes. The result is a headset similar technically to others, but with the ability to glance at menu items to select them or to target enemies in games by just looking around.
Yuka Kojima, CEO of Fove, says, “Eye tracking will be the next user interface standard. People are trying to control virtual reality with motion controllers or hand tracking, but still eye tracking is the best solution for control. Eye movement is very quick, accurate, and very supportive as a controller: We can also use motion control with eyes, hand tracking with eyes. There is no reason eye tracking can’t support other solutions.”
Fove provided a demo where you shoot UFOs by targeting them with your eyes, though it seemed as if some aim assistance helped with precision, which is fine for UI, but may seem like cheating to gamers. And though currently glasses or long eyelashes interfere with the tracking, there is no arguing that eye tracking will aid in controlling software or even virtual reactions where you can tell what people are looking at.
A surprise contender entered the VR ring early in the E3 week, with game publisher Starbreeze announcing it had purchased VR startup InfinitEye. The company showed off a prototype StarVR headset with a demo for a Walking Dead virtual reality game. With two high-resolution screens, the StarVR provides a more detailed and larger picture than Oculus and Sony’s offerings (although it didn’t react as fluidly to head movement), which will all come at a price–all that resolution requires a truly high-end computer. Starbreeze is not fazed by such a barrier for entry.
“We use a top-of-the-line PC, but it’s not so crazy. People buy such PCs,” says Emmanuel Marquez, the CTO of Starbreeze. “I think in one year several manufacturers will get you the power you will need. I am not so worried about that. And today we already have a very strong niche market.”
InfinitEye had been a startup capitalizing on the VR buzz after Oculus’s Kickstarter. There are other companies looking to be part of the coming VR market, some of which had a presence at E3. Two virtual reality veterans, Vuzix and eMagin, have announced new headsets coming in the next 12 months. An E3 demo of the Vuzix iWear showed a competent device that trades off some of the immersion of other headsets for the ability to connect to any HDMI-based tech, from computers to Blu-ray players to game consoles, to watch 3-D content.
Other VR startups at E3 include AntVR and Gameface. Both small companies have products that are not as refined as others, with AntVR creating something like Samsung’s Gear VR that utilizes your cellphone to provide a screen for VR (which wouldn’t have the refinements that Oculus and Sony’s screens have to do VR well). Gameface uses Nvidia’s system-on-a-chip Tegra to provide a mobile VR experience that does not require a computer to run–which means simpler graphics to match the lower power. Computer accessory maker Razer will be offering OSVR, an open-source headset and software package that may be refined by dozens of other companies and universities doing research.
One VR product was conspicuously missing from the E3 conference. Cellphone maker HTC and software developer Valve announced in March a partnership to make a VR headset called Vive. HTC would provide hardware that would utilize the research Valve had done into creating believable virtual reality, as well as use Valve’s Steam platform for game distribution. Accounts from demos done at the announcement indicate a headset that will give Oculus stiff competition in the PC market, though only prototype hardware has been shown so far.
The two largest VR competitors are also busy looking at motion control solutions for their devices. The Oculus Touch and Sony’s PlayStation Move aim to bring natural movement to virtual reality. So when two players engage in a VR experience together, they can see not only each other’s head movements, but also their hands. The Touch also knows if you are opening your thumb or forefinger, allowing you to point or give the thumbs-up.
“With Touch, we wanted to enable communicative gestures. We believe VR will be the most social platform hands down, period. Right behind reality. Especially once we move to eye tracking, mouth tracking, hand tracking, and we get more of your body into the space, we can have this experience across the world, but have it feel like we are right in front of each other,” says Mitchell.
Before VR becomes a social platform, it must first appeal to the base most likely to jump on the new tech at launch…which is why it had such a big showing at E3 in the first place. Game content will be a major driving force out of the gate, and both Oculus and Sony were busy touting their future offerings.
“The developers are very excited by VR,” says Sony’s Marks. “So there’s actually a lot of developers that want to work on it. We are not short on content. What exactly will be at launch is not decided yet, but I am not worried that there will be a lack of content at launch. It is always a timing thing. You want the content ready at the same time that the hardware has come out. We have done it before with consoles, so we know how to do it.”
And for the first time at a conference or press event, Oculus did more than show demos of prototypes. It had actual games running on actual hardware. People explored dungeons in Chronos (developed by Gunfire Games), experienced Lovecraftian horrors in Edge of Nowhere (Insomniac Games), played a psychic that moved objects with their mind in Esper (Coatsink), hacked a city’s computer system in Damaged Core (High Voltage), and controlled a cartoon fox in Lucky’s Tale (Playful), to name a few. Oculus is providing some technical assistance to companies making VR games and even helping with funding to some developers. The company is pushing to have a steady flow of games from launch and throughout 2016.
Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, says, “We have about 20 partners we are working directly with; a lot more third parties that are making games without any kind of funding or assistance. There’s a lot of stuff being done and some of these games have been in the works for two years plus now.”
While we don’t know which other game developers and publishers Sony and Oculus are working with, we do know that two of the largest game companies are interested. At its press conference, Electronic Arts, the large publisher behind huge sellers like Madden football and The Sims, announced it was exploring the possibility of making VR Games. Ubisoft, a big game publisher based in Europe and behind popular series like Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance, gave more than lip service to virtual reality. They had four demos available, including little experiments using its Raving Rabbids and Far Cry franchises.
Yves Guillemot, the CEO of Ubisoft says, “We are always after what will amaze us. With VR, you can move your head and you can play. There is no barrier to entry. That’s what we like the most in VR. The sensation it gives you and the fact that you can play without having too many things to control. If it works, then we want to be there.”
Whether the Vive makes the originally announced end of 2015 launch date or not, 2016 will still be the first real year for consumer VR. An entire market will finally come to reality, and that is only the first step for a technology that has been dreamt and written about for decades.
“In the next few years, it’s largely going to be driven by gamers and technology enthusiasts, the kind of people who are willing to invest in the hardware that it’s going to take to get something on the cutting edge,” says Luckey. “As you start to have a more diverse array of content–things like education, telepresence, business training–that’s going to go hand in hand with reductions in price and increases in comfort, and make it accessible to a wider range of people. And make it so a wider range of people want to use VR. It’s one thing to impress people with a demo. It’s another to keep them coming back every single day. And you have to have compelling content to do that.”