Today at the Game Developers Conference being held in San Francisco, Nod Labs unveiled Project Goa, a solution for providing motion controls to mobile virtual reality.
There are two tiers of virtual reality right now. Both Oculus and HTC are releasing expensive headsets this year that connect to your PC to provide rich VR experiences with full movement of your head and body, as well as motion controls that track the movement of your hands.
The second tier is mobile VR, with products like Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Cardboard. You slide your phone into a headset and get an experience where your head moves around in 360 degrees. It doesn't track your body or your hands. You have to use a bluetooth game controller or, in the case of the Gear VR, the little trackpad on the side of the headset.
Project Goa from Nod Labs wants to bridge the gap between the two tiers. CEO Anush Elangovan raises his hand to make his point, telling Fast Company, "There's HTC Vive for tracking. There's Oculus Rift." Elangovan lowers his hand, "Then there's a huge drop off to Gear VR and Cardboard." Raising his hand once more, he adds, "Where we position ourselves is we get you there in the mobile form factor."
An infrared camera sits on a table. A small tracking attachment goes on the front of the headset. And a pair of motion controls go in your hands. The camera tracks how the headset and the controls move, bringing that extra layer of motion capture that PC-based virtual reality has to mobile VR.
The camera has a 120-degree field of view, tracking the infrared lights on the headset and controllers at 100 frames per second, with sub-millimeter accuracy, for up to 8 feet away from the camera. A processor inside the camera's base handles the processing of this motion and sends it back to the headset thru the attachment affixed to it. So now apps can be controlled with your hands and respond to how you move your body, not just how you turn your head. The company's combination of tracking software and sensor fusion software makes it all work. (And conveniently, the camera base also doubles as a charging station for the controllers).
Nod Labs unveiled Project Goa at GDC to attract developers to pre-order development kits that will be coming a few months later and to start working with Nod's software. The company expects to release the consumer version of Goa in the fourth quarter this year, though no firm date or price has been revealed.
Samsung demonstrated its own prototype motion controls for Gear VR, called Samsung Rink, at CES in January, but there have been no announcements of a consumer version or a timeline for its release. Also, Rink does not feature an external camera that can track someone's body movement.
Nod Labs is hoping that enough of the VR-intrigued public who have mobile VR will be interested in taking their VR experience to the next level, without having to own a $1,000+ PC and a $600+ headset that the higher tier of VR requires. And developers may provide content to make Goa an attractive buy. It gives developers another platform for the motion control games that developers are already working on for PC-based VR like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
Finding a successful and profitable territory in the thin path between those two tiers of VR may not be realistic this early in the formation of the VR market, but tech companies are pushing for VR to explode over the next year or so.
"We think that positional tracking in mobile is going to open up wide use cases. We want it to be approachable in different markets, in different segments. [Goa] can be a more high-performance setup, where you do want to track continuously over a wider field of view," says Elangovan. "Today, to do that, you need a Vive set up. Putting [Goa] in a box that has everything for you is a powerful statement. This is fully sufficient for an experience where you can actually interact with your hands. This is going to become mass market VR."