Virtual Reality: The Present

So last week I talked about past attempts to bring VR gaming to the masses. Fair to say, they were more misses than masses. But that was over 20 years ago. VR is here and a lot has changed in that time. Your mobile phone is more powerful than the typical games console was then. With those changes in technology Virtual Reality is now a possibility.

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There are three main contenders for your Virtual Reality enjoyment in today’s market, all at various prices over £300. Yeah, I said it was here, didn’t say it was going to be cheap! However, you don’t need to cripple your credit card to take part. It’s possible to experience VR for under £20, but more about that later. Let’s look at the top contenders, how much they cost and what you’ll need to use them.

The first two VR units I’m going to talk about will require a powerful gaming PC to run on. Luckily, before you give your credit card a heart attack, both suppliers provide a handy utility to tell if they will run on your current PC. If the answer is no, then worry not as many online PC suppliers such as www.pcspecialist.com or www.overclockers.co.uk do pre-built VR Ready PC from around £750 upwards.

 

HTC Vive

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Vive is a joint venture by HTC and Valve so it has the marriage of two of the big technology companies behind it. Vive is the only VR unit that boasts a front facing camera which allows the system to mix elements of the real world with the virtual. Coupling that with their “Chaperone” system Vive allows the user more freedom to walk around without fear of injury. Just how successful this feature will be in the mass market is something we’ll have to wait and see but if it helps prevent that trip to the A&E where you try to explain to the doctors that the reason you tripped over the dog was due to the six tentacled overlord of Verivon 4 sneaking up behind you then it’s got to be a good thing.

Vive comes with two haptic feedback controllers with a range of inputs to help improve the immersion when playing and when it comes to great VR, immersion is key. It uses two small base units which are set up around your room to track your movements and feed that back to the PC. With 32 sensors on the HMD and a further 24 sensors on each of the controllers to track, those wee boxes are going to be busy!

Now here comes the painful bit. Are you ready? You might want to sit down for this bit. When Vive was announced the cost of the unit was £689 plus £57.60 post and packaging coming to a total of £746.60. You think that’s pricey? Your wrong. In fact, HTC and Valve decided on the 1 August this year it was cheap so increased the UK price to £759 plus post and packaging taking the new price to a whopping £816.60! Remember you’ll also need to spend around double that if you need a PC for it to run on. Told you you’d need to sit down. At that price Vive is the most expensive option when it comes to VR. However, it’s also the preferred system for game developers due to the range of controller input and the freedom of movement it allows.  It’s fair to say though, if it wants to be THE VR system of choice then they are going to have to look at ways to bring the cost down….way down…

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Oculus Rift

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On 1st of August 2012 Oculus launched their Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift. By August 31st they had raised the $2.5 million they were asking for. By December 2013, they had raised an additional $75 million. On March 25th 2014 Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2 Billion. Not bad for a company that hasn’t released a product yet. Ok, so that’s not strictly true, the Oculus Rift developers kit has been around since 2012 but the actual production model doesn’t launch in the UK until September 20th this year.  It’s fair to say Oculus are the company responsible for bringing VR back into the game, so to speak. It’s by far the most talked about system and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Like the HTC Vive you will need a high spec gaming PC to be able to run it and while the PC will cost the same the headset is slightly cheaper at £549. For that price you get the headset, a small discrete sensor, a remote control and a Microsoft Xbox controller. Technically the Rift isn’t as powerful as the Vive. For instance, as it only has one sensor the Rift isn’t currently capable of room sized VR and only supports the user either sitting or standing. The Xbox controller isn’t as flexible as the Vive touch controllers. However, an update due out later in the year will see support for up to 3 additional sensors to allow room size play and the launch of the Oculus touch controllers. Will this be enough to compete against the Vive? We’ll need to wait and see. By not including the touch controllers at launch Oculus run the risk of splitting their user base into two camps. A dangerous risk which could come back to haunt them. Having said that though, Oculus have the full might and support of Facebook behind them so with the clout that brings they can afford to take some risks.

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Playstation VR (PSVR)

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The third big player in VR is a company who have been making consoles for over 20 years, Sony.  Unlike Rift and Vive though PlayStation VR doesn’t need a top end gaming PC to run, instead PlayStation VR is designed to be used with Sony’s PlayStation 4 games console. With over 40 million PlayStation 4’s being sold worldwide that gives Sony a huge market for potential users. It’s obvious Sony have put a lot of time and thought into the design of their headset. I mean look at it, it’s a thing of beauty. It looks like it should be displayed in a modern art gallery and one day, probably will be. It has been said by those lucky enough to try all three headsets that while the PSVR isn’t as technically advanced as the other two headsets it is by far the most comfortable to wear and there are a number of reasons for that. While the majority of the weight on Vive and Oculus is at the front where the visor is, Sony have distributed the weight evenly putting more towards the back of the head making it feel more like wearing a hat than clamping a visor to your head. It helps to give a more even weight distribution to the point where it can be balanced on one finger.

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The visor itself has also been designed so it doesn’t actually touch your face but instead almost floats in front of it. This allows a gap at the bottom of the visor so if you need to interact with something in the real world you don’t have to remove the headset to do so. It also makes the headset more comfortable for anyone who wears glasses.

PSVR uses the PlayStation Eye, a ps4 camera, to track the 9 LED’s positioned all around the headset allowing for 360-degree tracking.  Like Oculus it is designed for mainly for sitting or standing experiences but it does offer some movement around the room though not to the same extent as the Vive does. It has two different controller options, you can use the normal Dualshock 4 controller or for a more interactive experience, you can use two of the Sony Move controllers. While they do give more flexibility with input than the standard Dualshock their not as flexible as the Vive’s controllers. So, it’s comfortable, but not as technically advanced as its counterparts. But then again, it’s a fraction of the cost. PlayStation VR will be released on October 13th at a cost of £349. However, that is just for the headset. That’s fine if you already have the PS4 and accessories. If not then you’re looking at least £249.50 for the PlayStation 4, £39 for the PlayStation eye and £27 each for the move controllers giving a total cost of £691.50. While that is certainly cheaper than the other two it’s still a lot of money. Having said that though, there are 40 million PlayStation 4 users worldwide which gives Sony a larger potential market than Vive and Oculus who are competing over the same PC user base, a user base estimated to be around 3 million. Will that be enough to give Sony the edge in dominating the VR market? We’ll have to wait and see.

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VR on a shoestring…literally

I know what you’re thinking, yes Virtual Reality sounds great and it all sounds fantastic but you simply don’t have a spare couple of grand to buy the kit needed. Have no fear my friend, there is another option. When it comes to VR there are three components needed for it to work. First you need processing power to generate the images, then you need a screen to show the images on, finally you need a way to track the motion of the user while they are watching the images. Luckily all three of these can be found in your pocket. Or to be more precise, in your smart phone. It is possible to experience VR using your mobile phone and it doesn’t matter if its running Android, iOS, or even Windows. All you need is the right equipment and some really good mobile phone insurance. And the cost? Less than a fiver! The format is called Google Cardboard.

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Ok, yes, it’s a VR headset made out of cardboard, Velcro and held together with string but, with the right apps it does work and there are apps available across all three mobile operating systems. It’s very much you get what you pay for and it’s fair to say it’s not the best VR experience. It also involves strapping your expensive smart phone into a cardboard box before strapping it to your face so, yeah, make sure that mobile phone insurance is up to date. Having said that though there are other options which work on the same principle but are less risky to your phone.

VR box

Products like the VR Box will keep your phone secure and give you the same VR experience. With a bit of shopping around you can pick one up for around £12. For the full gaming experience though you will also need a Bluetooth gaming controller that’s compatible with your particular phone. Will it be as immersive as the Vive or PSVR? No. It’s not the best gaming experience you can get but games like InMind VR and End Space VR are enjoyable and are free to download for your app store of choice. Where it does work well is with the rise in 360-degree videos available through apps like Jaunt, Within and even YouTube. There are music videos from U2, documentaries on the barrier reef, animations and Hollywood style art films starring big name stars such as Michael Fassbender. Like any films the quality ranges from downright awful to astounding but considering it costs less than buying a cinema ticket its certainly worth having a look.

So there we are, some of the main options available for experiencing Virtual Reality today. But will it work? Will VR be the next big thing in entertainment? We’ve all heard that promise before and it didn’t quite live up to expectations so what makes it different this time? Join me next week when I’ll take a look at whether there is a future for VR, what software is available, and what other formats might give it a run for your money.

 

 

 

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