Do you think of VR as Lawnmower Man or more Ready Player One?
In the early 90’s, I remember being massively excited because Timezone in Melbourne City got the Virtuality VR arcade machines and the FPS shooter Dactyl Nightmare.
It was blocky, choppy, expensive – but it was AMAZING. You got to stand in this massive contraption and wear a helmet that should have come with a health warning due to the weight, but everyone that went in came out grinning like a fool.
Just to prove it, below is a video from Piku’s Junk YouTube channel showing the machine at Retro Revival 2013:
There were a few other attempts at VR, but on the whole, it kinda quietly died as soon as is came to be. The idea was amazing, but the tech wasn’t quite there yet.
Then in 2012, something amazing happened. A dedicated group took to Kickstarter to look for funding to bring Virtual Reality to everyone. Even people that didn’t know what a Kickstarter was soon learned that Oculus meant Virtual Reality. Oculus managed to raise almost USD$2.5 Million dollars largely from gamers with the desire to see VR in their homes.
This massive success made many other companies suddenly jump up and take notice. Over the following couple of years, many companies started to announce their own versions of VR and more commonly Augmented Reality (AR) looking to join in the success of Oculus themselves. A lot of these companies pretty much based their work on the first Oculus Development Kit (DK1) and interest reached such a pitch that in 2014 Facebook acquired Oculus for USD$2 BILLION dollars. Not only was this a staggering amount of money, you also have to remember at this time Oculus had only produced Developer Kits – no ‘product’ as such had been achieved yet.
Cut to 2015 and VR Gamers had a great year of announcements to look forward to. HTC made an announcement that had many gamers frothing to hand over their money. Known as the HTC Vive, this was a VR headset with great specs on paper and even more importantly a release window! Just this little ray of hope was enough to turn people watching the Oculus from the wings looking squarely at the Vive as a solid and almost preferred alternative.
There was one other fact that bought many others not currently following the VR world on board though. The Vive was being developed with Valve, the company behind Steam and many great games. This gave the Vive something that the Oculus was currently lacking – an inbuilt ecosystem of games and support.
Like many others, the Vive had me excited but I knew the cost would be high. Like AUD$1,500+ high, and that was just for the headset and controllers. The fact you also needed a high-end PC was also a factor. Now I have always had beefy rigs, but my equipment wasn’t built with VR in mind, so while I could run things another $1,000 or so was going to be needed to bring my graphics card up to scratch.
Then an answer came from an unexpected place – Sony. Project Morpheus was announced as the Playstation Virtual Reality solution, and even more people turned in interest to what might be possible.
Later in 2016, Sony stunned everyone with a single announcement at E3.
The price was key to Sony essentially ‘winning’ the VR battle at the moment. For about the cost of a competitors headset, you could get a Playstation 4, PS VR, Camera and Move controllers giving you everything you needed. This is a large part of the reason I decided to back the PSVR. Back in 2015, developers were still trying to decide which headset to back – Oculus or Vive. Vive was starting to come out ahead, but developing for the new tech was still considered a gamble.
By buying the ‘mass market’ option in the PSVR, the gamble was developers would work on the headset with the most sales, even with some technical drawbacks to it. And to a large degree, I was right. In 2017, over 2.5 million PSVR headsets sold – far and above more than any other unit, and the headset I purchased for myself in 2016. This is more than Oculus and Vive combined.
PSVR has a low price of entry, it’s simple to install and use, and a growing games library that continues to excel. Like any games library, there are some decidedly below average games, but some amazing ones as well. Resident Evil 7 blew me away playing it in VR, and the new Moss shows what people can do with the unit. Initially, there were the more ‘tech demo’ experiences just like the Vive and Oculus, but overall the library is getting stronger all the time.
It does have it’s drawbacks as well. With the reduced price and console power, there are compromises made in the experience. The Move controllers, while overall fine, do not have fine control and tracking is easily lost. The game forgets which way you are facing at times, and restarts for longer sessions is pretty much guaranteed. A lot of these things have improved, but after using the Vives controllers the difference in experience is real.
It’s like driving your Hyundai which is great and gets you around reliably and comfortably. Then you get in a Tesla and drive for a day, then get back in your Hyundai. Your car is still great and costs a fifth of the Tesla, but you know what you would rather be driving 🙂
The Vive, Oculus and PSVR all share one annoying feature – cabling. When you are playing something that has you seated, this isn’t really a problem. You can arrange the cable like an oversized headphone cable. But if your playing a more active game (say Superhot VR), the cable can get wrapped around you pretty easy leading to some interesting positions and damage to persons and/or equipment.
And that is where this little tale comes to the point. Yesterday, the HTC Vive Pro was made available for preorder, for the little sum of AUD$1,200. This is just for the headset, all of the other units like the base and controllers need to be purchased on top of this, as well as your high-end computer system to run it. But this is the Virtual Reality System I have been waiting for, even if I still have to wait for it a little while longer.
The Vive Pro is the first unit to officially support a wireless setup. I say officially as there have been third-party adaptors around for a while, and some have varying degrees of success, but updates don’t keep this hardware in mind so improvements to the headset with firmware updates can kill these adaptors.
This wireless support won’t come until later this year, and will be another purchase, but it’s this wireless functionality that will give users the freedom in VR that is required for true immersion without fear of damaging some very expensive equipment.
Other features are the integrated headphones, increase in screen resolution, and a few other bits of hardware geekery. The main feature that has me intrigued though is the front-facing cameras built into the headset. This could allow an Augmented Reality experience similar to Microsoft’s Hololens, which has applications wider than simple gaming.
So I think it’s pretty clear I will be getting a Vive Pro eventually as my VR setup of choice. I will wait until I can get it with the wireless adaptor and equipment all at once though, so I won’t be preordering the system soon. But for people that have been on the fence with the Vive and hesitant with the costs, there is some great news. You can purchase the complete VR set (minus the PC of course) for AUD$879 from the Vive store. This is an amazing price, and if I didn’t have the PSVR I would be seriously considering purchasing this now. If you already have a PC with a Nvidia 1070+ or equivalent, this is a great investment at an amazing price for a whole new experience.
Until next time,