Last week at GDC, Valve revealed not just a headset, but a stage upon which pioneering storytellers and game designers will create the first VR experiences of a defining platform.

Since the Oculus Rift Kickstarter back in 2012, virtual reality headsets have been making tremendous progress. Multiple companies are developing headsets capable of giving users an immersive view into another world.

With those headsets, developers have created some incredible games and applications, but the vast majority of them use entirely unrealistic means of interaction and locomotion—or eschew it entirely. As soon as you have to use your head to ‘select’ an object for interaction, or rotate and move through the virtual world around you with a joystick, the sense of immersion fades.

Valve’s SteamVR is more than just a headset. With the HMD for visuals, innovative controllers for interacting, and a 15×15 foot space in which you can comfortably move with incredibly robust tracking, SteamVR is a stage for the imagination. I believe that this stage represents what will become the standard platform for high-end VR.

When the smartphone first hit, we saw thousands of apps that attempted to adapt existing control paradigms (think of the first-person ‘virtual joystick’ shooter, or the ‘hold to right-click’). As smartphones matured, it became clear that they constituted an entirely new platform, and the best applications were built from the ground up to use that platform in new ways, not simply shoehorn in old concepts of interaction and navigation. The standard smartphone platform is: a display, multi-touch input, and device orientation.

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We’re in a similar place with VR today. Developers are getting smart about VR design, but locomotion and interaction are huge hurdles. You either use WASD or a joystick to navigate in VR or don’t allow the user to move at all, save for cutting from one scene to the next through a fade. For the former, the lack of proprioceptive cues (the feelings that come with actually moving through a space) causes a break in immersion, and nausea sometimes sets in. The latter, on the other hand, leaves the developer with some very difficult design challenges.

SteamVR solves these problems by creating a stage of constant Presence. VR developers need to start thinking not about how to adapt old navigation schemes, but what they can do with a 15×15 foot space, and a player who has controllers to reach out and interact naturally with the world. I believe that the standard platform for high-end VR will become: a display (headset), 1:1 motion input, and a ‘room-scale’ tracking space, as Valve calls it.

And before someone says, “But who the heck is going to dedicate a room in their house to a 15×15 foot VR stage?” I say this: Do you have a dedicated TV room in your house with a high-end TV? Millions, if not tens of millions of people do. As long as the experience is good enough, people will make room. And I probably don’t need to tell you that the VR experience is about 100x more exciting than a TV. Am I suggesting that millions of people are going to adopt VR and love it so much that they’ll dedicate a room to it? Yes.

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Quick Comparison: ‘The Big Three’

Here’s a quick rundown for those of you who simply want to know where things stand among the major players.

Between the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, and Sony’s Morpheus 2015 prototype, there’s no clear winner in FOV or headtracking. Vive and Crescent Bay beat out Morpheus in resolution, but in my opinion, the current disparity is not enough to say that Morpheus is not in the same class. And to its credit, Morpheus may have the higher field of view, though I need more time in each headset to be sure.

When it comes to comfort, the HTC Vive dev kit is actually in last place as far as I’m concerned. The Morpheus 2015 prototype has better ergonomics, and Crescent Bay is lighter. Of course, we can expect Vive’s comfort to improve for the holiday 2015 consumer release.

But then there’s the rest of SteamVR: excellent motion input controllers and a room-scale navigable space. Looking at it this way, Oculus’ Crescent Bay can’t compete given the lack of input. Morpheus competes, but it loses out to less robust controller tracking and a relatively small tracking space.

There’s many factors to consider here, especially ease-of-use and price, which would change this assessment depending upon the needs of the individual. But if we’re looking purely at the VR experience, SteamVR takes the cake (for now).

Continue Reading on Page 2: Hands-on with HTC Vive and SteamVR

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  • seanlumly

    I would love to see optional external tracking for mobile VR. If the tracking is good enough, I would be that something like GearVR would be an incredibly compelling platform, with the benefit of being 100% un-tethered. Even a few built-in reflectors or LEDs on the GearVR and the ability to optionally use the Oculus camera would be a giant plus.

    Mobile VR still lacks the “90Hz” refresh required for presence, but I doubt this will be the case for long — Samsung is very aggressive about pushing ever higher specs, and mobiles can certainly handle this refresh with simple content and/or reprojection (so-called time-warping). Even Mediatek’s latest mobile SoC features a 120Hz display controller! Yes, fast VR-grade refresh is coming to mobile!

    I also have little doubt that GearVR will act as a tethered pass-through VR headmount in the future, leaving the heavy lifting to the CPU to render low-latency frames. Such a development would be another compelling reason to have optional external tracking.

    Still, I’m glad to see that Valve has been aggressively working on the problem of tracking and that they have largely solved it. I’m sure this isn’t the last we will see of interesting tracking solutions either. VR is just getting started!

  • Alkapwn

    That was a fantastic review Ben. I’m going to have to think of new questions for tomorrow’s AMA now. I also think this is the first time I’m hearing that Crescent Bay was using fresnal lenses. Do you think that they work better than the normal lenses?

    Also, having now tried the latest STEM system and Valve’s new motion controllers, which do you think is more accurate? And do you think that in a demo like the lightsaber one that Sixense is showing that there could be instances where there is occlusion of the controllers when swinging them around (for Valve’s)?

    • Nick vB

      @Ben – “I’ll definitely be investigating a ceiling-based cable management system…”

      @Alkapwn – Well I finally got around to building that Slip-Ring prototype last year, I’ve necro-posted about it in your old MTBS3D thread: http://www.mtbs3d.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?f=140&t=15933

      Just thought you might be interested…

  • mellott124

    Fresnel lenses. Yikes! How’s the eyestrain?

  • Sean Concannon OculusOptician

    Fresnel lenses are a poor choice for use in VR. Palmer said last year “fresnels cannot come close to matching the focal length/magnification of other optics tech”. http://www.reddit.com/r/oculus/comments/1jon7c/why_not_fresnel_lenses_for_the_rift/

    The HTC ReVive definitely uses fresnels based on the pictures I have seen, so I’m imagining observed artifacts, not just from the screen door but the actual lenses themselves. Oculus on the other hand is using proprietary lenses for Crescent Bay which reduce artifacting and the screen door effect significantly.

    • eidolon

      Oculus are strongly rumoured to be using fresnels in the Crescent Bay, despite Palmer’s earlier comments.

  • Curtrock

    Yesterday, I got out the old tape measure and pre-visualized what size a 15×15 room would look like. I have an unfinished bsmt, and I’ve been deciding how I would partition off the space. If the Valve HMD experience is as compelling as it appears to be, I will indeed dedicate a 15×15 room to VR. This will be my own personal “Holo-Deck”. It would be good if it could be scaleable, like optional 10×10, for those who have less available space. Great point, Ben….most families have already dedicated an entire room to their television. It’s already ingrained in our culture.

    • Dolfish

      Using an empty room is a good start to getting that authentic VR experience. For now this is the best and only way to achieve absolute presence, but it is also, unfortunately, limited to just moving through space on a 1:1 level and nothing else. Sitting on a virtual chair, leaning on a table, stepping on a ledge, all of these things remain impossible right now, and have yet to be addressed. For now the focus should be on pushing the resolution of these devices, refining head/positional tracking, wireless and portability, and the UX. Once these things have been worked on to death, then we can start thinking about how to tackle the issues aforementioned. Whatever the solution may be, you can bet on one thing: the solution will most likely involve a fusion of the neurological and computer sciences to further push the boundaries between the real and the virtual. Unless you have no problem purchasing a large mechanical platform that somehow morphs it’s structure to match what you’re seeing (much like MIT’s inFORM/Recompose project) than it obviously seems more likely the average consumer will prefer something a little more discreet.

    • Dolfish

      Using an empty room is a good start to getting that authentic VR experience. For now this is the best and only way to achieve absolute presence, but it is also, unfortunately, limited to just moving through space on a 1:1 level and nothing else. Sitting on a virtual chair, leaning on a table, stepping on a ledge, all of these things remain impossible right now, and have yet to be addressed. For now the focus should be on pushing the resolution of these devices, refining head/positional tracking, wireless and portability, and the UX. Once these things have been worked on to death, then we can start thinking about how to tackle the issues aforementioned. Whatever the solution may be, you can bet on one thing: the solution will most likely involve a fusion of the neurological and computer sciences to further push the boundaries between the real and the virtual. Unless you have no problem purchasing a large mechanical platform that somehow morphs it’s structure to match what you’re seeing (much like MIT’s inFORM/Recompose project) then it obviously seems more likely the average consumer will prefer something a little more discreet.

  • czero

    Ben, did You see fresnel lenses in Crescent Bay? As far As I saw pictures of Crescent Bay few months ago, I thought I saw regular lenses. In HTC Vive pictures I see definitely fresnel lenses. Did they change lenses in Crescent Bay?

    • Ben Lang

      I’m quite certain I made a mental note of interest when I saw Fresnel lenses with CB at GDC, but there is a chance I was seeing something else. It’s hard to tell because if the Fresnel groves are fine enough, they can be tough to see (and ideally they will be invisible when positioned correctly). I recently asked Palmer about his current stance on Fresnels, noting that it appeared that both Vive and CB used them, and he declined to comment, though I believe he would have corrected me on CB’s lenses if I was mistaken.

  • Jacob Pederson

    I had the idea of hanging some room dividing curtains up to prevent wall collisions, but looks like this won’t be necessary. With the amount of hype surrounding HTC Vive, I don’t think Oculus can afford to launch CV1 without controllers or hand tracking now. They already have Gear VR to target the casual market. Maybe they can team up with Sixense Stem?