Heads Up!
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 1: (Jan/Feb 2016)

Heads Up!

On your kayak trip down the Grand Canyon, it’s a good idea to have a water-proof pack. For hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro, a helmet sure can stave off an injury. For strolling along sandy Hawaiian beaches, sunblock can stop a burn. No matter where your next adventure takes you, it’s a good idea to be prepared. But if you are exploring fascinating destinations in virtual reality, the proper equipment isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity. 

While there are all kinds of peripherals to make the virtual experience more immersive (gloves, headphones, and so on), there is one that is a must-have: a head-mounted display (HMD).

VR headsets block out external light while projecting an HD stereo image on the screen right in front of a person’s eyes. Humans have a field of view (FOV) of about 180 degrees, and most head-mounted displays in development have lesser amounts – some more so than others. However, the higher the FOV, the greater the sense of immersion and situational awareness in the virtual world. Other important factors to consider are resolution, for a crisp, clear view, tracking accuracy, motion synchronization, and refresh rate, to keep that nausea at bay.  

Head-mounted displays have been used for quite some time in science, military, medical, engineering, and other high-end market segments where VR applications are prevalent. In the past year or so, however, we have witnessed a growing interest in VR, particularly at the consumer level, spurred by the development of affordable equipment, including headsets, that cost a fraction of the price today versus the early 1990s, when VR experienced its last surge. 

This new affordable cost opened the door to mainstream VR, which began when Oculus started whetting the appetites of gamers with beta versions of the Oculus Rift a few years ago. When Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014, the feeding frenzy began.

Today there are a number of headsets either on the market or poised for availability in the very near future, with the promise of many others to come. Some are expensive, high-end devices that are clearly meant for professional use, while others – highlighted here (using the most currently available information available at deadline), in order of expected availability – are geared for consumers and gamers. 

From: Google Developers
Shipping: Now
Price: Free 

Google Cardboard has brought mobile virtual reality to the masses like no other device, and began doing so well over a year ago. Let’s be clear, this is not a head-mounted display akin to the Oculus Rift or HTC/Valve Vive. It’s more like a light, very light, version of an HMD.

Cardboard is made of, well, cardboard. It looks like an early prototype version of some type of display, but it works. And it’s very inexpensive – there are many versions offered on Amazon (there is no official manufacturer) ranging from $10 to $20, or for the more ambitious, there are DIY kits. 

In fact, the headset was designed by Google, and the company offers the list of parts, schematics, and assembly instructions free on its website. The parts include cardboard cut to a specific shape, 45mm focal-length lenses, magnets or capacitive tape, a hook and loop fastener, a rubber band, and an optional near-field communications (NFC) tag.

Titans of Space is available for Google Cardboard users.

A smartphone is then inserted into the back of the device and held in place by the fastener. A Google Cardboard-compatible  app splits the smartphone display image into two images – one for each eye – and applies a barrel distortion to each image, causing images to be spherised. And, voila, a stereoscopic image with a wide field of view.

Google provides two SDKs for developing Cardboard applications – for Android and the Unity game engine. Both use OpenGL. Third-party apps are available on the Google Play store and App Store for iOS.

Gear VR
From: Samsung
Shipping: Now
Price: $99

Samsung’s Gear VR was fast out of the gate, bringing portable virtual reality to users across the globe. The new Gear VR, which began shipping in November, is lighter than the earlier Innovator Edition (it is 318 grams without the attached phone) and sports improved ergonomics and a redesigned touchpad for easier navigation. 

Unlike many VR head--mounted displays, Gear VR utilizes Samsung smartphones to display and process the content. It currently works with the Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, S6, and S6 edge phones. A user just has to slip the phone into the front pocket and is ready to explore, untethered. Another advantage to this unique design: Users almost always have their smartphones with them, and the HMD is portable enough to place inside a backpack or pocketbook, making it always readily accessible. This will become an important feature as VR-supported content becomes widely available in our world.

However powerful these smartphones are, they are not nearly as robust as a souped-up PC or PS4. So, the viewing experience with Gear VR will not be as robust compared to those other devices. But for the price, the portability, and the fact that this is available now, it’s a fantastic deal, especially if you already have a compatible Galaxy phone.

Gear VR contains a “super AMOLED” display (2560x1440), a 60 hz refresh rate, precise head tracking, and low latency. The device offers a 96-degree field of view, which is less than the Oculus Rift and Sony PSVR. The device also has a custom IMU (inertial measurement unit) using accelerometers, gyrometers, and a proximity sensor for rotational tracking that connects to the smartphone via mico-USB. Motion sensors in the phone track the user’s head movements, so this capability is more limiting than what is offered in some of the other HMDs. 

Pixel density, however, depends on the phone being used: The smaller devices, such as the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge Plus, have screens with a greater pixel density than the larger phones (557 pixels per inch versus 518), offering a crisper VR image. A focus wheel on the top of the headset enables the user to adjust the image focus.

Bandit Six: Salvo is one title that can be played on Gear VR.

A touchpad – shaped like a game controller – on the right side of the device serves as the primary controller. For a more traditional approach, the Bluetooth SteelSeries Stratus XL for Windows and Android gamepad, which is sold separately, can be used for navigating content. 

Here’s the surprise: Gear VR is powered by Oculus. What does that mean? Oculus helped Samsung build the device. So once your phone is docked, the Oculus app will launch, and you, in turn, will be launched into a virtual world. From there, you can select apps and games from the Oculus menu.

A number of games and experiences are available for Gear VR, and many are coming soon, including Land’s End (Ustwo Games), Bandit Six: Salvo (Climax Studios), and Dead Secret (Robot Invader). And since the Samsung Gear VR is powered by Oculus, content – lots of content – is available. 

The Oculus Arcade includes 20 classic games such as Pac-man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Gauntlet. Through Oculus Video, users can access more than 9,000 videos from Vimeo or watch live broadcasts on Twitch. Also available is the entire Netflix catalog of original series, documentaries, and films. At Oculus 360 Photos, more than 200,000 immersive photographs can be explored. Lastly, with Oculus Social, users can select an avatar and hang out with other users in a virtual space. 

If you want audio, however, you will need to purchase a good set of Bluetooth headphones.

Oculus Rift
From: Facebook
Shipping: Q1 2016  (pre-orders shipping  March 28, 2016)
Price: $599 (pre-order)

This is what started the new revolution in VR, thanks to Inventor Palmer Luckey. The Rift began as a Kickstarter campaign in mid-2012, with then-developer Oculus VR raising $2.5 million for the PC-based VR headset. Details on this game-changing device have been kept close to the vest, with information finally trickling out the hour pre-orders began on January 6, 2016. 

A great deal of attention went into the Rift’s design in terms of ergonomics and aesthetics. It is thickly padded and fits easily and comfortably on the head, with attached earphones (licensed RealSpace 3D Audio technology from VisiSonics) that emit high-quality 3D sound for an immersive experience. The lenses are easily adjustable to accommodate a variety of pupil distances. 

While comfort is important, the biggest factor to consider is the display technology and tracking. To this end, this device has two integrated OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays with a combined resolution of 2160x1200 (1080x1200 per eye), 90 hz global refresh rate, and a “wide field of view” (approximated at 110 degrees). The high refresh rate, the global refresh, and the use of low persistence (displaying each frame of an image for 2 msec) eliminates motion blur. 

The head tracking provides precise, low-latency, sub-millimeter-accurate 6 degrees of freedom (DOF) via the Oculus Constellation tracking system: three-axis rotational tracking and three-axis positional tracking. The latter is achieved with a USB stationary IR sensor. This enables the device to be used while sitting, standing, or moving around the same room where the sensor is located. 

The Oculus Rift is not a stand-alone device: It connects to a PC running Microsoft Windows, with support for OS X and Linux said to be in the future. Experts advise equipping the computer with a high-end graphics card (equivalent to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD R9 290) and a substantial CPU (Intel i5-4590 or better). Oculus is partnering with PC manufacturers (such as Dell, Asus, and Alienware) for soon-to-be-released machines optimized for the Rift, priced at approximately $1,000. Or, consumers can pre-order an Oculus-ready PC and headset bundle for about $1,500 starting in February. 

Oculus development kits have been available, the first (D1) in 2012 and another (D2) in mid-2014, so that at launch, close to a dozen titles would be available. CCP’s Eve: Valkyrie (a multi-person space shooter) and Playful’s Lucky’s Tale (a colorful adventure title) are two very different types of games included with all Rift pre-orders. In all likelihood to promote content for the device, the company revealed that it was fully funding more than 20 second-party titles exclusively for the Rift, including Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere, and by year-end, expects availability of 100-plus offerings.

The free Oculus PC SDK for Windows enabled developers to tackle the finer aspects of VR content, such as optical distortion and advanced rendering requirements. The SDK also has been integrated into popular game engines such as Unity 5, Epic’s Unreal Engine 4, and Crytek’s CryEngine.

The Rift ships with an Xbox One Wireless Gamepad, to accommodate most of the games that have been developed thus far. To expand the immersive experience, the company is working on Oculus Touch, wireless handheld controllers for enabling hand movement and gestures in virtual space. The controllers are tracked through the Oculus Constellation system in 3D space, enabling users to manipulate objects with precision. 

Lucky’s Tale will be included with pre-orders of the Rift.

Additionally, Oculus is offering Medium, its creation platform (think virtual clay) for natural sculpting.  

Users can select content from the Oculus Home environment, where they can launch VR applications, purchase apps from the Oculus Home store, or connect with friends also using the Rift. To keep latency low, applications output directly to the Rift, bypassing the PC’s operating system. This is done through custom Oculus drives and a runtime service, both of which are needed in order to use the Rift.

A free application included with the Rift is Oculus Cinema, where users can watch conventional movies and videos from inside a virtual cinema environment. A networking feature enables multiple users to watch the same video in the same space, interacting with one another as avatars. Users can also watch 360-degree 3D (spherical) video and VR movies as they become available. 

HTC Vive
From: HTC (and Valve)
Shipping: April 2016 (pre-orders start Feb. 29)
Price: Unknown 

The HTC Vive is a joint offering from two very different companies: HTC, known for its phones, and Valve, a gaming company well versed in the development and distribution of digital content. So, it would seem logical that the Vive would be similar to the Samsung Gear VR in that the HMD would utilize a smartphone. But that is not the case. The Vive needs to be wired to a PC, like the Oculus Rift.

Perhaps this sheds some light on the subject. The Vive is part of Valve’s SteamVR virtual-reality system. Valve is building the tools and plans to partner up with multiple hardware companies for the SteamVR headset. The first such hardware provider (and seemingly the only thus far) is HTC, which is providing the Vive headset that will be powered via SteamVR.

Final Approach (top) and Arizona Sunshine (bottom) will be ready to use with the HTC Vive.

Pricing initially was “guesstimated” in the $600 range, but reports just days after Facebook revealed Oculus’s $599 tag have Vive costing anywhere from $200 to $600. But it’s all speculation at this point.

While details are still incomplete, the Vive promises high-quality graphics, video that plays at 90 fps, and impressive audio fidelity. In fact, comparisons show that its display (OLED), resolution (2160x1200), and refresh rate (90 Hz) are the same as the Rift. This is also true for the field of view (110 degrees) and connections (HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0). 

The differences are with the platform. For the Vive, this will be SteamVR, Valve’s storefront for VR applications and experiences. Additional content from partners such as HBO is also expected.  

The Vive touts a pair of SteamVR controllers for exploring virtual environments and for use as game controllers; the SteamVR controllers function similar to a modified Steam Controller. The Vive also supports a PC-compatible gamepad. 

The Vive uses laser positioning and more than 70 sensors, including a gyroscope and accelerometer. It also has a front-facing camera that integrates directly with the so-called Chaperone system for the Room Scale Experience that lets users walk around a room that’s up to 15x15 feet.

This feature employs sensor boxes to identify the perimeter and objects in the space; a grid outline of the room is projected when the user gets too close to these barriers. In a nutshell, it merges the real world with the virtual world (but do not mistake this for AR). Plus, it offers unmatched freedom of movement in VR space (but it is still limited by the cable that attaches the HMD to the PC).

The headset itself has many laser sensors that receive data from two Base Stations attached to two walls of the room where it is used.

At CES in January, the company was showing off the Vive Pre, the latest version of the hardware. Initially, the Vive was to ship at the end of 2015, but that was delayed due to some design changes, including the addition of the front-facing camera (which no doubt will affect the price of the device). Other tweaks are expected before the HMD hits shelves, as HTC and Valve have stated that the Pre developer’s unit will be followed by another, final version.

PlayStation VR
From: Sony
Shipping: 2016 (estimated first half of the year)
Price: Unknown

It was known as Project Morpheus but more recently has been identified as PlayStation VR (PSVR). Whatever you call it, the device is a major competitor to Oculus Rift in that comparisons are continually being made between the two HMDs. 

As of press time, pricing for PlayStation VR was still unknown, and whether Sony will take note of the disgruntled community’s reaction January 6 after Facebook unveiled the $599 price tag for the Rift is anyone’s guess at this point. Early speculation points to $800 to $1,200. 

PSVR, like Rift, will sport a 5.7-inch OLED display. It will have a combined resolution of 1920x1080, or 960x1080 per eye, which is less than Rift and Vive. Its refresh rate is touted at 90 hz (like Rift), although it can render games at up to 120 hz. Furthermore, PSVR is said to have a vertical field of view of approximately 100 degrees, slightly narrower than the Rift’s. 

Similar to the Rift, PSVR contains an accelerometer and gyroscope, but whereas the Rift contains the Oculus Constellation tracking system, the PSVR will use the PlayStation Eye tracking system (an approximate $50 add-on). And yes, it also has 3D audio with built-in speakers. As for input, a PlayStation Move and Dual Shock 4 controller are needed. 

While the Rift is being positioned as a consumer VR headset for games and much more, PlayStation’s entry to the market will be used for the PlayStation 4 gaming console, which currently costs $350. 

Whether it will also work with other applications and platforms is unknown. Alas, the Rift requires a souped-up PC – a major beef with users, but it will offer a more powerful platform than the console. Will the PSVR work out of the box with the PS4, or will a special upgrade be required? That has yet to be answered.

Everything anyone seems to know about the PSVR comes from what we have seen on paper, as no review units have been distributed. The big question, other than pricing, is when will the device ship? So far, the only indication is sometime this year, with a hint that it would be in the first half. However, we have heard projected dates for many of these HMDs already, only to be informed of a delay, so we’ll have to wait and see.

From: Microsoft
Shipping: Q1 2016 (Development Edition)
Price: $3,000 (development kit)

Microsoft’s HoloLens is a different animal from many of the other head-mounted displays shipping now or about to ship. It’s an augmented-reality device, superimposing virtual text, images, and objects onto a person’s real-world field of vision. As such, it does not obscure a person’s entire view. So, the wearers can use their hands for input and selection.

The device is more of a combination headband/glasses/visor – in essence, a smart glasses headset – covered in cameras for head tracking. Essentially, it is a self-contained Windows 10 computer that fits on a person’s head. And while HMDs like the Rift and Vive have high-res displays that fill a user’s field of view, the projected images from the HoloLens are much smaller. 

While it is reasonable to expect that the HoloLens will be used for gaming (considering Microsoft’s ownership of the popular Xbox console and cadre of game development facilities under its Microsoft Studios), at this time the company is touting more business-level capabilities in the areas of product design and development, medical applications, engineering, and the like.

Microsoft is calling the HoloLens the first holographic computer, integrating HD images with the real world via Windows 10. The device comprises an optical system that works in conjunction with advanced sensors. Transparent Holographic HD lenses use an advanced optical projection system, generating multi-dimensional, full-color images with very low latency. 

A custom holographic processing unit (HPU) from Microsoft analyzes and integrates data from the sensors for tasks such as spatial mapping, gesture recognition, and voice and speech recognition. While it crunches a large amount of data (terabytes of information) from the sensors, this occurs in real time. 

Most of the sensors are in the front of the headband, as is the related hardware, such as depth sensors, photo/video camera, and HPU. The HoloLens also contains a set of small stereo speakers, enabling the wearer to hear virtual sounds as well as real-world sounds.

The HoloLens is a self-contained Windows 10 computer.

Like the usual HMDs, the HoloLens sports an inertial measurement unit comprising an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. There are three layers of lenses (blue, green, and red), each with diffractive features. 

No wires, PC connection, phone, or external cameras are needed, so users are free (untethered) to explore their environment. HoloLens understands gestures and the direction the user looks, and maps the world around the person in real time.

Currently, the HoloLens is available only for developers – and by invitation only. 

The Tip of the Iceberg

The race to fill the VR HMD space has been progressing at a frenzied pace for more than a year. While some deadlines came and went, we definitely appear to be on the verge of a new era that will surely bring VR to the masses, particularly the gaming masses.

There are a number of other companies than those mentioned in this article that are poised to make a play for this market. PC maker Asus is talking to Microsoft about a HoloLens version of its own. Later in the year, Razer plans an OSVR Hacker Dev Kit that can be paired with a phone or PC for build-it-yourselfers. Those are but a few additional offerings we can expect in the next 12 months or so as VR and AR content become more prevalent and whet our appetite for exciting new experiences.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.