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The State of Virtual Reality & OSVR Interview


The Third Way and OSVR Interview

So we come to it. Valve has developed its OpenVR SDK and API (which is tied to SteamVR) and is publicly available. The goal is noble and pure, VR standards everyone can work with. Inevitably though, this is easier said than done. A single platform which everyone agrees to and works with is the ideal, but competing business interests as well as the desire of some to close the ecosystem where possible mean that at present, the VR gaming space is a slightly fragmented mess.

Enter stage left…

Think of the VR space right now as a heavyweight championship boxing match. You’ve got your two big bruisers in the ring trading blows

WHAM! Kickstarter glory project.

WHAM! Steam integration.

WHAM! Billion dollar backing in Facebook.

WHAM! Room scale and no distribution problems.

WHAM! Exclusive (timed or otherwise) titles.

WHAM! Room scale and touch controllers at launch.

Whoah, hold on a second. In comes the ref “now I told you at the start, I want a good clean fight, no biting!”
And all of a sudden, you realise there is a third player in this match. The referee. Welcome OSVR. A consortium of industry stalwarts with household names, gamer known names and obscure names all banding together with a common goal:

Genuinely open, standards driven VR.

Here’s the thing, I get that Oculus wants a piece of the action Steam has and doesn’t just want to be a VR product, but an ecosystem in its own right. I also get that Steam wants to give its users a great VR experience and lock in its users as much as possible. But many of us play games on other platforms besides Steam (Origin, Uplay, GOG etc). If you’re like me, you probably aren’t a fan of the platform fragmentation that already exists for games, do you really want another one for VR games? I don’t. Ok, so Oculus Home is a problem then.

Steam is great, I’ve got far too many games on it, a majority of which I’ve never even installed let alone started up and played. I’m sure I’m not along in that situation. But you know that at some point, EA is going to put out an Origin exclusive game with VR, so then what? Do they want to be bound by Steam? Probably not. Hmmm.

Which is why the third way matters. Oculus likely knows it’s fighting a slightly rearguard action when it comes to taking on Steam in games, so throwing money at exclusives makes sense while it sorts out its production and distribution problems, Steam is now advertising a few days turnaround on people ordering a Vive, whereas if I go to the Oculus site it’s telling me an estimated ship date of “August 2016”…

So what exactly is this third way? Personally, I want a VR headset that works like my monitor does, namely that I can run any game that supports “VR” on it. I don’t want to care about which brand headset I buy beyond figuring out which one has the best specs and performance at my budget.

It’s a striking fact that console players are apparently looking forward to VR more than PC gamers. It makes sense, they know that they’ll be able to just plug it in and it’ll work with their VR games. No vorpX to buy and mess around with configuring, no worrying about if they buy the “wrong” headset the VR game they want won’t work. If it’s on a PlayStation for VR, it’ll work with PSVR. Wouldn’t it be great if the PC ecosystem had this? Maybe that’d be why 72% of PlayStation/Xbox gamers are interested in VR compared to only 51% of PC gamers (source).

I reached out to Oculus, Valve/HTC and Razer to discuss their thoughts around VR. Razer was the only one that got back to me, I asked them a lot of questions and you can read the interview below.

Don't be fooled, the HDK2 is now a consumer product...

The Razer VR Interview

W: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Jeevan. Many people see VR as the future. Not just of gaming, but of everything. Ad delivery, movies, big data consumption and analysis. What is the view of Razer's OSVR team and what were the original motivations for a company like Razer to enter the VR race, particularly given it's somewhat outside your normal arena.

J: We believe that VR does have more application than just gaming – which is why we co-founded OSVR with Sensics. With an open source ecosystem – varying types of hardware (headsets and input devices), content (we currently have partners working on 360 media content, advertising content, medical and industrial types projects as well as games) will be able to increase mainstream application through inter hardware and technology compatibility. We are still in a relatively experimental stage in VR and for all intents and purposes different media formats might end up having different hardware and technology requirements. We need to be able to support everything and with the OSVR software platform we can do this.

As for motivations to enter the VR race – VR is the next step in digital entertainment experience and interactivity – and in that sense it is right up our alley as a company that is a global leader in high performance gaming systems, peripherals, audio products and wearable technology. A good testament to this is previously release Razer Hydra.

That being said – why an open source ecosystem and not proprietary hardware to start with? VR is extremely new and it falls on the shoulders of the entire industry and community to make it succeed. If we want to make VR mainstream – it will only be as strong as its weakest link – so we co-founded OSVR to ensure that everyone, big companies or small have equal opportunity to push the industry to success. It’s something that we believe has to be done to eventually be able to allow everyone out there to pick up and experience the amazing potential this technology has

W: Let's start with the simple stuff, what is OSVR? I know there is obviously the hacker kit but it's more about the software than the hardware right? This is about open standards for VR correct?

J: OSVR is first and foremost a software platform that facilitates the creation of an open ecosystem that allows companies and brands of all shapes and sizes to have their technology work with each other. To put simply – we want to create a PC like ecosystem in the VR industry – where developers support a wide range of hardware with ease and consumers have the ability to choose what combination of hardware they want to use to experience VR. Be it cost effective or premium hardware or a multitude of input devices from their favourite companies.

We have over 310 supporters currently including Intel, Nvidia, Acer, Legendary Studios, Ubisoft, Gearbox Software, Leap Motion, Nod Labs, Noitom, SMI, Academic institutions, Entertainment centres, 20 VR headsets (pc, mobile and AR) as well as over 150 content developers supporting this movement and we are continuing to grow this to build an ecosystem that gives people choice and helps bring VR closer to mainstream adoption.

The Hacker Development Kit was designed as a headset allowing developers to support the ecosystem while waiting for partner hardware to be ready. As such it is designed to be accessible – balancing quality and system requirements so it can run on a mid-tier gaming PC or better. Do note that this was one year ago and we have actually now reached the point with the headset that actually makes it viable for folks who want to experience pc-tethered VR without paying a bomb to do so. It is also perfect for enthusiasts as it’s user upgradable and works with open source software so the skies the limit with what they can do with it – without worrying about licensing issues.

It is also a reference design allowing our partners to modify it, re brand it and sell it as their own product.

On that note, technology aside – OSVR really is about supporting the industry – we introduce partners to each other and open up pathways for collaborative opportunities so they can learn from each other’s technologies to help improve their products. The VR industry is still new and we are all still learning – so collaboration is an awesome way to get past its challenges today.

W: VR languished as a nothing technology for a long time after its initial beginnings. Why do you think that is? Are we sitting on the next 3D tv failure or at the runway for a take off this time? How is it different and why?

J: VR has tons of potential – but just like any technological innovation we need to get past a) cost b) ease of use c) usable content as these are the main factors that drive consumer adoption. While this is being done there is of course the challenge of delivering good experiences to the market so there is steady upward adoption. It is not easy but with the minds, companies and technologies throwing their smartest and most talented minds there is no doubt that VR will succeed. We can overcome this as an industry – we just need to pace ourselves so that we are all ready to deliver amazing products and experiences once the VR market goes mainstream.

Why is VR different from technologies that have been introduced before and failed? The best answer to that is get any uninitiated person to pop on a headset with an amazing tech demo and once we solve the 3 key issues mentioned above, the sky is the limit for the industry.

W: Have you worked much with Oculus and HTC thus far? How about Sony for PS VR? If so what on?

J: We have Oculus DK2 support and have a good working relationship with Valve. We are a neutral platform and ultimately want to get everyone’s support because it’s just good news for everyone all around.

The Vive... Currently leading the VR charts (Source)

W: I read some comments by Luca Di Fiore that says that Oculus are not open source, they're only open for things that work on Oculus. What exactly does this mean? They give you API's to work with and then it only works on the Rift? Is the story with the Vive the same?

J: The Oculus SDK currently only works with their hardware to the best of my knowledge. The story with Vive is a little different, they have OpenVR which is essentially allows any hardware manufacturer to support their platform which is how we have managed to bring SteamVR compatibility to the OSVR ecosystem.

W: How easy or hard is it likely to be for a game developer who makes a AAA game with native Oculus support to port it to the Vive, or to an OSVR device?

J: Am not the best person to answer this question but generally multi-platform support can always be challenging especially when you have different hardware technologies and configurations to work with. Again – OSVR helps to counter this by integrating our hardware partner’s APIs in to the ecosystem so a single integration of our SDK for content devs will support multiple types of hardware and their configurations.

W: Several part question. If someone writes a AAA game to OSVR now, will it work on the rift or vive without any extra effort on the developers part?

J: We ideally would want the content to run across all headsets. OSVR is open source so by that very fact we have a non-exclusive approach to content. The more headsets can run AAA content the more avenues for success the industry has.

W: What compromises are there in that case to the experience vs. a game that is developed to natively support either of the other 2 devices?

J: The things that currently make headsets different are mainly positional tracking technologies, resolution and FOV. This will eventually boil down to what suits the individuals needs best. A good comparison is the Android vs Apple market to date. Apple was able to control the quality of the experience through a closed ecosystem – however Android now has reached a point where users can get the same experience through its more premium range, at the same time those who don’t want to spend too much can still get a decent experience from lower end hardware. It’s all about choice which is what we want to give the market.

W: What percentage of the functionality of the others are you currently supporting?

J: We do have support for the Oculus DK2 and also are working with over 20 headset partners to integrate their technology – companies like Vuzix, VRvana totem…etc.

W: Oculus is obviously the poster child of the VR resurgence, but a lot of people have concerns about them and particularly since the facebook acquisition and rift/store launch, there are accusations that they are effectively trying to create a proprietary monitor standard. This is surely the worst of the worst, even if their technology is good. Is this exactly the situation which OSVR is trying to avoid?

J: No comment. We do believe that the market should be open to innovation from across all companies.

W: Content as opposed to technology will in many ways decide the king of the VR pile. I recently had the opportunity to speak to David Braben and one of the things he mentioned was that they (Elite: Dangerous) are one of the only big budget games currently working on VR. Have you guys worked with Frontier to get Elite onto OSVR yet?

J: We do have Elite Dangerous running on the HDK and OSVR supported headsets through SteamVR support.

W: Staying on the content thread. I've read that Ubisoft, and nVidia are signed up to OSVR. They're big names no doubt, but at the moment I don't know if there are any serious big games announced for the platform yet. What's coming? Even if you can't say yet, any hints of big content announcements in the short to medium term? What about AAA game engines like cryengine, frostbite etc?

J: No Comment. Except that we do have native support for Cryengine and Unreal so we are ready to go in terms of supporting content built with that technology.

W: When I'm on the OSVR website (osvr.org) and click on the Steam logo, it links me to the Steam store with the search term "VR support". Do all of the games in that list genuinely support OSVR with full functionality? I noticed that the Steam filter for "Narrow by VR Support" only lists HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, will OSVR appear here in the future?

J: We have SteamVR support so the HDK and any OSVR supported headsets can run SteamVR content. This of course applies more so to the gamepad based experiences until we have room scale and motion controller hardware. We also would like to have an OSVR filter featured there eventually.

W: So what about upcoming hardware? There must be loads of manufacturers out there who want to jump on the VR bandwagon but don't want to start from scratch. What does OSVR give any budding VR makers? Do you effectively lower the cost of entry to make a VR headset? Who is coming? I can imagine all sorts of monitor manufacturers leaping onboard with this. Any big names expected?

J: We support VR headset developers in 2 ways:

  1. Allow them to leverage off the HDK as a reference design and also help them out with securing the technologies they need. The HDK is open source so they can modify it and rebrand it accordingly.
  2. Also, because of the nature of our open source platform – having a headset support our ecosystem means less effort for their biz dev teams to get supported content as that happens naturally as we continue to grow the ecosystem.

In general we do have a developer program that:

  • Gives developers a complimentary HDK to begin development
  • Provide marketing and promotional support for them (anything from social media shout outs to presence at our Razer booths to demo their hardware and software)
  • Collaborative opportunities as I mentioned above with other partners
  • Priority access to tech support.

For more info on our hardware and software partners you can check out: http://www.osvr.org/partner.html

W: Does OSVR allow for a sitting experience like the Rift, a walking around experience like the Vive or both depending on what hardware the device has?

J: It is both depending on the hardware we have on the ecosystem.

W: Field of view, pixel visibility and the screen door effect are all things which concern people about VR. We have people running 4k setups for gaming these days, how do you see the next few years in terms of increasing quality for field of view and pixel visibility?

J: That’s a tough question. Because of the nature of the experience (optics that zoom onto displays and stereoscopic rendering) you already need expensive setups to get the experiences available out there today. For general consumers to enjoy 4k type experiences in VR with minimal pixilation we will need significantly more powerful cards at a more affordable price point which might take a while. It will definitely happen – it’s just a question of when.

W: I recently had an experience on PS VR and did start to feel somewhat nauseous using it, although I seemed ok with the Vive. What are your thoughts here? Was it the hardware, the software, both? I know PS VR uses reprojection which is apparently inferior to the PC based VR technologies but am not too familiar with the concepts, could this have an effect?

J: As far as we can tell so far – it really boils down to the individual although things like a higher refresh rate and lower latency will help to improve the overall experience. It is generally a combination of hardware and software and it’s a challenge the industry is facing as a whole right now. The way the content is designed also plays a part in curbing motion sickness.

W: Several questions here. I would imagine that although you seem behind the curve with both Oculus and HTC having commercially available VR today, the concept with OSVR is that you don't have a "product lifecycle" as such, that must be down to the individual OSVR hardware manufacturers.
What is your expectation of the life cycle for a VR headset?

J: If the lifecycle of general consumer products nowadays is anything to go by I’d say between 2 to 4 years.

W: Will we see Rift/Vive "Pro" in the next few years do you think?

J: No comment

W: Will the market become segmented by price/performance/features?

J: We should expect so as multiple hardware manufacturers jump onboard VR – the variety will also give consumers greater choice – much like the PC ecosystem is today. The important thing is that they all work together so there is no segmentation of content or experiences. Which is what OSVR is doing.

W: I'd imagine they're not too keen to launch a V2 too soon, they've both spent a lot of time and money developing what they have now, they need to recoup some costs surely?

J: No comment

W: How does OSVR (the hacker development kit) work with glasses? What is the future of VR for people with glasses, is it people keeping glasses on and having to fiddle about with positioning or is there a more elegant solution to be made such as dioptric adjustments or custom lenses incorporated into the hardware?

J: We have focal adjusters for each eye that allow individuals with degrees between +400 and -250 to use the headset without glasses. In the event they fall outside this range they can try using the headset with glasses on, but whether this works or not highly depends on the size of the eyewear. As for the future or eyewear – there is technology swimming around like lens inserts – aside from that there are other things hardware developers can do like design a larger eye box to cater to the use of glasses.

W: Who owns and who can contribute to the creation of the OSVR standard as such? Is it Razer? Sensics? A consortium? What is the governance structure and how much faith can consumers have if they buy into it that the standards will continue to exist and evolve?

J: While Razer and Sensics co-founded OSVR and do work at maintaining and improving the technology for the community anyone can contribute to it and create things with it. This is precisely why we choose not to associate the Razer brand to OSVR (but there are times when folks tend to call it Razer OSVR which needs to be corrected 🙂 ). OSVR ultimately belongs to the community – whether it’s the official partners we have on board or the enthusiast who wants to create their own VR technology.

W: What kind of size estimates do Razer place on the VR market (both hardware and software if any)?

J: No Comment

W: VR at the moment looks aimed at the gamer which is great, but it seems niche. The beauty of the monitor and the tv is that they are widespread technologies which many already own and therefore gaming on them is made easier. What can be done to broaden VR adoption in the future?

J: As mentioned I think they key areas for improvement are ease of use, cost of technology and content.

W: Real world considerations like headset fatigue and wires getting in the way are concerns. How is OSVR looking to get around this? High resolution and FOV vr is a lot of data to transfer wirelessly...

J: We are always exploring different technologies to help to ease these things – such as ergonomic improvements and wireless systems.

W: What is the real speed needed to give a really amazing VR experience and when do you guys see the GPU's being there to drive it appropriately?

J: No Comment.

W: Do conventional game graphics problems like tearing present in VR? Do we need to consider variable refresh rate technologies in VR to prevent this here too or is it largely absolved by high refresh rates?

J: No Comment.

Wrapping up

This article/interview is a fair while in the making. Since it was first written, the HDK 2 has been launched and is now matching the Oculus CV1 and Vive specifications (at least as far as the headset itself is concerned) at a significantly lower price point ($400). AMD recently launched their 480 graphics card (read our review here) talking about the democratisation of VR with the tagline “VR IS NOT JUST FOR THE 1%”. Bit by bit, the costs of entry into the VR world are coming down.

I’m fairly lucky in that I managed to get an Oculus DK2 that a friend of mine no longer wanted to play around with. It’s been an interesting experience, obviously significantly poorer than the Vive I got to try at EGX Rezzed earlier this year (read about that here).

Additionally I’ve recently gotten a Gear VR that I’ve had some fun with (again, an Oculus setup) but I’ll not be spending much money on content, particularly given that although it recognises your Oculus Home ID, anything you buy for Gear VR needs to be bought again if you want to use it on the desktop. Personally I think the Gear VR is actually the best way to get into VR at this stage (assuming you already have a compatible phone of course!) Although it is entirely a cheaper experience than you get on any of the tethered VR experiences, the freedom you get without cables and with a built in dioptric adjustment capability gives me a better overall experience than many of the "swap these lenses out or keep your glasses on/wear contacts" solutions that exist in other headsets. I've dipped a toe in, the water is ok, but not yet fine.

I’ve yet to try the HDK (either 1.4 or 2) but would be interested in giving them a go. Personally, I think that the market isn’t quite at the stage where I’m ready to buy into it, particularly given the dearth of content and the lack of interoperability between hardware, platforms, games etc.
Ultimately, it’s a brave new world. Some are trying to level the playing field, some are not. Want to be on the cutting edge? The time is now, but for me. I'll stick with 4k for the time being.