If you’ve tried Google Cardboard and liked it, then brace yourself: the real thing is on its way.
Speaking today at an event called “Samsung Unplugged,” which was live-streamed to Youtube, Samsung executives and Oculus CTO John Carmack got up on stage to finally talk about a secretive project they’ve been toiling away at for the last year called “Gear VR.”
Gear VR is a peripheral for Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Note 4 that physically encloses the phone and turns it into a high-performance VR headset.
The Gear, based on specs alone, is impressive: it renders at 2560 x 1440 display resolution on the Note 4’s AMOLED display. That’s almost twice the resolution of the 1080p Rift DK2.
It sports an 84 degree FOV (a bit lower than Oculus’ DK2), and runs at 60 fps in low-persistence mode to reduce motion blur. Because it’s not tethered to anything, the user can turn freely in place without having to worry about tangling up their cords — a serious concern on the desktop version of the Oculus Rift.
The device has a touchpad on its side, and supports the ability to switch to a video pass-through mode that directly displays video from the camera to the screen, to let you check something in the real world without taking off the headset. The rotational tracking is much better than what’s previously been possible from mobile VR, because the Gear ignores accelerometer data from the phone itself. It instead talks directly to a proprietary Oculus motion sensor built into the Gear shell.
The Gear VR also has another neat trick that its PC brethren don’t: programmable glasses prescriptions.
Specifically, there’s a little wheel on top of the headset that you can turn to focus the image. By varying the distance between the lenses and the screen, and adjusting the pixel shader used to reverse distortion, you can allow pretty much anyone to wear the device without glasses. This is a much cleaner and more elegant solution than the swappable lenses that Oculus has used to date, and almost certainly a technology that will find its way into future versions of the Rift.
A Mobile Experience
The Note 4 does have two serious drawbacks compared to the desktop version of the Rift.
First, there’s no external tracking camera to figure out the position of the headset, meaning that it’s rotation only: any movement of your torso will result in a nauseating “world dragging” effect, as with the Oculus Rift DK1. Second, although the Note 4 is a remarkably powerful mobile device (it comes with a Snapdragon 805 processor and three gigs of RAM) — it is still a mobile device. That means limited CPU and GPU performance.
In an effort to mitigate the second part of the equation, Oculus revealed that it had John Carmack working on their mobile SDK for the last year, trying to improve performance on the Android platform. This clarified some of the frequently cryptic contents of Carmack’s Twitter feed.
Carmack, in his brief speech above, touches on some of the work he’s done to get Android ready for VR. The Oculus team has implemented a mobile SDK that uses a variety of technologies to improve performance, most notably asynchronous time warp (the ability to warp old data to match head motion, even if the renderer hasn’t produced a fresh frame yet). Oculus has been talking about asynchronous time warp for a while now, but this is the first time the public has seen it implemented.
To further boost performance, the VR apps on the Note 4 also run in real-time mode with a guaranteed clock speed. That means that VR apps are given maximum priority: other apps are blocked from doing anything that eats up CPU time while they’re running, and the operating system isn’t allowed to mess with the clock speed of the CPU to try to preserve battery life.
The SDK also implements a feature called “racing the beam,” which means that, rather than rendering an entire frame before sending it to the screen, the SDK renders as the frame is being drawn, just ahead of the physical updating of the screen, producing new pixels only milliseconds before they’re needed. This all comes together for a guaranteed 60 fps framerate, and a 20ms motion-to-photons latency, similar to the best-optimized demos for the DK2 and near the limit of human perception.
Carmack describes the platform like this:
The magic of a completely portable and wireless VR headset is easy to underestimate until you have experienced it. We don’t have the raw horsepower of a high end gaming PC (yet), but there are valuable compensations that make it a very interesting trade off. […] At it’s very core, virtual reality is about being freed from the limitations of actual reality. Carrying your virtual reality with you, and being able to jump into it whenever and wherever you want qualitatively changes the experience for the better.
The version of the Gear VR being shown off right now is called the “Innovator Edition” and is sort of an early-access dev kit. Samsung plans to release the device in mid-October of this year, and are aiming for a price point under $200.
Since the announcement this morning, a large number of applications have come out of the woodwork as launch titles for the Gear VR. Some of them are old Rift standbys, but some of them are new.
Notable examples include Darknet (the sequel to Ciess, the winner of the Oculus VR Game Jam), Proton Pulse, and the terrifying DreadHalls, a dungeon-crawling horror game. There’s also a mysterious game called “Land’s End,” coming from the creators of the surreal, Escher-inspired mobile platformer, “Monument Valley.”
This is on top of the first party content, which includes various Samsung-branded content (including an “Avengers” app in which you play Tony Stark). There’s also a number of Oculus apps, including a VR store for downloading and running VR content, a virtual theater app, and an app for playing panoramic video (including a demo of a Circ de Sole performance.
Oculus & Samsung: A Shotgun Wedding?
This is a huge deal for Samsung, who have put their foot in the door of what is probably going to be the biggest media revolution of this generation.
But what is Oculus getting out of it? The answer is probably two-fold. First, the Gear VR may offer an inexpensive way to generate VR converts from people who are looking to get the most out of their shiny new Note 4. Second, a partnership with Samsung helps Oculus satisfy a desperate need for the PC side of the equation. Namely, their demand for custom screens.
Oculus makes a lot of compromises to use existing mobile screens for VR – the screen used in the DK2 is an overclocked Note III screen (taken directly from the consumer device), and the overclocking can produce a number of frustrating bugs and visual artifacts. What Oculus really wants is a custom screen at a custom resolution, cut into a custom shape, and designed from the ground up to run at 90 hz – eventually, it probably even wants curved screens to produce a larger field of view. It also wants millions of them at wholesale prices. Getting those screens means having a friendly relationship with Samsung, and it’s likely that the Gear VR deal was part of negotiations for exactly those reasons.
This leads to a larger point: even if you don’t plan to buy a Note 4 or a Gear unit, you should be excited about this news. The Gear VR is good news for the desktop headset as well as the future of mobile VR. Many of the performance improvements made for the Gear will translate back to the desktop space and help our poor, long-suffering computers push pretty 4K 90fps stereo graphics to the screen in just a few years.
Many of the designs iterated for the Gear VR will probably make their way into the consumer version of the Rift. Finally, the existence of the Gear is a sign of a healthy partnership between Oculus and Samsung that will really help consumer PC virtual reality become all that it deserves to be.
Are you excited about the Gear VR? Will it transform the world of VR? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Images courtesy of Oculus VR