The race is on.
Earlier today, at the Mobile World Press Conference in Barcelona, Valve and HTC announced that they’re partnering to bring a new VR headset to the market, called the “HTC Re Vive.” The “Vive” will ship to developers this spring, and to consumers by the holiday season.
Specs and Speculation
The HTC VR website has some interesting technical information about the headset, not to mention a bunch of dramatic pictures of people looking at things. Some hardware details are still unknown, but it’s possible to fill in a few of the gaps by reading between the lines.
- Dual 1200x1080 screens (2400x1080 overall)
- 90hz refresh rate with low persistence
- 110 degree Field of View
- No built-in speakers
- Two positional-tracked controllers
- Two “base stations” which use lasers to provide tracking for the headset
- Large positional tracking bubble, 15 feet by 15 feet
- Lightweight (no specific figures)
The dual screens have obvious drawbacks, increasing weight and complexity compared to a single panel like the one used by the Oculus Rift. But dual screens have a key advantage — you can adjust the IPD (inter-pupillary distance) of the headset. This would resolve a major problem with the Oculus Rift — users with wide heads can find that their eyes are too far away from the centers of the lenses to see properly. No official confirmation of this yet, but the decision makes little sense otherwise.
The positional tracking area of approximately 15 feet by 15 feet is much larger than the six feet by six feet of current Oculus Rift “Crescent Bay” prototype that I tried in January. What’s more, nobody seems to be quite sure how it works. Valve’s being pretty tight-lipped for the time being:
@Marlamin no lasers on the headset, the tracking system is quite unlike anything else out there, we will talk more about it in coming weeks.
— Alan Yates (@vk2zay) March 1, 2015
There are rumors circulating that the base stations work by projecting laser markers onto the walls. The headset could then use cameras to localize itself based on these markers. This is similar to the technology used for Valve’s “Holodeck” demo, except without the need to tape QR codes to every surface. Again, no confirmation of this yet, but it seems like the best guess for the time being.
The size of the tracking volume also raises interesting safety questions. The Oculus Rift is a “seated experience,” although the company has given standing demos. This is presumably for legal reasons since standing offers a more immersive experience in most cases. Wandering around a room, blindfolded, reacting to things that don’t exist, is definitely a potential hazard. It remains to be seen whether Valve has a solution to this problem in mind or just a good EULA.
We don’t know many details about what kind of controller is being used. Positional tracking of hands is a hard problem to crack. Unlike head tracking, it isn’t possible to do visual tricks like John Carmack’s timewarp to artificially reduce perceived latency. If the latency is too high, your hands wind up seeming heavy and sluggish, which breaks the illusion of presence in the scene. Maybe Valve has some impressive tricks up their sleeve to resolve these problems. We should know more soon since Valve will be showing off the device at GDC in a few days’ time. Expect more updates as information becomes available.
For the last year or so, only two VR products in development have had a serious shot at mainstream acceptance — the Oculus Rift and the Sony Morpheus.
Since both are exclusive to different platforms, there hasn’t been any direct competition in the space. Every other headset has been targeted for mobile users, poorly made, or outright vaporware.
The Vive changes that. It’s targeted at the PC and SteamBox user, making it a direct competitor with Oculus. It’s also more advanced than the latest Rift prototype, and offers a complete experience, including input. It even commits to a near-term release date, something that Oculus has been reluctant to do. Valve’s aggressive schedule is going to force Oculus to release their own product, soon, or else risk slipping behind. Oculus has enjoyed an enormous lead over the competition for a long time — now they’re playing catch-up.
The decision by Valve to launch a headset surprised many people, myself included. Back in the early days of Oculus, Valve gave the company significant guidance and information. After the Facebook buyout, several key members of their VR team (including Michael Abrash) left Valve to work for Oculus. The thinking at the time was that Valve didn’t want to develop VR hardware themselves, preferring to leave it to Oculus.
The decision to release their own hardware suggests that the relationship between the companies has become less friendly. It seems plausible that the issue is one of VR content distribution: Valve has a huge interest in making sure that VR content is consumed through Steam, preserving their monopoly on digital game distribution. Oculus and Facebook are developing their own solution, Oculus Home, which is already live on the Gear VR platform. The Vive is probably an attempt to make sure Steam doesn’t get left behind.
In the long term, of course, competition is good for consumers: we will get better products, cheaper, and sooner. That said, in the short term, the split may lead to market fragmentation as Oculus and Valve try to lock gaming experiences into exclusive contracts to support only one headset. It’s easy to imagine the situation developing into something like the console ecosystem, with fierce marketing battles, exclusive titles, and format wars.
The good news is that there’s some reason to believe it won’t turn out that way. For one thing, the difficulty of porting games from one headset to another just isn’t as big as the difficulty of porting games between consoles, which changes the dynamic. For another thing, neither Valve nor Oculus has shown any signs of this kind of anti-competitive behavior yet. There might be differences in the content available between platforms, especially if Oculus ships a headset without a motion controller, but the market as a whole shouldn’t suffer too much.
Winner Take All
The next two years are going to be exciting. The Vive is an incredibly cool piece of tech, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch Oculus and Valve duke it out in the marketplace. At stake: the future of Virtual Reality, and the future of gaming. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
Are you excited for the Vive? Still holding out for the Oculus consumer version? Is there going to be a VR headset under your tree this Christmas? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credits: HTC VR