At an Oculus Connect event this week, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerbergannounced a small change to the Oculus Rift, his company’s virtual reality headset, which will have massive repercussions for the technology over the next year of its life.
It wasn’t the news that the company is working on a standalone VR headset, nor that it’s now selling in-ear headphones for $49 to go with your rift. Instead, its a small technique added to the Oculus development kit with the odd name of “asynchronous spacewarp”.
The addition allows the Oculus Rift to shift the field of view smoothly as the player turns their head, without needing to fully re-render the entire image. It might not sound like much, but smooth visuals are one of the hardest things about the technology to get right: screw it up, and the dreaded VR sickness will hit you like a punch to the gut. (Get it right, and the VR sickness might still hit you. Such is the way of VR.)
Asynchronous spacewarp isn’t just intended to do away with retching users, though. Instead, the goal is to lower the amount of data transfer that is needed to get VR running smoothly at all, from the current minimum of 90 frames per second down to a startlingly low 45 frames per second. For comparison, that’s low enough for the framerate to be evident even on a normal screen, if only in moments of rapid action.
Why does this matter? Simply, you won’t need to spend the price of a second-hand family car to buy a PC capable of running VR games anymore. In fact, on stage, Zuckerberg also announced the first sub-$500 Oculus-ready PC, bringing the total cost of the full package down to under £1,000 – even taking the Brexit-induced slide in the pound into account.
It’s not exactly a price-cut, but even so, it’s probably not a coincidence that Oculus announced the new package a week before the launch of its biggest competitor yet – Sony’s Playstation VR. That’s going to bring the barrier to entry down even lower, to just £625 all-in (including the PS4, PSVR, and the camera required for head tracking). And while many PC gamers still have to buy a whole new computer to use an Oculus Rift – or Valve and HTC’s even higher-specced competitor, the Vive – every Playstation 4 can work with the PSVR.
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Virtual reality is about to hit the mass market, and it’s not exaggeration to say that the next six months are of existential importance for the field.
The technology is uniquely hard to demonstrate: watching someone use VR on TV doesn’t sell it, nor does seeing video footage of what’s coming through the headset on a normal monitor. Even sitting next to someone with a VR headset on will leave you with a sense of missing out, but not really a full understanding of what, exactly, you’re missing out on.
That’s part of the reason VR manufacturers have been aggressively touring the devices, rather than simply advertising them. Sony has traipsed PSVR units up and down the country on its “future of play” tour, while Oculus has set up demo locations in branches of John Lewis, Curry’s PC World, Game and Harrods.
It’s an open question whether simpler VR-style technology can do a similar job. The rise of high-resolution, motion-sensitive smartphones has led to systems likeGoogle’s Cardboard and Daydream VR, and Facebook and Samsung’s Gear VR. These headsets simply hold a phone close to your face and offer something close to a full VR experience for a fraction of the cost.
The hopeful conclusion is that those experiences, stripped down as they are, excite people about the possibility of VR, and prompt them to seriously consider dropping between £350 and £1,000 on the real deal. The worry for many is that instead, they may deliver some of the VR experience without the magic that full set-ups offer, and prompt a feeling of “been there, done that” once the novelty wears off.
Both the PSVR and the new lower-minimum Oculus do offer that magic – the moment when the view on-screen and your actions in the real world merge so perfectly that you feel transported into the virtual reality presented to you. That said, they still have their flaws. The dreaded VR nausea is there too often, for too many people, and there’s still somewhat of a content drought, reflecting the chicken-and-egg situation the technology faces.
These will be improved in time, but it’s time the platform doesn’t have, lest it be relegated to the same “yesterday’s tomorrow” position of similar techs like 3D TVs and motion-controlled video games. The line between short-lived novelty and transformational new technology is thinner than many give it credit, and VR needs to leap over it soon.