Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift Review

Even people who have no interest in VR or don’t pay attention to it are aware of the name “Oculus”. Why? Because Oculus has become to VR what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners. Founded in 2012 by Palmer Lucky and his colleagues, Oculus sold the idea that VR could be raised from the dead and that the time was right for the technology to shine.

We went through several pre-production Oculus models that got the media and developers hyped up. The developer models proved that the Oculus design worked, and now finally we have the actual, final consumer model that anyone can buy.

Woman using Oculus rift

Oculus Rift Competition

Of course, Oculus’s success was also a source of competition. Other companies quickly figured out that if Oculus could to it, so could they – meaning that the consumer version of the HMD was released into a market with other headsets such as the HTC Vive. How does the Oculus stack up in the field? Is it still the gold standard or are you better off looking elsewhere?

What’s In the Box?

The standard Oculus bundle comes in a nice little carry case that has a molded insert for all the bits that make up the core system. There’s a space for the headset itself, with a molded spindle you can wrap the long cord around when storing it. There’s also a little clip to secure the tracking camera and a compartment that stores the included Xbox One controller and the little dongle that makes it work with a Windows PC.

What you won’t find included in the package are the Oculus Touch controller set. That's a separate purchase, but usually offered at a discount if you buy all in one go.

The Dirty Details

The Oculus has a 2160x1200 OLED panel with a native refresh rate of 90Hz. This is exactly the same as its biggest competition, the HTC Vive. That makes sense, since Oculus has basically set the standard that others have followed.

It has to be said, though, that some other headset makers have already exceeded these specifications. But it’s still more than enough to give you a really convincing VR experience. All in all, the visual setup provides you with a 110-degree field of vision – comfortably above the 90-degree minimum needed for good immersion.

The Oculus has built-in headphones, but you can take them off if you want to use your own fancy cans. There’s a single camera sensor included in the kit, but you can add more to expand the size of the tracking area. There’s also a built-in microphone and a host of internal motion sensors.

Girl wearing Oculus Rift

The Infernal Engine

As you (hopefully) know, the Oculus is not a self-contained VR system. It needs a computer to drive all those pretty graphics and to process the tracking information. One of the big criticisms of the Oculus and other similar VR systems has been how heavy their system requirements are. It’s true that you need quite a hefty gaming computer to make use of the Rift.

The most important piece of the puzzle is your computer’s GPU or graphical processing unit. When the Rift launched, the minimum requirement was for a GTX 970 graphics card or equivalent. If you didn’t know, that was the second most expensive option at the time, but since then two things have changed.

The first thing that changed is Oculus figured out a way to reduce the system requirements. Kicking it down to a “mere” GTX 960 or equivalent. The second thing that happened is a small revolution in graphics technology. GPU maker Nvidia released its 10-series GPUs, which were a big leap in performance and power requirements. All of a sudden the cheap mid-range card had as much power as the GTX 960, which was upper mid-range. Not only that, these new GPUs could comfortably run in laptops, which are much more popular than desktop computers. In one fell swoop VR-ready computers became way more affordable. CPU requirements are now also more reasonable, with only a Core i3-6100 and eight GB of RAM needed to join the party.

You also have to keep in mind that while these are the minimum specs for Oculus in general, some specific games or experiences might have a higher requirements. Meeting the minimum specs also doesn’t mean that you’ll get an optimal experience. Because of the special methods Oculus has put in place to make the new minimum level work, there can be some loss in visual fidelity and slight artifacting. That is, some glitching in the picture. Oculus has a downloadable tool on their site that will let you know if you current computer has the chops to run the system. Be sure to give that a try before you spend a bunch of money on an HMD your computer can’t handle.

Setting it Up

Honestly, setting up the Oculus Rift for the first time was an absolute breeze. Just make sure you have a decent internet connection, because there’s quite a bit of downloading involved. Not only do you need the system drivers, but you also have to install the Oculus digital storefront. Just connect the camera to the USB 3.0 port, the Xbox controller to a USB 2 port, and the HDMI to the, er, HDMI port.

That last one actually gave me a bit of a headache, since my computer only has one HDMI port and my computer screen only has HDMI in; that meant I needed to get an adapter for one of the other ports on the card. So keep that in mind.

Going Shopping

The other key part of the Oculus experience is the Oculus store. Yes, you can use it the boring old way with a mouse and screen, but it’s designed to be completely usable from within VR. You can access your library and buy new titles without taking off your HMD.

The store isn’t perfect, but it is definitely a strong reason to have the Oculus, because it makes it as easy as using something like iTunes, and there was a wealth of content available to get to grips with the new system. I’m especially happy that there were some free demos that let you experience a variety of VR content out there.

Oculus Rift

Blowing Off Steam

One problem that does seem to crop up from time to time happens when you venture outside of the Oculus-approved garden. It’s not their fault, but most of the really interesting VR games are on the Steam platform, which happens to be owned by the same people who make the HTC Vive. I’m not saying that had anything to do with my difficulties, but getting Steam games to detect my Oculus can be a little hit and miss sometimes. Still, most of the time it works just fine.

Can We Have the Room?

The big elephant in the, er, room is of course room-scale VR. That’s HTC and Valve's big magic trick with the Vive. Thanks to their Lighthouse motion trackers and room-scale software you can get up and walk around with automated warnings when you get close to a real wall outside of VR. Oculus has tried to expand the tracking area of their product by allowing you to add more cameras, but it lacks the polish and forethought that went into the Lighthouse system.

So you have to ask yourself how important room-scale VR is to you. After all, most VR games aren’t being designed with that in mind and the Vive doesn’t have the sort of market dominance that guarantees you’ll have that sort of content to play on a regular basis. There’s also a whole host of other solutions such as omnidirectional treadmills and shoe-controllers (for real) to think about.

Is It Still a Good Buy?

At the moment there is no talk of a second consumer generation of the Oculus, so it’s still the best that the company has to offer. Does that mean you should be buying an Oculus instead of the other HMDs that are now on the market? That’s a tough question. While the Oculus has the widest software support of any HMD, other makers have surpassed in many technical aspects. More importantly, everyone has worked to make sure that their headsets are Oculus-compatible, further reducing the argument that the Oculus should be the one.

However, Oculus has cut down the price of the Rift by so much that everything seems to balance out again, and it really is a excellent piece of hardware. So my verdict is this: if you want the most advanced VR headset money can buy, the Oculus ain’t it. If you want to buy a consummately excellent VR headset at a fair price with incredible developer support, the Oculus is still very much where it’s at.

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samsung odyssey

Samsung Odyssey Review

In my article on the new Windows Mixed Reality Headsets I basically straight-up said that this was the VR and AR revolution we’d all been waiting for. Here was a standard for virtual and augmented reality that was built into the most widely-used operating system in the world. It also has support from some of the biggest hardware makers in the world, including Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Acer.

Even more incredibly, Windows Mixed Reality has support from one of its main competitors – Valve. The co-creator of the HTC Vive and the SteamVR platform seems to have embraced the Windows standard by letting it in on the SteamVR action. To me that’s a sign that even Valve knows there’s something to Windows Mixed Reality.

Apart from this, I was incredibly impressed with the design of the headsets we’ve seen so far – they are much more user-friendly and have a price point that would be palatable to more people. It’s also possible to use these HMDs with lower-specced machines if you’re going to do less fancy productivity VR or AR.

The best part of it all has to be its inside-out tracking technology that frees us from needing an external camera system to track movement. Instead, the HMD uses two cameras that scan the environment around us to make sense of our movement. This is also the key to the augmented- and mixed-reality technology that underpins everything.

samsung odyssey

A Slow Start

Unfortunately, the first run of hardware products has been a little lackluster. Yes, they are all priced around three hundred bucks, which is very attractive. However, the design, build-quality, and technical specs have been a little underwhelming, especially when compared to premium VR headsets such as the Vive and Oculus.

For example, while those headsets have a field of view around 110-degrees wide, the Windows HMDs have been stuck on 95-degrees, while using two 1440x1440 LCD panels. That's still over the immersion limit of 90-degrees, but not nearly as good as the VR pioneers.

Doing It Right

That’s where Samsung has now come in with their Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality Product. They’ve taken almost all of the aspects we’ve seen in the first HMD releases and addressed them in some way. That means, at least to my mind, that this is the first Windows Mixed Reality product that can be a real Oculus and Vive killer.

Samsung is one of the best hardware makers in the world. They not only make great tech themselves in the form of phones, TVs, and just about everything else you can think of, they also make many of the components that are inside other brands as well. There are plenty of devices with Samsung screens, hard drives, memory chips, and other components inside of them. In fact, the iPhone relies heavily on Samsung parts and would be a lot harder to make without them.

That means it's reasonable to expect something special from the Korean tech giant when it comes to its take on this new class of HMD.

Samsung Odyssey Competition

Up to the release of the Odyssey we saw products from Lenovo. HP, Dell, and Acer. Two of these are developer kits; not really meant for the average consumer. The HP is probably the nicest unit among the four, but all of them have that standard set of specs I mentioned above.

Just at a glance, the Odyssey is clearly a much nicer product to look at than any of the other devices on offer. It’s sleek, black, and tightly made. It retains the same headband and visor design of other WMR HMDs, but you’ll notice the integrated headphones, which we’ll get to a little later.

Even those all-important cameras are made in such a way as the headset does not have the same ugly googly-eyes of other models. This is clearly a product that’s at least as good looking as a Vive and, in my opinion, even more so.

samsung odyssey demo

Pumping Numbers

That’s all just superficial, however; its when we look at the spec sheet that the real differences come to light. The biggest feature comes in the form of AMOLED panels, each at 1440x1600 pixels.

The base spec of other HMDs use a lower resolution LCD. AMOLED is not as color-accurate as IPS LCDs, but it has lower persistence, better black levels, and a lot more “pop” to its color. Both the Vive and Oculus use OLED technology, and Samsung is probably the best OLED maker in the world.

These improvements in screen resolution and width also translate to a field of view measuring 110-degrees. That’s exactly the same as the Vive and Oculus, removing one of the only caveats I have about these Windows HMDs. Frankly, in terms of visual specifications the Odyssey now has those premium pioneers dead to rights.

We’re Jammin'

While the other HMDs in this new family of products only have an audio passthrough, Samsung has brought in technology from AKG to provide integrated spatial audio to their headset. This means that the Odyssey is also a complete solution not requiring the purchase of additional headphones. That may not be a boon to everyone, but to me the easy fit and utility of other Windows HMDs is spoiled by the need for a non-integrated pair of headphones. The Odyssey makes it all fit together as one. Besides, AKG is hardly a slouch in the audio department.

A Total Package

Before the Odyssey, Samsung’s last attempt at a VR HMD was the Gear VR. I’ve owned a Gear VR for more than a year myself and can’t go back to the crappy plastic HMDs that I had been using before. Samsung has become incredibly shrewd with the hardware that it designs and makes. It knows who it’s trying to beat, and both Oculus and HTC/Valve should be wary that the Korean behemoth is now moving into premium VR territory.

I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say anyone looking to buy a premium VR headset right now would have to come up with lots of really good reasons not to choose the Odyssey over everything else. After all, Steam has rolled out the red carpet with support, and the API is being baked into Windows itself. If I have to ask myself whether buying the Odyssey is the best decision, every fiber of my being is telling me “yes”.

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Leap Motion

The Amazing Leap Motion Tracker

When I first read about the LEAP Motion controller I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. The technology seemed too advanced and the price seemed far too cheap for something with such amazing abilities.

I’m going to go into more detail about what the LEAP Motion controller actually does, but the gist of it is that this little box can scan and capture the motion of objects you put close enough to it in real time. This means you can digitize objects like your hands without having to wear any devices or bulky attachments.

Leap Motion Controller

What is the Leap Motion?

Physically, the Leap Motion is a small box with a USB port at one end. It doesn’t look much different from a mobile USB modem. Originally, the Leap Motion was meant to sit on your desk, usually in front of the monitor. This effectively turned just about any screen into a motion tracking display where you can move stuff around and generally interact just by moving your hands around.

Under the plastic shell of the Leap Motion there are two infrared cameras. These can’t see in color, but they are very fast sensors with a high monochrome resolution. Since these cameras see in the infrared spectrum of light, they need a good clear source of it to work properly. So you’ll also find three infrared LEDs that provide good light to allow the cameras to see.

The Leap Motion hardware itself isn't particularly special. The IR cameras will each generate about 200 images per second, which is then sent to the computer for analysis. This is where the secret sauce of Leap Motion lives. Their special mathematics can take the image data from those two cameras in real-time and convert it into incredibly accurate 3D model data. So it’s not so much that the Leap Motion hardware is special, it’s how the makers of the tracker have figured out the mathematics needed to track movement to a very precise degree.

Razor Sharp

Just how accurately can the Leap Motion track stuff? Independent testing has pegged it to about 0.7 millimeters. That’s tracking accuracy on the sub-millimeter scale, which allows for all sorts of applications that would have traditionally worked with a mouse. For example, if you have a 3D CAD model on your computer screen, you can reach out and “grab” it with the Leap Motion. You can then rotate or transform the object with your own hands making use of that finely-grained tracking accuracy.

Leap Motion Controller

Doesn’t Kinect

You may think that the Leap Motion sounds similar to the Microsoft Kinect, but the main difference, apart from the accuracy, is that the Kinect was built for whole-body tracking. The Leap motion, on the other hand, only has a small tracking volume that encompasses a 2x2 foot space from the sensor. This makes it perfect for tracking hands, but not a body.

The Kinect and Leap Motion are actually complementary for VR purposes, since one can be used to track hands with high levels of detail while the other can map gross body motion. This data can then be combined for a more complete tracking experience.

Leaping into VR

I don’t think Leap Motion had VR in mind right from the start. It certainly never really featured in the early promotional material. But VR has been a godsend for the company, which has struggled to find a mainstream killer application for their tracker. The Leap Motion only costs about $70 but, even so, users are not going to buy it if they have no idea how they’ll be using it.

The answer to integrating the Leap Motion with VR systems turns out to be sticking it on the front of an HMD. In the beginning this was literally achieved with some Velcro stuck on the front visor. Now we have HMDs like the OSVR which has a dedicated holder for the Leap right on the front. Using this, it’s possible to digitize your hands almost perfectly without wearing anything. Sure, there’s no feedback, but it’s a cheap and easy way to add fine hand control to a VR sim. If all else fails, you can at least control Windows like you’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

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Omnidirectional Treadmills

Will Omnidirectional Treadmills Let Us Walk to the Future of VR?

Most VR experiences these days are what is referred to as a “sit down” or “stand up” experience. Just as the names suggest, the physical body of the play remains in one spot, either seated on a chair or standing in one place.

If the player’s character needs to move around this is usually achieved by using a number of workarounds. One way to do it is to have the character teleport from one spot to the next. We’ve seen this in games such as Arkham Asylum VR where, as Batman, you can only stand still at any given moment. It’s also a method we saw in DOOM VFR, but in that case the game’s story accounted for it.

omnidirectional cyberith virtualizer

The other option is to simply use a gamepad where movement through the world is controlled by way of the pad’s analog joysticks. This works as well as it does for any other 3D game – which is to say, pretty darn well. The problem is that this does not feel very immersive and also makes using motion controls awkward or impossible.

The third alternative is to use your actual feet to move around the way you do in real life. Room-scale VR such as that of the HTC Vive. That’s OK if you’ve designed your VR experience to happen within the confines of a 15x15 foot room, but it’s not going to provide the sort of expansive movement we’ve come to expect in games like Skyrim and the Witcher 3, which are traditional console and PC games.

That’s where the concept of an omnidirectional treadmill comes into play.

Any Direction You Want

We’ve all seen a treadmill. It’s a device that lets you walk or run in one spot, making it easy to get some exercise or train without having to leave the safety of your home or the gym. These treadmills are unidirectional. Well, I guess if they can be put into reverse they’d be bi-directional, but the point is that they are linear.

An omnidirectional treadmill is a device that lets you walk on its surface in any direction. There are different ways in which this can be achieved, but the end result is more or less the same. You can stand in one spot but freely move in any direction. While this is not particularly useful for exercise purposes, simulators can use the motion of the treadmill to translate your walking or running into digital motion.

Strapped In Treadmill

This comes with some inherent issues, however. Whether it's for a simulation or not, when you walk or run you are expending a significant amount of energy. If you trip, lose your balance, or otherwise mess things up, there’s a serious chance of injury. So omnidirectional treadmill setups tend to be equipped with harnesses and other sorts of safety gear meant to keep you upright and in one piece.

This is one of the reasons they haven’t become all that popular. You need some real motivation just to go to the trouble of strapping on an HMD, much less a body harness.

I have seen some more consumer-oriented omnidirectional treadmills that don’t need all the faff, but they also don’t allow you to run, crouch, or jump. Instead you can only do a sort of walking-pace shuffle. Still, for something that takes up very little space, it’s more immersive than sitting in a chair waggling a joystick to walk.

VRS Virtuix Omni

The Price is Wrong

While I personally think that omnidirectional treadmills are a great idea, I don’t really see them taking over in a big way. They tend to be bulky, heavy, and a pain to operate. One of the pioneers of omnidirectional VR treadmills, Virtuix, has already bailed on the idea of selling directly to consumers; they plan to sell them to VR arcades instead.

There are also more compact alternatives, although they might not feel quite as realistic. One cool idea is to put small sensors on your shoes, and then you can sort of walk in place with the system translating it to full running or walking. Sure, you might look goofy, but then none of the technologies in VR make you look cool. They just make you feel cool and that’s all that matters in the end.