Wolves against VR

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There are many wolves that harass Virtual Reality. Many mouths drooling and raging that revolve around its prey waiting for it to stumble, to fall, to be able to pounce on it, to be able to grasp it from the jugular and give it its last tooth. To be able to say it, before saw it die, an “I told you so”.

Virtual Reality has had enemies and detractors since it began its journey more than 50 years ago. There was always an excuse, there was always something that motivated disinterest, denial, even rejection and exclusion. It is and will be – it has earned this record- the most reviled technology of the modern era. VR and the electric car technology. Both have been the subject of the worst harassment than an obsolete and reluctant industry has ever shown toward another nascent industry.

The first in naysaying and trying to curb Virtual Reality have been the great videogame studios. Many of them have say NO and haven’t wanted to know anything. Nor should we forget filmmakers and people from TV and film industry who have dedicated to ignore VR.

The second to despise Virtual Reality have been videogame console companies. Nintendo hasn’t wanted to know anything, Apple has made it as if it did not exist, and Microsoft has skipped it and gone only to Augmented Reality. Only Sony has had the courage to embark on the adventure.

We must continue with production companies, those companies full of corked guys with many millions in the pocket that all they want is to see their bank account increased with either video games or audiovisual content. I am talking about people like ZeniMax, who forbidden one of the greatest video game luminaries of all times, John Carmack, to be able to dedicate himself to port his games to VR. John Carmack, opensource’s biggest supporter in videogames, a key actor in the history of video games that allowed some studios like Valve to have their first graphics engine because he donated the source code, a key figure in some of the biggest improvements in video game graphics that has not hesitated to openly share them in the web, which has been shamefully demanded by ZeniMax, the owner of his id Software studio for a few years. And what is a  incredible that ZeniMax has the shame to do, demanded for stealing code from a company that had refused to make code for VR! Incredible also the demand has prospered in a way that the current Carmack company, Oculus, will have to pay to ZeniMax the hefty figure of 500 million dollars. Very sad!

We must not forget in this process of denial to mass media, who are always eager to make news a claim for their websites crowded with ads. VR, which has only been rolling out from a year now, has now some saying that is going to fail. How soon some people want VR to go to hell just to be able to put a new flashy headline on their website! Very sad again!

Finally, do not forget users, those fanatic users with very few neurons in brain that are capable of get married with a brand, a product, a platform, or VR company visions or policies. Users who are happy when a company like Oculus trip over, when it has been the first company in launching the current VR industry. Users who are ready to diseminate all sorts of slanders on the web as long as their preferred brand prevails, even if it is at the cost of giving a bad image of VR that can make reticent thousands of other users.

All these people do nothing to help Virtual Reality to be a recognized and appreciated technology. They all are very carefully elaborating a profuse list of hoaxes and downsides, a list that they never loose time creating when it comes to other technologies. Why this happens to VR is something that I do not understand, and is like a social pathology for me. Perhaps it is a technology that has been so disfigured in films and literature and that has been so bad-characterized that it is already part of a collective subconscious impossible to change.

I don’t know. I don’t know, I do not want to know. I only know what I see, what I have in front of me when I put on VR headset. It is a technology that is very mature, incredibly mature, and extraordinary in its capabilities, in what it can do for us. From here to the next few years it can only improve and become easier to use, more powerful, more comfortable. And neither detracting studios, nor filmmakers anchored to 3D theaters, nor ZeniMax, nor yellow press nor anti-Oculus fanatics are going to make it stop thriving. There are already good and big companies involved, like Facebook, Sony, Valve, Samsung, big producers, great filmmakers and forward-looking actors, many companies that see their potential in countless professional fields.

If someone thinks that he is doing some damage to the VR industry, he can stop thinking in wolves and start closing his mouth. His fangs are going to run out of bite. VR has arrived and it is a very big bear that is going to give its blow to the wolves in due time.

This’s how good VR is done

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Yesterday we had an appointment with Oculus Connect 3, the annual conference of Oculus where they offer their latest advances for users and developers. And I wasn’t dissapointed. Oculus, I said it before, is for me the flagship VR company. Others have stepped into the car, but Oculus has been who raised the interest. Others seek to imitate Oculus, but Oculus sets the mark. They are the reference, and apparently, as seen yesterday, they will remain.

Some time ago I wondered whether Oculus would be overtaken by big companies like Google or Apple when they decide to enter the VR world. Google has made its first serious foray, presenting Daydream Viewer, a much more solid proposal than Google Cardboard, but ultimately only keeps up with GearVR. Apple is still asleep, more interested in AR and shows no signs of wanting to come here. After the impressive keynote yesterday in San Francisco by Oculus, and don’t forget, also by Facebook, I wonder if Google or any other large company will be able to overshadow Oculus. Because what they showed or teased yesterday was tremendous.

Let’s see it.

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First, Mark Zuckerberg took the stage to make us understand why Facebook has interest in Oculus and VR. They made a demo of a product in development, let’s call it Social VR, which left more than one with an open mouth. An app that allows us to define an cartoony avatar and then create a room and group with up to 8 friends or colleagues to have many experiences in VR. Of course talk fluently as in Skype, but also see facial and hand gestures of our partners. Communication skills goes even further by allowing different locations to share, exchange photos, take pictures or screen shots within VR, play spontaneous games, make sketches or drawings, share a video that all participants can see… The list of things shown would be endless. A similar app already exists, you could say, AltSpace VR, and it’s true, but the fact that Facebook is behind having its own one highlights the concept that social apps will be very big in VR in the months to come. AltSpace VR has a whole road ahead but Facebook is a giant with arguably the planet’s largest social communication network. This does nothing but make me specially excited with what is upon us.

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But Social VR was just the appetizer. First course we had a bunch of good news. Oculus Touch finally reaches us, and comes in two modes: basic, for seated or standing use, with the controls and a new Constellation camera, and advanced, for room-scale, in the form of an extra Constellation sensor that can be purchased at Oculus Store. When I saw it I understood why Oculus, unlike Valve and HTC, is doing their homework well. Oculus does not want to force users to acquire a product necessarily oriented to room-scale. Oculus knows, as a lot of knowledgeable VR people know, that room-scale is simply a HTC marketing product, not the panacea or the ultimate solution for the lot of problems that VR locomotion implies. Room-scale, at the size proposed by Valve is not feasible for many users in their homes, where they usually have a small space shared by furniture and other people. It is not easy to make the free space at home that Valve recommends for room-scale. For that reason Oculus never saw it as the real solution and the way forward. Users want comfort and ease of use. So Oculus has decided to offer all the full experience, but separate the products so that each usero can choose what level of experience theywant in VR: seated, standing-up (and being able to move a few steps) or room-scale (and move through a large space). Valve forces users to adquire a product with room-scale and to buy a $800 product, the Vive. Oculus from now will offer three products: Rift, $600, with seated and limited standing-up features; Touch, $200, with a full standing-up experience; and finally, an extra Constellation, for $80, incorporating room-scale. The whole package is more expensive than Vive, but allows options, something that Sony is also doing in the same way, but Valve and HTC have been determined to not be the case.

In the audio chapter, something that almost no VR manufacturer is considering, Oculus sets the difference again. They did it when included a removable headphones in the Rift, making the putting-on of the HMD a lot more easy than with with Vive or PSVR. Integrated headphones is a great idea, integrated RealSpace 3D Audio Visisonics software is another great idea, both exclusive of Oculus, but what is really great is they have opened the door for allowing other headphones manufacturers to create their own integrated versions. And to prove it Oculus is going to start selling an earbuds as an accessory. It will be enough to remove the current one, which is a quite easy operation, and place the new one, which will offer a more isolation and and immersed experience for those users who like this kind of headphones.

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But main course of the day, the dish that could not go unnoticed despite Oculus has show it only behind closed doors, is the Santa Cruz prototype. It is first VR HMD with all embedded and able to have absolute positioning. A short video showed that it is a variant of Rift but with all components (CPU/GPU/drive) inserted into it so, although it is heavier, you can move freely and be disconnected from the PC to feel a new level of VR freedom that neither GearVR nor Rift could give. In addition, RoadToVR, who was being able to try it, report us that the tracking system, inside-out type, works surprisingly well, with a reliability in the edge of what Rift offers. Quite an accomplishment that opens up a whole new world of possibilities in the field of tracking, because it could mean that future Oculus products, as this autonomous Santa Cruz Rift, or the future CV2 Rift, no longer need external Constellation cameras to do the tracking. Nobody, even Valve, has shown to date something remotely as good. Lighthouse system, although has a great tracking for the head, fails quite a lot with the controllers for the hands, and is completely dependent on laser emitters, base stations, which at least two of them are needed. It is also an inside-out system, but has the disadvantage that it needs these base stations, which must be plugged into power or a battery. It is an increase in the number of system elements, as are Oculus Constellation cameras, and whatever reduces complexity for users will be a step forward in VR.

So in this area, Oculus is definitely away from Valve and HTC, gaining momentum and moving far ahead in this race to be the best consumer VR system. And that’s not to mention the latest star that I have left for the final, Asynchronous SpaceWarp, another genius of Oculus that it will not surprise me if it had John Carmack signature behind. If Asynchronous TimeWarp allowed to maintain constant 90fps when a VR experience became too demanding for our GPU, ASW is the next iteration, allowing interpolation of frames as magic, and literally doubling the frame rate so experiences that do not reach more than 45fps with a particular hardware, something perfectly acceptable for dozens of current GPUs, suddenly be able to show 90fps in VR. All thanks to a prediction using the last two frames and with minimal system overhead. Put in simple words: from now on any average hardware will be able to comfortably run games and apps in VR. It is so amazing, that Oculus announced a reduction in Rift requirements by half. It is not a promise or something they will do in the future. It is something that is here and it is real, and those who are testing it reports that is as “pure magic”. Games and apps work fluidly in conditions where it was impossible before. Olé for Oculus!

And we could go on because the rain of announcements from Oculus yesterday seemed to have no end: a new web browser designed for VR nickname “Carmel”, a new funding program for developers and content creators, games in and games for Touch, some from renowned studios, a VR drawing app called Quill, a virtual sculpture app called Medium… No need to continue. Oculus is at the peak. The reason is that now is no longer just Oculus. Facebook and Oculus are together. It is a team with some of the world’s leading experts in computer graphics, in video games, and VR. And that in the end is bringing the fruits.

Let’s celebrate this moment because this can only mean one thing. VR is here, it is stronger than ever, and will be a technology that in the hands of a company like Facebook and Oculus is going to go very very far away.

The problem with VR reviews

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When Virtual Reality products are compared, usually are wrongly compared for a reason: no balance is analyzed, only those factors that prioritizes who writes the review.

They are starting to proliferate many VR devices. Some require a mobile phone, others have everything integrated, others need to be connected to a PC… Their features vary and each one offers strengths and weaknesses. Some allow to be carried in a bag and take them anywhere comfortably. Others let us move us in the virtual world a few meters. Others have excellent ergonomics and do not bother to be worn. Others have high quality image. Others affordable price. Etc.

What is the essential feature? What is most important for a VR system? Is the image quality, the resolution, no showing Screen Door Effect? Is the quality of tracking, that the system always follow our movements to the millimeter in head and hands? Is it to be able to move widely in the space of a large room? Is it the price? What is essential?

It is clear that each user tell a different story. There will be for whom image is everything. They don’t mind not being able to move much or having to be always seated as long as the image is sharp and pristine. For others, VR is nothing if you are unable to get up from the chair and move, feel that you can freely walk through the virtual world, even if it is only a few steps in each direction. And even there will be whom everything is under the price, and for whom the unique feature is that the price is within something acceptable to the vast majority.

VR isn’t just one feature, that is clear, but a set of them. And each one goes in detriment of the other. It is very difficult to create a device that maximizes all at the same time. The price factor largely imposes restrictions on what can be done. And it is also clear that subjective assessment of users influences as well. What is the best product is ultimately a matter of determining what is more valuable for oneself. And there aren’t two equal users. There are thousands of users with different criteria.
Creating a VR device is ultimately a question of balance. This is about adding a number of elements in the balance that weigh no more than the price set. The developer of the device is ultimately who evaluate what is most important and adds it on the balance.

Let’s take some examples:

GearVR is a product that has the advantage that it is very economical, costs $100, and requires a mobile phone of about $600, but on the other hand has no power to move many graphics and also doesn’t provide a tracking system that allows move the head freely or walk.

PlayStation VR has the advantage of being very cheap, about $400, require a fairly inexpensive console about $400, but against it the console can not be upgraded to improve the visual appearance nor offers an advanced tracking, so it doesn’t allow moving around in a space. It has, yes, a very good ergonomics, the best in its class, and good image quality, but the graphics shown are limited by the power of the console, and once purchased, can not improve.

Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are expensive products, with its controls for hands come to cost $800, and require an expensive PC of just over $1000, but on the other hand can offer the most spectacular graphics that no one has seen in a VR device ever before. Ergonomics, although it is good in the case of Oculus, is still below PlayStation, but other aspects such as tracking are unsurpassed. In the case of HTC tracking system, developed by Valve, it is the best of its kind, allowing to make a large volume tracking. Moreover, added to this, these two systems are PC-based, which means they can be updated with better graphics cards and better components to achieve each year better graphics despite the limitations imposed by the internal screens these HMD use.

Everything in the end is a compromise. Oculus, for example, has given much importance to the issue of audio, introducing into their system an algorithm for creating 3D audio and integrating into the HMD a pair of good headphones. Others haven’t made much effort in this direction, leaving a simple audio jack where the user have to attach some owned headphones. Is audio a key aspect of VR experience? For some users it is, for others it isn’t. Valve, as another example, has created a tracking system that allows to be shared by multiple users or expand to growing spaces by placing more station emitters. It even allow the user carry a PC-bagpack and move freely wireless in the room. It is the only device that allows this. GearVR by itself cannot do this, nor Oculus Rift or PSVR. Now, is moving freely and wirelessly through a wide room the most important thing in VR? For some it is, for others it isn’t.

What to say in conclusion then? All reviews, as good as they may seem, are always bad. The only way to determine what is the best is that each user makes little effort to test the devices himself, calmly and with time, and determine what is most appreciated. VR, unfortunately, can not be described in words. It can not be described with images or videos. Nobody can tell us. We need to experience it to understand it and appreciate it. Soon many shopping centers will have test areas for VR and different devices for sale. The best way to compare will be to go them and spend a little time with a marketing guy explaining us and doing a test. Do not trust in reviews and comparatives! There is only one way to analyze, and is Tested, I mean testing :-).

Why do I like Oculus Rift a lot more than HTC/Valve Vive?

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Well, finally they are in my hands. The two VR products for PC that will compete in the coming years as the benchmark for VR PC. Both have reached me about the same time, and I could start to try them intensively studying their strengths and weaknesses and starting to enjoy all kinds of experiences in VR, this time not with a product for developers, but with the end consumer products.

There is an aspect of having to buy two products I do not like, obviously. These products finally are not as cheap as initially expected. The optics they both have, fresnel lenses, are not easy to produce. All in optics tech, you know, is expensive. Oculus Rift price in Spain is €700 VAT added (and apart you must add shipping charges, about €40). Price of HTC Vive VAT added is €914 (and shipping costs in Spain are €73 more). Therefore, it is a purchase that is within what is usually a high-end electronic product. For many users it will mean a choice between one or the other, so I wanted to analyze first hand how are both products and what user experience provide.
Before entering specifications I want to raise it from this perspective: the philosophy of Oculus is the best. Let me explain.

Valve is a company focused only in gaming, video games. Its entry into VR is to bring it to gaming. That’s all Valve has seen in Oculus since began to support its Kickstarter campaign. Their VR platform therefore will bring only what is useful for gaming.

Oculus is a company born from the passion of a boy, Palmer Luckey, who came to work one season in a laboratory VR in college, where he not only saw the potential of VR for video games, but for virtually any industry. He convinced Brendan Iribe and Nate Mitchell, two young men who came from creating companies focused on video games, but soon they all started to speak the same language. “VR was going to change everything, not just video games.” They had to go beyond video games.

Why didn’t Oculus allow Valve to buy them or why didn’t Valve buy Oculus (ask yourself as you like), it is something we do not know, but since Valve was supporting very much Oculus, it seemed a logical company to do so. Two of his best VR technicians, Michael Abrash and Atman Binstock, left Valve and switch to Oculus. And Oculus previously received invaluable help from Valve with low persistence system, which had been an idea of Abrash. Valve and Oculus seemed to work as a single company.

However, surprising friends and strangers, Oculus let Facebook to buy them. The reason, explained by Oculus, is the philosophy that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, deployed in front of Oculus team and Palmer. Despite the logical reticent about a company like Facebook, which initially seemed to have nothing to do with VR, Palmer and others realized that they and Mark spoke the same language. “VR was going to change everything, not just video games.” They had to make a VR system with an input system that would serve for everything. FOR ALL.

That meant that if they wanted to create a VR ecosystem Oculus had to start creating a VR app store. Apps of all kinds, from educational to professionals, from 360 streaming video to specific VR movies to be enjoyed in VR. Because that Oculus created Oculus Story Studio, in order to promote a new film industry in VR that both Disney and its subsidiary Pixar were embracing in a very shy way. Because that Facebook has set up a team to develop Oculus 360, a 360 video service that has right now a connection to Facebook and seeks to create a service that competes even with Youtube. Oculus, like Facebook, is aware that VR will be a huge, huge business, which will extend far beyond video games. Will Valve create a movie studio and hire former employees from Pixar as Oculus has done? Will Valve release a streaming video service? They loose the chance with Twitch and they do not seem interested in developing their own system.

All these thoughts have turned to me when I have started testing the two comercial products, both Rift and Vive. The first feeling I’ve had is that Oculus provides a more polished, more focused on VR, more intuitive and user friendly experience for people that begins with this technology, while Valve and HTC seem to be still be trying to figure it out. As an example we just need to start a couple of games within each app launcher.

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Oculus Home. Here you are looking front. But the house surrounds you completely and looks great and comfortable.

In Oculus, when you jump in, it’s all super simple. There is only one app installed on the PC, only one, called Oculus Home, which is the entry point app. The app opens both in normal desktop, taking the appearance of a simple and neat Windows app that displays your current content and products available in the store, and opens as VR, in the form of a nice lounge in which interface elements float amid. To select something, you just use a simple remote control that comes with the Rift, the remote. The remote is a huge genius of Oculus that almost no one is assessing and allows anyone with no knowledge of how a gamepad works start to go from one screen to another within VR. To select something you just look at it, placing a cursor, and click on the large button of the remote. The remote also brings two very useful buttons to raise and low the volume, something that always we want to make fast, and a button to pause the current app and go back. This allows us to govern Oculus Home with a tiny remote control that fits in our pocket. Once a game is launched with the remote, we can put it in the pocket and use the mouse, gamepad, joystick, steering wheel or any other peripheral that requires the game or app. All super simple, clear and transparent. When finished, the game closes and returns smoothly to Oculus Home, which thus becomes an experience similar to teleporting somewhere from a nice house and then come back. It is enjoyable and relaxing.

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Steam client in VR mode. You can see that to press a button you need to point at it with the Valve controller.

In the case of Valve and HTC there is much confusion. On one hand is the Steam Client, an app we will have to have installed, and on the other hand an application called Vive, which is a bit strange because it seems to be a copy of Oculus Home, but then you do not have all the functionality installed. Now you only can see a list of VR products you have installed, but only in Windows desktop without opening an equivalent in VR. Also, enter Steam is not enough to enter VR. You need to press a tiny button with the word VR, almost hidden in a corner. In doing so, we get an error message from an app called vivevoice.exe or so. This isn’t a good sign. We ignore the error, which is relative to a VR system for mobile phone notifications, and enter VR. The interface is only a photo sphere around us and a huge screen that is a replica of Steam Big Picture mode, and to select something we must necessarily use the new Valve controls or a gamepad. Valve controls are not at all comfortable. We have to point with them to the button we want to press, and then pull the trigger, something that certainly fails very often. In addition, Big Picture mode, although is a simplification of the whole Steam interface, is still overwhelming, with lots of options and buttons here and there. As if this were not enough, VR settings and options are in a separate small window that opens on the desktop, shows in green icons the connection of the system, and is not integrated with the Steam interface.

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The confusing Vive app, for several settings outside the Steam client.

This is just a sample, but the trend with both products. With Oculus everything is simple, fast, easy, and it works without errors, with amazing reliability for someone who has spent two years undergoing different Developer Kits that they have released. With HTC/Valve everything seems to be taken with tweezers, everything seems in alpha. It is a Developer Kit disguised as a commercial product. And I am not going to discuss issues such as ergonomics or the fluidity of frames, in which Oculus is well above Valve. I could make a post just talking about this issue, but there is no discussion. Rift comfort is greater than Vive. It feels lighter in the head and less annoying. Rift screens look much sharper and much better for reading texts.

Many people in discussion forums and many media evaluate HTC Vive as a step ahead of Oculus Rift. I do not agree at all. The HTC Vive tracking system that allows us to stand up in the room and move with some degree of freedom is a system that Oculus has announced that it will in turn be available in September when you buy Touch, the equivalent to Valve controls. But honestly, these experiences that have come to be called “room-scale” aren’t something extraordinary and aren’t for me the future of VR. They still have huge limitations. First, very few people have enough space in their homes for an experience like this, and being constantly reaching the limits of the app, shown as virtual walls, is extremely frustrating. They are fun as a novelty thing but also imply the user to stand and move and that’s more tired in the long run, which means shorter gaming sessions. For extended use of VR the only acceptable way is to sit down, which is the philosophy of Oculus, again, and it seems to me the right one. Right now the experience with Oculus is that everything can be done in an extremely comfortable and sitting mode, and later add other additions to the system, as the possibilities for room-scale, which Oculus see as secondary.

VR can not go to a “room-scale” approach. It has to go to a “world-scale” approach, in which we can move infinitely, feeling the movement beneath our feet but without moving from the site. The HTC/Valve system is dangerous. It is very easy to get bogged with the cable and fall down or step on a pet or trip over someone who has invaded the space without realizing it. They recommend in the user manual to avoid use the system alone for this reason. It is very easy to move one of the controllers beyond the limits and hit a wall or a lamp (it happened me), and controllers come without any protection or plastic sheath. More than one user or viewer will take a hit if not used carefully.

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The Virtuix Omni, the first commercial product for consumer market that pursues the desired “world-scale” VR.

The future of VR will come from a device like a running threadmill of gyms but that allow us all the wide range of movements that human body admits: walk in any direction, crouch, jump, go stairs up and down, and even lie down. There are some attempts so far to achieve a technology like this, the most prominent Virtuix Omni, which is already a fully commercial product that some users are starting to get in their homes. It is not entirely efficient in the simulation, but is a first attempt. The future of full VR comes here. From a device of this type. It don’t come from clearing rooms and leave them empty, because rooms, no matter how big they are, never be enough big for certain experiences. Can anyone imagine playing a game like Fallout 4 in room-scale, having to use small jumps teleports as is done in Budget Cuts game currently available for Vive?

Valve’s room-scale is an idea to differentiate from Oculus and apparently bring to market a better product. If they do not give the feeling of taking a product exceeding Oculus quality, nobody would look at them because VR reference in everyone’s ears is Oculus. But suddenly Valve realizaed that their juicy online business of selling VR video game was threatened by Oculus and Facebook, something that is incomprehensible that they didn’t see much earlier. It is clear that Oculus could not delegate VR content in other stores like Steam. It was clear that sooner or later Oculus would own a store, focusing solely on VR content. And that is why Valve has decided to enter the business. Without an own VR system, they wouldn’t be justified to have a part of the cake. But his entry into VR has been late and in a hurry. Oculus took more than two years producing prototypes and developer kits, and still continues to iterate with the input system. Valve has had to ally with HTC to run and try to overtake his competitor, leaving the Valve system in a confusing position. They want any VR maker use their technology, but now it is only used by HTC. Will we see in the future LG, Acer or whoever VR systems using Valve’s technology? And everyone will agree that Steam be the VR store for all kind of apps?

Many doubts and uncertainties for VR, a technology that has always been ignored, and we have no more than see the indifference of companies like Apple. VR needs a company focused on it, a company that the lead it and be the reference in VR, and I no longer doubt. That company is Oculus.

Oculus, the great hope of VR

Some weeks ago I talked about “Valve, the great hope of VR”, and wondered if finally Oculus wouldn’t be who bring VR to its full potential, but now the sentence has changed completely for me.

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We are at March 28th, 2016, a date for framing, as it is the date of the global launch of Oculus Rift, the first VR system intended for the consumer who uses the PC platform, and I must say that all I’m looking from Oculus is to give them an applause.

Oculus has grown from a small company creating devices and software with hard effort, to become a company creating an entire platform and ecosystem that didn’t exist at all.

When I asked myself what interest a company like Facebook could have to acquire Oculus, the possible intentions wasn’t clear to me. But after several months of seeing news Oculus has been uncovering, as apps for social VR , their new short films made with real-time graphics , or their “Oculus Ready” PCs in collaboration with major industry PC gaming names , I have no doubt. Oculus, with Facebook, is the future of VR.

Facebook is building a future social network not based in classic websites or apps for smartphones, but in VR. Something completely different than the current Facebook app. Something that will leave us amazed when it start working, and for what we’ve had light glimmers with Oculus Social app for GearVR.

In the imminent future we’ll do hangouts with friends or relatives within a virtual environment. The setting will be that we want, fully customizable, and will allow to a group of people share space and feel like we’re all together the same than in the real world. At first, our image will be somewhat simplified, perhaps only showing a head and floating hands, or graceful forms of robots, or fanciful characters, but in time, we will create photorealistic avatars of ourselves without effort, simply putting ourselves in front of a camera, and we will can have near-real virtual telepresence, as Microsoft has recently shown with HoloLens and its Holoportation .

HTC is a company whose main purpose in VR is to sell devices, produce hardware. Valve is a company that in recent times isn’t releasing videogames. Worldwide players have always been anxious and excited with a Valve announcement of a Half Life 3 release, a sequel of its successful game, but the reality is Valve right now is very focused in their role as the reference in online video game store.

Hardware and online store are important parts of a VR platform today, but content, games and apps, they are much more. And here I must say that Oculus has made every effort.

Oculus is a company that lives for VR. Oculus is not like HTC, that if VR isn’t a success can again focus on producing mobile phones. To Oculus is an “all or nothing”. If VR doesn’t succeed, Oculus disappears. For that reason they have been the drivers of all this new industry. They have funded videogames development and worked closely with studios to brig at release date one of the best catalogs of games that a new platform has ever seen. Thirty games today and a hundred games by the end of the year, some of many hours of content such as Elite Dangerous or Project Cars.

Oculus has created its own studio, Oculus Story Studio to produce content for a new film medium that can be something impressive, immersive cinematic movies. One type of movies in which you are a part of the story, interacting with the scenes, the characters or the plot. Something never seen before and for which Oculus has brought several examples, such as Lost, Henry and Dear Angelica to show us what is to come. None of this is now in the plans of HTC or Valve. This is an exclusive commitment of Oculus, which is making all efforts to convince Hollywood that VR is the next revolution in terms of audiovisual content.

It is important to not forget other content that Oculus, and Facebook, is promoting as no one. 360 photos and videos, with or without 3D. This is a whole new way to capture events and memories, the next thing after photos and traditional videos. Many manufacturers like Samsung or LG, not to mention Ricoh and others are pulling out cameras that capture 360 degrees and can be enjoyed in a VR headset. Facebook, which already has spent years allowing people to share photos and videos in its social web, undoubtedly is having much to say here. Google is the only to say something more here, but not HTC.

When many specialized press review Vive say Valve’s and HTC’s product is a premium product that offers an experience above Oculus product because it offers what is called “room scale”. Well, as has been demonstrated by Will Mason of UploadVR , that is totally wrong. Oculus Rift is able to do “room scale” even using a single camera! The well-known reporter of this website focused exclusively on VR clearly shows in this video and also in this another video how Oculus, with a single camera!, is capable of tracking a huge volume of room (4×3 m), almost similar to the space for Valve is advertizing for Vive and Lighthouse sensors. In september, when Oculus launch Touch, its controls for hands, which come with an extra camera, it’s possible that Oculus tracked volume is even higher than Valve product. And that users can choose whether they want a VR experience with the new controls for hands or without them is something that I find a very fair move from Oculus. I think a mistake from Valve and HTC to force users to buy a particular type of peripherials. Not all VR experiences and games will require some controllers as Vive ones. For example, ideal racing games will need wheels, and space sims still will need a joystick or HOTAS.

In short, Oculus is who initiated consumption of VR. They are who have made that a lot of devs become believers in the potential of this tech. They are who are making heavy investments to fund studies or creating content themselves, or even creating a whole new medium to entertain viewers. They are taking all the risks and doing all experiments at the level of content. Its annual conference, Oculus Connect , now in its second edition, it is the industry reference in this of events.

Oculus is the great hope of VR.

Reflector progress update (#10)

Create 3D content that is as true historically as possible is a very complex task, especially if your target is VR. As an example I will show you the process that I followed with the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The Arch of Septimius Severus is one of the few elements that remain fairly intact in the Roman Forum, together with the Curia Julia. It is 25 meters wide by 23 high and nearly 12 deep. It was built by the emperor of the same name in 203 to glorify the victories won by him and his sons Geta and Caracalla against the Parthians.

The dedication that is engraved on the facade has also reached us very well preserved, although the amended by Caracalla to remove the mention of his brother Geta, that nonetheless has been deciphered by observing the marks of old letters. Originally, this inscription must be made with bronze letters.

Inside the support located south, a ladder can climb to the top, where there was a today impractical terrace balcony. As has been discovered by ancient coins, the summit was crowned by a fabulous quadriga of six horses, led by Emperor Septimius and the goddess Victoria, flanked by statues of Geta and Caracalla, and in the corners by equestrian statues, forming an impressive sculpture. None of this has survived today.

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This is the coin showing the Arch, where the balcony was on the top floor is clearly seen, and the six horses quadriga, the two equestrian more on the side of the sons of Septimius Severus sculptures, and two small sculptures in ends.

On the sides of the arch facade bas-reliefs are made with scenes of the most prominent battles. On the Capitoline side are the best preserved. The left panel depicts the city of Seleucia under attack, its eventual fall, and defeated Parthians. The right panel shows the siege of Ctesiphon with its ultimate defeat and Septimius Severus speaking in front of his victorious army. On the Forum side, the left panel shows the army leaving their camp, a battle, Septimius Severus speaking before his troops, and the liberation of Nisibis. The right panel shows siege machines attacking the city of Edessa, a group of Parthians surrendering to Septimius Severus, a war council within a fortified camp, and the launch of a new campaign.

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Aspecto general del Arco en su lado del Capitolio.

Many decorative elements fill the facades, as reliefs of the Victory and river gods in the spandrels, or reliefs of captives led by Roman soldiers surrounding the pedestals of the columns.

Recreate the Arch has taken me quite longer than expected even though the entire building exists today and that its shape and dimensions are known. The problem has been how to recreate the reliefs and the multitude of details that these Roman constructions used to have.

For reliefs, my original intention was to use current photos of the reliefs. The problem is that the reliefs are badly damaged, with many headless bodies and pieces of sculptures incomplete. In addition, a current photo is of little use to then extract the relief. The reliefs are dirty and with moisture bands caused by the passing years. That would result in a bump mapping that are detected as shadows deeper things that are not.

The relief of the attack to Seleucia. It can be seen that there are many soldiers who hasn’t head or body and that many pieces have broken off, so even a current photo would not do much to recreate the relief in 3D. We must do an interpretation to generate a version of what was originally.

I was about to give up doing much more than glue pictures as textures, when I found on the Web extraordinary photos of the reliefs, but in perfect shading. Where were these pictures from? After much searching I found that in the Civilta Romana Museum in Rome, there is a scale reproduction of the arch, with all the reliefs reconstructed by the expert hand of a sculptor. Even at scale, the detail of the reliefs are amazing, and some photos of this papier mache reconstruction are almost as detailed as a picture of the actual monument, with the bonus that have no trace of spots or strange shadows. Further evidence of the enormous difficulty that historical reconstruction has. Recreate the reliefs with fidelity not only would have required a collection of studies on how archaeologists think the relief might be in its original version undamaged, but in 3D, that would mean modeling using a sculpting tool as ZBrush, and hundreds of hours of modeler. And we have plenty of reliefs on the monument, each different and unique, with very little repetition or patterns.

What’s more impressive is that Google has launched a project to map the interior of all museums in the world, the Art Project , and curiously museum Civilta Romana is one of them. One can walk around the halls and see the models and recreations of this great Rome museum, including macro model of Rome made of plastic, Plastico Rome Antico , made by architect Italo Gismondi, a monumental work, biggest miniature recreation of imperial Rome. And what’s more amazing is that the project can be followed on Google Google Maps. For example, if you want to move to the Museum to see the model of the Arch of Septimius Severus just you have to click here.

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Model of the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Museum Civilta as shown in the Google Art Project web. 360 photos are Streetview style. (Wow, someone is thinking of Museums in VR? Yeah, me too).

The creation process of reliefs has been simplified a lot to me thanks to this discovery. Now I could take pictures of the model (taken from the Internet, because the Google Art Project didn’t let me take some good quality photos), and with a little work in Photoshop, cleaning and editing photos, get reliefs that look like an AO (ambient occlusion), so I could generate a normal textures and bump mapping much more acceptable.

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So this is the result of the relief of Seleucia. Note the huge difference now. All soldiers are visible, there is no trace of spots, and relief seems different. Of course, without the enormous work of the miniature maker this would not have been possible.

For the sculptures of the summit, the issue is even more complicated because we do not have any of them, has not been a trace. Model a chariot with six horses and several people is also a daunting task of hours. How to do it without put there a huge time needed to rebuild also many other parts of the Forum? The only options available are to search for 3D models created by others and purchase or use free 3D models that are being shared on websites. For me it was a discovery the MyMiniFactory webpage, that lets you download 3D models created from real sculptures by photographic techniques. Of particular interest is the project Scan the World , where every day great detail 3D models of classical sculptures are been shared, a valuable source of 3D models to be used as an example and base for sculptures in projects like this to recreate Rome in VR. 3D models of this web have an enormous amount of triangles, are highpoly models, but can be simplified using decimation techniques or using retopology software as Topogun . The huge advantage is that we avoid the big amount of hours required using only photographs and modeling on top and using sculpting tools. Moreover, as models are highpoly, we have all the baking of the details already done. The truth is that this technique of using photogrammetry to recreate a 3D model from an existing sculpture rather than shape it by hand is a technique that is often used when there is already an existing model. Many large videogame studios or animation facilities use it for the time savings it represents.

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Scan of the World project. You can not only access to all the existing catalog, but even have an app that allow sculpting directly on the web.

The end result is something like what I show here. An arch of Septimius Severus pretty close to it was in its time, and that has suppose only a week of work in front of what could be several months of an artist who did not use any work done by others and had to model everything from scratch.

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Current aspect of Reflector project. Every week improves.

This gives a sample of the enormous work involved in recreating historically a place in a game-engine. It involves the use of historical documentation of previous recreations of other artists, and finally go to the graphics engine in real time. A whole lot of techniques that often end up being just a screenshot in a magazine or on a screen. However, VR let us appreciate more the work. Now you can pass under the virtual arch and approach it to see more detail in the reliefs, something that before, looking only at the screen, was not possible. That’s something encourage to continue working of this kind of stuff because the degree of enjoyment you have from a historical recreation is about ten times what a video allow in a typical documentary about History.

Google will lead VR and AR

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This is the conclusion I have reached after listening to the latest news that have accumulated in recent weeks. Google had entered the new industry a bit shy with Google Cardboard. But last week, during Vision Summit 2016, Google has already announced that will focus all efforts possible in VR. This, coupled with the news that they have created a new a new division specializing in VR, another news that they are preparing an autonomous HMD for the end of the year, and coupled with the fact that they are the largest investor of Magic Leap, the promising Augmented Reality system that has intrigued the world, it makes me think of only one thing: Google is going to eat this market. Which continues to be good news. Let me explain.

When the smartphone industry was born at the hands of Apple, everything indicated it would be a fragmented industry with different companies creating their own operating systems and their own devices with its own interfaces, its own shops, etc. The fragmentation was a problem for the industry. It made life difficult for users and didn’t popularize products making it easy to appear low-end products.

But Google changed all that with Android. He created an operating system in record time buying it to another company and stormed into the sector by the back door, the software. Two years later, all terminals had Android installed, Android apps numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and there was only one clear winner in the field: Google. They even could afford to create their own terminals using third party companies.

Android has made life easier for mobile phone users. It has become Windows of mobile. All terminals now operate in the same way, with the same buttons, the same interfaces and the same apps no matter if Samsung, LG or Sony phone is used. In addition, they have created dozens of models, from very cheap to very expensive, allowing everyone to afford a smartphone. With Apple dominating the scene this would never have happened. And smartphones would have been a niche product.

Virtual Reality is now starting with the same steps followed by Apple for iPhone. Oculus and HTC both are considering premium products in their first devices. Oculus Rift that will finally be bought in March for those who made the pre-purchase in January is a product that will not be as cheaper as had been assumed, and everything suggests that HTC, which has a more complete product will be even more expensive. It is logical. They do not want to gamble with the first version by a bad product to regenerate criticism. They want rounded products to give a seamless experience for VR to provide good headlines once and for all. And for a while, VR is a premium product in Apple style that will not be within reach of every budget.

Who will be able to bring that VR for all? Google definitely. As they have done it with smartphones, and they have a huge experience in how these things are done. First thing is create a specific operating system for VR, and this is just another of the announcements that Google has made recently, indicating they are working on Android VR. It’s something the great programmer John Carmarck was asking awhile since he began developing GearVR for Samsung. Android does what it can to provide a good experience in VR, but it clearly has many things that could be improved to make it a perfect operating system for VR.

With the perfect OS for the RV, Google already have one of the most important pieces to succeed. Next they need to create a device that is on the minds of everyone in a while but still has not been materialized: an autonomous HMD. That is, what I have been long commenting on this blog. A GearVR but without the need for a mobile phone. A device bearing within its own CPU/GPU, larger batteries for much autonomy, and especially a system to have absolute positioning.

This brings us to another table leg that Google has placed and solidly Project Tango. This Google system allows for absolute positioning on a mobile device as well as offering many other applications for 3D scanning and Augmented Reality. At first Project Tango seemed something useless for smartphones, but as VR has appeared suddenly Project Tango makes all the sense. Not only it offers absolute positioning for a future autonomous HMD, but it will add functionality in the HTC Chaperone/Matrix style.

Google is very much Google. They have proved that they are able to pull out awesome products from year to year. They have the ability to create new software and hardware at high speed, and to fill an industry already created with more affordable and more general purpose devices that reach a lot of people. I have no doubt that in the very near future the great name of the VR and AR won’t be Oculus nor HTC, is going to be Google.