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.
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.
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.
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.
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.