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.
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.
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.
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.