Science and Tech
The Future of VR Solidifies at Oculus Connect

Devin Connors | 29 Sep 2014 16:30
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Crescent Bay Demos: VR is Ready for Gaming Prime Time

Most of the demos I stood in with the new Crescent Bay hardware prototype were made by the Oculus content team, and they're crafted to show how 360-degree tracking is changing VR in a profound manner. Whether I was standing in a submarine, or staring a T-Rex in the face and walking underneath its feet, being able to look around my virtual world unhindered (physical walls excluded) was an amazing experience.

The demo that stood out among the rest was Epic's Showdown, built with Unreal Engine 4. Walking down a street, flanked by future soldiers battling an oversized Destroyer Droid, you can literally walk around and in-between the detail. Bullets with contrails following behind, beer cans flying past your face... even an exploding car sailing above you, terrified driver trapped inside. It reminded me of the interactive bullet demo that shipped before Killzone 3, but instead of focusing on one bullet, you can focus on literally anything visible in the world.

That deep level of interaction is what's going to sell everyone on VR, be it on a developer kit, or on a retail unit. As someone who's always chased some sort of twisted sci-fi virtual reality inside first-person titles, this brand of VR is exactly what I've been looking for.

Samsung Gear VR: An Oculus Rift Software Preview

The Crescent Bay prototype wasn't the only new hardware on display at Oculus Connect. I also got plenty of face time with Samsung's Gear VR headset, the mobile baby brother to the Rift. Gear VR made its debut at IFA last month, but this was my first experience with the hardware.

Gear VR is a two-part system: The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is dropped into a standalone, wireless VR headset, which utilizes every hardware feature on the Note 4. The forthcoming phablet is more than powerful enough to take on VR, thanks to a quad-core Snapdragon 805 CPU, 3 GB of RAM, and a gorgeous 5.7-inch 2560x1440 AMOLED display. The display is the killer feature in Gear VR, as it eliminates any noticeable pixels, and pushes the low persistence that Oculus has always preached.

The head unit that the Note 4 sits in also packs some unique hardware, including a touch pad that acts as your primary input function (along with one physical button). The whole experience turns you into a VR Cyclops, tapping the side of your head to execute commands as you visually scan the menu strapped to your face.

The hardware is impressive for such a small, wireless package, but the software is where Gear VR really shines. The interface smacks of the Xbox One, but it's simple to navigate, from swipe to swipe to tapping a selection. It's designed to be explored with one finger, so simplicity is key here, and Samsung's simplicity works. When Oculus moves beyond its prototype phase, however public its prototypes may be, it can only hope that its software is as easy to use. In fact, you can bet that the Rift UI will take some cues from Samsung, although positional tracking will play a role here, too.

Once you get beyond the UI, the apps and games included with Gear VR really show off the potential of VR. Some games like Lucky's Tale been on the VR block for a while now, but there's new experiences abound. Harmonix Music VR was one of the more impressive apps available, as it takes your jams (or in this case, pre-loaded music) and drops on you on a beach where you interact with your surroundings. Focusing in on the moon yields a pulsating ball - prime fodder for anyone going virtual in an, um, altered state of mind.

There are games, too, like a VR version of Breakout (Proton Pulse), or sitting in a World War II plane turret. It's a lot of the same kinds of demos that sell people on the Rift, and that's okay! What really shines are the non-gaming applications, like Harmonix Music VR, or Oculus Cinema. The latter drops you into a movie theater setting of your choice - the moon included - as you watch trailers, or full-length movies in VR. It really does feel like you're sitting in a theater, sans-annoying cell phones and plot spoilers.

But Gear VR is a niche product. I've heard (unofficially) that Gear VR will be $199, on top of the (presumed) Note 4 contract price of $199 or $299. That's a lot of cash for a VR experience with developer support even more limited than the Rift developer kits, no positional tracking whatsoever, and a required phone that isn't going to be Samsung's biggest 2014 seller. The hardware is impressive, as is the UI, but this has even more audience limitations than the Rift.

So when is mobile VR going to take off? When the next Gear VR ships in 2015, next to the more mainstream Samsung Galaxy S6. An educated guess, but a move that's unavoidable if Samsung wants to take VR seriously.

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