Wednesday 26 July 2017

Tech review: Weckler on the latest gadgets including Sky virtual reality

The Sky VR app is free to download.
The Sky VR app is free to download.
A documentary featuring Anthony Joshua will be available at Sky VR's launch
Scenes from Disney's The Jungle Book will be available on Sky VR on launch.
Microsoft Hololens, €3,229
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Our Technology Editor reviews Sky VR and Microsoft Hololens.

Get yourself into the picture with Sky VR

Sky VR  

Price: Free     

Rating: 4 Stars

We hear an awful lot about virtual reality these days. But, aside from niche gaming and a few specialist industries, hardly anyone is using it yet. There are several reasons for this, ranging from clunky headgear to the (still) high processing requirements of equipment to really get you into a virtual-reality environment.

While Sony's Playstation VR (launched a fortnight ago and to be reviewed on these pages in the coming weeks) may boost the overall adoption of the format, it is still primarily focused on gaming. Sky is trying out its own virtual-reality project with a free phone app that you can use with any cheap headset made to work with a smartphone. That means Google Cardboard, Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR and a plethora of other models that all cost under €100.

The service isn't as immersive as VR technology from the likes of Oculus, HTC or Sony. It is passive film content that is filmed with a 360-degree (or, in some cases, 180-degree) viewpoint. As such, you don't actually need a headset to view most of the content: you can simply move your phone to 'see' what's around you in the film or broadcast.

Sky has 27 films on launch with more promised. The broadcaster says that it is to invest in original programming for the format. This includes sport, from boxing and cycling to Formula 1 and English Premier League football.

The first tranches of content released include Star Wars: Red Carpet, Anthony Joshua - Becoming World Champion and clips from Disney's The Jungle Book.

Sky is to broadcast parts of the US elections next month in the format, too.

Other pieces released right away on the app include a Sky News report into the refugee crisis at Calais and a behind-the-scenes look at a Williams Formula 1 pit lane.

Sky is probably wary of hyping this up too much - it learned the lessons of 3D. But it's an interesting move that could change the way we watch some types of television.

Ultra-pricey Hololens is a tough sell

Microsoft Hololens

Price: €3,299

Rating: 3 Stars

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Microsoft Hololens, €3,229

While the likes of Facebook, Oculus, Sony and HTC are focusing squarely on virtual reality as the next big platform, Microsoft is going another way. It is putting all of its effort into augmented reality.

For those sick of the jargon, augmented reality is a little like putting on a pair of computerised glasses that can show you simulations, artifacts and animations that appear to be in the actual environment in front of you. So I can conjur up a digital object and see it placed on the floor in front of me, on a table, or floating in mid-air. To a limited extent, I can also control that object using finger gestures in front of my headset.

Microsoft has chosen Ireland as one of a small handful of countries for its European Hololens launch. I had a go on the device and it feels very much like a machine that will appeal far more to specialist industrial, medical or research sectors than to consumers (not least because of the high price). For example, a factory worker wearing a Hololens headset could have virtual guidance as to what stock is situated in what box just by looking at the boxes.

The actual experience I had with the Hololens was limited to a couple of games. The only real limitation I found with it was in the field of view, which is very restricted compared to a virtual-reality headset. This means that you have to be looking dead ahead to see your holographic images and structures. (Although you can circle them for a complete 3D view.)

Microsoft has previously shown off a number of uses for the headset, including a communication platform it's working on called Holoportation.

Resembling a cross between the hologram messaging systems in Star Wars and Minority Report, this lets users communicate and play back 3D hologram messages. It also lets you play back the conversation, like a voicemail recording, while you watch your interaction with the person you're talking to.

The headset is a little bulkier than a large set of headphones, albeit one with a screen.

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