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Thursday 29 September 2016

Tech: Virtual reality gets a reboot

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift
HTC Vive
Project Morpheus
Samsung Gear VR
Microsoft HoloLens

Virtual reality died an unloved death in the 1990s with unreliable, unimpressive technology. But now VR is making a comeback with five rivals jostling to revolutionise gaming and computing.

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OCULUS RIFT (PC/Mac/Linux)

What began as a Kickstarter campaign in 2009 snowballed into $2bn buyout by Facebook last year - but still Oculus Rift hasn't hit the shelves.

The first quarter of 2016 is now the target but with Mark Zuckerberg's might behind it, few can doubt Rift will make a splash.

Troublingly, though, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe confessed in May that a typical set-up could cost up to €1,500 - about €300 for the headset itself and as much has €1,200 for a powerful PC to which it must be tethered. Many people's existing computers simply won't be fast enough to run Rift acceptably.

Happily, the bulky original headset has become progressively smaller over its development and now feels much more comfortable to wear for extended periods.

A tie-up with Microsoft announced in June means the Xbox One gamepad will be bundled with every Rift as the default controller. But Oculus is also creating its own bespoke controller, called Oculus Touch, for sale later in 2016.

A handful of existing titles such as Minecraft have been modified to support Rift but the most interesting experiences will come from titles built from the ground up.

Oculus promises nine games at launch next year but at least 20 are in development from big names such as Insomniac, Harmonix and Crytek.

HTC VIVE (PC/Mac/Linux)

Unlikely collaboration it may be, but the marriage of smartphone maker HTC and PC giant Valve has given birth to VR's most intriguing innovation: the ability to move around in physical space.

Though it requires the usual headset and a constraining cable running to a PC, players can walk around in an area of up to five metres square, depending on your room. This immediately introduces a new level of immersion - though inevitably the potential for pratfalls, too - as you shuffle about "blindfolded", with your movements mirrored in virtual space.

The games themselves lack the star wattage compared to Morpheus and Rift. But Valve itself created a demo based on the wonderful world of Portal and some existing titles in Valve's Steam store will be updated to support Vive.

Perhaps most exciting of all, HTC has vowed to start selling Vive before the end of the year, though Irish consumers shouldn't expect to be in the first wave. HTC execs have warned that Vive won't be cheap, so anticipate a figure north of €400, plus the cost of a beefy PC.

PROJECT MORPHEUS (PlayStation 4 )

Sony was an early driver of augmented reality with its simplistic EyeToy camera for PlayStation 2. Morpheus will thus be the culmination of more than a decade's experimentation in the field when it finally launches sometime in the first half of 2016.

It features a VR headset hooked up to a PS4, with head-tracking handled by the existing PlayStation Camera and on-screen movement determined by PS4 Dual Shock joypads or a PS Move controller.

PlayStation studio boss Shuhei Yoshida claimed this month that the hardware had been finalised and now the focus was on tweaking the software and games for maximum impact. He also hinted the headset could be used for virtual-reality experiences beyond gaming.

Up to 20 games are in development for Morpheus and Sony's pedigree has cultivated a broad range of styles, from the gangsters of London Heist to the space exploration of EVE: Valkyrie and the shark hunting of The Deep.

Alt-hough no pricing has been officially revealed, it's unlikely to cost more than the PS4 itself (so €300 to €400).

Expect a sexier name, too, when the final version is released.

SAMSUNG GEAR VR (Android)

An offshoot of the Oculus project, Gear VR is slated to go on sale in Europe before the end of 2015. But before you rush to plunk down your €300, remember you'll also need a high-spec and expensive Samsung phone such as the Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 4 - approximately €600 and up without a contract.

The handsets provides the brains and the screen to the Gear VR but as powerful as modern smartphones are, they can't compare to the Sturm und Drang effect of full VR rigs such as Rift. The games' graphics lack the sheer realism of the latest consoles and PCs but they nonetheless create a sense of wonder.

However, Samsung needs to fast-track its software library and make the headset compatible with a greater number of phones if the Gear VR is to become something more than a footnote in the history of virtual reality.

MICROSOFT HOLOLENS (PC/Xbox One)

The HoloLens future will take a little longer to arrive but packs the most wow factor. Instead of generating an entire virtual environment, HoloLens projects CGI objects into the real world and enables the user to manipulate them with voice and touch.

Such augmented reality already exists but Microsoft's impressive demos of Minecraft and Halo shift AR to another level, blending the digital world with the real world via holograms. Consisting of a wireless headset packed with sensors and a miniaturised but full-powered Windows PC, HoloLens requires no other equipment. Thus, it's less restrictive and more mobile than any other rival.

Microsoft envisages many applications beyond gaming but it remains to be seen whether it's precise enough to be usable in office situations, for instance. We have been disappointed before by Microsoft's similar Kinect camera and those who have experienced HoloLens note a very narrow field of view that easily breaks the illusion.

The cost will be a determining factor in any success and, given the hardware on board, a baseline of at least €1,000 seems guaranteed.

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