Interesting new development in the world of VR as a new open platform for Virtual Reality gaming has been announced – the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR), with the goal to push the VR gaming experience forward. OSVR should provide both hardware and software support at every level of virtual reality gaming. Starting with some of the most popular game engines, including Unity 3D and Unreal 4 Engine, OSVR also works with device plugins from hardware market leaders like Bosch and Razer and the latest from Sixense and LeapMotion. Moreover, OSVR is designed to support all VR devices, including the Oculus DK 2 and Vrvana’s Totem headset. Razer designed OSVR Hacker Dev Kit to scheduled to ship in June 2015 with a price of just $199.99 USD to allow more people to be able to have access to VR-capable open-surce hardware. The dev kit is supposed to be equipped with a 5.5-inch Full HD display with 60 fps and a face mask design similar to that of Oculus Rift with high FOV and maybe even better optics than the one used in DK2.
The list of current supporters of OSVR is already quite big and will most likely continue to grow, it includes HMD manufacturers such as Sensics who are specializing in high-end professional solutions as well as some Game developers, Input device manufacturers and others. While Oculus is doing nice progress it seems that the VR revolution cannot be left in the hands of just a single company and since it can take some time it is nice to see that industry is trying to join hands in making available VR technology to more people and at a more affordable price – something that is a must if we really like to see VR gaming getting mainstream adoption in a few years. The OSVR initiative is definitely something to keep your eye on if you are interested in virtual reality gaming, it will be interesting to see how other manufacturers of VR solutions will also join in.
Today Nvidia has launched their new Maxwell high-end GPUs – GTX 980 and GTX 970 and while they offer a nice performance boost over the previous generations at a reduced power usage level making them a really attractive upgrades, thees products came with an interesting VR-related announcement as well. Apparently Nvidia is already working together with companies developing Virtual Reality products such as Oculus Rift in order to provide the users with a better experience. While we may need some more time before VR becomes more mainstream and reaches a really great level of experience it seems that things are really moving at a good pace already. It is also interesting to note that Oculus Rift and other VR headsets may actually turn out to be the saviors of the 3D Vision technology as well, but we’ll have to see about that.
With VR Ditect Nvidia is trying to address multiple things related to the VR experience such as to lower the latency, improve quality and provide more content that will work well on your Oculus Rift or other VR headset without having to be specially made for them. With a VR headset the latency is much more important than when using a traditional display as any perceived delays can throw off the VR experience, potentially causing the user to get motion sickness.
The standard VR pipeline from when you move your head to when you actually see the response on your VR display is about 50 milliseconds. Nvidia’s goal is to reduce this latency as much as possible so gamers feel even more immersed. A large portion of this is the time it takes the GPU to render the scene as well as OS overhead (about 32 ms) and as a result of this effort, they have managed to cut 10ms of latency out of the standard VR pipeline. Using a new MFAA Anti-Aliasing filtering method rather than MSAA for better image quality, they have managed to reduce GPU render time by an additional 4ms, and even further with another technique they are also working on caled asynchronous warp. Rather than requiring the GPU to re-render each frame from scratch, with asynchronous warp the GPU takes the last scene rendered and updates it based on the latest head position info taken from the VR sensor; head tracking input is literally sampled moments before you see it. By warping the rendered image late in the pipeline to more closely match head position, discontinuities between head movement and action on screen are minimized, dramatically reducing latency even further. So they have managed to actually reduce latency from 50ms down to 25ms and that should dramatically improve the VR experience for the user.
Besides latency, another major obstacle that must be overcome to provide an immersive VR experience is performance; not only is a high frame rate needed, it’s also important that the frames are delivered to the user’s eye in a smooth fashion. While one GPU can be used to drive an Oculus Rift, enthusiasts will want two GPUs to ensure the best performance with maximum game settings enabled. That would be especially true if we go from a screen resolution higher than the currently used Full HD on the Oculus Rift DK2 or we have a separate 1080p screen for each eye. Traditionally Nidia SLI relies on alternate frame rendering (AFR) where each GPU renders alternating frames that are presented to the user. For VR scenarios however, Nvidia is implementing a new VR SLI profile where each GPU will render per display; the display responsible for the left eye will be handled by one GPU, while the second GPU will be responsible for the display on the right eye. This solution should provide lower latency and ultimately better performance for the user.
Display resolution is another critical feature for VR. With the displays in a VR headset resting extremely close to the user’s eyes, higher resolution can remarkably improve the VR experience. Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) can be used to provide an improved resolution quality with today’s existing VR displays by rendering the game images at a higher resolution and then scaling them down to the native VR display resolution preserving more details and smoother image.
Another challenge VR must overcome to be more widely adopted is lack of content. Outside of a handful of tech demos, there aren’t that many applications that support VR headsets. To solve this issue Nvidia is leveraging their extensive experience with the 3D Vision technology to bring VR support to existing games that are already compatible with 3D Vision, and adapt them to work with VR. They plan to use GeForce Experience to optimize game settings and handle configuration automatically, and aside from converting the games to the output format required by the VR headset and providing stereoscopic 3D rendering they will also map mouse and keyboard commands to VR inputs like head movement, similar to what was done with the Gamepad Mapper on the Nvidia Shield Portable.
All of the above sounds very interesting and promising, but what is still missing is information on when all of these features under the VR Direct technology will be actually available to users to try them out – for example developers that already have their hands on the Oculus Rift DK2.
It is time to share some first impressions from the new Oculus Rift development kit after playing with it for a while already, sharing this a bit late due to the arrival of the DK2 coinciding with a planned vacation… a vacation without the Rift in the real world and not in the virtual one. I should note that the following first impressions from the second development kit are from someone that has used the first development kit quite a lot, so there will be a lot of comparing between the two. So let us get started…
Starting with what is new, the new Oculus Rift DK2 comes with a 1080p OLED display, something that was really needed in order to improve the level of detail that the older smaller resolution 1280×800 LCD display provided, especially considering the fact that due to the way that the Rift works you only get half of the resolution per eye and not the pixels of the whole screen are actually being used. The new Oculus Rift DK2 also comes with a new better looking design and a bit more complex setup as it includes an extra infrared only camera used to track the integrated active IR led markers in the headset. The headset weights slightly more as it has the external control box that the previous kit had (essentially the screen controller electronics) built inside in the DK2, but the few ore extra grams don’t seem to be a problem. Another interesting improvement is that the new DK2 comes with only two sets of interchangeable lenses instead of the three that the first dev kit had, the lenses are slightly better in terms of optical performance and seem to be slightly larger, however the total FOV of the new DK2 seems to be about 10% smaller as compared to the 110 degrees available with the first dev kit.
The included web camera is something that we don’t like that much. It seems to essentially be a standard web camera with a filter applied to the lens to block the visible light and pass only infrared light. The idea is to track the specially positioned IR leds inside the front and side parts of the headset and use that extra positional information to add extra sense of realism inside the virtual world. The idea is generally good, however the range that the camera operates in is very limited and if you start moving more you can quickly get out of the range and the extra functionality such as leaning or crouching in the virtual world as you do the same in the real world disappears. Other than that the camera tracking is probably used to also help fighting with the drift that the built in sensors for tracking head movement are prone to. The web camera tracking makes things more complex and limits your movements more than it gives you freedom and the advantages are actually not that much, so Oculus should probably think of alternatives to replace the camera-based tracking. If they want a device like the Oculus Rift to be successful and go mainstream it should be easy to setup and use and not complex to setup and use and limiting the experience of the users.
A few words about the display, it was a bit of a surprise to find the screen from a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 inside the Oculus Rift DK2. But it was probably not very easy for the company to find a good and small enough in size 1080p OLED display that will not cost a fortune and even though Oculus is now owned by Facebook the number of produced development kits is not so high as to get a screen specially developed for them. With that said the OLED display inside the new DK2 is definitely a serious improvement over the previously used LCD panel, though it is still not the perfect screen for the Rift. Resolution wise the new display is definitely a serious improvement, though you can still see the pixels zoomed though the lenses, so an even higher resolution screen is needed for the final consumer version in order to really polish the experience. The higher resolution however also causes some concerns about the need for more processing power from the graphics card of the computer used to power the Oculus Rift, so initially there will most likely be some compromise. If you were hoping the 1080p screen to be enough, then you will be left disappointed it is not enough when zoomed through the lenses and split between the two eyes.
What the new OLED display does pretty well, though not perfectly, is to almost eliminate the annoying and nausea inducing for many people motion blur while panning around. The low persistence OLED display does a great job, though we have noticed that in high contrasting scenes where you have dark objects surrounded by light background you can still see some motion blur. For example the standard Oculus demo the stairs inside the house or the trees outside by the wall – depending on the version of the demo you try. The version of the demo included with the SDK apparently is somewhat darker and in it the motion blur is noticeable when looking around the stairs and on the standalone version of the demo that is apparently brighter the motion blur is noticeable when looking around the trees outside. A bit of a disappointment, but not that bad actually to ruin the overall great experience that the bright and high resolution new OLED display provides.
The new lenses, only two sets, seem to offer better optical quality and somewhat different distortion. While the lenses are bigger the actual FOV you get is slightly reduced, but still more than great. The expectations that the larger lenses would also provide a larger sweet spot for viewing without seeing some chromatic aberrations caused by the distortion of the optics ended up in vain however, maybe this needs some more work on the software side responsible for the distortion of the images displayed that need to compensate for the distortion of the optics. The good side is that the standard lens works pretty well for people that are wearing prescription glasses and are nearsighted as if your glasses are not so strong you will most likely have no problem using them instead of having to wear the glasses. The same lens is for people that don’t have problems with their vision and the second lens is for people with worse eyesight apparently, so it is like Oculus decided to “keep” the B and C lenses from the first dev kit in terms of capabilities.
The new DK2 comes with a new mode that may help greatly in the usability of the device as it can output directly to the display of the Rift the compatible applications without actually having the device as an extended or cloned display like you had to before that. This however will work only with applications compiled with the new versions of the SDK supporting the DK2 and since there are also quite a few other differences the applications designed for the DK1 should be updated to be properly used on the new development kit anyway. You can of course still use the Rift as an additional display available to ensure compatibility with older apps and to allow for more flexibility of the use of the device. The new Direct to Rift mode is a good example of the way Oculus should be moving – making things easier and working problem free from the user and not having to bother him with things like moving primary displays or having issues with Vsync and tearing… just open the application and it will automatically appear where it should be – on the display of the Rift.
With all of the above said the new Oculus Rift DK2 is definitely a nice improvement from the first development kit and if it is the first Rift that you get to try you will be really excited and pleasantly surprised from the experience. If you however have tried and used the first DK1 you may not be as excited from the improvements and changes even though they are not small, they are simply not enough to get the DK2 to the level of the product that should be offered to the end user. There is much more work needed to be done and we may need to get a 3rd version of the dev kit next year that will be closer to what the consumer version might be and expect an end user product probably by the end of next year of things continue to progress well.