Ah, that new de-classified file smell. Yep, its the first declassified article for the Department of Advanced Research. As such, I would like to preface this article by saying a very sincere thanks to Microsoft’s retail representatives for making this article possible. For those that have never stopped by one of Microsoft’s retail stores / kiosks, I would highly advise you do so. In addition to some very cool “newest and latest” tech, their representatives have a habit of being very friendly, knowledgeable, and downright cool.
In keeping with that tradition, the team at Evolution recently had the opportunity to try out some of that newest and latest tech in the form of what we can only described as the holy grail of tech-nerds everywhere: Virtual / Augmented reality.
The concept of “virtual reality goggles or glasses” has been around for quite some time. That is, even prior to the 1980’s which saw a rise in the awareness and popularity of “full immersion digital display” devices, or at least the idea thereof. In fact even as early as the 1930’s, Stanley Weinbaum referenced Pygmalion Spectacles in what many technologists consider the first true conceptualization of what we now know to be virtual reality optics. Without getting any further into the history of VR/AR (virtual reality / augmented reality) devices, suffice to say that the 1980’s have come and gone and yet still no real “main stream retail” available VR/AR systems. Of course there hare been many breakthroughs in so far as the technology underpinning a “full immersion / virtual reality” experience, though many have been relegated to Consumer Electronics Show / E3 display booths with price tags requiring a second mortgage on ones house and possibly even the black market sale of an organ or two. Even still, while the functionality of these systems is not what we are questioning, when compared to modern “finished” products (such as windows, mac OS, mobile operation systems), the “look and feel” has simply not been there. In fact, many would be more along the lines of a “purely functionality” military flight simulator or other purpose built proprietary piece.
Enter Microsoft who along with the help of Samsung as well as other manufactures, seem to be leading the charge towards the first affordable / retail available virtual reality system. The kind of system that does not require a team from CES / E3 to set up and a dedicated army of programmers to operate. Simply put, the first truly intergratable, cross common platform functional “plug and play” VR/AR device. The goal was to make it no more difficult to set up than adding another monitor to a conventional computer set up. To that capacity, having had the chance to get hands on with Microsoft’s newest offerings, I can say “mission accomplished”. The only cabling required for connection is one HDMI and one USB. Thats it. Pretty much the same kind of stuff one would expect to find on any home entertainment device.
Well thats the set up taken care of, nice and easy, now for the really important question: does it work. Answer: Yes… pretty much.
Firstly, lets take a look at how the system works after set up. Users will find that in addition to the ubiquitous VR headset (which despite being bulky is surprisingly light weight), the Samsung headset that I tested also came with Dolby 5.1 surround sound headphones built directly into headset. The entire package does not feel particularly heavy at all, though it does feel a bit awkward when it comes to “fitting ones face” properly (it does not fit seamlessly say the way a dive mask would). Not a deal breaker but it does tend to shift around a bit which I attribute mostly to the uneven forward weight distribution. Bonus points to whoever designed the earphones as they do fit quite comfortably and are not anywhere approaching “absurdly large” which is more common in higher end purpose built gaming headsets.
Thats the headset taken care of, and now onto what makes this system particularly unique at least at the retail level. For those that are familiar with Microsoft Xbox “Kenect” spatial / position interaction sensors, the technology will look vaguely familiar. Drastically upgraded however, but still vaguely familiar. Two “nun-chuck” style controllers, complete with triggers and “thumb sticks” go in each hand which again, are surprisingly comfortable and light weight. Speaking of light, on the end of those controllers are two very nifty looking “light rings”. This gives the headset a point of reference along an X/Y/Z and rotational axis. Also, for those that may have played around with Nintendo’s “Wii” system, each separate nun-chuck controller does come with a “safety lanyard” which goes around each wrist. Presumably to prevent users from engaging in unscheduled static object impact testing with said controllers during particularity intense gaming experiences.
I will be very forward in saying that even during the calibration set up screen… getting used to the sensitivity and accuracy of the movement of said controllers takes a few minutes to get used to. They are precise. Very precise in fact. The slight caffeine induced jittering of my hands during this test was fairly evident in the on-screen display (a two red bull and black coffee breakfast will do that). With the initial calibration complete which takes into account ambient light, user height, arm length, positioning, etc… it was time to try this thing out. I was offered a fairly wide variety of applications including some productivity applications such as Skype (more on that later) or to try out “gaming mode”. Naturally I went for the production applications in the interest of a complete and through test. Actually that’s a bold faced lie. Straight to the gaming section, I went straight for the games.
With a somewhat easy-ish to navigate menu system that is roughly based around a luxurious home (with applications appearing in various locations), I did with relative ease (albeit guidance from the Microsoft staff) navigate to the “home cinema area” which is where gaming applications are listed. Intuitive? Sort of. Perfected and easy to use? Not hardly. Even with the on screen prompts, it does once again take a bit of getting used to in order to understand how applications are found and launched. The game of choice? Space Pirates Trainer. Yes… it is in fact as cool as it sounds. This game is a variation of the 80’s coin op arcade cabinet classic space invaders… just way better. Way, way better. In addition to being a “game”, it was developed by Microsoft for exactly what I was testing it as: a means in which to showcase all the functionality of the VR interactions system is a simple but strangely exciting / addictive way. As the inset screen cap would suggest, nun-chuck controllers become any variety of projectile firing space weaponry. The user is immersed in a 180 degree spherical firing arc of targets which means the trigger buttons on the controller get plenty of use. Without giving into the temptation to go all “gamer nerd” here, suffice to say the physics, bullet trajectory (complete with lead time) and overall game play dynamics are phenomenal. As are the frame rates which translate into quite seamless motion physics as well as overall game play experience. Add to that specific gestures such as reaching over ones shoulder to holster and switch weapons and I can say confidently that it pretty much does what it says on the box. A full game play immersion experience.
Therefore, in terms of an entertainment platform, I can say as a fairly “hardcore gamer” since the days of the original 8 bit Nintendo system… it works. Not only does it work, but I will go so far as to say that it is at least the very beginning of the holy grail of game-nerdom. The much anticipated “full VR gaming experience” that does not require financing and a dedicated room to function as intended.
Here’s the hitch though: The platform in and of itself definitely has all the functionality required for some truly epic gaming experiences amongst other functions. Though as with all systems, the result will come down to a robust and active development community. The same reason that platforms such as Android continue to prosper comes down not only to those developing the actual platform, but also to the many app developers that continue to push the limits of programmatic development which populates the “app stores / download areas”. This is something Microsoft has had issues with in the past. Take the Microsoft “windows mobile” platform which has all but gone the way of the Blackberry (at least in the united states). Windows mobile does enjoy some popularity internationally but for the most part, US and EU market spaces have all but relegated the windows mobile platform to obsolescence and obscurity. The lack of developers would be the primary cause of that. While application developers were enjoying basically free reign on the Android platform (and to a lesser extent Apples iOS platform), few if any developers really bothered to create applications for windows mobile. This means that with the exception of Microsoft branded products (Skype, office, one drive), and a few major companies who had the resources to actually develop for Microsoft, their “windows app store” was a mere tiny fraction of the size of the others. In other words, the lack of apps killed the platform. That’s a shame considering that as someone who owned an early HTC windows phone “back in the day”, the user experience was quite good. I dare say better than iOS.
That said, here are a few more take-aways from my experience testing the Samsung Odyssey headset system:
You said productivity, what productivity apps are available?
At present, the Microsoft representatives did mention that productivity applications such as Skype / Skype for business, Internet explorer / edge, and others do function in a semi-VR environment. Are we to the point where one can immerse themselves in a full virtual reality conference… not exactly. Basically we are talking about “large screen within headset” experiences for now, though from what I was told, there is quite a bit of development regarding the latter. I have to say that the inclusion of such “productivity apps” with a heavy emphasis on the quotes there, seem like they were included to justfity “multi purpose purchases”… in other words… “Yes I know its a VR gaming hedset..but I can do work with it too ya know…”. Spoiler alert… that marketing works. It’s working on me as we speak in fact as I do intend on purchasing one of these in June. Again, more on that in a moment. Though to say that the VR goggles are a practical addition in terms of office / productivity apps would be a stretch at present. That is not to say that if Microsoft opens up the development requirements for their app stores, productivty apps will not start flooding in. They will.
Apart from the headset, what else do I need to use a VR headset such as the Samsung?
A computer. The system that I tested it on was (not surprisingly) a windows PC. Basically a mid range gaming PC with an Intel i5 processor, 8GB of ram, and here’s the most important part, a fairly high end video card produced by NVIDIA designed specifically for gaming. In fact, the Dell owned Alienware computer would be considered towards the upper end of the mid-range, pre-built / shelf bought gaming PC’s. Though in terms of processing power / components, with the exception of the video card, there wasn’t much all that special about it. The HDMI cable plugs into the video card, and the USB cable powers some of the on board accessories as well as provides audio for the surround sound components. Most hardcore gamers and those with an interest in computing in general, are going to be builidng / buying machines with far more power than that. Therefore, in terms of “practicality of system”… I have to give it the seal of approval there.
Does it look cool?
Yes. Considering I tested it in a mall-kiosk display… I had no problem jumping around and firing my space weapons like a complete lunatic immersed in the game experiencing knowing full well that to those who couldn’t see the on screen action… I probably look like I just walked into a spider web or spontaneously took up folk dancing…
Would you buy one?
Yes. Though as I was told by multiple Microsoft representatives, “wait a little bit… like till June”. Evidently Samsung and other companies such as the aforementioned HTC, will be producing upgraded headsets in the very near future. Of course as with all technology there will be the inevitable evolution. Though being so close to what the Microsoft reps described as “significant improvements”, I would certainly wait the few months. The thing to keep in mind is that as these systems continue to develop at an increasing rate of speed, look for the “iPhone effect” to happen. The Iphone 1, 2, 3, 3g, 3gs, 4g, 4s… etc. Each one being slightly better than its predecessors. Those buying into the VR gear / experience now need to know that there is going to be a lot of that for the foreseeable future. As is often the case with brand new technology. There will be a plateau at some point but given where VR is now… the leaps are going to be often and big. My personal mantra when it comes to this process is buying a piece of technology… and then waiting two to three and in some cases four full upgrade cycles before purchasing an “upgrade”. Often times this means that the cost savings / bang for the buck. That also means averting “creative marketing of the same technology” for the sake of re-purchases. IE: Making the same exact product only slightly upgraded “thinner and lighter and looking slightly different” to justify another purchase. Waiting a few product cycles to upgrade guarantees more tangible return for investment.
In so far as other features and benefits, yes common entertainment applications such as Netflix, Amazon Prime streaming, Hulu, etc will all function. Does that mean you can experience movies in VR? Sort of. With the exception of specifically produced “demo pieces”, what you are looking at is just a very large screen from within the headset. Though as much as I would say that movie studios can produce purely VR films (which they inevitably will… I mean look at IMAX), the trend towards interactive entertainment at this point suggests gaming / interactive experiences will dominate this platform.
How much is it?
At the time of this test, the Samsung Odyssey that I tested with everything included as described retails for 500.00 USD. That does not include the machine that it was connected to which as one might imagine is significantly more expensive. Comparable products (including the Occulus Rift which is not windows VR environment capable at the moment) are all in the 400 to 800 USD range. There are “ultra high end” offerings out there that come in well over the one thousand USD mark, but we’re talking “practical retail purchase” models here. Note: there are sub 100 USD “off brand” models available on Amazon but to say I would be suspect of those as far as quality / overall experience would be quite an understatement.
What don’t you like about it?
Apart from the still quite “clunky” feel and the awkwardness of the weight distribution, I have one slight issue. Nothing that wont be rectified in the future quite easily, however, for now: Lens adjustment. Despite all the digital technology involved in VR systems, the “fine optics adjustment” is still a slide wheel similar to those found on sets of binoculars. Yes, I really just said that. There is no “digital fine adjustment” to be found on the current generation of headsets. I found it somewhat difficult to get a “perfectly clear” image which would be in line with say a modern 4K UHD / HDR display unit… or even on par with some very high end 1080P HD televisions. The weakest link? The still somewhat mechanical optical delivery system. Once the fine adjustment goes purely digital, I suspect that problem not to be a problem.
Also.. when I asked if it worked with current generation Microsoft Xbox One / One S / One X systems, I got a “soft yes”. In other words: “There is a HDMI cable and a USB cable so uh…yeah”. Though the availability of compatible games on that platform is probably a no for right now. PC games such as independent release Subnautica amongst others are semi-compatible on PC already. Chances are that A title / big budget game development houses are going to be providing the vast majority of “true VR” content at first. From what I have been told by developers, to “convert” a game into VR is a lot harder than developing one specifically for VR from scratch. Knowing what I know about game development and application development, I would tend to agree.
Overall I have to say that as a developer, I give the Samsung Odyssey / Alienware gaming PC combo the Department of Advanced Research seal of approval… with the caveat that its still a developing technology. It will get better, a lot better. And when it does, the overall physics, movement mechanics, interaction functionality, etc that exist now mean that true VR will be achieved in an affordable system. Thats a win as far as I am concerned. Where I am most impressed is with the accuracy and sensitivity of the input controls. The spacial awareness and accuracy of the system is absolutely amazing even by modern controller / display gaming standards.
With competing products such as those offered by Oculus amongst others… Microsoft, if you are listening… do not screw this up. You DO want independent developers developing games, applications, and add ons for your products. Thats a good thing. Because if you “windows mobile” this system, other competitors are going to eat your lunch. #fact. Google, amongst others are already developing similar systems (which we will be testing for future articles) and they already have the reputation of being very “independent developer friendly”. I suspect however, Microsoft, under new mgmt, has learned their lesson from the windows mobile platform. I would hope to see a growing and robust development community working on all varieties of applications both entertainment based and productivity based in the not too distant future.
Also, for those that may live near a mall or retail environment where there are demonstrations available of the aforementioned Samsung Odyssey, give it a try. There is no denying that there is a certain “wow cool” factor that is truly enjoyable even for those that might not be “hardcore technologists” or gamers. The folks at the Microsoft kiosk that I demo’ed the unit at for this article were amazingly friendly, extremely helpful, and outrageously informative. Kudos to them all.
In so far as other features and benefits, yes common entertainment applications such as Netflix, Amazon Prime streaming, Hulu, etc will all function. Does that mean you can experience movies in VR? Sort of. With the exception of specifically produced “demo pieces”, what you are looking at is just a very large screen from within the headset.
Note: Again, a very special thanks to the representatives from Microsoft for a very informative demonstration as well as a truly wonderful customer experience.
In the future we will be testing something that Microsoft, among others, have come to call “mixed reality” or “truly augmented reality” devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google Glass. These systems differ from so called virtual reality significantly, which again we will be explaining in a later segment.