Why I Don’t Care About Your New Mixed Reality Headset

I’m often approached by entrepreneurs in the AR/MR space offering me demos of new hardware.  Competition in this space is fierce. You need three major elements for me to take a new platform seriously.

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You Need These Three Things To Have A Successful Mixed Reality Device

The three requirements for any successful AR (or more specifically MR) device are: Display, Computer Vision, Operating System

Display

This is the first element of an AR/MR wearable, and usually this what all hardware companies have. There are a number of different displays out there, but they all seem to share the same limitations: additive translucent graphics, small FOV, and relatively low resolution. Often times devices with claims of wider FOVs end up with even lower resolution visuals as a compromise. Both low and high resolution displays I’ve seen are all additive, thus images appear as translucent. Some companies claim to have solved these problems. As far as I’ve seen, we’re a long ways off from a commercial reality.

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Operating System

When I got my HoloLens devkits, the first thing that impressed me is that Microsoft ported the entirety of Windows 10 to Mixed Reality. Up until now, most AR headsets had simple gaze-optimized skins for Android. Windows Holographic makes even traditional 2D applications able to be run in mixed reality as application windows floating in space or attached to your walls. It’s all tied to a bulletproof content delivery ecosystem (Windows App Store) so distribution is solved as well.

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Your device needs to be more than just something worn only to run a specific app. Mixed reality wearables will one day replace your computer, phone, and just about anything with a screen. You need a complete Mixed Reality operating system that can run everything from the latest games to a browser and your email client in this inevitable use case.

Computer Vision

I can’t tell you how many device manufacturers have shown me their new display but “just don’t have the computer vision stuff in.” Sorry, but this is the most important element of mixed reality. Amazing localization, spatialization, tracking, and surface reconstruction features are what puts HoloLens light years ahead of its nearest competition.

This stuff is hard to do. Computer Vision was formerly an obscure avenue of computer science not many people studied. Now augmented reality has created a war for talent in this sector, with a small (but growing) number of Computer Vision PhDs commanding huge salaries from well funded startups. There are very few companies that have the Computer Vision expertise to make mixed reality work, and this talent is jealously guarded.

[BONUS] Cloud Super-intelligence

The AR headset of the future is a light, comfortable, and truly mobile device you wear everywhere. This requires a constant, fast connection to the Internet. HoloLens is Wifi only for now, but LTE support must be on the horizon. Not only is this critical for everyday-everywhere use, but many advanced computer vision functions such as object recognition need cloud-based AI systems to analyze images and video. With the explosion of deep learning and machine learning technology, a fast 5G connection to these services will make Mixed Reality glasses something you never want to leave the house without.

Don’t Waste My Time

A lot of people seem impressed with highly staged demos of half baked hardware. It’s only when you begin to develop mixed reality apps that you understand what’s really needed to make these platforms successful. Demos without the critical elements listed in this post will be harder to impress with once more people are familiar with the technology.

My Week with PSVR

Full disclosure, I’ve had a PSVR devkit for some time now, so this isn’t my first experience with the device. However, this certainly is my first taste of most PSVR launch content. I figured I’d post my impressions after a week with my PSVR launch bundle.

Best Optics In the Business

PSVR does not use fresnel lenses, thus you don’t see any god rays and glare on high contrast screens. Vive and Rift both suffer from these problems, which makes PSVR look a lot better than the competition. Many cite the lower resolution of the PSVR display as a problem, but I don’t think numbers tell the whole story. The screen door effect is not very noticeable, and I suspect there’s some way PSVR is packing those pixels together that make the slightly lower resolution a non-issue. PSVR looks great.

Fully Integrated With Sony’s Ecosystem

The great thing about the platform is they are combining a mature online store and gaming social network with VR. In many cases PSVR is ahead of the competition in community features. When you first don the PSVR headset, you’ll see the standard PlayStation 4 interface hovering in front of you as a giant virtual screen. Thus, all current PSN features are available to you in VR already. You can even click the Share button and stream VR gameplay live. There’s also a pop up menu to manage your friends list, invites, etc. inside any VR experience. The only weird thing is when you get an achievement you hear the sound, but don’t see any overlay telling you what you did.

Tracking Issues

PSVR uses colored LED lights for optical tracking–essentially the same solution Sony created for their PS3 Move controllers in 2010. In fact, the launch bundle comes with what seem to be new, deadstock Move controllers as its hand tracking solution.

Tracking is iffy. It seems that lamps, bright lights, and sunlight streaking through windows can throw PSVR’s tracking off. I find that it works much better at night with the room lights visible to the PS4 Eye camera turned off. I also replaced my original PlayStation 4 Eye camera with the V2 version in the launch bundle to no avail.

Even more annoying is calibration. Holding the PSVR up in precise positions so that the lights are visible to the camera can be quite a pain. Not only that, but many games require their own calibration involving standing in a place where your head fits inside a camera overlay representing the best position to play in.

The hand controllers are jittery even under the best circumstances. Some games seem to have smoother tracking than others–probably via filtering Move input data. Still, given the price of the bundle, Move is an acceptable solution. Just not ideal.

One advantage to this approach is PSVR can also track the DualShock 4 via that previously annoying light bar on the back. Having a positionally tracked controller adds an element of immersion to non-hand tracked games previously unseen.

The Content

Despite PSVR using a PS4 which pales in power compared to, say, a juiced up Oculus-ready PC, the PSVR launch experiences are second to none. Sony is an old pro at getting together strong titles to launch a new platform. They have made some great choices here.

Worlds

The amount of free content you get with the Launch Bundle is staggering. In addition to the new VR version of Playroom and a disc filled with free demos, you also get Worlds–Sony London’s brilliant showcase of VR mini games and experiences. The Deep is a perfect beginner’s VR introduction–a lush, underwater experience that rivals anything I’ve seen on Rift or Vive. London Heist is my favorite, combining storytelling and hand-tracked action in what is often compared to a VR Guy Ritchie film.

Arkham VR

This is the single coolest VR experience I’ve ever had. It’s really more like a narrative experience with some light gameplay elements. Some are complaining that this barely qualifies as a game and is way too short for $20, but I disagree. This is the gold standard in VR storytelling–a truly unique experience that a lot of developers can learn from. It combines puzzle solving, story, interactive props, and immersive environments into a VR experience that makes you really feel like the Caped Crusader. This is the game I use to showcase PSVR and nobody has left disappointed.

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Battlezone

Battlezone is my other favorite launch title right now, if I can find other people online (a definite problem given the small, but growing PSVR user base). This is a VR update to Atari’s coin-op classic in the form of a co-op multiplayer vehicle shooter. Guide a team of futuristic tank pilots over a randomly generated hexagonal map as you journey on a quest to destroy the enemy base. This game requires great teamwork and voice communication, which makes it all the more immersive. The positionally tracked DualShock 4 adds to the immersion in the cockpit as well.

Rigs

Guerilla does everything wrong (including uninterruptible tutorials) in VR here, defying all conventions. I have no problems with it, but this makes almost everyone I know violently ill. Apparently I am immune to VR sickness. Rigs is probably unplayable by the vast majority of players even with all the comfort modes turned on. If you want to test your so-called “VR Legs”, then try this game. If you can manage to play this without puking, you’re in for a great competitive online experience–that is, if you can find other players easily.

Wayward Sky

This game started out last year as a Gear VR launch title called Ikarus, which was pulled from the store shortly after its release. Uber’s small mobile VR demo has now reappeared on PSVR as the expanded and enhanced Wayward Sky–an innovative take on point-and-click adventure games in VR. The first stage is essentially a remixed and remastered version of the short Gear VR demo that came out last year. Once you complete this stage, the game opens up with a lot more levels and an all new story line. This is another gentle introduction to VR as it doesn’t involve a lot of movement or complicated mechanics. It’s largely point and click puzzle solving affair, with a few areas that require you to use your hands to manipulate objects.

In Conclusion

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My dream VR platform would be PSVR’s optics, Vive’s tracking, and Oculus’ controllers. Until that singularity happens, we’re stuck with all of these different systems. PSVR is incredibly compelling, and the platform I recommend to most people. It’s cheap and surprisingly good. Most of my current favorite VR games are on PSVR right now. I personally don’t find its limitations a problem–but it will be interesting to see how the average gaming public responds. Initial sales are promising, and there is way more high profile VR content on the horizon. Dare I say Sony has won this first round?

My Favorite VR Experiences So Far

Now that I’ve had plenty of time to go through the launch content of both Oculus and Vive, I figured I’d highlight my favorite experiences you can try for both devices instead of a typical product review. Many of these games are available for both platforms, while some are exclusive.

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My Retail Vive Finally Arrived!

Adr1ft (Oculus)

This is the flagship release for Oculus and deservedly so. Although not a pure VR experience (it also works as a standard game), it’s an absolutely wild trip in VR. Billed as a First Person Experience (FPX), it ranks somewhere between a walking simulator like Firewatch and an adventure such as Bioshock on the “Is It a Game?” scale.

This is consistently one of the top-selling Oculus titles, yet ranks near the bottom on comfort. I had no nausea issues at all, but I generally don’t feel uncomfortable in most VR games. I can see how free-floating in zero gravity, desperately grasping at oxygen canisters as you slowly suffocate to death inside a claustrophobic space suit can cause issues with those prone to simulation sickness. Regardless, this shows that it pays to be hardcore when making VR experiences–especially at this early adopter stage of the market.

A stunning debut for Adam Orth’s threeonezero studio.

Firma (Oculus)

This perhaps one of my absolute favorite pure VR games so far. Think Lunar Lander, Space Taxi or Thrust in VR. If this was a standard video game, it would be mundane, but as a VR experience I really do feel like I have a job piloting a tiny lander craft on a desolate moon base. It actually sort of achieves presence for me–but not the feeling of being in another reality…more like being in an ‘80s sci-fi movie.

Originally available via Oculus Share for years–it’s obvious that a lot of work has been put into this game to get it here for the commercial Oculus release. There are tons of missions, great voice acting, and a lot of fun mechanics and scenarios. This game is giving me plenty of ideas on how to adapt my old Ludum Dare game to VR.

Strangely, this game is in Oculus’ Early Access section, even though I consider it a complete game.

The Apollo 11 Virtual Reality Experience (Oculus, Vive)

An astounding educational journey through America’s moon landing told via VR. This is better than any field trip I took as a kid to the Boston Museum of Science, that’s for sure. This is just the tip of the spear when it comes to education and VR.

Hover Junkers (Vive)

Hover Junkers requires the most physical activity out of any VR game I’ve played–So much so that after 20 minutes of shooting, cowering behind my hovercraft’s hull for cover, and frantically speeding around post-apocalyptic landscapes, my Vive was soaked in sweat. One thing is for sure, public VR arcades are going to need some kind of solution to keep these headsets sanitary. Hover Junkers certainly is the most exciting multiplayer experience I’ve had in VR so far.

Budget Cuts (Vive)

The absolute best example of room scale VR. I didn’t really get it when watching the videos, but when I was finally able to try the demo on my own Vive….wow. This is the game I let everyone try when they first experience Vive. It really nails the difference between seated, controller-based VR and a room scale hand-tracked experience. This is the first “real game” I’ve played that uses all of these elements. So many firsts here, and done so well.

The past month has been a very encouraging start for VR. At this early stage there are already several games that give me that “just one more try” lure. This is surprising given that many current VR titles are small in scope, and in some cases partially-finished early access experiences. With the launch of PSVR later this year, we’re sure to see more full-sized VR games…whatever that means.

The Beginner’s Guide: Dave the Madman Edition

I recently played The Beginner’s Guide after buying it during the annual Holiday Steam Sale over the break. It’s a quick play through, and an interesting way to tell a story within a game. Without giving too much away, the experience reminded me of a similar event in my young-adulthood–When I encountered an amazing game developer who created incredible works I couldn’t hope to match. I’ve since forgotten his real name and don’t know much about him.  But I do have the 4 double-sided floppy disks he sent me of all his games at the time.

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Madsoft 1-4, recovered in great condition

This was the early ‘90s–I’d say around 1990-1991. I had made a bunch of Commodore 64 games (often with my late friend Justin Smith) using Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit: an early game development tool that let you build neat scrolling shooters without any programming knowledge.

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Adventures in Stupidity, one of my SEUCK creations

I used to upload my games to local BBSes in the New England area and wait for the response on the message boards. In the process, I downloaded some games made by a user known by the handle “MADMAN.”  Some of his games also used the moniker, “Dave the Madman.” He made seemingly professional quality games using Garry Kitchen’s Game Maker.  Not to be confused with YoYo’s GameMaker Studio.

Garry Kitchen’s Game Maker was an early game development tool published by Activision in 1985. I actually got it for my birthday in 1986, thinking that this was my key to becoming a superstar game designer. The thing is, Game Maker was a full blown programming language that, strangely, used the joystick to edit. It also included a sprite designer, music editor, and other tools. Everything a budding game developer would need to get started, right?

Although I did make a few simple games in Game Maker, its complexity was beyond my grasp at the time. Which is why Madman’s creations blew me away. They were so polished! He had developed so many completely different types of games! They all had cool graphics, animation, music, and effects I couldn’t figure out how to duplicate! My favorite was Space Rage: a sprawling, multi-screen space adventure that I simply could not comprehend. I had so many questions about how these games were made!

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SPACE RAGE!

We messaged each other on a local BBS. I blathered about how much of a fan I was of his work and he said he liked my games, too. I figured he was just being kind. After all, this was a MASTER saying this! We eventually exchanged phone numbers.

I have vague memories of talking to him on the phone, asking how he accomplished such amazing feats using Game Maker. I think he was a little older than me, but many of his games had a 1987 copyright date. Considering I was probably the same age at this time as he was in 1987, this made me feel quite inadequate.

As I recall, Madman was humble and didn’t have many aspirations beyond distributing his little games on BBSes. He seemed like a hobbyist that figured out Game Maker and really liked making games with it–nothing more, nothing less.

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Fat Cat probably has the best animation of them all

After our call, he mailed me a complete collection of his games. A few years ago I found these floppy disks and copied them to my Mac using a 1541 transfer cable. The disks bear his handwriting, labeled “Madsoft” 1 – 4. I was able to rescue all of the disks, converting them to d64 format.

Playing through his creations was a real trip down memory lane. The most shocking thing I discovered is on the 2nd side of the 4th disk. His Archon-like game, Eliminators, features the text “Distributed by Atomic Revolution” on the bottom of the title screen. Atomic Revolution was a game ‘company’ I briefly formed with childhood friend, Cliff Bleszinski, around 1990 or so. It was a merger of sorts between my label, “Atomic Games”, and Cliff’s, “Revolution Games.” (The story about the C64 game he made in my parents’ basement is a whole other post!)

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An Atomic Revolution production?

I must have discussed handling the distribution of Eliminators with Dave; by uploading and promoting his awesome game all over the local BBS scene and sending them to mail-order shareware catalogs. At least that’s my best guess–I really have no recollection of how close we worked together. I must have done a terrible job since this game was almost completely lost to the mists of time.

I think we talked about meeting up and making a game together–but I didn’t even have my learner’s permit yet. On-line communication tools were primitive if they existed at all. We never really collaborated. I wonder what happened to “Dave the Madman” and his “Madsoft” empire? Is he even still alive? Did he go on to become a game developer, or at least a software engineer? Maybe he’ll somehow see this post and we’ll figure out the answer to this mystery!

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I remember he was most proud of his Ataxx homage

Until then, I’ll add the disk images of Madsoft 1-4 to this post. Check the games out, and let me know what you think. I’ve also put up some screenshots and videos of his various games–but I’m having problems finding a truly accurate C64 emulator for OSX. If anyone has any suggestions, let me know!

Here’s the link to the zip file. Check these games out for yourself!

 

My Week With Project Tango

A few weeks back I got into Google’s exclusive Project Tango developers program. I’ve had a Tango tablet for about a week and have been experimenting with the available apps and Unity3D SDK.

Project Tango uses Movidius’ Myriad 1 Vision Processor chip (or “VPU”), paired with a depth camera not too unlike the original Kinect for the XBOX 360. Except instead of being a giant hideous block, it’s small enough to stick in a phone or tablet.

I’m excited about Tango because it’s an important step in solving many of the problems I have with current Augmented Reality technology. What issues can Tango solve?

POSITIONAL TRACKING

First, the Tango tablet has the ability to determine the tablet’s pose. Sure, pretty much every mobile device out there can detect its precise orientation by fusing together compass and gyro information. But by using the Tango’s array of sensors, the Myriad 1 processor can detect position and translation. You can walk around with the tablet and it knows how far and where you’ve moved. This makes SLAM algorithms much easier to develop and more precise than strictly optical solutions.

Also, another problem with AR as it exists now is that there’s no way to know whether you or the image target moved. Rendering-wise, there’s no difference. But, this poses a problem with game physics. If you smash your head (while wearing AR glasses) into a virtual box, the box should go flying. If the box is thrown at you, it should bounce off your head–big distinction!

Pose and position tracking has the potential to factor out the user’s movement and determine the motion of both the observer and the objects that are being tracked. This can then be fed into a game engine’s physics system to get accurate physics interactions between the observer and virtual objects.

OCCLUDING VIRTUAL CHARACTERS WITH THE REAL WORLD

Anyway, that’s kind of an esoteric problem. The biggest issue with AR is most solutions can only overlay graphics on top of a scene. As you can see in my Ether Drift project, the characters appear on top of specially designed trading cards. However, wave your hand in front of the characters, and they will still draw on top of everything.

Ether Drift uses Vuforia to superimpose virtual characters on top of trading cards.

Ether Drift uses Vuforia to superimpose virtual characters on top of trading cards.

With Tango, it is possible to reconstruct the 3D geometry of your surroundings using point cloud data received from the depth camera. Matterport already has an impressive demo of this running on the Tango. It allows the user to scan an area with the tablet (very slowly) and it will build a textured mesh out of what it sees. When meshing is turned off the tablet can detect precisely where it is in the saved environment mesh.

This geometry can possibly be used in Unity3D as a mesh collider which is also rendered to the depth buffer of the scene’s camera while displaying the tablet camera’s video feed. This means superimposed augmented reality characters can accurately collide with the static environment, as well as be occluded by real world objects. Characters can now not only appear on top of your table, but behind it–obscured by a chair leg.

ENVIRONMENTAL LIGHTING

Finally, this solves the challenge of how to properly light AR objects. Most AR apps assume there’s a light source on the ceiling and place a directional light pointing down. With a mesh built from local point cloud data, you can generate a panoramic render of where the observer is standing in the real world. This image can be used as a cube map for Image-based lighting systems like Marmoset Skyshop. This produces accurate lighting on 3D objects which when combined with environmental occlusion makes this truly a next generation AR experience.

A QUICK TEST

The first thing I did with the Unity SDK is drop the Tango camera in a Camera Birds scene. One of the most common requests for Camera Birds was to be able to walk through the forest instead of just rotating in place. It took no programming at all for me to make this happen with Tango.

This technology still has a long way to go–it has to become faster and more precise. Luckily, Movidius has already produced the Myriad 2, which is reportedly 3-5X faster and 20X more power efficient than the chip currently in the Tango prototypes. Vision Processing technology is a supremely nerdy topic–after all it’s literally rocket science. But it has far reaching implications for wearable platforms.

A Weekend at Oculus Connect

I spent this past weekend at Oculus Connect and have just now had the time to process what I saw. For Oculus to go from a humble Kickstarter project a few years ago to a capacity filled conference rife with amazing demos and prototypes by countless developers is mind-boggling. I know I said VR in 2014 is like Mobile in 2002, but the pace of progress is staggering. The maturation path for VR is going to be MUCH quicker. Is it 2005 already?

...and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

…and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

As I stated before, Gear VR is the most important wearable platform in the universe. I’ve been developing Gear VR games for a while and am thoroughly convinced this wireless, lightweight platform will have far more reach than VR tethered to your desktop.

The GearVR demo area.

The GearVR demo area.

The apps on display were great, but I even saw a few Gear VR demos from random developers in the hotel hallways that blew away what were officially shown in Samsung’s display area. Developer interest for Gear VR is very high. Once it’s commercially available, a flood of content is soon upon us.

Despite the intense interest in the platform, I spoke to a few desktop and console developers who dismissed Gear VR as a distraction and are ignoring it–which I think is really short-sighted.

It’s true that there may be a division in audiences. Gear VR may be the larger, casual audience while apps built around Oculus’ astounding Crescent Bay platform could be for a highly monetizable market of core enthusiasts. Either route is smart business. Depending on how long you can hold out for customer traction, that is.

Oh, and Crescent Bay…was a revolution. There’s probably not much more to be said about it that hasn’t already–but the ridiculous momentum behind Oculus’ path from the DK1 to Crescent Bay makes me question the competition. Oculus has hired all of the smartest people I know and have billions of dollars to spend on VR R&D–which is their main business, not a side project. Will competitors like Sony really commit enough resources to compete with the relentless pace of Oculus’ progress?

Why Consoles Didn’t Die

Yeah I was wrong. But hey, so were a lot of people. The PS4 barrels ahead with the fastest selling console ever. Microsoft is making a lot of similar but highly qualified statements about the XBOX One which leads me to believe it’s lagging behind significantly. Still, the recent European price cut and upcoming tent pole releases may perk things up.

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Regardless, most console doom predictions haven’t come true. This is because Microsoft, and primarily Sony, changed their business models in response to the looming threat from mobile and tablets. If consoles kept going the direction they were in 2008, we would see a totally different story.

What changed?

No more loss leaders.

Consoles historically launched as high-end hardware sold at a loss–but still quite expensive. This peaked last generation with the ‘aspirational’ PS3 debuting at nearly $600 in 2006. The idea behind this business model was that they’d make it up in software sales and eventually cost reduce the hardware.

This time, Sony took a page out of Nintendo’s book and built lower cost hardware that can at least be sold close to breakeven at launch. The downside being that the tech specs are somewhat mundane. Price sensitivity wins over performance.

Dropping the gates.

The tightly gated ecosystem that dominated consoles for decades would have been absolutely disastrous if left to stand. Sony has largely obliterated their gate and gone for a more authoritarian version of Apple’s curated model. Surely the most significant evidence of mobile’s influence on console to date. Microsoft has also adopted this posture with their ID program. The indie revolution is heavily influencing games, and allowing this movement to continue on consoles is a smart move. Especially when fewer and fewer studios can execute at a AAA level.

Users didn’t move.

A lot of analysts mistook stagnant console numbers for lagging demand. It turns out, there really was just nothing else to buy. Despite hype about core games on mobile–that transition has yet to happen. Most titles console players would recognize as ‘core’ games have utterly failed to gain traction on tablets. Core gamers want core games exclusively on console or desktop while reserving mobile for a completely different experience.

Eventually we’ll see a major disruption in how and where games are consumed. It’s going to take longer than one console generation to transform core gamer habits. It also may be too early to tell. After all, we’re only a few months into this generation.

The fact is, the AAA economy isn’t sustainable. Massive layoffs, even while Sony is basking in post-hardware launch success, shows not all is well with the AAA end of the spectrum.