VR: A bit of grit in the eye

There is an old joke which starts with the turn: “Have you heard, they’re knocking the pub down!”

This is followed by booing on the part of the audience, until the next turn comes: “… to build a new one which is twice the size!”

Rapturous cheers follow, and so the turns alternate between cheers and boos.

Recent announcements and blog articles from Oculus looked initially as if they were going to follow the same pattern. First we were told that the consumer Oculus Rift VR headset will be released in the first quarter of 2016, now less than a year away.

No sooner were the cheers dying down, than Atman Binstock, Chief Architect at Oculus and technical director of the Rift, announced the specifications required for computers to host a release Rift next year. Not only do they include Windows 7 SP1 or newer, but very high-end graphics and “HDMI 1.3 video output supporting a 297MHz clock via a direct output architecture”.

Yes, Oculus has “paused” development for OS X and Linux, and is now shooting for Windows only in the first instance.

If you started booing already, there is worse to come.

Binstock’s article explains carefully why Oculus is setting such high graphics requirements for systems to be able to drive a Rift, in terms of raw rendering performance, real-time framerate, and system latency. What he fights shy of is explaining why lower-performance VR systems will not work.

I believe – from my own experience with a DK2, and from comments of others working with VR systems – that Oculus has realised that lower quality rendering, lower resolution, lower framerates, and longer latencies result in a VR experience which is at best disappointing, and at worst physically distressing.

No retail product is going to succeed if all you get for your money is vomiting and blinding headaches.

Others have been quick to point out that the production Rift’s resolution, 2160 by 1200 at 90 Hz split over the dual displays, is already at the lower end of acceptability, and that Oculus needs to target higher resolutions in the next hardware release, late in 2016 or 2017. That will have even tougher hardware requirements, too demanding even for current graphics cards.

So the arrival of VR is being delayed not because the headset can’t be done, but because current computers can’t deliver good enough graphics.

Far from 2015 or 2016 being the Year of Consumer VR, it looks like being confined to high-end dedicated gaming systems, which is another cause for a round of boos. My virtual forays have already made me think how much more this type of system is capable of – all the things that we once hoped of QuickTime VR, for example, and so much more.

This leaves us with more conditionals than a deeply nested program: if Oculus un-pauses OS X development; if Apple starts delivering Macs with the graphics balls to drive a Rift; if anyone other than games developers feels the Rift is worth targeting; if 2017, or 2018, or …

Others who were tying into VR headsets like the Rift, particularly input controllers like Leap Motion, must be gutted. I don’t think that we will be crafting virtual pots for output to our 3D printers for a few years yet.

Thanks to Adam Banks for drawing my attention to these latest developments with Oculus.