February 16, 2018

Virtually There | Product Spotlight

As virtual reality headsets go mainstream, libraries should check them out

Public interest in virtual reality (VR) technology is on the rise. People can view VR apps on the latest smartphones using headsets as inexpensive as the $12.99 Google Cardboard. And high-end, PC-driven head-mounted displays are now available for $600 or less, with a growing number of realistic games or educational “field trip” applications available to transport users from their living rooms and classrooms into immersive environments.

Developed with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and available in preproduction development kit models since 2013, the Oculus Rift, in many ways, introduced the media and the public to VR headset technology priced within the reach of middle-class consumers. 3-D graphics pioneer John Carmack became CTO of the company in 2013, and Oculus was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

The Rift’s primary PC-based competitor, the HTC Vive, was created by electronics company HTC in partnership with digital distribution giant Valve Corporation. A bit later to the party, it launched in spring 2016 as a more streamlined bundled product than the Rift, which had taken a piecemeal approach to developing and releasing peripherals such as handheld motion controllers and room-scale sensors. Google invested $1.1 billion in HTC last month, acquiring part of the company’s smartphone division and ensuring “continued innovation within our…Vive virtual reality business,” according to a statement from CEO Cher Wang.

Backed by massive recent investments from juggernaut corporations, these headsets are going to stick around for a while. Both already feature 1,080 x 1,200 pixel micro displays for each eye, rendering stutter-free, realistic visuals. Head-to-head competition seems certain to lead to rapid innovation and falling prices.

And several major PC hardware manufacturers are about to enter the headset business this fall with the release of the Windows 10 Creators Update, which includes baked-in “Mixed Reality” features (see Dell Visor for an example). It’s shaping up to be a market that will draw increasing mainstream interest. Libraries, building on their legacy of introducing users to new technologies from PCs to ereaders, should get ready.

COMPANY: HTC and Valve Corporation

At $599, the HTC Vive is currently the most expensive consumer VR headset. But for out-of-the-box “room-scale” VR, it’s currently the best option. The Vive comes standard with two “base station” sensors that work with an array of other sensors on the headset and handheld controllers to track users as they move around a room of up to 15’ x 15’.

By contrast, the current version of the Oculus Rift offers similar sensors that can be purchased separately for $59.99 each. Two sensors are needed to track movement in a 5’ x 5’ space, and three are needed for an 8’ x 8’ space. The Playstation VR’s camera enables movement tracking in a 5.7’ x 7.2’ space. In addition, unlike the Rift or Playstation VR, the Vive headset is equipped with a front-facing camera, enabling augmented reality applications and other functions, such as activating an in-VR window to see the real world without removing the headset.

Partner company Valve dominates the market for online distribution of PC games. The Rift is compatible with VR content from Valve’s online Steam platform, and soon, Windows 10 “Mixed Reality” headsets from multiple manufacturers will be as well. But given Valve’s stake in the Vive, it will likely always offer a more integrated experience with the Steam library.

Recommended requirements for the PC include an NVIDIA GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 GPU, an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 CPU or better, 4GB RAM or more, and an HDMI 1.4 output.

PRODUCT: Oculus Rift
COMPANY: Oculus VR (a division of Facebook)

Oculus VR appears eager to democratize access to VR headsets. This summer, in what company officials described as a pilot project, Oculus donated 90 Rift headsets, motion controllers, and VR-ready PCs to libraries throughout California, in partnership with the California State Library and nonprofit library consortium Califa. Separately, the headset and controller bundle were on sale for $399 for several weeks beginning in July (the Rift bundle currently retails for $499). (For more details, see News, p. 19.)

Through its VR for Good initiative, Oculus is also introducing aspiring filmmakers and high schools to VR filmmaking technology with donations of equipment, training, and funding to create “transformative VR experiences that demonstrate the need for social change.” Parent company Facebook certainly has money to invest and may continue to be interested in donations to schools and libraries if it helps lead to widespread adoption of the technology.

At the screen level, the headsets match up with the HTC Vive (1,080 x 1,200 pixel microdisplays per eye operating at 90fps with a 100° field of vision), although as noted in the Vive profile, external motion sensors for the Rift were launched later, must be purchased separately, and work within a smaller footprint. Expect future iterations of the Rift to include enhanced integration among the headset, controllers, and external sensors.

Recommended PC specs include an NVIDIA GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 GPU, an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X, 8GB RAM or more, an HDMI 1.3 output, and three USB 3.0 ports (plus one additional USB 2.0 port).

PRODUCT: Playstation VR

Sony’s Playstation VR operates at a slightly lower resolution than the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift (960 x 1,080 for each eye, compared with 1,080 x 1,200 for the Vive and Rift), but it is also the least expensive headset after factoring in the cost of a VR-ready PC. The combination of value, ease of setup, and picture quality that “stands solidly alongside the other two headsets” led PC Magazine to award the system its Editors’ Choice designation in August.

Currently, the “Launch Bundle” is priced at $449 and includes a headset, camera for motion detection, two motion controllers, and Playstation VR Worlds—a Blu-ray disc with VR content. These devices are all peripherals for a Playstation 4 ($299) or Playstation 4 Pro ($399) console, which must be purchased separately. By comparison, desktop PCs currently listed as VR ready by online computer hardware retailer Newegg.com start at $750. Unlike VR-ready PCs, however, game consoles cannot be repurposed for computing tasks.

PRODUCT: Dell Visor

Officially launching in mid-October, the Dell Visor is one of the first of a new wave of headsets that will take advantage of the “Mixed Reality” platform that is built into the latest Windows 10 Creators Update. At $350 (with handheld controllers available separately at $100 for two) it will also present a slightly less expensive PC-based headset option. Other major manufacturers set to launch similar headsets this fall include HP, Lenovo, and Acer. All headsets will feature VR screens as well as two front-facing cameras to enable augmented reality features.

In addition to VR, the augmented reality capabilities will enable developers to create productivity applications for exploring holographic 3-D models using gesture controls, for example. The entire viewing screen and camera apparatus can be tilted up like a welder’s helmet, enabling users to look at their computer screen or check out the real world without completely removing the unit. Unlike the external sensors used by the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Playstation VR, these headsets rely exclusively on the two front-facing cameras to track user movement. This may simplify setup, but according to a hands-on review of the Dell Visor in PC World in September, this system may not be perfected yet. It caused a few glitches in tested VR applications, particularly when the handheld controllers weren’t in sight of the cameras. Recommended PC specs will be comparable to the Rift and Vive.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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