VR headset designs: Maybe we’re missing something?

A lot of pixels have been turned black (sorry, I couldn’t find a better analogy for ink in our domain, which is the internet) for the Oculus Rift’s sake – and much has been made about its integration with Second Life. Personally, as I’ve explained elsewhere, I’m underwhelmed. I see the Rift as a bulky, unwieldy device that will have only limited usefulness – and, honestly, I’d much rather spend that money on having my car serviced or paying my bills than on a product that doesn’t fit in with my usage model of Second Life and, thus, will spend the rest of its life gathering dust on a shelf.

Is the Oculus Rift our only option for "proper" Virtual Reality? Image: Paste Magazine

Is the Oculus Rift our only option for “proper” Virtual Reality? Image: Paste Magazine

Regarding my own usage model of Second Life, I think I’m fairly typical and in line with many other users who simply don’t have the luxury of dedicating to Second Life (or any other virtual world) one, two, or more hours without distractions and interruptions. Even when I’m in-world, I have – at the very least – Firefox with (at least) twenty tabs open. More often than not, I’m also working on various documents in LibreOffice  at the same time. Yes, I have to multi-task, like many other people. I have to go back and forth between instructional videos, Wikis, tutorial pages etc and editing stuff in-world, check email etc. And my household’s needs provide an even more diverse gamut of distractions. Also, I don’t have a spare room to equip with all the expensive contraptions I’d need to enjoy virtual reality – and even if I did, there are other things I’d rather do with it.

Also, I’m not even going to get into claims about how “only the combination of Oculus Rift with the Razer Hydra can provide a true VR experience”; Such claims are bullshit and the fact that the people making them choose to speak about specific products and not about a more generic usage model makes me want to use a rather unflattering term. Suffice it to say that these people have ignored the fact that, without engaging, immersive content (which one can find in Second Life and its OpenSim clones), even the most immersive technology is meaningless.

The Rift has various weaknesses, which I’ve already described in the past. The most serious ones, in my opinion, are:

  • You can’t see the keyboard, so you’d best be at least a half-decent touch typist;
  • Fully-enclosing VR headsets are prone to causing vertigo and motion sickness, and the Rift is no exception to this rule;
  • Without a motion/gesture controller, there’s really not much you can do with the Rift.
  • There are only few uses for it and, even these, you cannot be always guaranteed that you can engage in without interruption.

Personally, I’m in favour of motion controllers that leave your hands free – see Microsoft Kinect or Thalmic Myo. And this is where the Hydra and similar controllers fall short. However, I really think we’re missing something. A few weeks ago, in an issue of a Hi-Fi magazine I found in our home, I read a review of the Epson Moverio BT-100, an Android-powered interactive display (as Epson describes it). The Moverio BT-100 follows a different route. As said, it’s Android-powered (it relies on Android 2.2, which is obsolete now). Also, it’s essentially a multimedia player, and even includes headphones. It uses two qHD (960 x 540) projectors, which project the image on a clear lens in front of the user’s eyes, thus allowing them to see their surroundings; for better isolation, one can slip a dark, but still see-through, plastic in front of the lens, although some degree of ambient visibility is still retained. Of course, this means that the user is also allowed to see the keyboard. According to the magazine review I was reading, this helps mitigate motion sickness. Plus, it offers the unit the potential to become an augmented reality headset as well. However, it is somewhat bulky (although nowhere near as huge as the Rift), and its resolution is not what I’d like to see for use with SL and other such VR environments.

Epson's Moverio BT-100 wearable display. Maybe it can offer a better alternative to existing VR/AR headsets?

Epson’s Moverio BT-100 wearable display. Maybe it can offer a better alternative to existing VR/AR headsets?

This is how the image is projected in the Epson Moverio BT-100. Note that the dark plastic panel in front is actually see-through and simply clips in front of a clear lens. Image: MustekDealerNET

This is how the image is projected in the Epson Moverio BT-100. Note that the dark plastic panel in front is actually see-through and simply clips in front of a clear lens. Image: MustekDealerNET

At the CES 2014, Epson unveiled the next generation of the Moverio, the BT-200. Once again, it’s Android-powered (Android 4.0 this time), and this iteration is much sleeker and, from what I read online, implemented in a much better way. The one weakness I see is the resolution of the built-in projectors; I would really have preferred full HD (1920 x 1080). TalkAndroid.com has an interesting (p)review of this unit and I think it could form an excellent alternative to the Rift.

The next step in the evolution of the Epson Moverio series: The BT-200. Image: TalkAndroid.com

The next step in the evolution of the Epson Moverio series: The BT-200. Image: TalkAndroid.com

Then again, how much does it differ from Technical Illusions’ CastAR? I’m not sure, as Technical Illusions’ website offers little information. What I do know is that the Moverio series already exists and would perhaps take only a few improvements (most notably, the resolution of the projected image) to transform into an excellent and extremely versatile AR/VR headset, and not only for Second Life and its OpenSim clones. The way I see it, the way forward, as far as usable immersion is concerned, is not the Rift, but the Moverio and the CastAR, as they are far more versatile systems and can fit more easily into different usage models more easily than the Rift.




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14 thoughts on “VR headset designs: Maybe we’re missing something?

  1. Technical Innovations, castAR is primarily an augmented reality headset, rather than a virtual reality device, although there will be a “clip on” VR capability which serves to (I assume) display the image from the unit’s projectors on to a set of stereo screens.

    As far as I’m aware, the pre-productiom specs for castAR are:

    1280 x 720 resolution per eye 120hz
    refresh rate per eye 24 bits of color per pixel
    65 degree horizontal field of view 93% fill factor

    Tracking System
    110 degree FOV
    120hz update rate
    8.3ms response time
    6 degrees of freedom
    Absolute positioning Over 200 unique tracking points
    0.07mm accuracy at 1.5m

    AR & VR Clip-On
    90 degree horizontal FOV
    Very low distortion freeform optics
    5mm by 8mm eye box
    Removable flip up shutter for AR mode

    I’m more interested in the dual-purpose approach of castAR, because it does appear to offer the best of both worlds in a device which is a lot sleeker and less cumbersome-looking compared to the Rift (assuming castAR can achieve their design goals).

    As to the Rift and SL (as I’ve said elsewhere) I don’t think it will be the gosh-golly-darn Must Have for SL, but I think it will present opportunities for experiences specifically tailored for its use, and which will leverage still-to-arrrive (but waiting in the wings) capabilities within SL, such as Experience Keys (/Tools) for somewhat easier in-world interactions. I also don’t think lack of any headphones is really that much of an issue – and certainly one which cannot easily be overcome.

    Weight-wise, those at the Lab who have used it had said it’s not a major factor – although how long they’re using it for each session isn’t clear. The motion sickness issues also appears to be one which various from report to the report & is one Oculus VR are apparently addressing as best they can.

    To me, the really big question is how will the games market respond to the Rift – because it is that market which will drive Rift sales, not Second Life. If the games industry wholeheartedly embrace it, then the chances are that there will be enough Rift headsets out their for people to potentially give it a go with SL. But that’s way different to it being a driver of interest in, and use of, SL as some people seem to see it.

    The problem with being “first” (even in a return to a market such as VR), is that everyone waits for everyone else to jump in before making a commitment, and so the product goes into a kind of “testing the water” limbo, rather than wholesale adoption – and that gives all the others developing headsets (particularly the “big” names) time to aggressively enter the fray with their offerings, which are more attractive simply because of who is behind them (Sony, nVidia, Epson, whoever) and the size of their marketing campaigns / deals they can strike with games manufacturers, with the result that the first to arrive gets elbowed out and left on the shelf …

    1. Thank you for the specs of the CastAR. Indeed, it provides a higher resolution than the Moverio – but still, none of these systems is truly HD, and this is the one area where both devices are bested by the Rift. As to weight and its influence on long-term comfort, the Moverio BT-100 (the current, early version) is about 250 grams, and still it is reported as being tiresome for prolonged use. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the rift? Because of that adjustable strap that wraps around one’s head? Heh.

      And yes, the games market’s response to the Rift is exactly what will seal its fate. Second Life has – at best – one million active users, and I think even this number is highly optimistic. And OpenSim is even smaller than Second Life. So, like you, I don’t see the Rift as being a driver of interest SL – and vice versa, actually.

      You also pointed out something very important: the effect of being “first” in the market (although actually the Rift, as you noted, marks a “first” revisit to the “total immersion” VR market). I can easily see such devices remaining in limbo for periods that are too long for comfort. As for the big names now, I have seen that, with their propensity to lock their devices as much as possible, their devices can end up being crippled compared to the offerings from smaller makers – see the networked media players from Sony, Marantz, Yamaha, Denon etc, which are all gelded (and in a botched way, mind you), compared to what relatively unknown Chinese OEMs and ODMs provide.

  2. I got a chance to meet Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey — and try on the headset — at a conference in Boston recently.

    According to Luckey, the best opportunities for the Rift are applications designed from scratch to work with VR.

    For example, remember back to the old days of text adventure games. Back then, adding graphics to those games wouldn’t have improved them much. In fact, if you were playing online, with 300 baud modems, adding graphics would have been a deal breaker.

    Graphics-based games required all new hardware, a whole new approach to interface design, and a totally different approach to game design, as well.

    Most of the best experiences for the Rift now were built from scratch, designed to take advantage of what the Rift offers, while mitigating its current problems (such as nausea, though the latest version of the Rift seems to have mostly addressed that).

    I do believe that, at some point, the Rift will make it obvious that we need a low-cost, easy-to-use way to create immersive environments. Not everyone can use a high-end game development engine, or even Unity, but a lot of people and businesses can benefit from creating their own immersive environments.

    Will Second Life and OpenSim be that platform? I hope so, but it depends on whether the user interface issues you mentioned can be fixed. Mouse-and-keyboard inputs will need to be replaced by voice and gesture controls, and instead of multi-tasking with multiple windows open, we’ll need to switch to in-world options such as virtual smartphones, tablets, and screens.

    The total immersion issue you raise is both a pro and a con. On the one hand, since the Oculus Rift completely fills your view, you REALLY feel that you’re in the middle of that world. It’s not just a screen hanging in front of your head, like with most other devices. The immersion is great for horror games. But not so great whenever you’re in a shared environment, like your house, where people or animals can come up to you anytime without you seeing them. I don’t know what the answer to that is. Maybe a motion-sensor alert that comes up on your in-world smartphone where you can glance at the screen, and see a webcam view of yourself back home and your surroundings? It’s too early to tell!

    1. Most people are in a shared environment – we have spouses, children, cats, dogs, housework. It’s not only that anyone can come up to us unseen, it’s that the ideal usage model for “total immersion” is made of pure unobtainium. Plus, there are other issues. For starters, we have the economy; the vast majority of the VR/VW platforms’ target group is made of middle-class people. These people’s income has taken a massive hit because of the catastrophic austerity policies followed by their governments. When they lose half (or more) of their income and who knows how much more of their true buying power on top of that, something has to give. And guess what goes out the window first? All those expensive pastimes (online or not) and their associated gadgets, which are equally costly. Then, we have the question, which Inara raised indirectly in her comment (and which also echoes what I wrote in my post): Why would I buy something that costs a fair bit and that I will only use for one particular application that is not essential anyway? So yes, the Rift – and everything that falls in its category – cannot rely on Second Life and OpenSim to survive; after all, their combined user base is a drop in the ocean compared to the opportunities in the pure gaming world.

      Now, could/would/should someone start developing a “killer app” for the Rift (and similar devices) from scratch? Well, their decision, which is a strategic marketing decision, will (have to) be based on cold, hard facts and not on the hype (remember how SL was overhyped years ago?) that’s necessitated by the fact that those who have invested in the Rift will come back wanting their ROI and more.

      As for the rest… Virtual smartphones, tablets, and screens – I simply don’t see that happening. What are we going to do, add in-world virtual machines taking up even more system resources to present to us (in a rather compromised way, mind you) the applications we would be normally running in other windows, and also making the viewer slower in the process? I really don’t see any company that’s interested in the bottom line bothering to do it, and I also don’t see any takers among the potential users.

      1. Mona —

        A couple of quick corrections. First, there is still a market for dedicated gaming hardware. XBox One and PS4 are both reporting record sales — despite the economy. Plus, the price tag of $300 for the Oculus Rift is probably going to come down over time as the components get cheaper and as more competitors enter the space. Palmer Luckey has said numerous times that his goal is to get the set into as many hands as possible by keeping the price low, instead of trying to go for maximum revenues. This, of course, leaves the way open for other companies to offer higher-end, pricier devices, as well, but nobody has to buy them if they don’t want them.

        Second, both computing power and Internet connectivity are increasing. Maybe not smoothly, and not everywhere at once, but over time it’s getting there. Google’s gigabit fiber projects are lighting the fire under other companies, as well. So saying that something is too compute-intensive today may be accurate, but it won’t hold true for long.

        The Oculus Rift and similar devices aren’t going to hit the mainstream right away. Probably it won’t be until third-gen devices come out three to five years from that they will really start to make an impact — first with gamers, then everyone else.

        As for in-world screens — we already have them with media-on-a-prim, and since it’s rendered in the viewer, there’s not that much extra processing involved. There are folks already using them for in-world work — I, for example, sometimes work in my virtual office using Google Docs on an in-world computer screen.

        It’s not for everybody. The Web isn’t for everybody, either. And there are folks who hate mobile devices. In fact, I’m old enough to remember when people were refusing to use the mouse because it looked too much like a toy. And there are massive usability issues still to overcome. But right now, given the the fact that they’re already sold out of development kits and every major video game developer seems to be jumping on board — and that immersive virtual reality is so much more compelling than a virtual world on a screen — I think it’s inevitable. Just not right away.

        Remember that the Web itself is 25 years old — it’s taken us this long to get to the point where everyone uses it, where we don’t say “going online” as much anymore because everyone is always online all the time, where it’s rare to find a company that doesn’t have an online presence in some form or other. My mother-in-law just got a Kindle Fire last year and started using email and Facebook for the first time in her life.

        Immersive virtual reality will require an even bigger transformation in how we do things, and will probably require at least as long, if not longer, to go mainstream as the web did.

        1. I never denied that there is or will be a market for dedicated gaming hardware. I see gamepads being sold all over the place and even “old school” joysticks made from heavy-duty arcade-grade parts. That market will not go away, and it will remain as diverse as it is, provided there are enough games of each genre to make production of the necessary peripherals economically feasible.

          But how many of these peripherals cost as much as an Oculus Rift? And how many of them cost as much as an Oculus Rift? Mr. Luckey, as you wrote, said that the best demonstration for the Oculus Rift would be something written especially for it. How many such applications could one realistically expect to come soon, especially given the “wait and see” stance many developers are likely to adopt? Let me remind you that Thrustmaster gradually discontinued its rudder pedals and some of its more expensive fighter plane flight sticks after a well-known flight sim for the F-16 was discontinued. But steering wheels and driving pedals aren’t going away anytime soon, because there are many driving games on the market, which make the continuation of the production of steering wheels and driving pedals profitable.

          To put this all in perspective, especially given the global financial crisis: No one in their right mind will splash out $300 on something that can be used on

          As for computing power… Yes, they are increasing, but even Moore’s law is liable to hit a plateau. And top-end computing power, which is precisely the kind of power needed to successfully run a truly immersive VR experience, is not easily accessible to the proles. Most people – I’m sure you’ve seen that – try to run SL and OpenSim on machines that were underpowered eight years ago and have never been upgraded. You’d be surprised by the number of people that run SL on the lowest graphics settings, with their machines struggling to limp along. And, when asked why they never budgeted to at least upgrade their graphics card and CPU in all these years, their answer is “I couldn’t justify spending money on that, I have other, more pressing needs to cover.” And no one can argue with that.

          As far as media-on-a-prim is concerned, I’m well aware of it, but I’m not convinced it’s the best solution. And I’m not even getting into potential security concerns re: accessing personal, sensitive online content through a viewer that already has been plagued by a number of exploits and vulnerabilities. And let me also tell you that GPU driver issues can also cause computers to crash badly if they’re streaming video and/or audio while connected to SL – especially under Windows, but Windows and stability cannot be seriously put in the same sentence.

          Regarding the web itself now… While I’m not old enough to have watched the way it emerged as something available to the general public, from what I’ve heard from friends who are in the IT field and have watched its emergence and rise, there was very little doubt about its usefulness for the masses – in fact, the only people denying the web’s usefulness were/are luddites and idiotic, drama-whoring “intellectuals” and politicians with mentalities stuck in the Dung Ages.

          Finally, you write that immersive virtual reality will require a bigger transformation in the way we do things – and here’s where I see another hurdle: When Gnome 3 force-fed us a smartphone-like user experience that no desktop user wanted (and the Gnome Foundation’s devs went all “professional & production users don’t know shit, we r so 1337 n we know best”), they came in for much well-deserved ridicule for their primadonna attitude and for the fact they never bothered to listen to the users, and people moved on to Xfce, MATE and KDE. There’s change for the better and change for the worse. If something requires people to replace their workflow with something slower, more convoluted and otherwise less efficient, they won’t adopt it, period.

          1. The XBox and the PS4 both cost more than $300, and $300 is the current price of the Oculus Rift, so it will drop over time.

            There’s no sign of Moore’s Law tapering off in the near future — if anything, the next generation of quantum computers is promising significant advances in computing power.

            In the early days of Web, lots of people thought it was a fad. In particular, there was a famous Newsweek article titled “Internet? Bah!” by Clifford Stoll which seemed very reasonable and on-point at the time, and today now just sounds ridiculous since every single prediction he made turned out exactly opposite.


            Using voice for in-world communications is separate from using voice for the user interface (to activate menus, etc…) and you don’t have to have one to have the other. But it’s too early to predict what’s going to happen here. The UI is likely to evolve quickly and significantly over the first few years.

            Will people buy the Rift just for SL or just for gaming? Depends on what kind of games they play, how committed they are. Probably a niche audience to start with. Once we get educational applications, however — virtual field trips, virtual history tours, immersive language experiences — and business applications such as virtual networking events and conferences, folks are more likely to buy the Rift (or whatever decides becomes popular). Just as people got home computers when the Internet became “educational”. (Though that was probably just an excuse! LOL)

          2. The XBox and the PS4; They’re consoles, not controllers. Their controllers (their gamepads) cost far less. As for quantum computing, I’ll speak about it when I see it. So far, quantum computers are – at best – in prototype stage and nowhere near entering even limited production.

            As for Mr. Stoll, while his article (which which I was already familiar) makes some important and valid points that still hold today, it is characterised by the sort of elitism that makes pundits like him irrelevant in the end – “unfiltered data”? Excuse me, but people also have something called a brain. And, even with the onslaught of information that we have today, we still can apply common sense. Well, those of us who have it.

            As for whether the Rift will be bought just for SL… In my view, those who will buy it just for SL will be very few. If it is widely adopted and well-supported by the gaming industry, then yes, it stands a far better chance of being successful on the market. And, like Inara said, those who will have it are more likely to also try it for SL.

            Returning to the voice issue… Again, it’s a non-starter. There’s a well-deserved prejudice against voice chat, and no amount of argumentation will make people change their stance against it. Both Inara and I pointed out why, and some of the reasons we have stated are social/societal – and others have to do with the fact that voice can actually hamper the immersionist part of one’s avatar identity. Since none of these factors is going to be addressed anytime soon, voice is a non-starter. And, again, don’t even get me started on the multiple security issues presented by voice chat.

    2. “According to Luckey, the best opportunities for the Rift are applications designed from scratch to work with VR.”

      – And therein lies the rub – and the likely limitation – in the heaset’s appeal, vis-a-vis SL / OpenSim.

      As such, and while I have little doubt there will be purpose-built environments with SL / OpenSim designed to leverage Oculus Rift, the reality is that such opportunities are liable to remain somehwat niche. And this again presents a limitation to “Rift adoption” quite outside of any technical considerations of the headset or UI interactions, because if it is perceived that few people are actually using the Rift with the platform (SL or OpenSim), then there is little incentive for creators to go out and built environments which richly exploit the capabilities of the headset.

      Even some of the approaches you suggest to overcoming UI limitations are themselves potentially limiting. You mention voice, for example.

      Many people have, since its inception, refused to use voice. Not because they are trying to hide something, but because either they feel it is bridging the RL / SL “divide” they’d ather not cross, or because they don’t want to shatter any mystique they’ve built up around a character they have created by having people associate more with the sound of their voice than their avatar’s appearance.

      Similarly, those with English as a Second Language may be more comfortable interacting via text than in worrying whether their accent or phrasing is understandable to others. These issues stand quite outside any overarching technical considerations relating to the headset.

      As such, it is extremely unlikely that OR will alter the prejudice towards voice – rather the reverse in fact. If voice is seen as a necessary adjunct to using the Rift, then potentially, it could weaken the appeal of the headset among a broad cross-section of the user base.

      1. I have refused to use voice in SL, exactly because it bridges the RL/SL divide too much for my own comfort (the way I see it, it’s just one step away from posting an RL pic on my profile). And yes, voice can ruin the mystique of an avatar – what if my accent or vocal timbre doesn’t fit in with the way I have expressed my personality through my avatar’s looks, animations and typed speech? Or possible health issues that might cause one’s voice to be entirely at odds with a fabulous avatar they have created for themselves? There goes not only the mystique for others, but also the satisfaction people get from reimagining themselves in ways that are not accessible (due to financial, physical and/or societal constraints) or downright not possible for them in RL.

        Also, people who tout more extensive use of voice chat should ask themselves another question: What about the fact that people for whom English is a second language (like yours truly) can find themselves on the receiving end of ethnic, and even racial (yes, there is racism in Second Life and it is condoned by many people), discrimination because of their accent?

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