With E3 2016 in the books, I finally have a chance to stop bugging, er, politely responding to the dozens of companies and developers I met and reflect on what was, in my opinion, the biggest buzz of this year’s giant gaming conference: VR.
We’ve been reading reports and rumors for years now on the three major consoles set to compete for our virtual mindsets. The already-debuted Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the PlayStation VR. While each boast a particular advantage their competitors lack when it comes to the oncoming virtual landscape, I wanted to make sure I had ample test time with each one.
Over the course of the conference I had six interactions among the headsets: three with the PS VR, two with the Vive, and one with the Oculus Rift, each depicting vastly different ways VR could be harnessed. While the PS VR favored a more traditional video game approach, the others went into the whole-hog theory, one occasion in particular providing a full-body workout enough to make a yoga expert blush.
But rather than give you a deluge of words pulling apart the three in exhausting ways, I wanted to sum it all up into three major perspectives that will hopefully help you, the wanting buyer, have a better idea of which headset is the right one for your virtual mind-space-matrix-like adventures.
Best Graphics: Oculus Rift
Trying to get a demo with the Oculus Rift was easily the most difficult of the trio, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most graphically impressive and immersive. I was already aware of my bias walking in that a headset costing any customer at least a grand would have to deliver in some way, but even I was colored impressed with Ubisoft’s tech demo of Star Trek: Bridge Commander.
I was given an Oculus Rift, a pair of Touch controllers and the choice between three positions aboard the bridge: tactical, helmsman, or engineering. Being a long-time fan of the franchise, I chose tactical, wanting to sit in the pilot’s chair and actually feel like I was in control of the iconic Enterprise. For this early build, command was still an unspecified role filled by our Ubisoft-employed captain.
Familiarizing ourselves with the controls, our captain first took us through a research and rescue scenario of some escape pods that we happened upon. Scanning the vessels, we learned there were life signs aboard. Collecting all the stranded passengers, we were ordered to warp the hell out of there, effectively ending our humanitarian mission. Reducing to impulse speed, we happened upon a Klingon battlecruiser. Without a single measly hail, we were fired upon. The captain barked orders to each department, and ordered me to make a hard evasive turn starboard and prep photon torpedoes. In quick motion, a pair of ghost hands appeared and mimicked the maneuvers I needed to perform in quick succession. This sort of repetition was the entire demo lasting a little over fifteen minutes.
Most Immersive: HTC Vive
Raw Data is only a couple months old as a project from developer Survios, an L.A.-based startup of more than 30 people. However, it builds on years of effort from the co-founders dating back to before the birth of Oculus. They’ve been hard at work trying to creative the definitive “active VR” experience that really makes you center of this digital world. Because of this, it was far and away the most immersive VR experience I ever experienced, from touching and grabbing objects, to physically leaning around imaginary corners and ducking behind imaginary boxes for cover.
There is something deeply satisfying about dual wielding a pistol and a lightsaber-like katana. To close one eye and stare down the barrel of my gun and empty my clip into an oncoming android. To drop the gun and then deflect incoming energy beams with my blade like a virtual Jedi. To have the back of a fellow human being and to defend a position together. I was, however, completely overwhelmed by the instructions and the very little time I had to practice the movements down to memory. There was a shotgun I was told was available but I couldn’t even get the movement correct to pull it from my inventory.
I was timid at first inside the Vive, unsure of how far I could walk around given my physical tether to a nearby computer. I was unable to pass through the console in front of me, causing an uncomfortable mismatch between what I felt in the real world with what I saw in VR. Precisely when I should be protecting my buddy against the machines I felt useless until I stepped away from him.
As I leaned into the action and really started to move, my headphones fell off almost immediately. They aren’t attached to the viewing unit and as such require another entire cable to possibly trip over, but it became increasingly frustrating every time the headphones would slide off. To the point that I played the final five minutes of the demo with them dragging behind me on the ground.
Most Comfortable: PlayStation VR
Sony’s PlayStation VR headset is arguably the most stylish of all the VR headsets out there. Sony’s experience designing consumer-facing technology shines through, from the sleek black and white design, to the padded rubber finish round the eyes and the blue lights that also act as head tracking points. Putting on the gear is a simple affair, a plastic crown fits over your head, and a button on the bottom-right of the viewing square helps with adjusting the size of the opening to secure the VR. The extra space for glasses was an extremely welcome detail the other headsets lacked.
There’s enough cushioning inside the headband for comfort, which is useful for extended gaming. Once the PlayStation VR is securely fitted on your head, the screen, that’s attached to a front visor, can slide forward to your face. To make the virtual appear near-to-life, Sony made a very responsive screen. The RGB display delivers a combined full HD resolution, or roughly 960 x 1080 pixels to each eye. The 5.7-inch OLED screen is similar in size to the Vive but not as large as the Oculus.
It’s not as high a resolution as HTC Vive’s two 1080 x 1200 displays but it’s still impressive. The approximately 100-degree field of view is broadly similar to that of the Rift. You can, however, see the edges of the display, and the black borders surrounding it.
Batman Arkham VR had me playing as the caped crusader so I was already pumped. There were two sections to the demo, the first part placing you inside Wayne Manor. The demo used Move controllers to move your hands around as you progressed through the mansion. Bruce’s butler Alfred makes an appearance as you head down to the bat cave through a secret door. From there, you get to try out a few of the batarangs and Batman’s forensic scanner to check out the environment around you. If you’ve played any games in Rocksteady’s Bat-series, the scanner should be familiar, but it is easily ten times cooler looking in VR.
Farpoint is another exciting looking game set in an alien world. After crash landing, you have to fight to survive as you explore and uncover the planet’s secrets. Your only hope of escape is to keep moving to find your team. San Francisco based studio Impulse Gear even created a Sony approved peripheral for the Move controller so you can play the shooter more naturally. Called the PS VR Aim Controller, the device offers direct 1 to 1 tracking, letting you aim in Farpoint just as you would in real life. Further details like release date have not been announced. In all honesty, it looked like the bigger brother to the Wii zapper peripheral from some years back.
All in all, I was pleased with my all-too-brief experiences in what’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting – and possibly revolutionary – advances in gaming. I realize that not everyone is sold that VR is “the future” just yet, but if those responsible can maintain quality control and provide a steady stream of quality games, it just might be. We’ll have to see, however, figuratively and literally.
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