More affordable than Oculus Rift with the ability to print and swap your own upgrades, can Razer make the ultimate do-it-yourself open virtual-reality kit?
LAS VEGAS -- Virtual reality is everywhere, and nowhere.
Despite all the buzz, most people have never tried or bought a VR headset. The Oculus Rift isn't a mainstream product yet, but you can buy a cheap development kit and experience it if you want. Samsung Gear VR is out there, but it needs a specific phone and has a really limited software library.
Into this messy landscape, PC game hardware manufacturer Razer has decided to enter the fray with its own VR headset. A hackable, open-source one, no less: it's called the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit.
What the heck does that mean? Well, Razer claims that its $200 kit, which costs less than the current $349 Oculus Rift development kits, is compatible not only with Oculus DK2-level dev kits and software, but with any experimental VR software in Linux and Android, too. (Razer hasn't released UK or Australian prices, but $200 converts to around £130 or AU$245.)
Razer's part of a larger partnership to try to wrangle all of virtual reality under one open-source roof: it's called OSVR, or Open-Source Virtual Reality Consortium. The whole OSVR umbrella aims to support software plug-ins (Unity 3D, Unreal 4 Engine and HeroEngine), input hardware (Sixsense and Leap Motion, among others) and other VR devices ranging from Oculus' DK 2 hardware and the Totem headset from Vrvana.
The OSVR dev kit will have its own development software, but at CES there are other companies already exploring working with OSVR, including the gesture-controlled Nod Ring and Leap Motion. So far, OSVR supporters include Razer, Leap Motion, Nod Labs, SensoMotoric Instruments, Virtuix, YEI, Sixense, Bosch, Hillcrest Labs, Pebbles Interfaces and a handful of software developers: Gearbox, Untold Games and others.
The OSVR Hacker Dev Kit headset looks like an Oculus: the ski-goggle-like foam around the eyes and elastic headband snap on similarly. Inside is a swappable 5.5-inch 1,920x1,080 display and head-tracking technology much like what you'd find in the Samsung Gear VR. It has an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a compass, but no positional head-tracking tech like recent Oculus Rift kits or Sony's Project Morpheus .
According to Razer, decisions are still being made on what type of tech to use, but they also claim that solutions like IR cameras could be added later. An external USB 3.0 connection and two internal USB 3 ports could allow extra accessories.
Razer's planning to offer the blueprints and details to the OSVR kit online at their own website, OSVR.com, so that enthusiasts can 3D print their own mods, too. The headset comes apart with five screws so that users could swap out the display for a higher-res one, or replace the optics.
The lenses do have an extra twist that Oculus headsets lack, in that each eyepiece is separately adjustable: lens distance can be shifted to account for differences in eyes, or for wider or narrower eye placement. Razer promises improved "minimal distortion" via its lenses, even compared to Oculus kits...which seems like a tall order, since Oculus VR already feels pretty great.
The mockup Razer had in its briefing suite wasn't working, so all I could do was try on the model for size. It was a bit tight, but felt okay on my face. In the actual version, a cable on the top of the goggles will lead to a "belt box" where an HDMI connector interfaces with whatever you're plugging into.
At Razer's CES booth, I quickly sat down to try an OSVR headset. Would it live up to expectations?
Not exactly. I had just been through a demo of the latest version of Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, and in a follow-up taste test the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit barely felt in the same league. Admittedly, this was a really rapid demo and CES is hardly a perfect venue for actual evaluation, but I played a save-the-planet and shoot-the-motherships game with the headset and a pair of Razer's Hydra motion controllers -- the sort of input peripherals OSVR is meant to easily support -- and came away underwhelmed.
The Hydra controllers, which feel a bit like PlayStation Move motion controllers, did a fair job replicating punch-in-the-air motions. But the actual headset and the graphics of the game felt herky-jerky. There was lag between my head motions and what I saw, the screen resolution wasn't as crisp as Oculus, my field of view didn't seem as immersive, and the gameplay was choppy. It felt more like the original version of Oculus Rift years ago than anything I've demoed recently. Even the Samsung Gear VR feels better. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to demo the OSVR headset with Leap Motion , a hand-sensing gesture-based input technology, attached.
But the whole point of OSVR isn't the actual hardware per se: it's the compatibility across various hardware types, and software. The problem is, unless you're a serious DIY programmer or hacker, what OSVR claims to bring to the table seems like it'll inevitably be less exciting than the more polished, bleeding-edge VR initiatives from Oculus and similar entities...for now, at least.
The OSVR Hacker Dev Kit will be available in June, and it's definitely targeted at hackers and developers over everyday people. VR is embryonic tech, and the idea of corralling all of virtual reality together into one initiative is noble, but sounds messy. Companies like Oculus are already trying to forge a path on their own, and Sony is, too. Google might as well, if Cardboard and Project Tango are any indication. VR is the Wild West. Can OSVR pave a road through the middle? We'll see.