CES 2014: Virtual reality video game tech readies for lift-off

By Mark Ward
Las Vegas

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Oculus Rift has brought its latest prototypes to the Las Vegas tech show

There's no doubt that 2013 was good for gamers. The indie gaming scene thrived, there were big launches of established franchises to keep the fanboys happy and the end of the year brought the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

2014 looks like it will be another banner year, perhaps because it might signal a significant shift in the way people play.

It might be the year that virtual reality (VR) becomes established as a popular way to go gaming.

Hi-tech firm Oculus Rift is the poster child for this movement. Interest in the VR headset it is developing has been feverish since its debut on Kickstarter in August 2012.

That crowdfunding campaign raised $2.4m (£1.5m), 10 times as much as Oculus Rift sought. Between then and now the firm has raised a further $75m from investors to fund development.

Image source, Sony
Image caption,
Sony's headset covers almost the entire field of vision of its wearer

Those who have slipped on the bulky, early versions of the headset and dipped into the virtual worlds it conjures up at previous trade shows have joined its fan base. Almost everyone who tries it on praises the sense of immersion it bestows.

The interest in VR continued at CES 2014 and was even kicked up a notch as Sony announced a rival for the Rift in the shape of an improved version of its own HMZ-T3Q headset.

But experts say VR has to overcome some very real issues.

"VR headsets face a significant problem that won't be overcome in the near term," says James McQuivey of analyst firm Forrester.

"They're not good enough to keep up with the sophisticated way the brain processes visual and spatial information, including the user's own movement."

Certainly many early testers of VR tech have reported feeling "motion sick" because, unlike the real world, the virtual environments depicted on the screens did not stay static when a person moved their head.

In reality, when you move around or look at up or down, the world does not take time to catch up. By contrast, on VR screens the world can take a perceptible moment to be re-drawn.

Image source, Oculus Rift
Image caption,
The Oculus Rift headset sends an image of a game's environment to screens placed directly over each eye

"Only people very committed to a specific experience - like gaming - are able to endure the imperfections with the devices in anticipation of a reward that they value," Mr McQuivey says.

Faster refresh

Oculus Rift has acknowledged the problem with lag. The version of the headset it released at CES 2014, called Crystal Cove, has made strides to fix it.

Images on the OLED screens of the latest version are re-drawn in about 30 milliseconds - that's faster than on the LCD screens it used before and closer to the 20 millisecond refresh rate the firm has said is required to eliminate nausea-inducing lag.

But even if this lag is gone from the commercial version of the headset that is due to be launched in late 2014/early 2015, there is another technical problem to solve: the novelty of a VR interface.

Image source, Oculus Rift
Image caption,
The Crystal Cove's screens use OLED technology to allow its images to be refreshed at a faster rate

Gamers currently use controllers or keyboards and mice to play games on consoles and PCs.

With VR it is going to be harder to persist with those form factors, not least because players will not be able to see their hands.

Ian Shiels, a spokesman for game maker CCP, which is developing Eve Valkyrie as a launch title for the Oculus Rift, says the first versions of games for the headset will act as an introduction to immersive gaming.

They will not exploit all its potential as they first seek to teach people a different way to play. Later games will exploit a fuller range of features and capabilities to make the gaming experience more authentic.

Image source, CCP Hf
Image caption,
Space-themed video game Eve Valkyrie is set to be one of the Oculus Rift's launch titles

While one or two developers making games specifically for VR headsets will help the technology become established, more will need to be done if it is to go mainstream.

Software kit

Help on this front may come from game maker Valve as it pursues its Steam Box project.

Valve designer Brian Coomer says the company is "days away" from releasing a VR software development kit that will give game makers a standard way to provide an interface for VR controllers.

The kit will be released at Valve's forthcoming Steam Dev Days conference due to take place on 14-15 January in Seattle.

Valve's interest in VR has been long known, says Mr Coomer, as has its relationship with Oculus Rift.

"There's also technology in development at Valve based around head-tracking and headset manufacture and design," he says.

"We are working with other companies right now but we have not made any specific announcements."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Valve's Gabe Newell showed off its new handset controller at CES but his firm is expected to release a VR software kit shortly

The kit that Valve plans to release later in January will be part of a broader software tool chest that will help give developers a standard way to control games via Steam Box, he adds.

In a bid to make it easy for game makers to get their games working on the Steam Box gadget, Valve had spent a lot of time on its own controller, so that any game played via a Steam Box thinks a player is using a keyboard and mouse whatever the actual controller happens to be.

Media caption,
Dave Lee looks at the Oculus Rift headset

A similar level of abstraction is going to be needed if VR headsets are going to become ubiquitous, he says.

Players do not want to have to re-configure their set-up every time they swap games.

"Steam is in a unique position to be this intermediary between hardware and software and users," Mr Coomer says.

"Without that its going to be hard for any device to get any serious traction."

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