Healing The Rift: Razer Aims To Democratise VR

hello facebox my old friend

God only knows where they get the money from, but hardware firm Razer are a reliable source of massively optimistic gaming tech that it’s hard to believe will ever quite take off despite how it appealing it sounds on paper. Hands up who owns a Razer Hydra? Or a Razer Edge Pro? Or is planning on a Project Christine? Well, maybe this one will hit the big time: OSVR, an attempt to essentially make games which support one type of VR headset play nice with any type of VR headset.

While Oculus Rift has a bit of a march on rival virtual reality goggles by dint of having a bank account full of Facebucks, it’s far from the only VR effort out there. VR’s current futures are either one firm having a monopoly or the vote being split between dozens of different headsets, each of which only works with some games. One size fits all middleware is a great idea, presuming it’s possible. (I guess the stereoscopic side of things is, given it’s plastic lenses over an LCD screen whatever you do, but maybe stuff like the Oculus Rift’s motion camera would be more problematic?) And also presuming it doesn’t wind up being something built into NVIDIA and AMD’s drivers, or even a Windows update.

Razer’s Open Source Virtual Reality, aka OSVR, is being billed as “the Android of virtual reality,” though by that it’s referring to supporting a multitude of devices rather than to being an operating system. It’s aimed more at developers than consumers – i.e. you make your game, then OSVR makes sure it supports every headset that OSVR supports. From the consumer end, the theory is your game will do its eyeball-straining mega-3D thing regardless of which facebox you happen to own. It’s a nice idea, if one dependent on multiple headsets becoming commonplace. Sounds like it’ll also support various motion controllers, including the Leap Motion and Razer’s own Hydra.

While OSVR is software, it is accompanied by Razer’s own take on the VR headset, a relatively lo-fi pair of goggles which is roughly comparable to the Oculus DK2. Plan is that it’s open source though, and you can download specs and whatnot to 3D print yourself if you like. According to this Engadget report, Razer are trying to move VR out of its current slow-burn devkit doldrums by encouraging the community to muck around with higher specs and assorted tweaks of their own devising. Sounds a bit like a realm restricted to wealthier tech-types, but I like the idea of a storm of invention rather than simply waiting months to see what Oculus does next.

In the shorter term, you can buy a ready made Razer headset known as the ‘OSVR Hacker Dev Kit’ for a fairly reasonable $200, which is apparently “at cost”. That’s out in June, but you can get the specs and whatnot here.

I’m still all for VR, though the Oculus DK2 was far from the giant leap I’d hoped for. I think 2015 may still be too soon for it to really find its feet, but maybe an attempt like this to create more standards and consistency will help.

38 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I’m confused as to where Razer gets all the money for these fancy products that seemingly nobody ever buys.

    I have to conclude that either their success rates are a lot higher than they seem … or, that their hardware has always been high on design and price, but so low on quality, that their markups really are so riduculously high that they can afford such a low success rate.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      There were reports that they were valued at over $1 billion a few months back. I was shocked too. I guess overpriced gaming headsets are lucrative (and I’m guilty, I have a very comfortable pair of Razer headphones).

    • jonfitt says:

      I think they shift an awful lot of their very good mainstream hardware which allows them to attempt ambitious products that don’t go anywhere.

      Sort of like the successful lawyer who’s also “in a band”. The band might be terrible, but the law work means that he can drop $3000 on a guitar.

    • David Bliff says:

      I logged in to post just this comment. I have a Razer mouse and mechanical keyboard, and they’re both great and weren’t too expensive, so I doubt they mark up the price too much. But there’s no way they actually sell that much stuff, either: dedicated gaming peripherals are only ever going to be purchased by a small subset of gamers, I’d imagine, as most people are happy to use whatever $30 mouse and their laptop keyboard without the need or desire to even consider high-end equipment (I know some people will probably say Razer stuff isn’t terribly high-end, but it doesn’t have to be, it just has to be appreciably better than non-gaming equipment).

      So somehow they have the money to design (or buy out someone else’s design) and manufacture these incredibly niche products that their already small customer base will largely ignore. It’s cool and all, but surely in 10 years we’ll look back on Razer as the failed company that tried all kinds of crazy shit?

      • Moraven says:

        They are in local big box stores here in the states and I see kids all the time grabbing their products for their parents to pay for.

    • P.Funk says:

      If they are worth a lot of money I’m just happy that they’re using it to try and do somewhat risky innovative things even if they fail rather than being a colossus of boring predictable crap that doesn’t excite me.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      Yeah I dunno, they must be selling enough of their poorly built, overpriced and ludicrously small mice to foot the bill for all this stuff.

  2. ResonanceCascade says:

    OSVR doesn’t seem to be trying to “democratize VR” so much as just make sure it doesn’t turn into a fractured clusterfuck as everyone races to market.

    The headset itself seems a bit too little too late. I would strongly recommend that VR buyers go with the best option available, not the budget option — even if it means saving up for a while. The DK2 (while great) isn’t quite ready for primetime, and the specs on the Razer are very similar to that.

  3. Big Murray says:

    We got crap like this, and no VR headset has actually had a consumer release yet …

  4. ZombieJ says:

    Having been messing around with a DK2 for a while I can confidently say the following:
    1) This device doesn’t have a high enough fps for the kind of smooth experience you need for good VR (that won’t make you feel sick). The specs list it as 60, Oculus devs are currently targeting 75+.
    2) It’s higher res will be a nice improvement over the DK2, but again Oculus devs have discovered that the consumer version needs to be quite a bit higher again to truly be great (I agree from personal experience). Maybe 2560 x 1440.
    3) So, for the kind of VR we really want (almost no motion sickness for the vast majority of users) we need around 2560 x 1440 at 75+ fps. Above what you normally expect from even a pretty good gaming rig atm. Most PCs won’t be powerful enough for it for ~2/3 years.

    so, it’s nice that the market for VR devs can be opened up. It’s an amazing new area of digital entertainment and I hope tons of highly creative people go make me some amazing experiences. But this hardware is weak, possibly due to a lack of attention to the principles behind VR, and looks like an attempt to grab some easy money before the proper consumer versions arrive.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I missed that it was 60Hz. If that’s true, that is a complete and utter dealbreaker. For whatever reason, 60fps is totally nausea-inducing and juddery in VR.

      • bj says:

        60Hz is passable with a low persistence display, but this is full persistence. It also lacks positional tracking. All in all, it’s a pretty massive step backwards compared to a DK2.

        More standardized development would be nice, but I’m not sure a group which lacks all the companies who’ve shown competence in the field is the right one to handle it.

      • Belsameth says:

        Edit: Ineed to learn to read.

    • Asurmen says:

      Define pretty good gaming rig.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Well, the best single GPU you can buy can’t really guarantee a stable 75fps on every single game at that resolution, sometimes not even 60.

        • Asurmen says:

          Of the two games that I have that are reasonably suitable for VR, Arma3 and Elite Dangerous, latter is always above 75 at 1440p and the former is close.

    • shableep says:

      Having worked with VR for more than a couple years now I feel the need to point a couple things out.

      The DK2 does support 75fps (75hz). Granted, high fidelity games designed for monitors will have trouble hitting 75fps since they were designed with the intent of hitting 30-60fps on high end systems. These games weren’t designed for VR. Computers were fast enough to hit 100fps back in 2003. It’s about striking a balance between detail and frame rate. With VR, frame rate is king since anything below 75fps feels uncomfortable.

      Another thing to point out is that, even if we had VR headsets running at 300hz/fps, you could STILL get motion sickness. One part of motion sickness is when the frame rate is low, and your brain can’t accurately see the motion of your moving head. But the other, more major aspect is as simple as in the name of the sickness: motion. The main problem with FPS in VR is that your head is attached to a body you can’t feel, moving in directions that you don’t feel the inertia of either. This convinces your brain that you’ve been poisoned in some way (since your visual aren’t matching your physical experience). Your body starts working to expel the poison (the feeling of sickness).

      If you want to play an FPS in VR, you better get ready to develop some sea legs, because that’s gonna cause motion sickness in almost anyone (except the very few who seem to be immune). The thing is, VR is an entirely different platform. It has it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses. If you’re going to design a VR game, is has to be low in motion, and be very careful to make the user comfortable. This is a new specification for video games that was never really necessary. The powerful thing about VR is a sense of presence, and that trumps a lot of video game experiences that exist today. VR is the first time anyone of any age can experience being present in a video game world without knowing any controls. And presence is almost enough as it is. People visit locations in the real world just to simply be present there. So you can make some very compelling experiences in VR without running around a battlefield with a rocket launcher.

      I understand typical gamer culture is hoping that VR will be the next step in first-person shooters, but it’s not there yet. What VR, today, is good at is is cockpit based games, and other “experiences”. You can stand and look around anywhere and be fine, but the second you start walking (especially up and down stairs) you’ll start feeling sick. Imagine an experience for students where you get shrunk down, magic school bus style, to a size where you can actually be inside the actual mechanisms of life, just standing and looking around. Or visiting pyramids, or the virtual Grand Canyon. Or traveling through the galaxy in a spaceship.

      As long as the motion is slow and careful enough, you can avoid motion sickness. And as long as your game engine dedicates itself to managing detail to keep things at 75fps, you’ll avoid motion sickness there as well. If you’re designing your game from the group up for VR, chances are you can make the design decisions necessary to keep the player feeling comfortable.

      Now, there are ways to play an FPS paintball style if you have motion trackers, a warehouse, and a bunch of game developers. You could build your own experience where you run around paintball style with trackers placed on your body. You could run around this 30m by 30m room, battling dinosaurs and zombies. This is possible TODAY. But it’ll take time before it’s available to the public, and will not likely be something you’d build in your house. It does, however, lack any sense of motion sickness since you’re actually moving your OWN body.

      There’s also motion platforms. Any game inside a vehicle of any sort could use a motion platform to trick your body into thinking the motion was actually happening. It’s enough to satisfy your brain that the visuals ARE matching the physical feeling. And with this, you also don’t get motion sickness.

      Platform drifting at 5mph in the same direction through an amazing living sci-fi city? No motion sickness.
      Sitting still and watching a dinosaur jungle erupt with life around you, T-rex and all? No motion sickness.
      FPS where you’re actually holding a “gun” and actually running around a warehouse? No motion sickness.
      Rally car racing game hooked up to a motion platform? No motion sickness (unless cars already make you motion sick).
      FPS sitting in an office chair? Grow some sea legs or grab a vomit bag. There’s gonna be some motion sickness.

      • MortRimbley says:

        Thanks for this comment. You touched on a lot of points about VR and motion sickness that I hadn’t thought of before like the game having to be low in motion. I’d actually like more people to talk about the Oculus Rift’s and VR’s non-gaming potential such as the virtual tourism you mentioned. Maybe it’ll end up that it’s biggest selling point and potential isn’t related to gaming as we know it.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        Great comment. I’ve found that pretty much any seated sim alleviates motion sickness for me (including intense racing sims like Assetto Corsa) but I completely agree about FPS. That genre seemed like default for VR, and it’s been strange to discover that it’s actually a pretty terrible application of the technology. On the plus side, it’s been a joy to discover that third person games work great (which few people would have guessed before actually strapping an HMD on).

      • takfar says:

        Wouldn’t the whole “moving around while shooting zombies on a 30m by 30m warehouse” technically be more Augmented Reality than Virtual Reality, tho?

      • Shadowcat says:

        I can well believe the comments about movement causing problems. I’m not certain whether this is directly analogous, but if you ever get the opportunity to visit a physical “tilted room” installation (i.e. constructed as a normal-looking room, but on a significant angle, and without internal cues that this is the case) you’ll discover just how poorly our brains cope when the physical reality is at odds with all of the visual cues we are familiar with. It’s an extraordinary experience, and the fact that you know full well what’s going on makes no difference. (Which is awesome, of course, so you totally want to do this sometime :)

      • Asurmen says:

        I’m pretty sure the brain prioritises vision information over inner ear (this based on biology lecture years and years ago), in that poisons cause the inner ear to believe motion is occurring and the eyes won’t lead to motion sickness. The reverse isn’t as true. As long as you can convince the brain motion is occurring from visual data it will ignore inner ear. It’s when the ear is saying motion is occurring and the eyes not that we get motion sickness.

        This is basically why the screens need to be as good as possible.

      • Josh W says:

        That’s really interesting, makes me wonder if we will see a return to games like the sentinal or myst, where the jumps in perspective are not there to save on rendering, but to help the user move comfortably through the space. Like you might find that a certain length of teleport gives you a feeling of progress without motion sickness, but still allows you to take advantage of relative motion. Makes me think of Grimrock.

      • Belsameth says:

        I noticed the lack of horizon, which doesn’t give you a real reference point for up and down, also really helps with preventing motion sickness. I can spend an hour or more having the most intense dog fights in Elite Dangerous without issues but half an hour in even a VR designed racer like Radial G, and I need a break.
        (I also don’t suffer from motion sickness IRL, as far as that matters)

  5. cloudnein says:

    Having backed Glyph on Kickstarter, I remain worried it’ll be the Betamax to Oculus Rift’s VHS (technologically superior but lacking in market support.) This is promising that there’ll be a “middle tier” to support all VR headsets.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    *raises hand as a Hydra owner*

    It’s actually very impressive tech, though I was too lazy to ever use it much. The embarassing pat is I have the exclusive Portal levels for it, which by all accounts play fantastically…and I’ve never tried them out yet. I will one of these days!

    • Vandelay says:

      *Also raises hand*

      I am not ashamed to say it either. It was superb. I still maintain that motion controls done like the Hydra when set to the mode that just emulates mouse movement (using a button to, as they refer to it, “ratchet” – think of it as like lifting the mouse up to re-centre when reaching the edge of the mouse mat,) is far, far more preferable to playing any game with a controller. I think the main issue most people have with motion controllers is that they have only ever experienced the far more awkward motion controllers that emulate the movement of a gamepad’s stick, so it moves faster the more you move away from the centre point, or that they have used the inaccurate pointer controls of the Wii. Also, people often pick them up, play with them for 30 minutes and wonder why they aren’t as good with them as they are with a device they have used for countless of hours over the years.

      The problem with the Hydras, and it was massive, was the lack of real support. Sixsense didn’t do too bad a job, although they have ditched it in favour of their new motion controllers, the Stem, but hardly anyone gave it native support. This left everyone to go and make there own profiles for games, which just emulated keyboard strokes. A fine, if tedious, process for most games, but as soon as you have a game that really benefited from analogue movement, such as any GTA clone when you are in a car, the stick that was just emulating digital keyboard strokes felt awful to use. The motion controls also massively heightened the sensation of any mouse acceleration or smoothing that was going on; I recall trying to play one of the Assassin’s Creed and it feeling horrific.

      I stuck with using the Hydras as my main device for most single player games outside of strategy games, even FPS games, for a couple of years, but I find myself now just using a controller most of the time, as I can’t be bothered with the hassle of setting them up.

    • emertonom says:

      I own a Hydra too, but I’m pretty disappointed with it. It freaks out if the base station turns at all, and thinks your hands have migrated way off behind the monitor, rather than realizing the base station has turned. Which is problematic, because the base station is really light and connected to the hand controllers by short cords, so it turns all the freakin’ time.

      Then, too, the only game for which it has any motion controls is Portal 2–and I can’t use those. On their support page, they have this FAQ:
      “If I purchased a Razer Hydra standalone but decided later that I’d like to get Portal 2 will I still be able to get the Razer Hydra Portal 2 exclusive levels?
      Unfortunately, the only way to get the exclusive levels for Portal 2 is to purchase the Razer Hydra Portal 2 bundle. However, if you do purchase Portal 2 and Razer Hydra separately, you will still be able to download the Sixense Motion Pack for Portal 2 from Steam without an additional charge.”

      So I got the version that didn’t come with Portal 2, since I already owned Portal 2 and didn’t care much about the extra levels, and the version that came with Portal 2 was $50 more expensive–but their tech support, after failing to get back to me for several months and several messages, finally did get back to me and said that they don’t make the motion controls for Portal 2 available unless you purchase it together with the Hydra.

      Given that this is THE ONLY game for which they’ve implemented actual motion controls, it seems really petty of them to refuse to make the controls usable for all their customers.

      From a tech perspective, it’s pretty interesting, but as an actual piece of kit, it’s worthless. And based on this support experience with them, I’m never buying another piece of tech from them again.

      (In fairness to them, the first support address from their FAQ that I emailed turned out to be a dead address, so you might not count the couple of months I waited for a reply from that address against them. After I emailed a second address, I got an auto-reply almost immediately saying they’d forwarded my email to the relevant team, and a month later when I emailed that address a second time to ask for an update, they got back to me within a couple of days. Still, having incorrect information in their FAQ, and not correcting it when it was pointed out to them, and having a dead email address listed in their FAQ and not correcting *THAT* when it was pointed out to them…it still strikes me as abysmal customer service.)

  7. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    you can download specs and whatnot to 3D print yourself if you like

    I like this very much, both as written and as intended.

    Additional details others may care about:
    -Razer appears to be leading this project, but there are supposedly a lot of other companies involved, from hardware guys like Leap Motion, PrioVR, and Sixense (whose hardware is behind the Hydra and who are making a competing device) to middleware folks like Unity and Epic/the Unreal Engine factory. This actual involvement is much better than just claimed support from Razer and the upcoming community, assuming it’s a reasonably democratic collaboration like the Khronos Group or something. If that is the case (I have little time for the proper research :( ), I am very excited for this project.
    -The video here explains that the software will be Apache 2.0 licensed. I was worried/annoyed as usual when they didn’t make it glaringly obvious in their many “omg open the sauce” text blurbs, but at least they’ve said something.

    I appreciate the need for proprietaries in Oculus’s hardware improvements (poor old Samsung needs to stay competitive, after all) and keeping various details temporarily secret (don’t want everyone and their mom flooding the market with knockoffs of prototypes which were abandoned for better solutions), but: YESSSSSS

    Edit: I forgot to mention there was also some amazingly productive hacking of the DK2 when Oculus was taking forever to release their 0.4.x SDK on Linux. I haven’t noticed any action there since Oculus finally released it, but it does give hope of sharing interesting ideas in both directions, license-permitting. (The hacking project is GPL2, at least at its root.)

  8. DanMan says:

    If their intentions are good then I, for one, welcome our new VR overlords.

  9. Sidewinder says:

    Two hundred becks, eh? I’ll go you better: as I type this, Ebay’s got twenty-five Sidewinder Force Feedback 2’s going for a hundred bucks or less. Half the price, and a heckuva lot closer to virtual reality than yet another fancy headset. Referring to these things, without further clarification as “VR” is like referring to your computer as ‘the electricity box”. I get that visual displays are a good way to impress the hoi-polloi, and development needs to go where the money is, but have we really sold out the glorious VR dreams of the 90’s for a glorified Viewmaster?

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      A glorified Viewmaster? It doesn’t sound like you quite understand what these HMDs do, which is a shame since you’re clearly a flightstick enthusiast and I’m assuming you have some nice software to go with your collection of Force Feedback 2s. Flight/space sims are fantastic in VR — probably the best current application of the technology, along with racing sims.

    • Al Bobo says:

      I agree with mr. Resonance here. These upcoming VR devices will be amazing. Not good or great, but amazing. I have experience with only Oculus Rift dk1, but even that was impressive enough to convince me that the near future will be very bright for VR. No other computer peripherals comes even close to it. You should try it, if you get a chance someday.
      I will wait some time before I buy consumer version of vr goggles so that I don’t have to spend a fortune for beefy computer.

  10. Shadowcat says:

    Unless, quite frankly, [intense gaze] the result is just phenomenal, then I don’t think that I’m interested.

    (It could also be improved by a serious introductory statement that “PC gaming has always been impossible.” (Which should also be a RPS tag.))