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VR vs. OSVR

“It is a good thing,” says Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display creator Palmer Luckey. “It is a good thing to share knowledge that has been discovered so that other people can build on it and improve it. It’s a good thing.” VRFocus and surely the wider VR community is inclined to agree.

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In something of a first, the biggest VR-related news to come out of the technology industry’s latest event, the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), didn’t stem from Oculus VR itself. Yes the company had new audio enhancements to display at this year’s show but a surprise announcement of a new VR ecosystem from a group of hardware and software companies was arguably the most significant reveal of the week. That ecosystem is Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR). It may not have been as widely covered as the HRTF audio within Crescent Bay or some of the new partnerships coming to Samsung’s Milk VR but in the long run this could be big news for VR developers.

VR development in its current state can best be described as fragmented. It’s true that the vast majority of VR videogames, films and experiences are being created for the Oculus Rift but with so many development toolsets integrating support to varying degrees, different HMDs and a number of third-party peripherals gunning to become the definitive VR input standard, content creation is already a potentially messy process. OSVR wants to unify all of these elements into one ecosystem and make VR development accessible.

Spearheaded by the likes of Razer and VR specialists Sensics, OSVR provides development engine plugins that anyone can use, covering different positional trackers, depth cameras, eye-trackers, controllers and HMDs. Ideally, this would mean that any developer working on a compatible engine could easily implement a new motion controller, for example, or optimise for certain HMDs. Want to support as many controllers as possible to cover your bases? OSVR has you covered. Developing for Oculus Rift but want to make sure your experience supports and holds up on other HMDs? This is the way forward.

There’s a small but significant list of companies pledging support to OSVR right now. Along with Sensics, Vrvana and GameFace are both on board in terms of HMDs, which is good news for those working on Oculus Rift and thinking about bringing their titles to other, less obvious kits. Where the ecosystem really shines at this point in time is with its supported input devices, including Leap Motion’s hand-tracking, Virtuix’s Omni, Sixense’s STEM and YEI Technology’s PrioVR to name a few. The thought that developers could develop for all of these devices without having to jump through some of their individual development setups is immensely exciting given that it’s really anyone’s guess which ones to bet on right now.

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Also intriguing is the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit (HDK), a 3D printable kit that will also be on sale in June 2015 for $199. It’s important to note that this isn’t a rival to the Oculus Rift or any other HMD; it’s simply intended to meet current VR standards and serve as a tool for development. It may not be as feature-complete as the Oculus Rift’ Crescent Bay prototype, but at around $150 cheaper than the second development kit (DK2), it’s certainly a more affordable alternative. One risk is that, by June, the consumer version of the Oculus Rift could well be a known entity, thus the HDK might seem somewhat outdated. Then again, the full list of schematics are available at the ecosystem’s site, so it’s up to developers to improve upon it.

Rounding out the promising signs for this ecosystem is the impressive developer support. Untold Games, the team behind the eagerly-anticipated Loading Human has already proved to be a great spokesperson for the platform with its CES 2015 demo, and it’s exciting to hear that high-profile studios such as TechLand and Gearbox Software are work with it too. The extent of their findings is yet to be revealed, but it’s exciting to think of how they might prove OSVR’s worth.

There are some pieces still to add to the puzzle of course. The list of supported HMDs is certainly a start but it would be reassuring to see Oculus VR pledge official support to OSVR as it would Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) with its Project Morpheus PlayStation 4 HMD and Samsung with the Gear VR smartphone-based HMD. GameFace’s Android-based setup already proves the ecosystem is ready to tackle cross-platform development and adding these other HMDs would be a big step for the ecosystem.

Just when VR fans might see the fruits of the OSVR announcement isn’t clear. While many input companies are signed up, most of them haven’t publically released their products yet. There’s a long way to go for the platform, then, but best that it was announced in these early stages. OSVR might not be the latest initiative from Oculus VR or a new product from Samsung, but it’s certainly deserves as much recognition for what it could bring to the VR development scene.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.