Hands-on with the Oculus Rift S: the ‘S’ stands for Subpar

The Oculus Rift S is a bit of an odd one. Three years after the Rift’s initial launch, Oculus has released a product that feels like a lateral move rather than a leap forward. It’s better in a few ways and worse in a few ways. After spending some time playing with it and spending a lot more time thinking about it, it’s not super clear to me why Oculus made it.

The best reason I can think of is that Facebook sees standalone VR as the area where it should be completely ignoring profits to achieve a mass audience and PC VR users should essentially be subsidizing the broader market with hardware they actually make money off of. Oculus seems to be wanting it both ways though, because they could have released a headset that pushed the limits and charged more for it, but they opted to launch a product that moved laterally and made sacrifices, but they still are charging more for it.

We reported that former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe left his position as head of PC VR at Facebook partially over the frustration of this project being settled on, something he saw as representative of the company’s “race to the bottom,” a source told us in October.

I will say that the Rift S looks better in real life than it does on paper, but compared to the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go headsets, it still feels like Oculus is launching something below their own standards with the Rift S and that their co-designer Lenovo ultimately made them a headset on-the-cheap that got the job done while lowering the build-of-materials costs.

Well, what is there to like about the new headset?

The new Insight tracking is great, and while this headset basically feels like a minor upgrade to Lenovo’s Mixed Reality headset, the tracking is undoubtedly better than what is available on Microsoft’s two-camera reference layout. By comparison, the Quest has 5 cameras which seem to capture a much greater tracking volume which really encapsulates all of those edge cases where the controllers are far out of sight.

This is a great system and while outside-in tracking is probably always going to be more accurate in certain situations, moving away from the old method was worth it in terms of making the setup process easier. On that note, the new passthrough mode which you can use to set up your boundaries in the Guardian system seems quite a bit easier to use.

On the note of displays, Oculus made some sacrifices here moving from OLED to LCD… and from 90hz to 80hz… and from dual adjustable-panels to a single-panel, but I was largely pleased with the clarity of the new, higher-res single display. This is an area that I’ll really need to dig more into with a full review, but there weren’t any apparent huge issues.

Otherwise, not a ton jumps out as a clear improvement.

The new “halo” ring strap system isn’t for me comfort-wise, but I can imagine others will prefer the fit. Even so, it gives the headset a much more rickety build quality, which has taken an overall downgrade from the original Rift in my opinion. Lenovo’s headsets have typically been bulkier and harder feeling than the softer-edged products from Google, Oculus and HTC; Lenovo’s VR design ethos is on full display here.

The removal of built-in headphones seems like the most outright poor decision with this release and while the integrated speakers are serviceable, it’s clear you’ll want to add some wired headphones if you’re looking for a serious experience, which most PC VR users definitely are.

The new Touch controllers are fine, they’re the same as what will ship with the Oculus Quest. They have a different design that feels pretty familiar but they feel smaller and a bit cheaper. The tracking ring has moved from around your knuckles to the top of the controller.

When it comes to gameplay — when the headset is on and you’re buried in an experience — most of these issues aren’t as apparent as when you consider them individually. The issue is that while the Quest and Go are miles better than any other products in their individual categories, this latest effort is just very mehh. It’s actually odd how much more high-quality the Oculus Quest feels than the Rift S when trying one after the other, it seems like it should be the other way around.

I’ll have to spend more time with the headset for a full review, of course, but on first approach the Rift S seems to be a misstep in Facebook’s otherwise stellar VR product line even if the new Insight tracking system is a push forward in the hardware’s overall usability.

What latency feels like on Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform

After peppering Google employees with questions regarding Stadia’s latency, pricing and supported devices to mostly no avail, I got my hands on one of their new controllers and pressed play on the Doom Eternal gameplay they were showing off on a big-screen TV.

Things started off pretty ugly. The frame rate dropped to a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the resolution dipped between 4K crispness and indecipherable blurriness and latency seemed to be as much as a half-second. As the Google employees looked nervously at each other, someone grabbed the controller from me and restarted the system.

After a system restart, things moved along much, much more smoothly. But what the situation sums up is that when it comes to game-streaming, things can be unpredictable. To give Google credit, they stress-tested their system by running Stadia on hotel WiFi rather than taking me down to Mountain View and letting me play with Stadia under much more controlled conditions.

Stadia is Google’s cloud game-streaming service and while there’s a lot we don’t know the basic tenants are clear. It moves console-level gaming online into your Chrome browser and lets you access it from devices like smartphones that wouldn’t be able to handle the GPU-load initially.

Despite the initial hiccup, my experience with Stadia was largely positive. Doom Eternal was in crisp 4K and I was able to focus on the game without thinking about the service I was playing it on, which is ultimately the best endorsement of a new platform like this.

This will likely be a great service for more casual gamers but might not be the best fit for the most hardcore users playing multi-player titles. While you may be launching this service directly from YouTube feeds of eSports gamers, this is something they probably wouldn’t use. That’s because the latency between input and something being displayed onscreen isn’t imperceptible, though it’s probably good enough for the vast majority of users (myself included) which is still a worthy prize for the company’s efforts to take on the massive gaming market.

Google wouldn’t give me a proper range of where exactly latency fell, but they did say it was less than the time it took for a human to perceive something and react — which a Google employee then told me differed person-to-person but was generally 70ms-130ms — so I suppose the most official number we’ll get is that the latency is probably somewhere less than 70ms.

There is no hard truth here though because latency will really depend on your geographic proximity to the datacenter. Being in San Francisco, I connected to a data center roughly 50 miles away in San Jose. Google confirmed to me that not all rural users in supported countries will be able to sign-up for the service at launch because of this.

Other interesting things to note:

  • Google said they’d confirm devices later, but when asked about iOS support at launch they highlighted that they were focused on Pixel devices at launch.
  • It doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to restore purchases of games you’ve previously gotten, you’ll unsurprisingly have to buy all of your Stadia titles on the platform.
  • You’ll be able to access games from YouTube streams, but there will also be an online hub for all your content and you can access games via links.
  • The controller was nice and probably felt most similar to the design of Sony’s DualShock controller.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot more at Google I/O this summer, but with my first hands-on demo, the service certainly works and it certainly feels console-quality. The big freaking question is how Google prices this, because that pricing is going to determine whether it’s a service for casual gamers or hardcore gamers, and that will determine whether it’s a success.

The Oculus Rift S is indeed real and arrives in spring for $399

After years of high-profile onstage announcements, Oculus has decided to quietly deliver the successor to its flagship Rift virtual reality headset, confirming most bits of our October report with the release of the new Oculus Rift S.

As we first reported, the biggest improvements to the Oculus Rift S are a move to the company’s inside-out “Insight” camera tracking system and modest updates to the display resolution. The biggest surprise is that this headset is being built in partnership with Lenovo and the Rift S seems to have strongly inherited Lenovo’s design ethos for its VR products for better or worse…

When asked at a low-key private press event how they were framing the new device, Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell called the Rift S an “evolution not a revolution” over the original Rift. That being said, the design is entirely new, but not all of the changes are ones VR fans will be happy about.

The Rift S will be replacing the Rift in the Oculus product lineup.

Here’s what’s different:

  • Small resolution increase from (1080 X 1200) to (1280 X 1440), improved lenses
  • Frame rate is dropping from 90hz to 80hz
  • Switched from OLED to the LCD panels used on Oculus Go
  • 5 onboard cameras for inside-out camera tracking
  • Ships with updated Oculus Touch controllers, same as what ships with Quest
  • Loses the on-ear headphones for cheaper-sounding near-ear speakers similar to Oculus Go
  • Ditches the flexible strap for a rigid “halo” design like the PlayStation VR headset
  • FoV is “slightly larger” on the Rift S compared to the Rift, Oculus tells us
  • No manual adjustment of distance between your eyes (IPD)
  • PC spec requirements are largely the same, though you may need a faster CPU we are told
  • More expensive than the last generation at $399 versus $349
  • Launching in spring 2019

As we reported last year, the Rift S is a product of tradeoffs. It was green-lit only after a more ambitious redesign was cancelled by the company.

This was a decision former-CEO and co-founder Brendan Iribe strongly disagreed with. A source told TechCrunch his departure was partially due to his lack of interest in “offering compromised experiences that provided short-term user growth but sacrificed on comfort and performance.”

The Rift S is certainly full of compromises.

The original Rift and Touch were shipped as a $798 combo that eventually had the price reduced to $349 as the result of round after round of price cuts. The Rift S is more expensive, but it feels cheaper with Lenovo’s hard plastic design and the loss of key features designed for comfort like on-ear headphones and IPD adjustment. That being said, most first time users will be thrilled by the easier setup process for the onboard cameras and not having to worry about things like USB bandwidth management for wired sensors. 

The tracking system is powerful, but it seems like Oculus had to make some controversial choices to end up with this product, so we’ll see what the broader reaction is. The headset and controllers are coming sometime this spring and will retail for $399.

Google’s new Stadia game controller has a few tricks up its sleeves

Google’s Stadia game-streaming platform works on a number of screens, but Google wants to give you a controller to take on all of these displays. Sure, you can use your regular keyboard and mouse or a third-party controller but Google has also opted to showcasing their own Stadia controller.

It’s not just a pretty look, Google’s controller connects to WiFi directly rather than your device to reduce latency in input. You’ll also see a couple of other interesting things on the controller, namely a capture button that lets gamers share their experiences to YouTube or their friends.

 

That’s not necessarily unique among other game controllers, but a Google Assistant button, which the controller also has, lets users make voice commands for special in-game features and general requests.

The controller also seems to have a built-in easter egg on the bottom…

Updating

Google’s Stadia game-streaming platform kills huge downloads

Onstage at GDC, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company’s latest big initiative, taking on the entire gaming industry with a live-streaming service called Stadia.

The service will let gamers leave their hefty GPUs and expensive systems behind. Pichai says that the service can be used on devices with a chrome browser and an internet connection. To Google that means Stadia will launch on desktops, laptops, TVs, tablets and phones.

Google working on new gaming efforts here isn’t exactly a surprise. Last fall, the company launched a pilot program of sorts with Project Stream, allowing gamers to stream gameplay of Assassins Creed Odyssey in their internet browser at 1080p in 60fps.

At launch Stadia will support 4K at 60fps with surround sound and HDR. They say they are also working on 8K 120fps support in “the future.”

The company will work across platforms so you won’t just be competing with other Stadia users.

Google is an underdog here, though the company obviously has a massive mobile gaming platform with Android, when it comes to desktop gaming, the tech giant doesn’t have a ton of background aside from their sporadic efforts on PC virtual reality. One would imagine that Microsoft or Valve are the best positioned here, but Google has some pretty heavy mindshare with YouTube Gaming and some pretty heavy infrastructure with Google Cloud.

Viewers will be able to move from YouTube directly into gameplay without any downloads. Google says this can be done in as little as 5 seconds.

Google certainly has ample reason to want gamers to move away from Windows PCs to systems with more lightweight onboard compute. The idea of running something heavier than minesweeper-equivalents on a Chromebook can be pretty powerful.

Updating

Unity adds preview support for Nvidia’s ray tracing tech to push gaming realism

Ray tracing has been a major topic of conversation at both GDC and GTC so it seems fitting that that the overlapping conventions would both kick off with an announcement that touches both industries.

Today at GTC, Nvidia announced that it has built-out a number of major partnerships with 3D software makers including some apparent names like Adobe and Autodesk to integrate access with Nvidia’s RTX ray-tracing platform in their future software releases. The partnerships with Unity is perhaps the most interesting, given the excitement amongst game developers to bring real-time ray tracing to interactive works.

Epic Games had already announced Unreal Engine 4.22 support for Nvidia RTX ray-tracing, and it was only a matter of time before Unity made the plunge as well, but now the tech is officially coming to Unity’s High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) today in preview.

The technology is all focused on how games render lighting more realistically, showing how light interacts with the atmosphere and the objects it strikes. This technique has already been in use elsewhere but rendering all of this can be pretty resource-intensive which has made the advancements of the past few years to cement this as a real-time system such an entrancing prospect.

Nvidia has certainly been tooting the horn of this technology, but there have been some doubts whether this is just another technology that’s still a few years out from popular adoption amongst game developers.

“Real-time ray tracing moves real-time graphics significantly closer to realism, opening the gates to global rendering effects never before possible in the real-time domain,” a Unity exec said in a statement. In their announcement, Nvidia boasted that their system enabled “ray traced images that can be indistinguishable from photographs” that “blur the line between real-time and reality.”

While the prospect of added realism in gaming is certainly something consumers will be psyched about, engine-makers will undoubtedly also be promoting their early access to the Nvidia tech to customers in other industries including enterprise.

Vectordash’s cloud gaming service brings crypto-miners a new revenue stream

PC gaming has grown to be a pretty wide niche of people with some far-flung similarities and differences, one thing they all share are souped-up rigs that rely on beefy GPUs. This is fine for those with dedicated machines but PC gaming isn’t too friendly to those trying to pull double-duty on their everyday machine.

Vectordash, launching out of the latest Y Combinator batch, wants to turn your Macbook Air or other underpowered rig into a formidable machine through their cloud gaming service.

The service is charging customers $28 per month to render their games on a cloud machine so that they can be run on non-gaming laptops. The idea of running Fortnite on any machine seems to be a somewhat central idea for the service, though you’ll just as easily be able to log-in to Steam and play through titles that you own.

Launching a cloud-gaming service seems like an expensive proposition, you need a bunch of server centers to host streamers and that’s a lot of upfront cost for an upstart, so Vectordash is cheating a bit and paying users with heavy GPU power to contribute to the gaming hive-mind over the cloud. The service says they’ll pay these GPU renters about $.60 per day for the graphics processing real estate, a number that will cover the electricity but won’t make anyone rich. The trick is, Vectordash is entering a bear cryptocurrency environment where there are tons of GPUs ready to be put to work, so the company will have a market as long as it can stay competitive with crypto mining returns.

Relying on third-party GPU power will leave some difficulty in scaling with such high upfront costs alright taking a steep bite out of margins, but the startup seems to be fine with the tradeoffs and believes that plenty of gamers will see the use of the $28/month service if it means being able to run GPU-hungry games on their Mac or otherwise lightweight laptops.

This does leave the startup in a tricky position where they can likely be undercut on price by a tech giant that is willing to shift some data center power towards the product. At the same time, Vectordash’s distributed model of turning GPUs into sharing economy workers is probably more scalable when it comes to reaching the far-flung corners of the globe.

That’s because a major limiting factor for the technology is that it’s highly dependent on geographic proximity between game streamers and host hardware. As opposed to other streaming services, latency demands are pretty brutal due to the real-time input being sent to the host machines via keystrokes and mouse movements. If users aren’t getting feedback within 20-30ms, the lag grows noticeable and quickly feels unplayable if you’re firing away in something like a first-person shooter, co-founder Sharif Shameem tells TechCrunch.

This means that Vectordash is going to have to be very targeted with the markets they expand to as a game streamer needs to be within about 300 miles from the host machine. They’re kicking things off in the Bay Area and will be focusing efforts on the East and West coasts of the U.S. early-on. Gameplay can max out at 4K 60FPS if your internet connection is solid and can scale things down to 1080p if you’re missing some megabits.

Users can sign up on Vectordash’s site to get early access to the service.

Adventurous taps live actors and AR to take families on high-tech scavenger hunts

Augmented reality looked like it was supposed to a ubiquitous success, Apple and Google and Facebook seemed to say so, but things are taking a bit of time to get kicked off so the startups in the space are having to get real weird with it.

Adventurous is an augmented reality scavenger hunt geared towards families, but it drags in enough elements of the real world to make it a pretty robust experience. This isn’t your typical AR phone app that you pop open once. For one thing you have to be at a certain physical location in order to try it out, you also have to make an appointment, and, oh yeah, there are live actors involved.

This may be one of the more odd companies in Y Combinator’s latest startup batch, it’s basically a kind of tech-enabled live theater. The company’s co-founders acknowledge that having appointments and live actors involved with an app isn’t the most scalable business model in internet history, but they say that they’ll figure stuff out as they move along and that for now the families and kids involved really like the experience.

“We know that families are constantly looking for stuff to do with their kids and not all screen time is good screen time,” Adventurous co-founder Jeany Ngo tells TechCrunch.

Adventurous co-founders Jeany Ngo and Brian Schulman

When a family or group books an adventure, they meet at a designated location at a given time and get a run down on the mission and story from actors in full dress and character, then they’re tasked with walking around to different physical locations where different geo-tagged experiences will pop up on their ARKit or ARCore-enabled phone and they’ll have to complete the tasks to move on.

The experiences are designed to be around 45 minutes to 1 hour each and the whole shebang costs $15 per person.

One of the big selling points of augmented reality as a medium is that it can theoretically gain an understanding of a location’s geometry and plunk down digital content in a way that’s tailored to your space. That may be true for something like Google’s AR Stickers where it’s a little stationary 3D model, but when you start talking about actual storylines, the fact is that computer vision just can’t make reliable sense of a dynamic environment when it comes to a game or experience.

The company has been testing out various locations for their AR adventures, right now they’re sticking with missions in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Golden Gate Park. It’s a little unclear whether there could be any associated legal issues for a startup tying digital experiences to physical public locations, but the co-founders say they haven’t run in to any issues yet.

With Adventurous, the startup is banking on the robustness of an ironed-out experience to suck in fans and bring them back. The company’s co-founders foresee a world where narratives fit together like episodes in a TV series bringing families back to book appointments to see what happens next.

Location-based entertainment has been a hit-or-miss vertical for the VR industry, though some startups have seen success. Sandbox VR finished out a $68 million Series B earlier this year in a round led by a16z. For AR startups, there haven’t been too many stories of entertainment experiences that have been strictly tied to geographic areas outside of event activations. While you can find Pokéstops inside Pokémon GO, it isn’t a full linear experience that requires everyone to move along an identical path.

Adventurous is live now, if you’re in SF you can book yourself a fancy scavenger hunt in augmented reality this weekend.

Google is reportedly shutting down its in-house VR film studio

Google is shutting down its Emmy Award-winning VR film division, Spotlight Stories, after six years of building out content, Variety reports.

We’ve reached out to Google for confirmation.

“Google Spotlight Stories means storytelling for VR. We are artists and technologists making immersive stories for mobile 360, mobile VR and room-scale VR headsets, and building the innovative tech that makes it possible,” the group’s site reads.

The Spotlight Stories team was part of the company’s Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group. Much like Facebook’s ill-fated Oculus Story Studio, there was never a big focus on monetizing what was being created internally.

The studio’s best-received work, “Pearl,” was nominated for an Academy Award and won an Emmy in 2017. The group also worked with Wes Anderson to bring a VR behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of his film “Isle of Dogs.” In November, the group released its last major work, “Age of Sail,” a narrative film that could be watched on mobile and high-end VR systems.

Google has made significant investments in AR and VR, but has allowed competitors like Facebook and Apple to surpass their consumer efforts.

Google’s efforts on its VR program went full throttle in 2016 and early 2017 while the company sought to keep pace with Samsung which was aggressively hocking mobile hardware it had built alongside Oculus. It’s rumored the company made significant changes to its immersive divisions after Apple introduced ARKit in mid-2017, aggressively shifting resources from its VR division to AR projects like its ARCore mobile augmented reality platform.

The company has not updated its Daydream View VR headset since 2017, the company has ceded most of its ground to Oculus as its allowed products like Lenovo’s Daydream View to die on the shelf as its failed to make updates to its platform or direct significant resources to bringing new content on board. Now, with the reported shutdown of Spotlight Stories, the company is now making it clear that they don’t think building their own content is the right approach either.

Apple sends out invites for March 25 ‘special event’

Apple sent out invites to reporters this afternoon for a March 25 special event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino.

Reports have suggested that the company will focus its keynote on the content side of its business. The invite offers some pretty heavy-handed hints that the video content service will be on full display at the invite, mainly a film reel countdown timer that eventually reveals the phrase “It’s show time.”

Apple has been seeding a ton of TV shows and delivering plenty of announcements about the content that it has in the pipeline, but we’ve strangely heard quite little about the underlying platform or subscription that Apple has planned beyond media reports.

There’s also been some discussion about a subscription business for Apple News being announced here, but given the somewhat overt marketing references to the video service, the news product might either not be quite ready or could be on the back burner. Speaking of back burner, hardware announcements feel unlikely though AirPower and a second-generation AirPods feel long overdue.