This morning VRFocus reported on Oculus VR suspending the sales of the development kit of its virtual reality (VR) headset, Oculus Rift. Two days ago, the company pencilled in a presentation at the 2014 Games Developer Conference (GDC) in which it promises to talk about its “vision for future development hardware” among other things. It’s not hard to put two and two together on this one; we could well see a new version of the development kit announced at the presentation on 19 March 2014.
Okay, so it’s not for definite. Oculus blamed this suspension on certain components used in the headset no longer being manufactured. That could simply mean that it’s reached the end of a partnership with a manufacturer and is looking for a new one to continue production. If you read between the lines however, you could come to the conclusion that those components won’t be used in the next version of the headset, which is replacing production of the old one.
So say it’s all true; what would the next version of the Oculus Rift development kit include and should you hold off on grabbing the original kit for the time being?
The current development kit offers everything you need to get started with VR development. Along with your very own developer headset, there’s a range of software tools thrown in, including integration with Unreal Engine 4, the Unreal Development Kit and the Unity engine. The Oculus Software Development kit is also included, which grants access to source code, documentation, and other samples. It’s safe to assume that these extras would make their way over to the second iteration of the development kit, and we could only hope for added engine support, although it’s doubtful that would be held back for this type of release.
Most of the big changes will concern the actual hardware. Right now, Rift development kits have a 7-inch screen installed. The company has been using LCD displays that run in either 720p or 1080p, but these aren’t fitted to the original developer kit out there right now. In fact, the original dev kit displays have visible black lines running across them. While this image quality itself is decent, there’s certainly room for improvement in a number of areas. No doubt you recall Oculus unveiling its latest iteration of the headset, dubbed Crystal Cove, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. This new headset swapped out the LCD display for a 1080p AMOLED one. The result is an all-round improved picture, providing richer colours and much deeper blacks. To put it in perspective, think of the difference between the original PlayStation Vita’s OLED screen and the recently released model’s LCD one, just in reverse.
But the new display serves a much greater purpose than nice colours. The Rift features headtracking technology that moves a videogame’s camera in relation to where you’re looking. To get the best results, a screen’s pixel-switching needs to be able to keep up with the speed at which you move your head. The LCD display follows your movements with about 15 millisecond’s delay. Even that small amount of time is enough to severe the connection between what you’re seeing and how your senses are reacting. With the AMOLED, pixel-switching has been reduced to less than a millisecond, drastically reducing this issue. A low persistence mode has also been added to the device to remove ghosting, which distorts images when moving your head quickly.
Even the headtracking technology has been improved. The Rift in its current form can track how you tilt, pitch and turn your head, but doesn’t actually recognise it as an object in a 3D space. If you were to, say, move your head forward, the camera wouldn’t shift forwards with it. You wouldn’t be able to lean over a bridge and look down, for example. The Crystal Cove headset is fitted infrared LEDs all around, and a camera tracks these sensors’ movements. The result is much more realistic headtracking that will pick up in the slightest shift in distance between the player’s head and camera and reflect it in the videogame.
Overall, then, the Crystal Cove headset makes strides to improve the Oculus Rift experience. The improved display and headtracking are said to work wonders for current issues involving simulator sickness, making the improvements to image quality a simple bonus.
That said we don’t know how many of these features would make it into the next development kit, if any. The current development kit doesn’t even match some pre-Crystal Cove prototypes, so it’s quite a jump to make. On top of that, the addition of a camera for the headtracking would certainly add another layer to the development process that many teams are already knee-deep in and there’s little word on how the features might affect the current version’s $300 USD price tag. Earlier today Palmer Luckey confirmed that the new kit wouldn’t be sold for a premium or cost 3 or 4 times as much as the consumer version, but still left the actual pricing up in the air.
Still, if Oculus intends of bringing these revisions to the eventual consumer release of the Rift then it only makes sense to empower developers with them as early as possible. That’s been the company’s philosophy ever since the launch of its Kickstarter campaign last year and we doubt it will change much here.
Despite the first iteration of the development kit remaining on sale until stock clears, it might be a good idea to hold off on picking one up until next month’s presentation. If it’s Oculus VR’s intention to include the camera with the new kit then we wouldn’t suggest missing out on the opportunity to improve headtracking.
VRFocus will be on the ground at the GDC 2014 to bring you the latest from Oculus Rift and everything else VR.