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    SteamVR's "Lighthouse" for Virtual Reality and Beyond

    One of the most important aspects of virtual reality will be accurate positional tracking of the headset and user motion. Valve Software's SteamVR--the best virtual reality implementation we've tried so far--uses a beacon-based tracking system called Lighthouse. We chat with Lighthouse engineer Alan Yates about how Lighthouse and its components work, the technology's strengths and limitations, and how it could be used in other applications outside of VR.

    Testing: Gear VR for Galaxy S6 Impressions

    I just got the new Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6, the second Innovator Edition developer headset released in partnership with Oculus. We had tested the first Gear VR with the Note 4 earlier this year, in time for the launch of paid apps in the Oculus store. Since then, few new apps have been introduced to the store, though events like the current Mobile VR Jam is encouraging devs to put their ideas in front of early adopters. Momentum in software and hardware is leading up to Oculus' consumer release in the first quarter of next year, but they've also said that the next Gear VR release will be a consumer-ready one. So while this new Innovator Edition is still a developer kit, it's interesting to see how Samsung is iterating its hardware based on some short-term feedback and also adapting it to fit the 5.1-inch 1440p display in the new Galaxy S6. 577 PPI!

    The physical design of the Gear VR for GS6 (I'll just call it "new Gear VR" from now on) is slightly improved from the original. Yes, it's a little smaller, but the ergonomic improvements aren't night and day. Much of the reduced size is due to the lack of the bulky plastic cover plate that fit over the Note 4 when mounted in the headset, which I don't think many people used anyway. In its place is a smaller plastic protector plate that fits into the slot where the GS6 sits when not in use, to protect the lenses. You don't have a way of covering up the phone when it's slotted in the new Gear VR, and that's just fine. Overall, the headset weighs a little less with the phone plugged in, partly due to the GS6 being significantly lighter than the Note 4 as well. I still found the head straps a little too short for my liking, though. With enough slack, the whole unit fits relatively comfortably over my glasses, but I ended up using it without glasses for tonight's tests.

    On the bottom of the new Gear VR is a micro-USB port for charging the GS6 while it's mounted. That's a much-needed addition from the Note 4, and my GS6 was draining its battery really quickly when running VR demos unplugged. I don't have the Note 4 any more for a direct power consumption comparison, but I'll be conducting a VR battery test soon with Oculus Cinema and Hero Bound.

    The touchpad is a tad smaller on the new Gear VR, and now has an indent to help guide your finger to its center point. For some reason, the back button was also moved slightly toward the front of the headset. These changes didn't affect my use of the touchpad, and I still prefer using a bluetooth gamepad for both UI navigation and games.

    On the left side of the headset, Samsung added a small fan and opening for airflow. When I first heard about this, my thought was that the fan would be used for cooling down the mounted phone, since the Note 4 had a tendency to overheat and slow games down in long sessions. However, the fan in the new Gear VR--which is powered by the phone--is actually used to reduce lens fogging. In practice, it works really well, too. I didn't have to wipe the inside of the Gear VR once while running demos tonight, something I had to do every 15 minutes or so with the Note 4. Some people have reported that their new Gear VR arrived with a busted fan, but it's really just quiet. It also only activates when your face triggers the proximity sensor on the inside of the headset.

    Testing: 4K Gaming on GeForce GTX Titan X GPU

    We're at a place in PC gaming where buying a top of the line video card is starting to look interesting again. A few things made that happen. First, 4K monitors finally became a reasonable purchase for desktop users, with the release of 60Hz IPS panels like the Dell 2715Q I've been using. 1080p 60Hz gaming doesn't require a $500 GPU, but the horsepower is welcome when gaming at 4K or 1440p at 144Hz. Second, we know that impending virtual reality gaming on the PC is going to require fast graphics--90Hz is the baseline for both Oculus and SteamVR, and we're expecting displays of at least 1080p from both. For high-end gamers, performance is a practical need once again; extra frames aren't just for show.

    Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980 card seemed to address that need. It's both powerful and power-efficient, thanks to its second-generation Maxwell GM204 core, and its launch was well received by reviewers and gamers alike (aside from the GTX 970's recent memory revelations). And while I still think that the GTX 980 is a great buy for anyone building a new high-end PC, it's no longer the best option available. That title now belongs to Nvidia's new Titan X, which goes on sale this week. I've been testing one for the past week for 4K gaming.

    The GeForce Titan X

    I'm not going to dive into the deep technical attributes of the Titan X; what you should know that it's on paper a 50% bump up from the GTX 980. There are 50% more CUDA cores (3072 vx 2048), 50% more texture units, and 50% more transistors. Essentially, it's a fully loaded Maxwell GPU (GM200), and Nvidia even packed 12GB of GDDR5 memory in thing for future-proofing. That's more than enough for future ports of next-gen console games (surpassing the PS4's 8GB of GDDR5).

    As with previous Titan class GPUs, the packing of so much CUDA cores into a single die offsets the need for a high core clock--Titan X starts at 1000MHz and boosts to 1075MHz, compared to the GTX 980's 1216MHz at load. That's necessary to keep the thermal load at a "reasonable" 250 watts, which is in line with past Titan cards and the power hungry Kepler-class GTX 780. That means that you don't get as much overclocking headroom with the Titan X as you would the GTX 980, which sits at a comfortable 165W TDP. And with the same cooling design as the GTX 980, the Titan X is just as quiet at idle as its sibling, and only very slightly louder at load. Maxwell's efficiencies don't go to waste here. The upshot is that Titan X relies on more cores instead of higher clock speed for performance. It's a scaled up version of the GTX 980's GPU--the largest Nvidia's made so far--to squeeze out frames needed for smooth 4K gaming. It also costs almost twice as much as a GTX 980 at $1000.

    So let's take a look at some benchmarks and see what a thousand dollars of video card gets you today.

    Will's Favorite Games at PAX East 2015

    Last weekend, Will was in Boston for PAX East 2015, where he had a chance to check out some new indie board games, video games, and VR games. Will walks the convention floor with 3DS in hand and shares with us some of his favorite discoveries.

    Hands-On: Crytek's 'Back to Dinosaur Island' VR Demo

    We try a new virtual reality demo developed by Crytek, the makers of the Crysis series of games. Speaking to an engineer of CryEngine, we learn how they're implementing VR for compatibility with headsets like Oculus' Crescent Bay prototype.

    Hands-On: Virtuix Omni Treadmill + GearVR at GDC 2015

    At GDC 2015, we got to test out the near-final build of the Virtuix Omni, the virtual reality treadmill that's headset agnostic. We use the Omni with a GearVR running Dreadhalls, and then share our thoughts on how walking around can enhance a VR gaming experience.

    Hands-On: Sixense STEM VR Lightsaber Demo

    We've tested many virtual reality headset prototypes, but VR needs a controller solution for games and a better sense of presence. We try Sixense's lightsaber demo at GDC 2015, using their STEM motion controllers. It's some of the most fun we've ever had in VR!

    Hands-On: Razer's OSVR Hacker Dev Kit at GDC 2015

    Razer's approach to the virtual reality headset space is interesting: they're not making the best VR HMD, but one that can be modular for developers to experience with different features like augmented reality and third-party controller compatibility. We try the latest dev kit prototype at GDC 2015, and chat with Razer about why they're making a VR product at all.

    Hands-On: Sony's New 'Project Morpheus' Prototype VR Headset

    We go hands-on with Sony's new Project Morpheus prototype being shown at GDC 2015. As you'll see, the demos we played this time feel more like PlayStation 4 games, and playing a shooter with VR is a great experience. We also chat with Sony's Director of Research and Development about the headset and their goals for a consumer release next year.

    SteamVR (HTC Vive) Prototype Hands-On + Impressions

    We test the most talked about virtual reality demo at this year's Game Developers Conference: Valve's SteamVR prototype. Made in collaboration with HTC, the Vive VR headset will be released later this year and features an incredible positional tracking system. We chat with Valve's engineers about the technology in the headset and share our demo impressions. This is the real deal.

    In Brief: More Details on Sony's New Morpheus Prototype

    At Sony's GDC press conference, the company announced and showed off a second public prototype of its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset, which will ship to consumers in the first half of next year. The PlayStation 4 accessory now uses a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED display with an RGB subpixel arrangement, running at 120Hz. That's a big upgrade from the 60Hz LCD panel we saw in last year's prototype, and 120Hz should allow for low persistence. While 120FPS is the target framerate for the device, developers will be angle to render at 60Hz and output to the HMD at 120Hz. The PS4 uses HDMI 1.4, which can drive 1080p at 120Hz, but not 1440p at that refresh rate. Field of view is listed at 100 degrees, and positional head tracking is assisted by nine IR LEDs. Sony says that latency is under 18ms, which they claim is good enough for the sensation of presence. We'll be trying the new prototype and the four demos built for it at the GDC show floor tomorrow.

    Norman 1
    The Best Budget Gaming Laptop (So Far)

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com

    There’s no such thing as a perfect budget gaming laptop, and every one we’ve tested so far has at least one serious flaw. But after 40 hours of research and testing, we determined that the $1,000 Asus ROG GL551JM is the budget gaming laptop we’d recommend for most people because it has the best gaming performance and best build quality among the competition, and for the lowest cost.

    The GL551 has uncommonly good build quality compared to nearly everything else in this category. Plus, it keeps the most important parts of a gaming laptop at a reasonable temperature—which cannot be said for the competition—and has a comfortable keyboard.

    Who’s this for?

    Expensive gaming laptops aren’t for everyone. Desktop computers offer better gaming performance per dollar, and ultrabooks are slimmer, lighter, and have much better battery life. Budget gaming laptops are a good fit for students and others who want to play games but have a tight budget and need a portable PC.

    How did we pick what to test?

    First, we determined the best possible combination of components that fit in our budget. Our ideal budget gaming laptop costs under $1,200 and has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M graphics card or better, an Intel Core i7 4700HQ CPU or higher, 8 to 16 GB of RAM, and at least 500GB of storage. We looked at every gaming laptop currently available, tested three finalists ourselves, and concluded that the Asus ROG GL551-JM DH71 is the best for those on a budget.

    In Brief: Valve to Show VR Hardware at GDC 2015

    Well this is shaping up to be an interesting month in virtual reality, but maybe not in the way we were expecting. At next week's Game Developers Conference, we had anticipated showings from Oculus and possibly Sony, given last year's Project Morpheus debut and speculation of a Oculus VR controller. But Oculus acolytes will be disappointed to hear that we may not see any new input at all this month, as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey implied in a Reddit post. It's more likely that the massive booths Oculus has planned for the GDC show floor will be to demo the Crescent Bay prototype. But Valve Software, which has been working on its own secretive VR hardware, today announced that it would be showing that system off next week, alongside new Steam Machine living room devices and a refined (final?) Steam Controller. We haven't seen the Steam Controller since last year's GDC, and my hope is that it's been redesigned with VR in mind. (h/t PC Gamer)

    Norman
    CES 2015: Hands-On with the Avegant Glyph Prototype

    Head-mounted displays have received a lot of attention for their potential use as virtual reality devices, but most are still LCD or OLED panels strapped to your head. We saw Avegant's "virtual retinal display" prototype last year--a HMD that uses DLP mirrors to project images directly into your eyes. Checking in with Avegant at CES, we look at their latest prototype chat with them about their final product plans. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

    CES 2015: Hands-On with Razer's OSVR Hacker Dev Kit

    We put on Razer's OSVR prototype, a headset that's part of an open-source initiative to promote virtual reality for PC gaming. Think of it as Android for VR, where not one company controls all the hardware and software. Will and Norm discuss what they learned about OSVR from chatting with Razer's representatives, and share their impressions on the hacker dev kit demo. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

    8 Takeaways on Oculus VR at CES 2015

    As with my visit to Oculus Connect last September, hands-on time with the Crescent Bay prototype of the Oculus rift and a chat with Oculus VR's VP of Product offered some new insights into the state of virtual reality tech and the challenges for the upcoming consumer version release. No, we didn't find out when CV1 would be available, nor could Nate Mitchell spill the beans on the exact technical specifications of even this prototype. But our conversation--and the way he answered some of my questions--allows us to infer some details about curious topics like screen resolution, optics, and virtual reality input. Here are eight things that I took away from this chat, with the full video interview below.

    Downplaying Screen Resolution

    Everyone is curious about what the screen resolution of the consumer release will be, with VR enthusiasts hoping for a display as high-res and dense as possible. Development Kit 2 uses a 1080p AMOLED display, but the pentile subpixel configuration and screen door effect (SDE) is still noticeable. These effects are reduced in Crescent Bay, and the prevailing thought is that the prototype must use a 1440p or better screen, given Gear VR's use of the Samsung Note 4. I'm not 100% sure that's the case, now. We knew that due to the constraints of mobile graphics bandwidth, Gear VR renders its games and software at lower than native resolution (eg. 720p) and then scales up to 1440p. Nate said that on the PC side, the Oculus Rift--and Crescent Bay--does the opposite: it will use supersampling and render software at a higher than native res and then downscale it to fit the screen. It's like what Apple does with the iOS for its iPhone 6 Plus.

    So here's a thought: maybe Crescent Bay actually uses a 1080p display, and the single GTX 980 card renders some demos at a higher than 1080p resolution and downsamples to fit into that screen. Supersampling would reduce aliasing, and more demanding software could still just be rendered at 1080p to guarantee 90Hz output. This theory would explain why Oculus reps (including Nate) have mentioned the 1080p resolution when discussing PC system performance in other interviews, and why some press have reported that Crescent Bay runs at a lower res than Gear VR. I also noticed that the mirrored game window on the 27-inch panel connected to the PC was not filling the full monitor--it looked about 1080p to me. Of course, this doesn't mean than CV1 won't use a 1440p display, but Oculus is seems to want to downplay talk of screen resolution as they recognize its tradeoffs with performance. Don't expect CV1 to run a 4K screen.

    CES 2015: Oculus VR's Crescent Bay Demo + Interview

    We go hands-on with Oculus VR's Crescent Bay prototype at CES 2015! Both Will and Norm scrutinize the demo and relay thoughts on the experience of presence, and we chat in-depth about technical details with Oculus' VP of Product, Nate Mitchell. Lots of new hints about what's to come for the consumer release of the Oculus Rift! (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

    CES 2015: Hands-On with Tobii Eye Tracking

    At CES 2015, we test out Tobii's new eye tracking system, which is being released as a PC gaming peripheral by SteelSeries. This IR sensor sits below your monitor to track what you're looking at with centimeter accuracy, and can be implemented in games built with Unity or Unreal. (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

    Testing: Dell P2715Q 4K Monitor

    The first generation of 4K monitors available for desktop use weren't great because they were TN displays that ran at 30Hz. Recently, Dell released a 4K monitor using an IPS panel, running at 60Hz. We review that display to see how it runs in Windows 8.1, test its image quality, and see if gaming is practical at 3840x2160.