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    In Brief: The Rise and Fall of Virtuality

    The Kernel has a good feature documenting the story of Virtuality, the commercial VR game company that dominated arcades in the early 90s. There are some interesting lessons here about the enduring appeal of virtual reality, what early adopters found compelling about Virtuality's experiences, and how unrealistic expectations led to its downfall. Two decades later, I think a lot of VR enthusiasts believe that the current wave of consumer VR hardware is destined to succeed. But the truth is that it's still a fragile technology that has a lot of hurdles to overcome to break into the mainstream the same way that smartphones have done.

    Norman
    Testing Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6 Game Demos

    While the consumer Oculus Rift won't be out until next year, developers and early adopters can still playtest virtual reality games with the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition headset. We test the new headset made for the Galaxy S6 smartphone--with its high-density 577 PPI display--and demo some of the winners of the recent Mobile VR Jam contest!

    Hands-On: PlayStation Project Morpheus Games at E3 2015

    Our latest hands-on with Project Morpheus is all about the games. We chat with PlayStation's Richard Marks about the gameplay experiences being developed for Project Morpheus and how virtual reality in the living room can differentiate itself from VR on the desktop. Plus, lots of actual game demos!

    Hands-On: Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller

    What makes up a $150 game controller? We go hands-on with Microsoft's new Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller, a customizable gamepad that will work on the console and desktop. We explain how it competes with custom gamepads like the SCUF system, with programmable buttons, adjustable triggers, and new paddles.

    Hands-On: Microsoft HoloLens Project X-Ray

    Norm gets his first demo of Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headset! At this year's E3, we went behind closed doors to playtest Project X-Ray, a "mixed reality" first-person shooter demo using HoloLens. Microsoft wouldn't let us film or take photos inside the room, so we describe and evaluate the experience after the demo.

    Hands-On: StarVR Virtual Reality Headset

    A new challenger appears! Starbreeze Studios surprised us by announcing the StarVR headset at this year's E3, along with a Walking Dead demo. We go hands-on with this virtual reality prototype that boasts a wide field-of-view and positionally tracked accessories. Even though this isn't a consumer-ready product, there's a lot to learn from its design decisions.

    Hands-On: Oculus Rift CV1 + Oculus Touch Controller at E3 2015

    This is it: The Oculus Rift specs are finalized, and we go hands-on with the engineering sample of the consumer virtual reality headset at this year's E3. We also demo the new Half Moon prototypes of the Oculus Touch controller in an amazing multi-player VR demo. Oculus' Nate Mitchell and Palmer Luckey answer our questions about the headset and controllers, and we share our impressions of the hardware and game demos. It's happening!

    Sony's E3 2015 Announcements

    As was typical of Sony, the PlayStation E3 press conference yesterday emphasized games over hardware. The Last Guardian, Hitman, Street Fighter V, Uncharted 4, a Final Fantasy 7 remake, and Shenmue 3 Kickstarter topped the list of big game showings, but there were a few PlayStation platform and Morpheus announcements as well.

    First, the PlayStation 4 finally get a media player, which is available to download from the PlayStation store right now. It's a simple player that will work with audio and video from USB sticks and connected home servers, with playback support for H.264 and MPEG-4 encoded videos in AVI, MP4, and MKV formats. A complete list of supported files can be found here. Speaking of media, Sony's Vue streaming service has expanded to the SF Bay Area and Los Angeles markets (adding to New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia), with individual a la carte channel subscriptions starting in July--for Showtime, Fox Soccer Plus, and Machinima.

    On the Morpheus front, not much was shown (those Move 2 controller rumors didn't pan out), except for the announcement that Sony wants developers to make as symmetrical social VR games where one player wears the VR headset and up to four others can play with them with controllers and the TV. Project Morpheus is still slated for release next year, and we'll see some game demos on the show floor--hopefully including the just-announced Battlezone VR remake!

    Microsoft's E3 2015 Announcements

    E3 is underway, with the last of the big press conferences finishing up today. Microsoft kicked yesterday off with a packed keynote, showcasing new Xbox games and hardware, and even Minecraft for Hololens. In case you missed the livestream, here are the platform announcements that were the most interesting.

    First, Microsoft announced that the Xbox One will get emulated backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 retail disc and digital games. At launch this holiday, compatibility will start with 100 last-gen games, and Xbox preview members get to try a selection of that now. Multiplayer support with Xbox 360 players was also promised.

    The Xbox One also gets a new "Elite" wireless controller, which has pinky paddles, trigger sensitivity adjustment, button mapping, and a d-pad that can be swapped out. Like the existing Xbox One controller, it'll work with Windows 10 with an adapter. The catch: it'll cost $150. I'm not worried that this isn't the controller that will come with the Oculus Rift next year--this is not a mainstream product. As a side note, Microsoft also said it was working with Valve for SteamVR in Windows 10.

    Like Steam Early Access, Xbox now has a Game Preview program that will let Xbox One owners buy and test beta versions of indie games.

    Finally, Microsoft unveiled a version of Minecraft as an official game for HoloLens. Early HoloLens hands-on previews showed a version of this game, but the demonstration at the press conference yesterday revealed a fully thought-out version of augmented reality Minecraft. The Hololens headset displays the blocky game world on a flat surface like a coffee table, and users can build with voice and "air-tap" gesture controls, or a standard gamepad. Watch that demo and announcement in the YouTube video below, with more details promised this summer at Minecon.

    Starbreeze's Project StarVR Headset Offers Ultra-Wide FOV

    Another bit of catch-up. Game developer Starbreeze Studios unveiled their own virtual reality headset, based on the work acquired from VR startup InfiniteEye. The headset--StarVR--boasts an ultra-wide 210-degree field of view with the use of two 5.5-inch 2560x1440 displays. It's essentially a 5K VR display, and uses fresnel lenses for optics and fiducial-marker based positional tracking (eg. QR codes). They've partnered with Skybound for a Walking Dead demo, which we're hoping to get to try at E3 tomorrow.

    In Brief: YouTube Launching Twitch Streaming Competitor

    In case you didn't know, E3 is this week, and we're headed down to Los Angeles tomorrow to get demos of interesting tech and games at the show. It's been a busy week of non-E3-related video shoots for us already, so I'm just catching up on the news to discuss with you guys. Here's one bit of catch-up: Google last week announced YouTube Gaming, its streaming service for gamers to pipe live Let's Play videos to subscribers--with features like 60fps feeds and DVR playback mid-stream. It'll be launching this summer, and ArsTechnica as a good recap how it may compare to Twitch.

    Norman
    Oculus "Step Into the Rift" Event Recap and Analysis

    Today, at Oculus' pre-E3 press event, we were present for the announcement of the Oculus Rift consumer headset and the reveal of the Oculus Touch virtual reality controller. Finally, a VR-specific input solution from Oculus! We discuss all the hardware and software news and share our thoughts, analysis, and expectations leading up to hands-on demos at E3.

    In Brief: Steam Controller and Link Hardware Pre-Orders

    Valve has launched pre-orders for its Steam Hardware, including the Steam Controller, the Steam Link streaming box, and stand-alone Steam Machines from their partners. Both the Controller and Link are $50, and people who pre-order will get their units ahead of the general release by October 16th. We just ordered ours for testing!

    Norman 1
    The Best Gaming Laptop Today

    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

    After looking at all the gaming laptops out there and testing a few ourselves, we concluded that the $1,790 Asus ROG G751JT is the best gaming laptop for most people.

    The Asus has the best combination of raw gaming power and build quality that you can get for less than $2,000. It will play the vast majority of modern graphics-intensive games on high settings at full resolution, plus it has a great cooling system, keyboard, and trackpad. It isn't perfect, but no other gaming laptop can match the Asus ROG G751JT right now.

    The best gaming laptop for most people, the Asus ROG G751JT-DH72.

    Who's this for?

    Gaming laptops definitely aren't for everyone. Desktop computers offer better gaming performance per dollar, and ultrabooks are slimmer, lighter, and have much better battery life. Gaming laptops are a good fit for students, deployed soldiers, and other road warriors who want to play demanding PC games at LAN parties or when traveling.

    How did we pick this laptop?

    We spent a lot of time researching components to come up with an ideal configuration that would play most current games well without being prohibitively expensive. We decided that the "ideal" gaming laptop would cost less than $2,000 and have an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M or better GPU, an Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU or higher to avoid bottlenecking the graphics card's performance, 8GB to 16GB of RAM (anything more is serious overkill), and at least a 256GB solid state drive and a 750GB hard drive.

    Show and Tell: New Nintendo 3DS XL

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will and Norm check out the new Nintendo 3DS XL that was released in the US earlier this year. We evaluate its new head-tracking 3D display and talk about a strange hardware omission. Here's what you need to know if you're an existing 3DS owner or newly interested in the handheld console. (Thanks to B&H for providing the One Man Crew camera slider system for this video.)

    Testing: GeForce GTX 980 Ti 4K Benchmarks

    In terms of high-end PC gaming, two technologies are really pushing the need for gamers to spend $500 or more on a video card: 4K gaming and virtual reality. People who are playing games on 1080p or even 1440p displays should be satisfied with the performance of cards in the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 or GTX 970 range, even with graphics turned up. The increase in pixels needed to be rendered for 4K and upcoming VR headsets are more demanding, but we're only starting to see cards that can run games at smooth framerates at those native resolutions. Nvidia's Titan X, which was only released two months ago, was the first card I tested that could run 4K at close to 60 frames per second on the latest games. But maxed-out Maxwell costs $1000. Today's announcement and release of the GeForce GTX 980 Ti fills in the gap between the 980 and Titan X, and the good thing is that its price is closer to the former while its performance is closer to the latter.

    From a technical specifications perspective, there's actually not a lot to say about the GTX 980Ti. Based on the same Nvidia GM200 GPU found in the Titan X, it's actually a very close sibling to that flagship--almost a twin. They both share the same 1GHz core clock (1075MHz boost), 7GHz memory clock, 96 ROPs, and 250W TDP. The differences lie in two areas: CUDA cores and VRAM. For this release of GM200, Nvidia simply turned off 2 of the chip's 24 streaming multiprocessors (SMM), so the GTX 980Ti has 8% fewer CUDA cores and Texture Units (2816 and 176, respectively). RAM is also cut in half from the Titan X's future-proofing (read: ridiculous) 12GB of GDDR5 to 6GB, still 2GB more than the GTX 980. No game today needs 12GB of VRAM, but games like GTA V, Shadow of Modor, and the Witcher III will guzzle up video memory if you want to enable supersampling on high-resolution displays. Theoretically, the technical delta means performance should just be scaled down by 8% from a Titan X. But in my tests, the framerate differences are even smaller.

    I've been benchmarking the GTX 980Ti for the past few days, running it specifically at the UHD resolution of 3840x2160. Here's what you should know about the this new card, and my recommendations for what you should get if you need to buy a video card today vs. if you want to get a card for 4K and VR.

    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.