Oculus talks Gear VR: “Science fiction made real”

Chris Davies - Sep 3, 2014, 9:42 am CDT
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Oculus talks Gear VR: “Science fiction made real”

Samsung’s Gear VR may have a long and unwieldy official name – the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition powered by Oculus – but it’s also the result of a lengthy development process, the virtual reality company says. Facebook-owned Oculus and Samsung worked together for a year on the project, with Oculus’ John Carmack coming on-stage during Samsung’s Unpacked event today to detail the depths the South Korean company gave access to in the Galaxy Note 4 so that the virtual reality HUD would work.

That involved Samsung making special low-level drivers for Oculus to use, which taps into the new Oculus Mobile SDK. Custom calibrated sensors can communicate with a dedicated kernel driver, while developers will be able to choose specific frame-rates.

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There’ll also be variable rate support, such as a higher-priority thread which updates faster based on head-tracking input – vital if you’re going to avoid lag and stop users from getting sick when the displays don’t keep pace with their physical movements – while lower-power threads handle detail rendering.

Part of the SDK is giving developers a predictable platform to work on. So, there are real-time, scheduled, multithreaded application processes at guaranteed clock rates, and a low-persistence display mode for cutting judder. Much of the heavy lifting should be done automatically, too, like context-prioritized GPU rendering and unbuffered display surfaces.

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That’s not to say this is the be-all and end-all of VR, though. Oculus points out that there’s no 6DOF (six degree-of-freedom) positional tracking, with Gear VR only supporting 3DOF, though through some refinement they’ve managed to roughly match the sub-20ms motion-to-photons latency of the Oculus DK2 developer kit.

Beyond that, there are still challenges like limited CPU and GPU bandwidth when you’re trying to make an all-in-one system like Gear VR, rather than tethering your headset to a PC or console, along with common smartphone flagship issues like thermal management and power consumption.

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Overall ergonomics need to be addressed, too, though we found the Gear VR to be reasonably comfortable when we went hands-on with it earlier.

As for software, there’ll be Oculus Home for entering and navigating the Oculus Store to download VR content, along with Oculus Cinema, a gateway to 2D and 3D movies in a virtual theater. Oculus 360 Videos and Oculus 360 Photos are pretty self-explanatory too, for browsing panoramic photos and 360-degree video that responds to your head movements.

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While Samsung may have positioned the Gear VR as a consumer product during its presentation, Oculus is a little more reserved. The “Innovator Edition” which will launch first, the company says, is “an early-access, beta-version” targeted at developers and “enthusiasts”, and not “a final consumer product.” Part of that is the limited device compatibility, with the Gear VR only working with the Note 4 and no other Samsung device.

“This is a landmark first step,” Carmack concluded. “Experiencing mobile VR is like when you first tried a decent desktop VR experience – there is a sense that you are glimpsing something from the future. This is science fiction made real, and it’s only just the beginning.”

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