The Diversifying Consumer VR Landscape

One of our student built PCs immersing a UGDSB
educator
in To The Beat: a student built VR game.

We started exploring virtual reality almost two years ago in my senior computer technology classes.  In that time we’ve completed a Ministry of Education research grant, presented at several conferences and built over a dozen VR sets for other schools in our board.  VR checks a lot of boxes for me:

  • it’s technically demanding in both hardware and software so it challenges my students with real world problems they wouldn’t otherwise get to see
  • it’s a new medium that has yet to be defined, so there are no established rules or right ways to do things. You can’t ask for much more as a media creator and teacher.
  • it’s rapidly evolving and because we early adopted we are playing a part in that evolution
With all that going for it, I’ve enjoyed the past could of years working out how best to get it to work, and we’re not remotely done.

In October Microsoft blundered into VR with their fall Creator’s Update.  Up until that point Microsoft had been quietly developing its very expensive Hololens (we tried it last year at the 2016 ECOO conference) while others went to market.  We settled on the HTC Vive as the best of the first wave of classroom ready fully immersive VR systems.  I’ve since put hundreds of people through their first experience with it and 99.9% of them come out of it amazed.  It never gets old watching someone experience VR for the first time.

Last year building our Vive VR kits meant building a reasonably strong spec desktop computer (a fairly simple ask for my seniors) and then installing the SteamVR drivers and updating all the firmware on the Vive before installing software.  After that we had stable, ready to roll systems that knocked out astonishing VR experiences.  Headaches were few and once up and running the systems have performed flawlessly, which isn’t always the way with emerging technology.

This year Microsoft added all sorts of VR ready software to this Creators Update which has made our fall roll-out of seven VR sets for other schools a massive headache.  What once took ten minutes of installing mature, stable SteamVR drivers is now an hours long odyssey of trying to untangle immature Windows 10 VR kits that try and run the Vive as a Microsoft Mixed Reality headset (which it isn’t).  I’m sure this is no accident.  If Microsoft can destabilize HTC’s market dominance with the Vive by making the running of it a misery on Windows, then they would (and did).

My frustrated seniors and I were doing multiple re-installs and trying all sorts of driver voodoo to get things working.  Microsoft’s sudden interest has borked our VR installs on non-Microsoft gear, but guess what works?  Microsoft’s new Mixed Reality headsets.  Coincidence?  Probably not.


Having a dedicated VR pilot
at home lets me test all sorts
of software and systems!

We got a Lenovo Explorer last week when it was on sale at the suggestion of a very VR experienced teacher in our board.  It’s pretty lousy using the Microsoft mixed reality software (there is barely anything there and the drivers are immature), but running it on STEAM has been reasonably problem free (the odd tracking issue with the handsets but otherwise OK).


Today I tried out Space Pirate Trainer, probably the most demanding interactive title we’ve tried, on the Lenovo Explorer using Windows Mixed Reality and it works a treat.  That’s a $400 kit doing what an $800 HTC Vive kit with external sensors does almost as well with much less set up.  It’ll only get better as those Microsoft drivers mature.


As it stands now we build a VR ready desktop for about $1400 and then get the enterprise version of the Vive for another $1500.  For three hundred bucks less we could buy the equivalent Samsung Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset and compatible laptop.  That’d be a kit that is mobile (laptop and no external sensors means easy transport and setup), and similar in resolution.


It bothers me that Microsoft has used its operating system monopoly to elbow out an existing system, but it’s also a step down the evolutionary chain by not having the external sensors of the older Vive system.  That’s what you get for not being first in with an emerging technology, you get to edge them out with an evolved product.


With all the driver headaches some of my students (and myself) had moments when we wondered why we’re doing this to ourselves.  I finally said, “hey, if you wanted it easy you’d stick to the established technology that everyone else uses.  If we want to work with emerging tech, we’ve got to be ready for a fight.”


The fight continues, and Microsoft’s one-two punch of a simpler but effective platform and aggressive monopolistic software has got me thinking about moving on to a better solution.  Sometimes doing what the Sith Lord wants is the best way forward.


LINKS:



Lenovo’s Explorer Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset.HTC’s Vive: up until recently our go-to VR headset.



Microsoft Mixed Reality.  
And for Canada.

It’s already gotten more diverse than it was when we presented this at ECOO last month.



Microsoft is pretty cagey about the specs for Mixed Reality.  They say any typical laptop or desktop can do the business, but our school’s Dell i5 laptop wasn’t sufficient.  If your ‘typical’ desktop costs north of $1500 and your ‘typical’ laptop costs beyond two grand, then yeah, you’re ready to experience mixed reality.  They also require Bluetooth which most desktops don’t have, so add that in there too… and the controllers need AA batteries, which the Vive doesn’t.  


Curious to see if your typical PC can do it?  Here’s the link to check your hardware.



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