Top 10 VR Highlights at CES 2018

Another January brings us another dose of the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and CES 2018 is one of if not the biggest showcases for tech in the world this year.

The last couple of years have been rather interesting for VR, with 2016 being the grand party to celebrate the first true wave of consumer Virtual Reality, and 2017 providing a lot of promise but not necessarily for 2017 itself, with the technology needing some time to truly bed in and set itself up for a promising future.

2018 is a very different event, pretty much across the board, with a lot more focus on systems and integration with the internet of things amidst the folding TVs, smart bottles and 3D selfies. VR in particular showcased a great mix of forward thinking and necessary upgrades that suggest 2018 is going to be a bigger year than the last. Here are ten of the biggest highlights from CES 2018.

Image Credit Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation, Used under fair use rationale.
Image Credit Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation, Used under fair use rationale.

10: Intel Chip Vulnerability Fixes – The biggest news in computing affects VR too

The unprecedented scale of the vulnerabilities found in processor architecture is not something that necessarily ties into VR directly, however, given that nearly every single piece of equipment you buy uses either an Intel, AMD or ARM chipset that would be affected by this, it is something of interest to people with VR equipment, and merits being covered.

To quickly summarise what is a very complicated story, Meltdown and Spectre are two separate groups of security vulnerabilities that theoretically can be exploited by a rogue program to read data at the heart of a computer system, including personal information, registry keys, photographs and the like. Meltdown is more specific to Intel processor design since the Pentium whilst Spectre can affect pretty much any system made in the last 20 years, including ARM and AMD devices. It’s had a dramatic and gigantic effect, and as such patches are flying against it fast.

Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, while on the floor showing off their latest advances towards “quantum computing” also announced that updates to all of its processors will be available within the month, many of which will arrive by the end of the week for their more recent processors.

Why is this a CES Story? Because this wave broke around the time of CES taking place, and would have been the case had the news not leaked early. Why is it a VR story? Because most of the systems that power VR are affected, and with reports of minor to moderate performance drops on systems that have been patched to fix the vulnerability, there is a chance that this could affect how VR performs, especially on devices that are hovering near the specifications. One of the most important computer stories of the year and one which could have a knock-on effect down the road.

Image Copyright: Pimax (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Pimax (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

9: Pimax “8K” VR Headset – Big Showing after a Rough Journey

Pimax have not had it very easy lately, with delay after delay hitting the promising if not entirely accurately described “8K” VR headset.  So with reports that the headset is being delayed until May at the earliest, Pimax needed a very good showing at CES. In a fairly low key way, it succeeded.

It’s not exactly the most comfortable of devices, being an especially bulky unit to accommodate the two 4K screens (which does not, in fact, make it 8K). That trade-off for some will be fine as it allows for a field of view close to double that of the main competition (200 degrees against 110-120 degrees). The only thing that comes close in either resolution or field of view is the still-in-development StarVR, which is likely to cost even more than the premium cost of the Pimax.

If you think current VR headsets require powerful rigs, then Pimax’s suggestion that a powerful Nvidia GTX 1080 might possibly be able to get 4K visuals upscaled to 8K may provide pause for thought.

It may be best not to think of Pimax’s hulking behemoth as something that will change the game or break into the market. It should instead be thought more as a marker for just how far and how powerful VR HMDs are in 2018. If nothing else it will hopefully placate backers disappointed by the delayed release.

Image Copyright: LG (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: LG (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

8: LG’s AI Woes – A Warning For the Future

Artificial intelligence and natural language processing are key to making larger, believable and intuitive VR experiences and tools, and as such advances in virtual assistants and AI will be felt in the world of VR.

Many of these examples work fine, like Alexa in previous years, but much like working with children or animals on a alive stage, working with AI and robots always has a chance of going wrong, as the Vice President for US Marketing at LG, David VanderWaal, discovered the hard way.

During LG’s demonstration of the home of the future that used AI and Wi-Fi together, VanderWaal introduced CLOi, a virtual assistant played by Eve from WALL-E and using LG’s own ThinQ virtual assistant technology that was supposed to be a cute robot avatar for all this interlinked convenience.

CLOi had other ideas. Initially while awkward it did seem to function when VanderWaal asked for his schedule. However, CLOi seemed to stop responding when he asked if his washing was ready, what had been set for dinner and recipes that could be suggested for chicken fell flat.

It’s one of the most awkward demonstrations in recent CES memory and whilst Vanderwaal put on a brave face, it was a pretty disastrous demo all told that may have set robot AI back to the days of Logo and those robots seen gathering dust in school storage rooms. Looking at the disaster with a more positive perspective, however, does show there is plenty of work to be done before AI helpers are going to be widespread. It also raises questions about when virtual reality will see them as a viable interface for VR experiences.

Image Copyright: Teslasuit (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Teslasuit (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

7: Teslasuit – Advanced Full Body Data Suit

The Teslasuit follows a proud tradition of the future of VR relying on skintight cyber suits and a prerequisite of a virtual future meaning you will look a little silly in the real world, but that aside the actual technical capabilities make this a potential game changer.

The Lawnmower Man-esque garb has a lot of hidden features and tricks at its disposal too. It has a 14-sensor motion capture system with the potential to create custom animations, which subsequently can be ported into MotionBuilder, Unreal Engine or Unity 3D for a less expensive motion capture studio system.

It has a 46-point haptic feedback system, which allows for things like resistance, environment and weight simulation, particularly when paired with its “climate control” system. The system can simulate heat and cold from between 20-40 degrees Celsius. That seems a little on the warm side, essentially going from room temperature to sun-baked island, but then again I’ve never worn a skintight thermal suit so I don’t know the practical effect of the suit.

The Teslasuit is wireless too, which is a first for this kind of design, and regardless of anything, it passes the “childlike wonder” test that such a device looks futuristic and very exciting. Plus with a headset on you look like Sam Fisher minus the lights, which has to make it a winner. Oh, and it is machine washable.

Image Copyright: Sim For Health (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Sim For Health (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

6: Sim For Health’s MedicActiV – Virtual Clinical Teaching

Virtual Reality and Medicine have had a very fruitful relationship. When the wave broke on the first generation of VR devices in the 1990s, the one consistent buyer of VR kit was the medical industry. Sim For Health’s MedicActiV platform looks in the main very similar to a lot of VR training simulators, however it does provide one major difference in the form of multi-user training, a sort of multiplayer surgery where different trainees and teacher from different corners of the room or different corners of the world can communicate and collaborate on surgeries.

Much of the theme of HTC’s presence at CES is little changes that end up making a big difference, and adding collaboration to surgeries is a feature that seems to do just that. No surgical procedure, no matter how minor is done with only one person in the room, so a collaborative environment makes sense. It also looks as intuitive to use as can be possible using standard Vive controllers.

MedicActiV is not necessarily one to look out for as it was around last year as well, but it’s a great training tool that may well be credited for saving lives, given the amount of training for complicated surgeries it can provide.

Image Copyright: Looxid Labs (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Looxid Labs (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

5: LooxidVR – Eye Tracking and Brainwave powered Virtual Reality

Last year, we here at VRS created a list of the ten highlights of CES 2017, and close to the top was FOVE0’s eye-tracking technology, which we believed would change the game once it gets a wide release. Whilst that’s still true, Fove VR have dropped off the radar somewhat themselves, and there are more than few competitors hoping to break through with eye-tracking. Oculus, HTC and Google all have eye tracking interests and there’s a number of upgrades and conversion kits available to enthusiasts who can’t wait.

One of the most interesting of these is by Looxid Labs, aimed at the research and academic market and is a mobile VR headset that has both eye-tracking and EEG brain tracking. It’s unlikely to be used for much outside of research purposes however, so don’t expect to be controlling games with your mind just at this moment. Given how useful eye tracking EEG tracking is for research in the field, it’s not surprising that this has caught fire, and it’s one of those technologies that has the power to enrich lives.

Image Copyright: Black Box (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Black Box (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

4: Black Box VR – Virtual Resistance Based Gaming Fitness

Combining fitness with immersive technology is something that has been experimented with and implemented a number of times, and if you’re unveiling a new way to get fit and get bigger and stronger, what better way is there to do it than using VR? This is something Black Box VR hopes to change with a number of dedicated gyms, workout areas and franchises based around Black Box’s vision of virtual reality fitness.

The system certainly looks very impressive, with much of the training being cable based using wrist trackers and donning a HTC Vive headset.

Virtual resistance based training isn’t completely new; exercise bikes with resistances determined by video game progress have existed since Computrainer on the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. More recently as well there have been systems like Wii Fit, EA Active and various Kinect fitness games that have broken exergaming into the mainstream.

Due to the expense, these sorts of systems live and die by the quality of their software. To Black Box’s credit, thier showing at CES 2018 does look pretty entertaining, using a sort of future-Olympics theme for many of its exercise games and relying very much on generating dramatic feedback for each rep. When you complete a motion pyrotechnics blast everywhere

Whether it will appeal or work is obviously yet to be determined, and there are concerns about whether a Vive is robust enough to survive constant use and exertion, but there is a fantastic idea there, and hopefully a gym that manages the high quality of equipment and a high quality of software can bring gamers to the gym.

Image Copyright: Google/Lenovo (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Google/Lenovo (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

3: Google VR180 – Point and Shoot VR Cameras?

Google have been rather busy with VR at CES this year. Along with the Daydream presentation with Lenovo, their Google Assistant tangling with Amazon’s Alexa (and pointing and laughing at LG and pretty much every other virtual assistant technology), Google also attempted to transform the world of VR video. This solution appears to consist of cutting the degrees in half.

Most VR video is both 3D and 360 degrees, in order to actually provide an immersive experience. However, actually filming in 360 requires either the stitching together of multiple cameras on an expensive rig (from 4 to over 30 depending on the particular setup) or the use of a camera globe designed for the purpose. It is completely different to conventional photography and requires a different set of skills not to mention expense to do well.

The two cameras shown, Lenovo’s Mirage and YI’s Horizon are very different. They’re really small for a start, being about the size and dimensions of a mobile phone, with two lenses at either side. Outside of this they look and are used like standard point and shoot cameras, and that is what is most important: without complicated setups, pretty much anyone can make VR content, it will just be missing half the degrees. With the Horizon, you can even flip the screen around for VR selfies, which is a really neat touch. Both cameras shoot in just over 4K, not that it will really matter for streaming right now since 4K is the maximum upload for YouTube and even then bandwidth is a major issue.

Given that VR180 is Google’s initiative built with Daydream and Youtube in mind, that simplicity will be very important if the intention is to have a line-up of VR content. It will also be interesting whether there will be means to stitch together two VR180 cameras for 360 video on a budget.

Image Copyright: Facebook/Xiaomi (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Facebook/Xiaomi (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

2: Oculus Go/Mi VR Standalone vs Lenovo Mirage Solo

At CES 2018, a cold war was raging in the standalone VR stakes. The main players are two very familiar figures in the form of Oculus and Google. However, they are no longer alone, as both have developed far closer alliances that have been showcased at CES 2018.

We reported on Oculus’ rather major deal with Chinese tech giants Xiaomi, however, Google have responded by working closer with Lenovo on the standard bearer for Google’s vision of Standalone VR, What is now known as Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream.

What is quite interesting is that unlike Oculus and Google’s previous battle in VR, in which the Daydream and Gear VR were at a similar price point, compatible with phones also at a similar price point and had largely similar functionality, Oculus Go and the Daydream standalone devices are at wildly different price points and offer quite a different experience. At $200 the Oculus Go is one of the cheapest ways to get into VR, counting the additional costs of phones or computers that power whatever HMD is installed. On the other hand, whilst a price has not been confirmed, news reports are claiming a price point below $400, however for that you get inside-out positional tracking and system based on the far more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 835.

Both are to be released this year, and it will be incredibly interesting to see how this all pans out, and whether standalone VR is the catalyst to take virtual reality into the mainstream. It’s also going to be interesting regardless of that which wins out this time: price or more advanced technology.

Image Copyright: HTC (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: HTC (Image Used under Fair Use Rationale)

1: Vive Pro – Much Needed, Much Iterated Updates

In the end, the most major VR highlight for CES 2018 was going to be the most obvious.

HTC has had a fairly miserable time recently, with financial issues with their flagship smartphone business left them on the bubble, to the point that they relied on a cash injection from Google in order to see out the year. Their tethered VR system, the HTC Vive, is doing as well as ever, but it’s seeing a lot more competition from a refocused Oculus, who cut their costs significantly and outsold the Vive over the holiday season.

HTC needs a win, and their presentation at CES may just have been it. We’ve covered the demonstration in detail elsewhere on VRS, but the basics are pretty impressive. There’s going to be an upgraded HTC Vive released this quarter for existing customers and as part of an upgraded package within six months, which has improved display resolution and pixel density, fits better, has support for mixed reality applications, has high quality audio as standard and is generally a refinement of the Vive system.

The biggest deal from the presentation, however, was a wireless adaptor, which allows for untethered tethered VR. The prospect of high-quality VR without wires snaking around is a very tantalising proposal, and what will determine whether it is successful or not will probably simply be price.

No prices have been announced, but it’s safe to say it won’t be cheap.

What did you think of CES 2018? What did you think of the big reveals this year? There will be a bit more coverage over the next few days but thank you very much for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *