Not far from the E3 booths where Oculus and its cloud of me toos, sort ofs, and total dependents showed that the VR race is going full tilt, a number of hardware and peripheral makers demonstrated that hardware innovation extends well beyond fancy goggles this year. Here's five products ranging from novelties to potentially disruptive that are worth watching.
The W3D and Obox
Whether or not you're a believer in Android gaming phones or consoles after seeing what happened to the Ngage and Ouya, you have to admire the audacity of Snail games in pushing their own lines of Android hardware. Both offer substantial improvements on the first generation or these products. The W3D offers camera assisted eye tracking 3D (a vast improvement on the 3DS even if it took a few seconds to setup the perspective on first use when I tried it out), the control layout is comfortably close to that of the PSP, and the screen rivals the current generation of smartphones. The W3D has a price point of $499, a little more than half that of an unlocked iPhone 6 at current prices.
The Obox, while sharing an unfortunate resemblance with an ancient Microsoft product, is the only Android device we've heard of that offers a user upgradeable processor and hard drive. Apart from the inevitable legal challenge, Snail's biggest challenge might be convincing first world gamers that Android games necessitate a console, but as Snail has already ported many of their most popular games to the Android platform, maybe the Obox is best understood as a base station for Snail Games fans that are equally comfortable gaming on mobile devices or as a product targeted to non-Anglo markets. We can't speculate more until a price point is announced.
Mature tech, like headsets, has to exceed pretty high expectations to qualify as innovative, and the Rig delivers. In a sentence, it's miraculously light and comfortable. Being prone to ear aches and infections which can be aggravated by the heat and moisture from long term headset wear, I've been on a quest to find the lightest, coolest gaming headset possible. The Rig comes closer to the ideal thanks to its modular, streamlined design.
We tested the 500E, an all-in variant that includes both isolating and vented earcups, cables for USB and analog use, a detachable mic boom that flips up to mute, 24 bit audio with Dolby directional audio, and 40mm drivers. More limited variants are available for gamers who know exactly what they want, but all components may be purchased individually. While far from an exhaustive test of sound quality, the 500E was impressive even on the noisy E3 floor, but the real standout was the wispy comfort of the supra-aural headphones. Plantronics' Lerin O'Neill explained that the structure of the headphones was engineered to provide rigidity and flexibility at just the right spots, then hollowed out to remove all superfluous weight. Major adjustments are made by clicking the earcups into one of three spots, then the tensioned headband automatically makes fine adjustments.
Finally, someone understands that headsets are just as much about comfort as looks and audio quality. The only downer is that the Rig doesn't come in a wireless variant, something handy for users like me who use their headset just as much for get-up-and-pace-around-the-room Skype meeting calls as gaming, but I may well be an edge case. No price point has been established for the Rig, but we should see these headsets later in 2015.
The PP Gun
Yes, unfortunately that _is_ this product's real name. No, the PP Gun isn't the first gun controller to come down the line, but it might be the best we've found outside an arcade cabinet since the NES light gun. Just in time for VR-palooza, the PP gun uses a barrel-mounted gyroscope to control aim and battery-powered force feedback to add to the trigger happiness. Over a dozen buttons can be mapped to control in-game behavior, or just whack the magazine to reload.
The downside is that, for now, you're stuck mounting your device to the standard Picatinny rail system rather than donning your VR specs. The upside is that you're not limited to Android and iPhone FPS games - should you have a little monitor, good eyesight, and lots and lots of cord, you can reputedly trot out your PC games library as well. Two variants were on display at the show, a FN SCAR-like assault rifle and a handgun prototype whose handle could be flipped up to create a Star Trek phaser-like profile. Both had a weighty (but not heavy) feel, were constructed of durable materials, and looked pretty cool as well for a dummy gun.
The PP Gun is still in Kickstarter but props to Mieeo for putting a prototype product in media hands at the show.
The 360 degree treadmill envisioned in novels like Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One" is actually already in preorder. Virtuix's Omni is a low friction concave bowl that, when coupled with special low-friction motion-tracking shoes, a waist restraint to keep you centered, a gamepad or gun controller, and a a VR rig, records movement (fast or slow) in any direction, jumping, and even sitting in game. Supporting heights from 4'8" to 6'5" (142 to 196 cm) and weights up to 285 lbs (129 kg), the Omni is said to be compatible out of the box with any VR-enabled PC game (see the videos at http://www.virtuix.com/videos/ ), but at E3 we only saw it demoed with Travr, Virtuix's prototype FPS developed with the Omni SDK. Independent movement, aiming, and perspective tracking seemed spot-on, but we'll suspend final judgment until we can jump into a rig ourselves.
After experiencing the difference a joystick and throttle control make when playing Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift, a keyboard and mouse just might not cut it for PC/VR gaming. Whether or not the Omni finds commercial success (and, cautiously optimistic without experiencing it firsthand, we hope it does), VR will require an ecosystem of movement and products like the Omni to become something more than a passing fancy, especially on the PC.
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