The 2015 Immersed Toronto Conference kicked off on October 4 with a free public VR experience day at the Ontario Science Center. Among the companies in attendance showing off their wares is Starbreeze studios with its StarVR HMD.
We've talked about StarVR a couple of times now, and we even had someone try it already at Immersed Europe, but this time I had the chance to speak with some of the people working on the StarVR project and learn a little more about it, and what the plans are for the headset and the Walking Dead game that the company is developing to go with it.
Wide FOV Makes All The Difference
The major difference between StarVR compared to the other announced headsets is definitely the ultra-wide field of view. The headsets that are coming out next year -- Oculus, Vive and Playstation VR -- have a much narrower viewing angle. The Oculus CV1 FOV has not been revealed, but the DK2 is 100 degrees. HTC's consumer Vive headset has yet to be revealed, but the developer kits are capable of 110 degrees. StarVR boasts a comparatively ridiculous 210-degree FOV.
To achieve such a wide field of view, the StarVR headset features two 1440p panels mounted side by side, and at an angle. The company has developed a set of custom Fresnel lenses that make the image appear to wrap around your face. When I had the headset on, I was convinced that the screens they used are curved, but while talking with Guillaume Gouraud from Starbreeze Studios, he said that the screens are in fact flat, and it's the lenses that make them appear curved.
Before getting the chance to try it out, I was expecting the headset to be heavy. However, with two QHD displays, the headset effectively has double the hardware found in other headsets, although it does not feel like it. Starbreeze Studios reps said that the display is not as light as they hope to get it, but for a prototype, the company has done a great job keeping the weight down.
StarVR's head strap is quite different from the ones found on both the Rift and the Vive. The other headsets have fabric straps that can easily feel loose, whereas the StarVR uses a mechanically adjustable strap. A dial at the back is used to tighten the mount. It reminded me of the type of strap you would find on a welding mask.
Starbreeze said that the head strap will be quite different when the headset is released, but it will retain the dial mechanism. In my opinion, this is the right call. I've tried several different VR headsets, and this one felt the most secure.
Once I had the headset strapped on, I immediately noticed how close the screen was to my face. The other VR HMDs that I've had the chance to try have somewhat of a diving goggle effect. The screens are away from your face, and the sides of the headset are visible in your peripheral vision. StarVR mounts the lenses much closer to your face. In fact, my eyelashes were actually touching the lenses when I blinked. The crew running the demo said this is normal for the prototype. The display is on a hinge, though, so it is possible to adjust the display so the lenses don't touch your face.
The effect of having the screen so close is quite impressive. StarVR's main selling point is the peripheral vision, and it truly delivers. I tried as hard as I could to make out the edges of the screen, but I was unable to. With the display on, your are fully immersed in the game.
The demo being shown with the StarVR headset is a version of the upcoming Walking Dead game from Overkill, which Starbreeze is publishing. The game that Overkill is making isn't exactly this title, but the VR demo uses the same assets found in the full PC game. The VR demo is being built as a separate experience, but Starbreeze did say that it will eventually be available.
The Walking Dead VR experience has you sitting in a wheelchair, as your character is already injured by the time the demo starts. A character in the game pushes you along through the halls of what looks like a rundown office building or hospital. After a few minutes, things get hairy, and you are handed a shotgun (in the game, and in reality).
This is where the fun begins. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the zombies start coming, and the game starts to get a little intense. The demo ends when you run out of ammo. You can imagine what happens next.
StarVR uses fiduciary markers that are tracked by a camera. These markers are placed in various locations on the headset itself, as well as peripherals. This demo features a pump-action shotgun that has two cubes attached to it, with markers on all sides. These markers allow for the gun to be tracked in 3D space, and it worked quite well. Starbreeze said it can use these types of markers on any kind of peripheral you might want in VR.
The whole experience is really quite impressive, and it truly gave me a full immersion experience. I had to regain my bearings when I took the headset off. I wouldn't say it made me dizzy, but I definitely needed a moment to adjust to reality.
Issues: Clarity, FPS, Horsepower
Despite the incredible experience that it was, StarVR is not without its faults, although that's not unexpected for prototype hardware. One of the bigger issues is the clarity of the image. The headset might use dual QHD displays, but the close proximity to your face causes some distortion.
Another cause of distorted images is the frame rate. Starbreeze said that the demo runs at 60 frames per second, but from my experience, I would have to say that it needs to be improved. The visuals were a little blurry at times, especially when rotating my head. I didn't notice any significant drops in frame rate, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it did.
The system running the demo was a gaming laptop hooked up to an external breakout box housing a Titan X. If a Titan X is having that much trouble rendering the game, it will be some time before the average user has the power for a headset like StarVR.
Cost? Who Cares?
In talking with the representatives from Starbreeze, it was pretty clear that the company sees space for a premium headset in the market. The team is more interested in making the best possible VR experience, rather than focusing on the cost. Starbreeze wants to be the benchmark for high-end VR.
Starbreeze is not willing to talk about when the headset might see a retail release. For now, company reps are content showing what they have, and they noted that there is much research and development to be done. The company was not even willing to speculate when the headset could be seen -- not even if it would land in 2017. In any case, Starbreeze did say that the StarVR headset will not be a first-generation VR HMD, so we're looking at a bit of a wait still.
There's definitely more work to be done, but this type of advancement in VR is wonderful to see. The only problem is that now I've been spoiled. After experiencing such a wide field of view, going back to an Oculus Rift DK2 for my next demo left me feeling like I was wearing goggles -- something I never felt before trying StarVR.
Update 10/10/2015 12:45pm: The article was published with a type in Guillaume's family name. It has been corrected.