PC Peripherals giant Razer has, somewhat surprisingly, emerged as a serious advocate for an open-source virtual reality ecosystem. The company announced the Open Source Virtual-Reality (OSVR) standard today, its goal to provide both hardware and software support for all aspects of virtual reality gaming. This includes support for diverse aspects of the emerging VR industry such as head-mounted displays (HMDs), game controllers, software engines, and device plugins across any operating system. A Razer rep mentioned that we could think of it as "the Android of VR." In theory, with the right plugins, Oculus' Rift would be fully compatible with OSVR.
More than simply announcing its intentions, however, Razer has gone so far as to design a generic VR-HMD it calls the Hacker. As a truly open-source project, anyone with Internet access can download the full schematics for the Hacker -- completely free of charge -- at www.osvr.com starting Jan. 6, along with a list of required components and 3D printer-capable source files. For people without 3D printing resources and/or the desire to put together their own kit, Razer offers a Hacker Dev kit for $200. The company will begin to accept orders for the dev kit during CES, and availability is expected in June this year.
Let's consider the Hacker dev kit and some of the key components. The HMD includes a sensor hub with integrated accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. It features an external USB 3.0 connection for accessories and two more for internal expansion. The display is a 5.5" FHD with 1080p resolution, but is unfortunately limited to 60 FPS. The optics module uses a two-lens setup for eye pressure relief and minimal distortion. The mask accommodates mobile phone displays if desired. Not meant to be a pre-release prototype, the Hacker is a customizable and configurable development tool. One unique aspect is the belt box module, which provides not only connectivity and a surround sound audio codec, but also an improved cable management experience compared to having wires connect directly to the user's head. The only obvious omission is a lack of positional tracking hardware, but Razer told us that the HMD provides ports for just this type of plugin. It's a modular design.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's consider the ramifications of Razer's move. The company rep told us that developers are hesitant to get locked into a position where they are forced to support a single, proprietary standard. It's a valid concern, but it's not hard to read between the lines; developers of software and hardware are beginning to become aware that they have virtually handed control of the VR industry to a single company. That company is, of course, Oculus.
It's an easy thing to do when the driving force behind Oculus is Palmer Luckey, a genuinely likeable personality who I truly believe has the best interests of VR close to his heart. It almost feels like heresy to suggest that open standards are a good idea when this gentleman and John Carmack have done such a vigilant and carefully thought-out job of dragging VR from obscurity to massive popularity in an incredibly short amount of time. Now they're backed by Facebook, a company with an incredible amount of resources to help the cause. These men are my heroes, and I say that without a shred of sarcasm. Nevertheless, it might be time to ask if Oculus' de facto monopoly on setting the industry standard is something the world should leave to its sole discretion.
I've probably gone on a bit of a tangent with this point, but it's hard to skirt when it seems pretty clear that OSVR is a natural response to Oculus' dominance. This is the second open-standard for VR announced in as many days, by the way, as we reported yesterday that the Immersive Technology Alliance (ITA) has its own plan to provide a non-partisan industry standard. In fact, the Razer representative was aware of the ITA's efforts when I mentioned it, and he told us that they plan to meet up for a discussion. Perhaps in the future the ITA and Razer will join forces in order to create an even stronger, united, and open VR standard.
Regardless, the VR space has had a major change with Razer's announcement. It's one thing to announce plans, but it's another thing entirely to offer HMD dev kit hardware at $200, undercutting Oculus' Rift by $100 and making software and hardware development in this field a lot more accessible. At this price point we doubt that Razer is making money from the dev kit, and the team seems genuinely enthusiastic about an open and accessible future for VR. It's difficult to criticize that goal.