Virtual reality: a response

A few weeks back I posted a review of an unimpressive “virtual reality” gaming headset (the piece also ran in tbt* last week). One of the company’s executives has posted a reply, which I’m reposting here since it probably otherwise will get lost being a new comment on an old post. I’ll respond to some of the response in italics.

Trimersion The tone of the article is very anti Virtual Reality based on negative connotations of the past. It’s hard to create an informative review when you are already adversely biased against the technology.

I am biased against the old kind of virtual reality and the assumptions underpinning it, which as I wrote were roundly laid to rest by the recent gaming consoles. I’m emphatically not biased against the general idea of virtual reality, which is theoretically as cool as hoverboards. This headset turned out to be the first kind of VR, not the second.

The first complaint is about static interference of the video signal. We have to consider how the unit works and why. The first Trimersion prototypes were hard wired but as a gamer, you would get wrapped up in the wires coming from the game console to the headset. Our focus groups requested wireless video so they could play the games unencumbered. We did that. The Trimersion is the only gaming peripheral that uses wireless video. While this is a huge milestone in peripheral development, it also carries its own drawbacks; number one is susceptibility to interference from other wireless devices.

Tech companies reach huge milestones all the time. A technical milestone in the lab is very different from a technical milestone tested and perfected for real-world use.

In most homes wireless devices are less of a problem but in corporate settings or “noisy” locations (wireless networks, cell phones, wireless handsets, PDAs, etc.) interference is more of an issue.

Has he visited any 2007 homes lately? I don’t have figures at hand, but cell phone penetration has to be at least in the high 70s or mid 80s for the American population by now. Look in the Sunday inserts and see if you can find a single corded land-line telephone. And you can be sure wireless networks and PDAs are the norm for the demographic that’s going to be able to afford a $300 gaming peripheral. Talk about an outdated mindset.

The reviewer admitted to turning off his wireless router and several cell phones but even wireless connections on laptop computers can interfere with the video signal. Apparently the reviewer was still working close to a device that used the 2.4 GHz bandwidth. I personally have done demos on my laptop and could not figure out why the signal was fuzzy only to find out that I had left my wireless LAN connection turned on on my laptop. Once I turned it off, the video was clean and clear.

Right now the Trimersion uses the 2.4 GHz band for data and video. We have recently prototyped units that use a 5.8 GHz band for video and it seems to be less prone to interference. The 5.8 GHz production run will be out later this summer. We have run the current generation of Trimersions with little or no interference in domestic environments and believe this is not a major issue for gamers.

I don’t have a laptop. And like I said in the original post, it’s ridiculous to sell a consumer tech product — let alone a $300 one — and expect consumers will turn off their house to be able to use it. Imagine if the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii controllers didn’t work unless you shut off your cell phones, wireless routers, and laptops. Wireless technology promises to work wherever, whenever, and regardless of what else is around it. If it doesn’t, it’s broken tech (witness the cell phone “churn” as people drop one carrier for a more reliable one).

The reviewer then goes on to complain about the compatibility. According to a Nielsen Entertainment survey -– 40% of US homes own a PC or game console. 59% of US gamers own a PS2, 33% own an Xbox and 30% own a Game Cube. This is still a huge market. According to NPD market research — From Nov. 2006 to Feb. 2007 US gamers purchased 1.86 million Wiis, 1.1 million Playstation 3s and 1 million Xbox 360s.

Yes, there’s still a huge market for last-gen systems and games. (Or for PlayStation 2 at least. How many Xbox games have made the best-seller lists lately?) That’s different from a market for $300 peripherals for already or soon-to-be outdated systems. Which do you think most Xbox and GameCube owners would choose, if they had $300 to spend or a $300 gift allowance: an Xbox 360 or Wii, or a virtual reality headset for their old system?

The Trimersion is compatible with PCs and Macs through a USB port. It is compatible with Game Cube and Wii through the wired controller port. It is compatible with the PS2 through the controller port as well as the Xbox. By the time you read this article, the Trimerison will be shipping with an adapter that allows the Trimersion to work as a controller through the USB port on the PS3. The Xbox 360 compatibility is still in development but it is our goal to achieve that as well. Wii compatibility is limited to Game Cube games as the Wii’s two motion controllers do not use gamepad style controls.

The reviewer complains about the weight of the Trimersion. Apparently he has not had a chance to wear head mounted displays from the 1990s. They were heavy, large and uncomfortable. The Trimersion is very lightweight in comparison to say a VFX helmet from 10 years ago. This comment was surprising to us as most people that wear the unit comment on how comfortable it is. It has a single cloth strap that secures the unit to your head but even that is not necessary. I personally have tried on just about all VR consumer headsets and the Trimersion was engineered to be as light and comfortable as possible.

The relative weight of today’s VR helmets compared to 1990s ones is irrelevant if the current one is still uncomfortable. That’s like saying “Yes, the computer takes up a whole room — but 10 years ago it took up a whole city block!” Without the strap the headset pitched forward on my forehead, weighing down the front of my head and making it so I couldn’t see the screens. With the strap, I was still ready to be done after about five minutes. But I can understand the pride in such comfortable, small technology; it’s not like there are other headsets yet that managed to dispense with the bulky helmet and puffy headphones. Oh wait.

Again the reviewer rants about VR’s past. 3001 AD has created VR systems for theme parks, arcades and now home players since 1994. Yes VR has gone through many changes and yes we are the only company producing a device like this. Our arcade systems sold for over $15,000 each. The HMDs cost over $5,000 and the motion trackers over $3,000. Companies that tried to capitalize on VR hardware for the home failed because of the cost of the components.

Now First Person perspective games are common and the hardware to drive the graphics is excellent. Instead of creating a game platform that only plays a single VR game, we developed a game peripheral that lets you use your own game system to experience pro-VR at home. Innovations like the wireless gun controller put all the buttons of a gamepad readily in your hands.

You can tell this is an incomplete review as there isn’t even a mention of how the system works. The game controller works as a keyboard on the PC and all the buttons can be assigned in the software. The most common settings like WASD keys for movement are the default. On the consoles the two analog joysticks at the front of the gun are reversible to make it easier to assign the tracking function of the HMD to the game. The two triggers are also programmable for your favorite commands.

In itself the Trimersion is unique among game peripherals. It does take a different mind set to use it but the experience of being inside the game is exciting. The closest product that has head motion tracking sells for $1500; at $300 it is still a bit pricey for some, but an excellent value.

The optics are 640 x 480 on two LCDs. The gyro measures head rotation and tilt. If you would like to try out a Trimersion and you are in the Delray Beach area, please come by the factory at 430 S. Congress Ave. Suite 2 or call (800) 605-6703. We think you’ll be impressed.

Bob Ladrach
Chief Operations Officer
3001 AD LLC

I didn’t realize 3001 is a Florida company. That’s a nice offer to show off the product to people who stop by, and I would encourage anyone who’s near Delray Beach to check it out and see for yourself.

— April 14, 2007

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