Virtual reality made a huge advance last year thanks to the availability of headsets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. However, the current glasses are clearly of a first generation and there is still a lot to improve. Game developer Starbreeze, known for Payday 2, has been working for several years on the StarVR, an advanced headset with two 5.5″ screens. This should not only provide a sharper image than what the current generation of VR headsets can offer , the field of view is also much larger.
Lately it has been quiet around the headset. Curious as we were, we hoped to see the glasses at CES in January, but the StarVR was strangely enough not to be seen at the world’s largest electronics fair. Thanks to Starbreeze’s collaboration with Acer, we had better luck at the Acer event in New York on Thursday: the latest copies of the StarVR development kit were present and we were able to put on the glasses.
Latest development kit
The StarVR headset that we were able to put on our heads is the latest version, a development kit that has been delivered to partners such as IMAX for a month. The main achievement of the StarVR is the use of two 5.5″ screens, each with a resolution of 2560×1440 pixels. Each eye is therefore presented with that resolution, which is much more than the 1080×1200 pixels per eye of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. .
Like those consumer glasses, the StarVR headset uses OLED panels. The refresh rate at 60Hz is lower than the 90Hz of the Rift and Vive. Incidentally, the makers emphasize that the hardware is not yet final and that specifications can change. The arrival of an even higher resolution or a higher refresh rate is certainly not excluded.
The use of two screens primarily provides a larger horizontal field of view. According to Starbreeze, that’s 210 degrees horizontally and 130 degrees in the vertical orientation. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both give a field of view of about 100 degrees in either direction. Compared to previous versions, which had the same screens, Starbreeze says the lenses have improved considerably. Just like the Rift, the StarVR is equipped with Fresnel lenses, so that you can focus by slightly shifting the glasses on your head.
For the demonstrations of the StarVR, Acer had set up a number of booths in which demos were given. We got started with John Wick Chronicles VR. That is a VR action game developed by Starbreeze and released on Steam in February. Owners of the HTC Vive can therefore also play the game.
Although the StarVR headset is quite large, it is quite comfortable. We did not immediately notice a clear difference with glasses such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift when it comes to weight, but that may be different with long-term use. What you immediately notice is the larger field of view. If you have a Rift or Vive on your head, in the corner of your eye you will see the virtual screen end and you will see a black border. Thanks to the StarVR’s two screens, that’s not the case and the image doesn’t seem to stop. As a result, you can really look around in the headset by moving your eyes.
With a resolution of 5120×1440 pixels in total, the image is also sharper than what we are used to from the Rift and Vive, but the difference is not as big as you might suspect and hoped for. The screen door effect has not disappeared completely; you can still see the individual pixels, although they are smaller and the image is therefore sharper. The fact that you still see pixels can be explained by the larger field of view. The resolution is much higher, but the many pixels are also distributed over a larger surface.
The demo we played consisted of a scene where we were on a large yacht behind a bar, while enemies came running from different sides. It’s a pretty standard VR scenario, where you’re standing in a fixed spot and you have to shoot around you. Still, the setup gave a little more room to move. We could take a few steps in all directions to avoid enemies, or duck to the ground to take cover behind the bar. In order not to get confused with the cables, they were led through the ceiling.
We did not experience the relatively low refresh rate of 60Hz as a problem. The game played smoothly in our opinion. Despite the high resolution of 5120×1440 pixels, no extreme hardware was pulled out of the closet to conjure up the pixels. The game ran on a PC with GTX 1080 GPU. The John Wick game is not very special graphically, so that not too exotic hardware is needed to achieve 60fps.
For tracking, this demo uses a PhaseSpace system that uses LEDs and cameras that sense the frequency at which the LEDs blink. The LEDs were taped to both the rifle and headset and the tracking worked great. We could kneel, dodge, and shoot across the bar while taking cover. In addition, the tracking was not confused at any time.
A useful feature of the PhaseSpace system is that it is possible to recognize different users by having the LEDs flash at a different frequency. This would make it possible for several users to play together in a room. The tracking system is not part of the StarVR by the way; the headset can be combined with different types of systems.
Starbreeze showed off an early version of its headset for the first time at E3 2015. In early 2016, the development studio came up with the plan to set up a virtual reality arcade in Los Angeles. To date, however, this ‘StarCade VR’ has not materialized. We asked Starbreeze CEO Bo Andersson about the status of the project, and he said plans changed shortly after the announcement, when IMAX expressed interest in the goggles.
Instead of launching its own StarCade VR, Starbreeze partnered with IMAX, and the latter subsequently set up its first experience center , where people can try out a number of VR experiences with development versions of the StarVR headset.
The goal of IMAX is to open more such VR locations in the future, but for now it will remain with pilots. If they prove successful, an expansion will follow. It may mean that the StarVR will eventually also come to the Benelux, because IMAX works together with cinema chains such as Pathé. Worldwide, IMAX has 75 partners and about 1200 locations. Potentially, these are all places where a VR center could be opened, according to the company. IMAX sees virtual reality as an addition to movies: the company envisions people watching a movie and then going through a short VR experience.
Acer has been involved in the project since May 2016. Starbreeze and the Taiwanese hardware manufacturer want to collaborate on the design, manufacture, promotion and sale of the StarVR headset. One month after announcing the partnership , Acer invested EUR 9 million in the project.
For now only for companies
StarVR employees told us that the current glasses are still being developed and that a definitive first version is expected at the end of this year or early next year. That does not mean that the glasses are in stores for everyone, it will also be a headset that is sold to companies such as IMAX. Whether there will be a consumer version of the StarVR is not clear, but in any case it is certain that we should not expect it in the short term.
The StarVR headset gives a glimpse into the future of what’s possible with virtual reality. The much larger field of view is a big step forward compared to the current glasses and the sharpness is also significantly better. We hope that IMAX’s plans will unfold and that more companies will collaborate with Acer and Starbreeze to, for example, set up VR arcades where users can experience a high-end virtual reality experience.