1080p Oculus Rift Alternative VR Headset "Totem" Has Bold Plans, Launches Crowdfunding Campaign
"The only thing that's limiting you in virtual reality is your creativity."
Vrvana, the Montreal-based company formerly known as True Player Gear, today launched a crowdfunding campaign for its previously announced virtual reality device, Totem (working title). The company has bold plans for the headset--already in its fifth iteration--CEO Bertrand Nepveu told me in a recent interview. But to get the project off the ground and compete against Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, Vrvana first needs to raise CAD $350,000 ($317,000) on Kickstarter.
Totem is described as a "premium" VR headset, and it will offer a 90 degrees field of view, a 1080p OLED screen, and the ability to connect to any HDMI source (computer, console, tablet, and so on), means it's an investment that extends just beyond one input. Setting it apart from competitors like Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus are its two onboard cameras, a patent-pending hardware acceleration feature, and "reverse AR," which lets you see a virtual representation of your hands. Totem also features 3D passthrough vision so you can see your real world space without having to take off the headset--"Say goodbye to keyboard fumbles," the company says. You can see a full list of Totem's tech specs below.
It's also made by a group of dedicated gamers, including Nepveu. "I have been a hardcore gamer since the ColecoVision. And when I tried the Power Glove for the first time, this is when I realized that VR is the future of gaming," Nepveu says.
To secure a Totem developer kit, you'll need to pledge at least CAD $400 ($362), which is $50 above the cost of the Oculus Rift DK2, the latest iteration of that technology. For your pledge, you'll receive the Totem itself (sometime in the first half of next year), a USB break-out box, cables, a cleaning cloth, and a carrying case. Backers can then access engine plug-ins, demos, code, documentation, and tutorials through the Totem support website.
But why is Totem turning to Kickstarter at all? Is there not venture capital money to be had, given the explosion in popularity in the VR space following Facebook's acquisition of Oculus VR in March?
"Maybe in the US it's a bit easier to [raise] money," Nepveu says. "In Canada, it's a real challenge, especially in the Montreal region." One positive thing about working out of Canada, however, is having access to government grants for R&D projects like Totem. "We're very fortunate for that, but to go from R&D to production? That's another ballgame. That's when crowdfunding [becomes] awesome."
"For now, I see them as friendly companies who try to achieve the same thing that we do" -- Betrand Nepveu on how he sees Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus
Also during my interview with Nepveu, I wondered what his thoughts were about existing devices like the Oculus Rift and Morpheus. Does he see them as competitors? After all, Nepveu did fire off somewhat of a shot at Oculus after it sold to Facebook back in March. But now, Nepveu toned down his thoughts.
"VR is so new," he says. "I can't talk for them, but for me, they're not competitors. They are pioneers, like us. There was VR in the '90s and it failed miserably. Now, with the current technology, I know it's possible to have a great VR experience, but we have hard technical challenges ahead of us. So I think we should be really more collaborating than competing right now."
"Oculus showed that they're into that mindset; they opened their SDK to partners, so I think that's a really great thing right now," he added. "We don't need to be like all in our corner and fighting against each other. For now, I see them as friendly companies who try to achieve the same thing that we do."
Totem is open, too. The company says its headset works with Oculus Rift DK1 games, and support is on the way for DK2 games.
Another area around VR that has been incredibly exciting for me is the technology's potential non-gaming applications. Of course, Totem--and Rift and Morpheus, too--have been designed to first appeal to the hardcore gamer crowd, but Nepveu said he foresees a time when VR impacts any number of other major industries in meaningful ways. VR can affect fields like education, allowing students to take virtual field trips to faraway places that would otherwise be too expensive, or even to a different time period. In the field of medicine, you can imagine surgeons practicing techniques in a virtual environment before using a knife on a real person (Vrvana has even partnered with a local hospital to test this out). For sports and music, some day you could see a hockey game from the goalie's perspective or have a front row seat at a sold out concert, all thanks to VR. Suffice it to say, there are some grand possibilities when it comes to future applications for VR.
"The only thing that's limiting you in virtual reality is your creativity," Nepveu says. "I think in the near future, you'll be able to imagine something that you want to do and actually live it in VR, and that's really powerful."
On the other side, however, there have also been concerns expressed by some, including Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, claiming that VR is an anti-social technology. When you put on the headset, you're cutting yourself off from the "real world," some might argue. Nepveu said he understands this criticism, but maintained that VR--as a platform--is no different than any other piece of technology, which people are free to use--or overuse--as they see fit.
"We want VR to be positive," he says. "A lot of people say people will feel separated from the real world, almost like a drug, but we really don't believe that. It's like with every technology; it can be good and bad. And we really believe that we can really do good with VR and we want Totem to be in that space."
VR is an exciting technology, but what's holding it back, for me at least, is its inability to deliver on the promise of immersion and "presence." In my admittedly limited experience with VR, I have never felt truly connected to a virtual world in a compelling way. Part of this, I think, is because there is no meaningful force feedback associated with the tech right now. When I'm virtually swimming underwater, I don't feel the pressure of being dozens of feet below the surface like I would in real life. Nepveu says this is a challenge that VR--Totem, Rift, and Morpheus included--doesn't have an answer for yet. "If you really want to to believe it, you need some force feedback mechanism like in real life, and that's really not easy to do. As soon as you grab something or interact with something, you need force feedback."
"Maybe the best way to do it would be to go directly into the nervous system," he joked (I think). "But we're not there yet."
Despite the uncertainty around VR--Totem is only just starting, Rift is still at least a year away, and it's not even confirmed that Morpheus will ever be sold to the public--Nepveu says VR has the potential to become the next evolution of human communication and interaction, even if that might not happen anytime soon.
"We're really into something big with VR that's going to change really the way we interact," he said. "There was the Internet, there was the smartphone, and now I think it's really VR. I think Totem will be part of that revolution."
For more on Totem, and to pledge to the campaign, check out the Kickstarter page.
- Screen: 1080p low persistence RGB stripe OLED, up to 75 Hz
- Field of View (FOV): 90 degrees
- Cameras: Onboard cameras for positional tracking. M12 camera lenses with 130 degrees horizontal Field of View.
- Connectivity: HDMI input, USB output (tracker)
- Sensors: 2x cameras 120hz 1080p (1920x1080), 3 axis 1kHz gyroscope, 3 axis 4kHz accelerometer, 3 axis magnetometer
- Audio: 2x 3.5 mm jacks, Binaural Surround sound
- Emulated controls: USB mouse, PlayStation controller, Xbox controller
- Non-game controls: Up, Down, Select/Base World View
- Supported engines: Unreal, Unity, Havok Vision, CryEngine
- Platforms: PC (Windows, Mac, Linux), Playstation 3 & 4, Xbox One & 360
- Supported media: All 3D formats, SBS preferred
- Size: 6.6" x 4.4" x 5.4"
- Weight: 400 g (estimated)
- Hardware acceleration: hardware accelerated motion tracking, hardware accelerated pre-lens distortion
Eddie Makuch is a news editor at GameSpot, and you can follow him on Twitter @EddieMakuch
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