While VR only seems to have properly taken off in the past couple of years thanks to Meta’s hugely popular Quest 2 headset, many of us are already thinking about what next-gen headsets have in store for us.
Meta himself is launching a successor to the Oculus Quest 2 this year with his Project Cambria device and Sony has unveiled plans for a PlayStation VR 2 headset. Then there are new comments from the VR scene (at least in the States States) like Pico 4 from ByteDance.
All of these next-gen VR headsets have various improvements over what’s come before. Gamers will likely be thrilled to have the chance to experience VR games with higher resolution screens and improved performance compared to what was possible with standalone devices before, but what excites the developers behind it? the best VR games?
To answer that question, we spoke to Polyarc’s Design Director, Josh Stiksma, and Publishing Director, Lincoln Davis, some of the people who helped bring Moss: Book 2 – a beautiful VR fairy tale – on Quest 2 and PlayStation VR.
From a development and design standpoint, there was one innovation that Stiksma couldn’t wait for his team to get their hands on with eye tracking.
A major drawback of standalone headsets is that their power is quite limited compared to VR devices that rely on external processing power, such as PC VR headsets. However, cramming in more RAM and more powerful chips isn’t easy if you want to keep the headset’s cost and weight under control.
At the same time, VR games require twice the rendering power of a normal game because they create a separate image for each eye. Eye tracking could alleviate the problems by introducing improved foveal rendering.
Foveal rendering is a fairly common process in games these days. Simply put, this process allows games to only load what the player can see. Putty, anything off-screen ceases to exist until the camera is turned towards it, or loaded using simpler textures and shapes to reduce wasted processing power on things the player cannot interact.
The use of foveal rendering with eye tracking could be taken up a notch by only loading what the player is looking at in real time.
“With eye tracking, we would know what you are looking at and, more importantly, what objects are at the edge of your vision,” Stiksma said. “We could then reduce the processing power consumed by these objects and instead use it to amplify the visuals of what you can see.”
But while those kinds of creative innovations got Polyarc excited for what the next-gen hardware will bring, their other big ask was the hope that headset designers will think a little more inside the box.
The same, but different
Even as it currently exists – in its somewhat nascent state – the VR space is home to an incredibly diverse set of headsets. There’s the Valve Index and PlayStation VR which require external hardware like a PC or PS4 Pro to run, and there’s the Oculus Quest 2 which instead relies on its own internal processors to power the experiences.
Some headsets only use one handset while others rely on two, with each controller implementing buttons and/or touchpads in different places. Some devices come with internal tracking of the headset and its controllers, while others rely on towers or an external camera – each option has its own advantages and limitations. And there are many other factors to consider.
In comparison, more traditional game consoles are basically the same. Sure, Xbox Series X and PS5 have a few things that set them apart, but overall they’re pretty similar in terms of the quality of games they can offer and how players can interact with the world. digital.
As the Polyarc team explained, the material diversity of virtual reality is both a blessing and a curse.
Stiksma compared VR headsets to Nintendo consoles, “everyone is trying to think outside the box. Much like Nintendo and its Wii, we’re seeing some really creative ideas in the VR space, but that can also make development a challenge.
Polyarc like many VR studios is not that big, their site’s team page (opens in a new tab) lists 33 names – including the adorable digital creature Quill from their game Moss. Meanwhile, a studio like Xbox’s Playground Games – the team behind Forza Horizon 5 and the upcoming Fable 4 – has more than ten times that amount according to the company’s LinkedIn page. (opens in a new tab).
Due to its small team size and huge differences between PSVR and Oculus Quest 2, Polyarc decided to release Moss: Book 2 on one platform at a time. This meant he could focus on getting the game to run as well as possible on every system without sacrificing range. However, that also meant that Meta gamers waited a bit longer than those on rival Sony hardware.
As platforms begin to merge, the development time dedicated to each will decrease, allowing studios to have cross-platform launches on the same date. But at the same time, Polyarc hopes to see helmet manufacturers continue to create unique options.
“We see what Sony is talking about with its next headset, with all these new haptics that should boost immersion, and Meta with its Cambria headset and face tracking for better social experiences, and we’re excited to see what we and others can do with those features,” Stiskma explained.
“Only by trying new ideas will we find what works and makes virtual reality as good as it can be.”
You get a VR headset, and you get a VR headset
But a platform needs more than innovation to succeed, and Polyarc knows it. He also needs players. Because of this, Davis and Stiksma believed next-gen VR headsets should be accessible.
From a design perspective, that means slimming down the helmets. This could include using pancake lenses – a thinner style of lens than is currently used – and smaller processing units. This would allow younger audiences to enjoy virtual reality – which is already starting to deliver amazing entertainment and educational games that would be perfect for kids.
Then, from a software perspective, you’re looking at better passthrough filters.
“As a parent,” Davis said, “you really need to know what’s going on around you sometimes. If my five-year-old walks by, it would be great if the VR world automatically shuts off or something like that so I can see them and we don’t meet.
“It’s the same with pets. With better filters or a button to quickly turn it on and off, you can stay aware of your surroundings while enjoying the immersion of virtual reality.
Then finally there is the price.
Both Lincoln and Davis echoed the sentiment that the Quest 2’s price was key to its huge success. Not only because it’s cheaper on its own, but also because you don’t need to buy a console or PC to power it. It also makes the technology super easy to explain to someone.
Back in the days of the Oculus Rift, you had to make sure you had a computer with certain minimum specs, making VR inaccessible to someone who wasn’t a computer person. Nowadays, you can just pick up 2 quests and start playing.
Hopefully next-gen VR headsets will find a way to keep VR as accessible as it is today, although with the Oculus Quest 2 which recently got a price hike, it’s unclear if future headsets will once again be as affordable as Meta’s flagship. We’ll just have to see what the next generation of VR brings when it finally launches.