HTC Vive Review

The HTC Vive was introduced at HTC’s Mobile World Congress keynote in March 2015 and was finally released on April 5, 2016. Phil Chen, Chief Content Officer for HTC, founded the HTC Vive. HTC paired with Valve, an entertainment software and technology company, to produce Vive. The Vive can be ordered online at https://www.vive.com/uk/ for £759.00 (British pounds), which is equivalent to $932.78 in US Dollars. The bundle, which includes a Vive Ready computer, the Vive VR headset and controls, a USB drive with hardware setup instructions, required software including The Lab by Valve and theBlu:Encounter by WeVR, can be purchased online for £1,399 plus free shipping. This is the equivalent to $1719.31 in US Dollars. Valve and HTC have announced that the headset will be free for selected developers.

The Vive is designed to immerse people in the VR world. The room that you are in disappears and you are transported to the world of your choice. There is a front-facing camera on the headset that blends the real world settings with the virtual world. The 110-degree field of view immerses viewers into their virtual world. There are 32 headset sensors that track motion through 360 degrees. The headset is combined withtwo controllers, one for each hand. These controllers help you explore the virtual world and make selections within the game as well as serve as your tools within the games. Whether they serve as a bow and arrow or simply extensions of your hands, the controllers receive real-time haptic feedback that further contributes to your VR experience. You get the chance to freely roam and explore your VR world and participate in a variety of activities by clicking the buttons on your controls and then following the actions needed for the game that you choose to participate in. You are truly transported to another place through this experience.

Pros

Immersion: The most outstanding pro of the HTC Vive would be the complete immersion in another world. The feeling you get is so real, and it makes you forget that the outside world is there, especially if you invest in the audio headset that cancels out the outside noise around you.

Photo by David Stephenson

Comfort: The headset has a comfortable fit around your head, and it is easily adjustable. The controls also have a natural grip, so it is easy and natural feeling to hold them and use them as an extension of your hands.

Variety: There are a number of games and activities that you can take part in while using the Vive software. Whether it be archery, launching explosives, or simply exploring different environments, the variety is there.

Cons

Price: Many people would love to experience the HTC Vive, but are unable to do so because of the steep price. The only reason I got to experience it was because of this Virtual Reality class that I am in. Without the class, I would have never gotten the chance to experience this technology.

Application

I see this technology being used mostly for gaming purposes, but it definitely has the potential for other uses. The HTC Vive could potentially be used for medical purposes like exploring the human body and even virtually practicing surgeries before performing them in real life. It could also be used for military training by immersing soldiers in training in a virtual world that could better prepare them for the environment of the battlefield. The possibilities are truly endless. All it takes is an idea, and a software could potentially be made to meet that need. For now, it’s mostly gaming, but the potential of the future of the HTC Vive is unknown.

Does Ricoh’s Theta S stack up to the competition?

The Ricoh Theta S records as multimedia artist Dronex works on a painting at his studio in Lexington, Ky.

When Ricoh Company released the Theta in 2013, we could finally freeze the surrounding world and put it in our pockets. Four years and two versions later, we can now thaw these 360-degree moments in high definition and share them instantly.

But Nikon, LG and Samsung are starting to give the aging Theta line a run for its money. Are the camera’s superior stitching, sleek frame and ease of use enough to fend off the competition, or is it time for Ricoh to step up its game?

Functionality

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Theta S and its predecessors is the video mode: It only allows recording with auto exposure. The LG 360, which has a similar form factor, allows full manual control and comes at a much lower price.

Otherwise, the Theta S only has four physical buttons: power, WiFi, shooting mode and shutter. Each works the way it is supposed to. Lights correspond with each function, plus a memory warning comes on when you run out of space.

The LG 360 offers remote activation while the Theta S doesn’t. To avoid wasting time and battery life during video shoots, this would be a useful feature in future versions.

Storage

The other big problem with the Theta S is that it only has 8GB of onboard memory and no external storage options — a maximum of 1600 stills or 65 minutes of video at full quality, requiring footage to be offloaded often if filming a big project.

The Nikon Keymission 360 and the LG 360 offer external storage. There isn’t much to say about this; 8GB simply isn’t enough if you plan to shoot a lot of video. Be ready to back up footage often with a laptop and an external hard drive.

Durability

Unlike the Nikon Keymission 360, the Theta S is neither waterproof nor shockproof and doesn’t have replaceable front-lens elements. It has no sealing whatsoever, but a hard-case accessory can provide some water resistance for an extra cost.

Recording video causes the battery to heat up and drain quickly, so it’s a good idea to give the camera a few breaks when doing a lot of recording — especially when working in warmer temperatures. Ricoh’s TE-1 Extension Adapter raises the camera 2.2 inches off a mounting plate, so you can buy that to charge while recording.

The Theta S can record up to about 25 minutes of high-quality video at a time without shutting down as a precaution. To prevent battery hangups during filming, Ricoh should really consider adding a removable lithium-ion battery in future versions.

Quality

This review might seem a bit harsh, but the Theta S isn’t a bad camera at all. It has excellent dynamic range and great color rendition, and it automatically adjusts its vertical orientation in-camera so everything is right-side up when stills and video are opened for post-processing.

It’s really easy and enjoyable to shoot with, and it’s acceptably sharp until you get to the stitching (just like any other 360 camera). Surprisingly, high ISO noise isn’t terrible. The chromatic aberration is bad, but the image quality, overall, is actually pretty good.

Features

The Theta S can do live streaming at full video quality, but only to the company’s website. It would be great if Ricoh could support Facebook and YouTube’s live-streaming services, but this isn’t nearly as important as some of the other things discussed here.

It’s compatible with Apple computers, PCs, and iOS and Android devices, and it has easy-to-use apps for each platform.

Connecting directly with WiFi is only good when you need to preview a shot, transfer stills or adjust settings for stills. Videos take way too long to transfer, and the range is much too short to stay connected while filming — plus, you can’t use your phone as a monitor while recording video.

Conclusion

Of course, the disappointing aspects of the Theta S would only concern those who are interested in using it professionally. It’s a great camera for consumers at $299, but beginners might be just as happy with the LG 360 for $129.

Nikon’s Keymission 360 might be more suitable for professionals right now because of its rugged design and external storage, but it also does only auto exposure and costs a hefty $499.

The Theta SC, available in blue, beige, pink and white, is also available for $259. Other than the colors, it has no HDMI input, no video recording light and can’t record video for longer than five minutes. If you’re interested in a Theta, just spend $40 more and go for the Theta S.

In an earlier version of this review, I said the Nikon Keymission 360 offers remote activation. In a recent review I found that it actually does not, and I apologize for the error.

NYT “The Displaced” VR Story Review

“The Displaced” is a 360 VR Video created by The New York Times that follows three children who have been driven from their war-torn homes. 11 year old Oleg, 9 year old Chuol, and 12 year old Hana each preview a typical day as they continue to adapt to their new lives. This includes waking up at 4 in the morning to work in the cucumber fields of Lebanon, avoiding being eaten by crocodiles in the Sudanese swamps, and digging through the destruction of bombed Ukrainian schools. We are introduced to each child individually. Because none of them speak English, we are given translated captions.

These captions are in three different viewpoints, so no matter where the viewer is looking, they will be able to read the text. There is definitely a well-defined narrative structure, as each child gets an opening introduction, two segments throughout the middle of the video, and a closing. Emotion also plays a big factor in driving the story. At one point, Chuol says, “If I could, I would turn into a lion, finish off my enemies and turn back into a child,” when speaking of the attackers that separated him and his mother. 12-year-old Hana says, “I have to work every day to help my family,” as she explains the treatment from the Lebanese on her fellow refugees. All of these stories have different elements that make them individual, but together tell the story of what happens when war interferes.  

It’s difficult to pinpoint specifically what drives “The Displaced”. Character, narrative, and environment are all heavy contributing factors as to why this is such an ideal 360 VR video. Technically, this story does a good job at balancing different types of shots between stills, and moving with the camera. At the 3:56 mark, Hana is riding in the back of the truck while on her way to work. At the 8:05 mark, a Syrian boy is running through the streets with his friends while holding the camera. As disorienting as this may seem, it does a good job at going through the children’s daily vantage point, while not giving the expected headache so many VR videos are guilty of.

While the video, as far as storyline and narrative are concerned, is very well done, one question remains: “Is it necessary for this platform?” Because we are fairly new with VR, many videos that explore this technology do so for experiential learning. Some may be interesting and fun, but rarely do these videos focus on storytelling, rather than simply an entertaining experience. For example, of all the 360 VR roller coaster video’s out there, I’ve yet to find one that provides any narrative structure that would be engaging to viewers on a deeper level. This is exactly why NYT’s “The Displaced” is about as perfect as it gets when balancing the experience/storytelling spectrum. Of course, there could be minor details added that I would have personally enjoyed, such as more dialogue, or maybe an aerial shot of the cities destruction to put in perspective the damage the children have to cope with. Though without these additions, it certainly doesn’t take away from the important message of the video. There is a good reason this video has nearly 300,000 views on YouTube alone; so, if you are looking for a thought provoking 360 VR story that’s also engaging and provides a new experience, “The Displaced” is the first video you need to watch.

NYT The Daily 360 Website Review

New York Times Daily 360 Video is a website users can visit to receive a 360-degree experience of the news they are hearing about. NYT creates these experiences by recording with Samsung technology to deliver our news of worldly events, political discussions, and intriguing stories. With the growth of 360-degree videos on the web, NYT strived to bring the readers as close to the stories as realistically possible. They deliver this experience to online readers, but also to those who have downloaded their app (NYT VR) that is available to Android and iOS users. Through the site, NYT delivers realistic news videos that allow their viewers to experience the story being told.

They use this site to post a daily video of an event that would be relatable and/or interesting to experience for readers. For instance, when the women’s marches across our country were happening in February 2017, NYT posted a 360-degree video of the march in New York.

Women’s March in Washington, DC 360-degree video available on New York Times Daily 360.

Readers were emerged into the experience of hearing chants and being surrounded by marchers. They have a range of topics that are covered, such as politics, travel, culture, science, and the world. These stories come from multiple publishers, however, the videos have similar techniques. The videos are short lived with only lasting for less than 3 minutes. The reader is placed into the location of the story to where they can see what is happening, hear the surroundings, and overall realistically experience the story. The downside of the experience is that it is extremely short lived. For example, the story “A Standing Rock Camp Is Burned” lasts for one minute where you are experiencing a camp in Standing Rock being burned. You see protesters marching, hear them chanting and witness the smoke from the burning land. This is a story that readers would like to experience. However, the story last for a minute and they are unable to fully grasp everything that is happening. The NYT 360-degree videos are entirely too short for readers and they use subtitles. While you’re trying to see everything, you’re also having to read the text. The combination of the short-lived video and having to read quickly while taking in the visuals becomes difficult.

The most significant benefit of this website and the daily videos is that the audience can experience various places and events. This use of virtual reality is successful in the way it brings users closer to something they care about. It is important for 360-degree videos to place the user into a believable environment and I think the NYT’s The Daily 360 does that. This is a highly appropriate use of virtual reality by bringing users as face-to-event as possible. The site is used to place New York Times’ existing audience into the stories they are being told, but also to bring in a new audience: the audience of those who are currently exploring virtual reality storytelling. New York Times is ahead of many other news sites by making this experience achievable for users. There are aspects of the technique used that can be improved, such as having a narrator and extending the video time. However, it brings an advanced and futuristic way to tell stories that will emerge the audience into the stories. NYT can not only tell the worldly stories, but also get the viewer more involved by activating more emotions towards what is happening.

Merge VR: Finally, a VR Headset for Glasses-Wearers

When I decided to take this VR Storytelling class, I had one big concern. There had always been something that’s prevented me from enjoying VR in the past, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a way around it for this class.

I wear glasses. Big glasses, with big plastic frames that have never fit into a VR headset before. Without them, I’m barely able to see a foot in front of me – and even that’s blurry. I made the switch from contacts to glasses a year and a half ago, and I’ve reached a point now where wearing contacts is uncomfortable for me. So, when I started searching for a headset to use in this class, my #1 criteria was that it could fit over glasses. I searched for days trying to find one before finally settling on one and purchasing it.

I ended up selecting the Merge VR headset, available on Amazon or on Merge’s website. The headset is made of a durable foam, and now comes in several different colors. It has two buttons on top for inputs that can also be slid left and right to adjust the lenses for better focus.

The headset has a strap, and is used basically the same way as any other smartphone VR headset – the phone simply slides into the top. Additionally, the headset has a small piece on the front that can pop out in order to allow accessibility to the phone’s camera, which could allow for augmented reality use in the future.

I can’t speak for all phones, but on my phone, the headphone jack is easily accessible while the phone is in the headset. The headset is made to fit any phone from the past two years. I have an iPhone 5C that’s almost 3 years old now, and it’s a bit small; you can see around the edges of the phone a bit sometimes. However, after using the headset a few times, I’ve adjusted more and have found myself not noticing this, so it’s no longer an issue for me.

PROS:

Fit: This headset fit easily over my glasses (which have large plastic frames), with plenty of extra room. The straps are easily adjustable and the soft foam can bend to fit different facial contours.

Lenses: The first time I tried to watch a video with this headset, I was a bit disoriented because of how blurry things were. However, adjusting the lenses was easy to figure out, and now I have no problem getting a clear picture.

Controls: The buttons make this headset super easy to use. I love being able to pull up a YouTube video, get it into Cardboard mode, pause it, and put it in my headset. I can then use the buttons on top to hit play again, which helps make sure I don’t miss any of the video, even the very beginning.

Durability: This headset can really take a beating. Mine has been hurriedly thrown into a backpack many times with no signs of damage.

CONS:

Weight: This headset is very comfortable for the most part, but it’s a bit heavy, so using it for a long time can be a bit uncomfortable.

Price: The Merge VR headset is $59.99. While this is much less expensive than a gaming headset like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, as a college student on a limited budget, I still found myself longing for the $15 price tag of the Google Cardboard.

AR capability: While it’s great that the Merge allows access to the camera for AR, the way they do it is a bit frustrating. The small piece that pops out of the front tends to pop out accidentally while I’m viewing VR videos, and then when I finish viewing, I notice it’s gone and end up scrambling to look for it. This is a fairly small issue, really, but it is something that gets a bit annoying.

OVERALL:

Overall, the Merge VR headset exceeded my expectations. It’s fairly comfortable and easily fits over glasses, and the foam is extremely durable. The controls, both for adjusting the lenses and for interacting with VR content, are easy to learn and to use. Though the headset can get a bit heavy after a while, it hasn’t been an issue very much for me because most VR videos I’ve seen are fairly short. The price is a bit high, but for me (and likely for many other glasses-wearing VR lovers) it’s entirely worth it.