Virtual reality gaming has been 'the next big thing' for decades. Lots of things have held it back though, including, perhaps most of all, price.
While virtual reality gaming is yet to leave the starting blocks, 3D games are gaining traction. Ever-cheaper displays provide a more immersive way to play games and watch movies or sport on flat panels. The next generation of dedicated games consoles will inevitably include more 3D games, something that is generating interest among developers and driving down cost.
The move towards multicore processing has helped. Multicore is very much about exploiting parallelism, and graphics has long been a good place to do that.
So, rather than being an outlandish prospect, the 3D VR headset is the natural progression of the market. The Oculus Rift headset tells us how PC gaming will respond to the next versions of the PlayStation, Xbox and Wii.
The Rift, offered by start-up Oculus VR, has whipped up a lot of interest following appearances at this year's International CES and the Game Developer Conference. The latter reportedly had two-hour long queues for a demo of the 379g head-mounted display.
The version of the Rift dissected by iFixit, specialists on device repair, is the developer kit. Several thousand have already been sent out to leading games software companies, and another batch is due in June. However, in its current incarnation ' and given the developer support it contains ' the price tag is $300.
The consumer version will be cheaper. "Our goal is to deliver the highest quality virtual reality experience at a price that everyone can afford, reads the Oculus VR website, alongside a warning that Joe Public should restrain any early adopter urges as best they can.
"The consumer product will improve on almost every aspect of the developer kit, which is essentially an early prototype of the consumer version. This includes comfort, immersion, features, software support, etc for the absolute best virtual reality experience possible."
The company adds: "If you absolutely must have one, please understand that the developer kits are more or less early prototypes of the consumer version and with very limited software/game support when they ship. So if you're not a developer or hardcore enthusiast, sit tight for now."
So, this very hefty caveat aside, what did the iFixit team discover?
First, as you might expect, they found the developer version very easy to take apart, giving it a 9/10 repairability score. It is inevitable that developers will want to look more closely under-the-hood than consumer users, however, so we will have to wait and see if a screwdriver, some basic plastic case-opening tools and a coin will do the job then.
From a component design point of view, one especially striking thing about the Rift is the extensive use of commercial off-the-shelf hardware. The display is a 7in LCD from Chimel Innolux, Taiwan's largest LCD manufacturer. It is thought to be a replacement source for Apple's iPad Mini screens. Alongside it is a Himax notebook/tablet timing controller.
Remember, though, this is only the developer kit. The current display resolution is 1280'800px overall, and given the need in stereoscopic mode to deliver two images (left and right), that makes for an effective 640'800px per eye. The number is lower than for other rival 3D headsets, and Oculus VR is targeting at least 1920x1080px (960x1080px per eye) for the consumer version. The new display is already an upgrade from one that featured on the early stage prototype.
However, the hardware guts of the Rift are the three chips that power its all-important head-tracking software. This allows the user to walk through and look from side-to-side in the gaming environment with a near 90-degree field of view. Just how smooth and responsive this technology is, as well as price, will determine the Rift's ultimate fate in the consumer market.
The 1,000Hz 'Adjacent Reality Tracker' comprises principally an STMicroelectronics ARM Cortex-M3, an Invensense six-axis (gyro and accelerometer) motion-tracking controller, and a part that iFixit believes to be a three-axis magnetometer, "used in conjunction with the accelerometer to correct for gyroscope drift".
A separate control box links the Rift to a PC. This includes HDMI, DVI and USB input ports as well as the DC power port. The Rift outputs video in DVI, and the box carries out the conversion from HDMI delivered by the PC. The heavy lifting for that is carried out by a Realtek display interface controller. Also present are 256KB of serial flash from Winbond and a Techcode TD1484A synchronous rectified step-down converter.
It may be a little early to see the Rift as part of an expected gaming trend, but it is worth noting that its extensive use of commercial off-the-shelf parts reflects an expected divergence between the PC and console peripherals market after all the new generation games machines are in place.
The whole point of this version of the Rift is to get the kit as well as the hardware into the hands of games developers and convince them to incorporate VR modes within their games. One company, Valve Corporation, has already done this for 'Team Fortress 2', and Ocular VR's GDC demo ran 'Hawken' from Adhesive Games. More than 30 games are already said to have committed to the technology.
To woo these partners will be key to keeping the cost of all PC-based VR gaming headsets down. Having the heavy graphics lifting to deliver the separate images done in the PC will also help. This exploits the kind of powerful graphic processors now available from AMD, Intel, nVidia and others. And the economics favour this model.
PC gamers will buy new machines as frequently as every 18-24 months to take advantage of the latest Moore's Law-fuelled advances in processing. By contrast, the console market is looking at a much longer refresh rate ' Sony CEO Kaz Hirai has talked of successive generations of the PlayStation having decade-long lifespans.
For PlayStations, Wiis and Xboxes, then, this implies that while peripherals that launch alongside a new console will be well-matched to that console's hardware, those that follow later will likely need to incorporate more processing themselves, inevitably raising the retail price tag.
As noted, it may be too early to draw this contrast now, but a commercial-off-the-shelf foundation in PC gaming is likely to make sense in both the near and longer term.