LENOVO EXPLORER VR
Lenovo is the newest entrant to the VR hardware scene, and its first product has a lot going for it when stacked up against Vive and the Rift.
At a Lenovo launch event just prior to the German IFA show I spent time trying each of Lenovo's new products and the news is good, mostly.
The Explorer is a fascinating VR HMD. Number one, it's the lightest HMD on the market (Lenovo's claim) at 380g, and it's also the nicest design (my experience). The screen part of the device flips up while it remains strapped to your head - and that alone is just wonderful. It means you can easily swap in and out of reality without removing the whole HMD.
What can I do with it?
The driving factor behind the tech specs is a need for compatibility with the Microsoft Mixed Reality ecosystem. That is good, and potentially bad news. The screen resolution is an unusual 1440 x 1440 on each of the two 2.89-inch screens. This is displayed in a 110 degree field of view. That is what Microsoft demands, but the net result is a good one in terms of the image quality. It was at least as good as the Rift CV1 and Vive, despite having a lower horizontal resolution - but higher vertical res.
Refresh rate is either 60 or 90Hz. But here's the thing... Microsoft Mixed Reality dictates no user overriding of any settings, and it runs a system check on installation to determine its configuration. On a PC with integrated graphics it will scale to 1280 x 1280 @ 60Hz. Decent discrete graphics lets it run at full res at 90Hz, and there's potential to superscale at 2k per screen if your system meets Microsoft's requirements. What those are exactly I don't know, but think in terms of Vive or Rift and that's what to expect.
Hopefully there will be hacks to allow custom settings, but it all shows the strengths (ease of setup, guaranteed app performance and experience) of Microsoft's VR world, and the weaknesses (closed ecosystem, no customising of settings).
The big huge potential hit is that at the moment there is no support for Steam VR. If Microsoft do a deal with Steam, that makes Lenovo's Explorer potentially the best VR HMD going. Until then you are limited to Microsoft's vision.
[UPDATE! Not long after I wrote this Microsoft and Steam announced that they will indeed be working together. Fan-tas-tic!]
It's the design and comfort that makes the Explorer so good. An important design feature is the single knob that tightens the head band. When I tried it, it shames the solutions of others, it's so simple to get it fitted right, and especially useful if you're sharing it around with friends.
Connection to the PC is via a single cable that combines HDMI and USB 3.0 and splits them at the PC end to keep things tidy. A headphone jack is in the HMD and audio is fed via the HDMI cable. I asked about potential setup hassles- ie having to switch between audio output sources when not using VR, it was explained that the Mixed Reality software manages that, but I still worry it could be painful.
It's also free of external room sensors, another marked deviation from the Rift and Vive way of doing things. The front of the HMD has forward-facing sensors built in that bathe the room with invisible pinpoints of light in the same way Microsoft Kinect does. Lenovo told me that there is no limit to the room size as a maximum, so presumably the sensor is far reaching. Lenovo recommends a minimum play area of 3m x 3m, and the generous 4m cable length should allow fairly unimpaired play.
And, it has hand wands. They look very much like the Rift's and the unit comes with a pair. They have six degrees of sensing freedom.
Positional accuracy and fidelity of the wands was superb. Faultless. But at the launch they were running from a cable, the consumer product will be Bluetooth only so I can't say for sure if my good experience will be the same - but it should, technically there's no reason it should be different.
The new VR player
Lenovo is making bold claims for its VR ambitions, a rep telling me it "was taking an aggressive stance and wants to take a leadership role" in VR.
It will initially be launched as a consumer device, but Lenovo plan to make it available in the commercial space over time. When asked if it will be an open developer platform Lenovo was a little cagey, explaining only that it will work to help introduce applications in various fields such as health and education.
It was just confirmed at the event that it will be onsale in Australia, though when, and at what price remains unannounced.
LENOVO MIRAGE AR HEADSET - AND THE STAR WARS STUFF!
This takes the whole smartphone-powered AR/VR to a whole new level. It's a fascinating product for many reasons. Technically, it puts the smartphone above the HMD and reflects its display on mirrors to create an AR scene through the visor. That's new, and the relative complexity compared to something like the Samsung Gear VR help explain why it costs a lot more.
Lenovo will publish a list of compatible smartphones instead of having a sort of minimum spec requirement for minimum CPU/GPU. That makes sense given the wide market it will sell into. We know that the it will take screen sizes up to around 5.8 inches. Most interestingly, it will render based on the smartphone's screen resolution, so finally those 4k smartphones have a genuine use! It is compatible with both IOS and Android.
You are the Jedi
But of course the big big news is that this is the launch platform for Star Wars Jedi Challenges. That makes this AR headset effectively a single-game HMD, though in time you can expect games and experiences from other Disney franchises. Yes, it's a Disney partnership and Lenovo indicated it would stay that way for quite some time.
Regardless, this will sell its pants off. The experiences bundled with the device at launch cover three game types. There's the lightsabre battles part, which utilises the included light sabre (an exact replica of the Luke lightsabre), through which you battle six increasingly difficult villains and each has individual fighting styles. Over time as you progress, the illuminated top of the light sabre changes colour. Initially it's blue but can go full Darth red, perhaps depending on in game choices; that wasn't clear at the launch just how that works.
Then there's a strategy game. You command troops in famous Star Wars battles, like Hoth and Tatooine.
Lastly there's Holochess. Naturally. I hope this raises a new generation of young Jedi learning the satisfaction that comes from playing chess!
How it works
It's all AR, so a small tracking beacon is placed on the floor so the system knows where you are. The lightsabre connects via Bluetooth, and has rechargeable batteries.
What it's like
I honestly had lowish expectations but it was rather good. Most importantly the rendering of objects is solid and stable and clear. Caveat - the demo was set against a pure black backdrop, best conditions. Still, my fight against Kylo went well. He was a little blue and black, so perhaps colour rendering will be less than ideal. The demo used an iPhone, though which one wasn't shared. But presumably a recent model with its typically superb DPI, so what I saw was as good as it gets, thereabouts.
Kylo moved back and forth and the scaling was realistic. It was indeed like he was there with me. The FOV wasn't an issue with this game because as a slender object, a human works well as a AR subject.
He was there alone, with no world around him. So, unless there's more to it in later levels it's welcome to my living room, Darth and co.
The sabre has haptic feedback, and the constant buzzing as our beams clashed was just lovely, very helpful in creating a realistic sense of presence.
During my play the sabre beam wasn't aligned perfectly with the handset, off by about 10 degrees, but this was having a go with a big queue behind me so presumably calibration will fix that.
The sabre was a little light. A colleague suggested that adding weights as a mod would be a cool thing to do, and I agree. Still, it looks beautiful and was a thrill to hold and wield.
This will ship in October in Australia for $399, and will sell its arse off for Xmas, and deservedly. It's a Star Wars experience many have dreamed of possibly as far back as 1977. I know I have. Alas only the sabre fighting was running, I'd have loved to have played the strategy game. That must wait.
This all signals a massive shift for Lenovo, and a very exciting one. With its partnerships and massive base of technical and design expertise it's sensational to see the company commit to such cool stuff, and pull it off so well.
So, good job, Lenovo, now let's see Microsoft get in bed with Steam and for the Explorer at least, things will be just perfect!