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VR, UHD: Game Changers From E3

Coming out of E3 it is clear that within the next 12 to 18 months things will change not only with regard to what console games are played on, but what they are watched on and what their functionality is.

In preparing a report the Electronic Entertainment Expo, popularly known as E3, it can be beneficial to first review last’s year’s report to see what, if anything, has changed. Last year there was a good deal of news about the games themselves, and virtually nothing new on the hardware front for consoles. Looking back on this year’s version, held in June at the Los Angeles Convention Center, it’s a pleasure to report that even as the major game consoles are at what would be, in most years, the mid-point of the product lifecycle, there was quite a good deal of news.

Indeed, much of it was and will be, if you’ll pardon the wordplay, “game changing.” We say that because coming out of E3 it is clear that within the next 12 to 18 months things will change not only with regard to what console games are played on, but what they are watched on and what their functionality is.

Nyko’s Video Guardian helps players with “stand-up” VR systems stay in the confines of a safe area. Note the small unit on the right side of the carpet and below the gamer that demarcates on corner. Nyko’s “VR Motion Band” helps allay the motion sickness some experience with VR.

An important piece of background for all of this is that the recent lifecycle of major-brand video game consoles has been between five to eight years. Within the cycles, there have sometimes been mid-cycle updates, such as the introduction of the newer PS3 “slim” models. Most recently, both PS4 and Xbox One are about three years old, having been released in 2013. WiiU is a year older, as it was first released in 2012. Thus, it could be said that we are somewhere in mid-cycle, using the traditional patterns.

That game, however, is about to change.

Starting things off, while Nintendo was steadfast in not saying anything about its next console, currently named NX, other than it is scheduled for sale in March 2017. Unlike its rivals, Nintendo also had nothing to say about future plans for VR. Rather, its E3 booth was almost totally devoted to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. However, that is off into next year, as well. Bottom line here would seem to be that unless the “franchise, first-party” games offered for the Nintendo platforms are of interest to a client, it’s best to wait on the side as far as Nintendo is concerned. No change, if you will, there.

Moving on to Microsoft’s Xbox platform, things are about to change. Yes, there were announcements and previews for many games, but our focus here at RS is on hardware and design/ installation, and when it comes to Xbox, there will be changes galore.

Stepping outside the traditional pattern for new consoles, Microsoft used E3 to introduce Xbox One S, a major refresh of the current platform after only three years. Without regard at first to gameplay, there are some critical improvements, some of which are, yes, “game changers.”

The first is obvious even from a picture. The “S” version is 40 percent smaller than the current Xbox One. That, along with the fact that the power supply is built-in, rather than a cumbersome external “brick,” will simplify installation. Also easy to see is the change from a black to white color scheme, but the real changes are beneath the skin.

There, the combination of changes to the internal architecture and optical drive will give Xbox One S new features that may make it interesting to those who rarely, if ever, play a video game. Together, these improvements bring Xbox into the world of 4K/UHD. Foremost among them is that it will play UHD Blu-ray discs. Next, it will offer HDR compatibility with HDR-10 content, albeit not (at this time) playback for Dolby Vision content.

In addition to the UHD optical disc playback, the updated model will allow streaming in 4K from Netflix and Amazon with HDR. Rounding things out, the revised system will upscale games to 4K output. That’s an impressive triple play.

That said, there are a few caveats. Be aware that, unlike the other UHD Blu-ray players now available, when using the new Xbox One S with an older, non-HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2, AVR, or surround processor, there is only one HDMI output. That means that you’ll have a problem passing the signals through the AVR for 4K or instead you’ll have to make a direct HDMI connection to the display and lose high-end audio options. Be careful: If you look quickly at the Xbox One S’s rear panel you will see two HDMI ports, but only one is an output. The other is an input for the STB control first offered in the original Xbox One.

Sony PlayStation VR delivers a very immersive gaming experience, as demonstrated here by the author. Be sure the seats have backs! Photo by Marge Costello.

Next, the new model does away with the Kinect jack first seen with great fanfare at E3 a few years ago. Kinect and games that use it were nowhere to be found and were not talked about other than the mention that an adapter will be available to use the Kinect with an S unit.

All in all, it’s poised to be a good package, but the best thing of all is the price. The entry model will be $299 at launch this month. For that price, it is $100 less than the cheapest UHD Blu-ray player as this is being written. It’s hard to fight that. Stepup models for serious gamers will feature a 1TB drive for $349 and a 2TB drive at $399.

There were three other notes of interest from Xbox, including one that promises to definitely change the game, and one that at this point, will not. There was a great deal of focus on VR at this year’s E3, but other than a passing mention of some compatibility somewhere along the line, it seems that VR is not likely in Xbox One’s future.

Game changing to some, and not to others, Microsoft’s “Xbox Play Anywhere” initiative will deliver seamless play across multiple Windows-based platforms. Start on the console then conclude it later on a PC.

Microsoft’s new Xbox One S will playback 4K content from UltraHD Blu-ray discs and streaming services. Note, however, that there is only a single HDMI output; the other connection is an input for STB control

At the other extreme, Microsoft teased us about what should be a true game changer. Code named “Project Scorpio,” Microsoft revealed preliminary information about a step-up console scheduled for release in late 2017. It will not replace Xbox One, but will offer considerably higher performance. Billed as delivering “true 4K and high fidelity VR,” it will not just upscale existing games to 4K/60Hz; thanks to a processor capable of 6 teraflops, it will render that way directly. There’s not much more at this time, but it seems as though it will be well worth the wait.

If Microsoft’s game changers were through an updated console with 4K streaming and optical disc playback, Sony put its marker down on VR as the way the industry will go. Yes, there are rumors of a “PS4.5” that may or may not have a UHD Blu-ray player, but no timing or feature set was announced. We may see it this fall, this winter, or in 2017.

As to VR, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) laid out a comprehensive launch plan for the long-rumored Playstation VR. Available in October at $399, it brings a very compelling and immersive product to market that will be supported by more than 230 developers and publishers, with 50 VR-centric game titles due by the end of this year.

For those who see this as a natural addition to the home ecosystem of the gamers among your clients, a few comments are required. First, although the headset, itself, is $399, it also requires a PlayStation camera and, for most games, a pair of the Move controllers. For those who do not already have those accessories, the prices are $59 and $99 per pair, respectively, but a $499 bundle will also be available with all of these items.

Next, while a pair of stereo headphones is included with the VR package, along with the headset, a processor unit, and HDMI, USB, and VR connection cables, it is strongly recommended that you upgrade to better-quality on-ear or over-ear headphones for more immersive and higher quality sound.

From a connection standpoint, you’ll need to do some planning to route cables between the PS4 console, the processor unit, the headphones, your audio/video sync device, and, of course, the VR headset. It’s not all that complicated and is in league with what you’ll need to do for Oculus or HTC Vive, but carefully plan where things go.

That said, I can report first-hand that the performance was beyond impressive. The OLED displays deliver 1920×1080 (960×1080 per eye) resolution and once adjusted to one’s eyeglasses, if required, the images were quite good. The combination of well-scripted gameplay, full-rotational viewing, clear imaging with little or no lag, and good sound really puts one in the game.

The overall experience was so good that it knocked me out of my seat–literally. When the “bad guys” threw a grenade at me, my reflexive reaction was to duck and lean back to get out of the way. Unfortunately, there was no back to the couch I was sitting on, and I nearly fell over. The obvious moral here? Play these games while seated in a solid, high-backed chair. Really!

It is worth noting that the system also has a “cinematic mode” that uses the headset to present standard games and movies in a “virtual screen.” Also featured is the ability to view 360-degree still images and full-motion video that was captured using omnidirectional cameras through the PS4 Media Player. The user gets, again literally, a full circle of video options.

The brand power of Sony and the pricing of the PlayStation VR would seem to be a game changer both for video games, in general, and the VR category, in particular. Not requiring the use of a high-powered computer or a mobile phone headset make this attractive, but the likes of Oculus, Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive did not take this lying down. They, along with VR options for Google Cardboard, had impressive demos, as well. Software for VR platforms was also present, showing that the current players were definitely not going to let newcomer Sony’s product take away the market that they have started.

Turtle Beach’s Stealth VR, shown here with an HTC Vive and Plantronics’ Rig VR are among the new headsets designed for use with VR systems.

Another example of how this year’s E3 had some game changers was in the initial showing of accessories designed to accommodate VR. As mentioned, headphones are key to the immersive qualities of VR, and all of the major suppliers indicated that they will have products designed to accommodate the physical interaction of over-ear headphones and the way VR headsets are worn and secured.

Of interest to those who install VR was to see how it changes the game in terms of accessories. Curiously, there were none of the “floor-position-sensing” game platforms shown in the past, and for the last two years at CES. However, we expect to see more VR-centric accessories as the year moves forward, but two interesting ideas were shown at E3.

As noted above, while it is the personal recommendation here that VR be played in a securely seated position, for some games and systems, particularly with HTC Vive, the play is done while standing up. Remember that standing VR gamers are immersed in their own artificially generated video and audio world, and by definition not able to see where they are in the real world. Put aside the idea of falling down, but instead think about what would happen if the VR gamer steps into furniture, a wall or mirror, or worse, wanders too close to a window or the stairs. Not exactly something you want to see happen to your clients.

To prevent that, Nyko, a long-time game accessory brand previewed “VP Guardian.” Set to sell for $99, it has four sensors that are placed on the floor to create a virtual playing field of up to 12 square feet. Gamers wear a band that vibrates with increasing intensity if they get close to, or step out of, the designated area. Thus, without seeing where they are in the real world, they are warned to be careful as they move into areas where they shouldn’t be.

PlayStation VR isn’t that difficult to install from a technical perspective, but you need to work out where the various connections go and allow enough slack for player movement.

Another risk factor is that VR games have been known to cause motion sickness. Coming to the rescue will be Nyko’s “VR Motion Band” and a similar competing product called “ReliefBand.” The former reminds one of the pressure-point bracelets many wear when boating or flying. More sophisticated, ReliefBand is an FDA-cleared device that uses a variety of sensing pulses to determine the specific active stimulation that can mitigate the nausea and other uneasiness VR causes for some.

Here, the game-changing aspect isn’t what the device does, but how and where you can use it creatively to change the game. Isn’t that what we’re all about on many levels?

In some years, the news from E3 is modest, or perhaps more game-centric than device and installation-centric. E3 2016 was definitely the latter. Remember that console and PC gameplay today is far from the notion of a teenage boy on his elbows on the floor in front of a TV. The latest survey from the Entertainment Software Association, E3’s sponsor, said that the average age of a game player is 35 and the most frequent female game players average 44 years old. Add to that the fact that the 18- to 35-year-old age group is the largest percentage of game players (29 percent). Even more interesting, game players more than 50 years old are 26 percent of the game playing universe, only one percent less than those under 18.

In past years we’ve said that “games are not a game” and the game changers at E3 2016 drive that point home more than ever. As game technology moves in different ways to 4K, HDR, and VR, make sure your business doesn’t get short changed!

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a CEDIA Fellow and contributing editor to Residential Systems in Sherman Oaks, CA.

Addressing the Pokémon Go Phenomenon

Pokémon Go, available since mid-July, has exploded as a popular download for iOS and Android phones since E3. Combining an innovative mix of AR, along with active, “get out of your chair” gaming, it has turned the game world significantly. While the mobile game itself has few points of involvement for the residential design/install firm, it does provide potential customer interaction points. Why not buy some “battery banks” imprinted with your company’s name to use as a “leave-behind thank you gift” when visiting clients of prospects? Anyone playing the game will attest to the fact that it drains the phone’s battery due to extended use. Let them think of you while wandering around and holding up a phone. Perhaps another way to expand on your role as “digital concierge” is adding some hints and pointers about “Go” in your next customer-facing communications.
–Michael Heiss