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OSVR Hacker Dev Kit Hands-on: Twice the Rift at half the price

OSVR is even better than the Oculus Rift and half the cost

While the Oculus Rift is making a splash with its big price and Facebook backing, it’s not the only VR headset around.

I’m not talking about the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, or even Google Cardboard. Spearheaded by gaming company Razer and VR developer Sensics, Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) has been building steam, bringing on a slew of partners that include big names like Intel, Visionics, Unigine, and Leap Motion. That collection of partners is starting to pay off in big ways.

It isn’t evident when using the headset that the whole thing is modular.

The open source platform means any brand can produce hardware and software, and all of the schematics and source code is available freely. But there still has to be a physical headset, and that headset is the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit. The $300 headset boasts a 1080p OLED panel with a 120Hz refresh rate, IR faceplate, a camera for position tracking, and the inherent ability to swap out or upgrade everything from the screen to the sensor module.

With big brands attached and compatibility with every major platform, it’s hard to see why the OSVR platform hasn’t received more attention. After trying it out at CES, it seems like it’s time for the underdog to shine.

Comfortable and modular

There isn’t a lot of room for creativity in the design of VR headsets: Simple is better, but too simple and the headset will look cheap. In that limited range, the OSVR is a victory, striking a balance of understated and recognizable, with dark orange accents on a mostly black base. Cables run from the top of the headset and through to the back of the headband, a common configuration. The improvement is that the cables run from the headset down to a hip unit. It clips onto your pocket or belt, keeping the cables close to your side so you don’t trip on them or catch them on your arms.

It isn’t evident when using the headset that the whole thing is modular. It feels cohesive and sturdy, with individual eye focus controls that allow for fine tuning and perfect focus. Some headsets, like the Rift and Vive, have moved towards a triangular band that sits on the crown of your head. The HDK opts for the more typical setup, like a sweatband with a mohawk. It doesn’t sit as snugly as the triangular option, but I didn’t find the headset uncomfortable or heavy as a result.

Available at: Razer Store

Balance is a big issue with headsets, but the HDK’s screen moves closer to the face with each iteration, offering better balance and improved comfort as a result. The whole experience is well designed, and I could imagine myself wearing it for at least a few hours of gameplay.

Slow and steady

The OSVR has one particular that has me especially excited. VR headsets often suffer from the screen-door effect, meaning you can see a grid of lines between individual pixels. It’s caused by the fact that the screen is just an inch or two from your face. The OSVR HDK solves it by using screen-level diffusion and refined optics. The result is a clear picture, snappy response times, and no screen door to speak of.

The HDK’s modular, open-source design opens up a treasure trove of features

That’s all despite the fact that the HDK’s resolution is just 960 x 1,080 per eye, as opposed to the Rift’s 1,080 x 1,200 per eye. The 120Hz refresh rate of the HDK screen makes a more noticeable difference in the clarity and responsiveness of the display, allowing for an experience that’s even smoother and more responsive than the Rift. In fact, having used the Rift in its final form a few times, I’m not afraid to say I enjoyed the OSVR experience more. The HDK looks less like virtual reality, and more like real life. That’s the goal after all, isn’t it?

While the HDK has the basic features of systems like the Rift, its modular, open-source design opens up a treasure trove of possibility. There’s already support for Leap Motion hand and gesture tracking with a swappable faceplate, and that’s just the start. There’s talk of eye tracking, positional tracking room, Android and Mac OS X support, and a big one – wireless streaming. Cutting the cord to VR headsets is a goal that will improve the user experience greatly, and the tech is already working as a proof of concept with the HDK.

On the flip side, the OSVR HDK asks the user to take on more responsibility in exchange for those perks. For example, the Rift’s minimum system requirements are quite a bit more demanding than the OSVR, because Oculus wants everyone who buys one to be able to play everything available for the platform. OSVR doesn’t have the same stringent requirements, because Razer thinks different users have different demands and goals. It’s a concept that PC gamers are used to. Unlike a console, not every PC is capable of running every game, and each user will have to tweak settings to achieve smooth gameplay.

A headset for the PC gamer

In its current form, the OSVR HDK is impressive, to say the least. But the possibilites are the real excitement. It might take a little more legwork on your part, but the reward is a VR headset that’s upgradeable, customizable to the hardware level, and half the price of the Rift.

The downside is that it isn’t as simple as the Rift. It’s not a plug and play device, and there’s no “OSVR Certified” program to ensure it will run with certain systems. There will always be tweaking and tuning to do.

But that’s nothing new for PC gamers, who have always had to be resourceful in order for their gaming experience to be as smooth as possible. This is the culmination of that effort, uniting the maker, DIY, and coding communities to produce a truly open-source VR platform. There’s so much potential, even in the Hacker Dev Kit, that it’s absolutely astounding.

Highs

  • Modular design
  • Upgradeable components
  • Huge potential
  • Lower system requirements

Lows

  • Some assembly required
  • Takes some tweaking