"So, what makes this an Oculus killer?" I asked, awkwardly punching cows in Minecraft while wearing a green-and-black plastic helmet that made me look like a xenomorph ported into cyberspace.
I was standing inside a booth prominently marked OCULUS KILLER, lined with comparison charts between the Oculus Rift and its titular killer, the 3DHead virtual display (spoiler: Oculus doesn't come out looking good.) "Oh, I don't know," said the company's COO. "That's just marketing stuff."
The 3DHead is so weird that I'm half-convinced it's a piece of performance art. The central component is a roughly 7-inch tablet with a glasses-free 3D screen. If you want to use it as a very, very large portable console, you can clip it into a gray gamepad that looks like it should be controlling a forklift. If you want a VR headset, you slide it inside the aforementioned helmet, some six inches away from your eyes. Oculus Rift images (and those of most other headsets) look big and 3D because the screen is very close to your eyes, it's split to create stereoscopic depth, and it's magnified with a pair of lenses. The 3DHead's images are 3D because you're still looking at a 3D tablet, except now it's suspended in front of you and uses head tracking.
I think I broke Minecraft
I asked why they'd chosen glasses-free 3D instead of a close-up stereoscopic screen. "Do you like staring at a split screen?" the COO demanded, with surprising vehemence. When I wondered if maybe the field of view could be wider, he picked up a larger tablet and asked if he should build for it instead. The 3DHead is already heavy and front-loaded enough that it started slipping whenever I looked down, so I'm not sure I'd actually notice the extra weight. To its credit, the head tracking did work pretty well, so I was able to play Minecraft until it inexplicably crashed — actually, I wonder if I broke it, because I don't think they let the guy behind me do more than look around.
Did I mention that it's supposed to sell for $595? Or that when I checked an online store this morning, the price had somehow changed to $999? And if you want the controller too, it's twice as much?
But what's really interesting isn't even the headset, it's the fact that 3DHead is combative billionaire Alki David's bizarre attempt to cash in on — or raise buzz through — the VR boom with a 10-year-old piece of rendering technology. David is the man behind TV service FilmOn (previously "Aereokiller"), some nasty media feuds, and a million-dollar dare for someone to strip down in front of President Barack Obama. As explained on his company Anakando's site, he acquired the technology from a company called Gamecaster, which didn't actually create it for head-mounted displays. Here's a description of Gamecaster's system from 2008:
The patented GCS3 virtual camera control is a replica of a real-world video camera. However, the GCS3 viewfinder does not display the real world but a virtual world generated by a computer. Using the GCS3, camera operators are able to use the same skills and methods of controlling a real camera to smoothly pan, tilt, truck, crane, and zoom the lens of a virtual camera within a virtual environment created with Autodesk, Maya, or video game engines.
"A smart, creative kid with 3DHead ... can most definitely produce the next Avatar."
As a 3D development project, that actually sounds pretty reasonable — downright innovative, in fact. As someone on Reddit suggested last year, it looks like David bought the GCS3, replaced the screen with a tablet, put it inside a helmet, and brought a shambling abomination of a head-mounted display to CES. A 3DHead press release more kindly calls it a "prosumer version." As David puts it, "a smart, creative kid with 3DHead, who downloads the free versions of Maya and Unreal Engine 4, can most definitely produce the next Avatar." I have absolutely no idea how that is supposed to work.
Reddit's Oculus board has long been skeptical of the 3DHead. "My hope is that this will be a marketing stunt to promote one of Alki David's quasi-legitimate enterprises at CES. Or less likely — promote an HMD that doesn't look like a complete joke," mused one member, who posted an in-depth report on the 3DHead's history last year. "Then again, I also hope that this thing is real and totally crashes and burns at CES. It'd be an embarrassment of epic proportions!" Yes it would, crazy_goat.
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