The future of VR is Open — HDK2 review

Virtual Reality is the biggest new venture in computing with the long awaited release of consumer VR headsets last year. The big names in VR at the moment are the VIVE, Oculus RIFT and PlayStation VR. These consumer headsets are remarkably expensive for first generation tech and being an early adopter is a big gamble when the direction of VR may change dramatically in the next few years. Platform and exclusivity wars are an additional hinderance for VR with Oculus / PSVR the main culprits so far. Not all is doom and gloom however as there is a OpenVR standard for VR development called OSVR. Open standards for VR development are necessary for VR to flourish. Content should not be platform restricted. Here we review an alternative VR HMD that is not constrained to platform or modification rules, keep reading for the what, how and why you should consider the HDK2!
OSVR HDK2 unboxing setup
What is OSVR?
OSVR is an open source VR platform that has the freedom to combine different brands of HMDs and Controllers to experience VR without limits. The tagline for OSVR is aptly "Plug In. Play Everything." However OSVR is not the perfect plug & play experience that you may find with consumer headsets — the HDK2 is primarily aimed at the hack & developer community. Don't let that put you off however as the new “HDK Windows Installer” is much more consumer focused with a single installer to get you going in VR.

The advantage of OSVR is that you are not limited in how you use your headset. To get most out of OSVR technical knowledge certainly does help. If you are already familiar with open source, GitHub, patching/modding games then that is the technical caliber needed. There are plenty of community reddit posts and YouTube videos to follow if you get stuck.

The OSVR community has developed solutions to play games on SteamVR and Oculus exclusive games. The official integration with SteamVR and Steam Storefront is a big asset to OSVR as you get access to all VIVE compatible content. You also haver a free choice of controller combinations with OSVR support for Leap Motion, VIVE wands, RIFT motion controller, Playstation Move Controllers and Razer Hydra. Whereas a motion controller is not essential it certainly is a key part of the experience and required for many games. As a minimum I would recommend the Steam Controller for navigating SteamVR and to play gamepad style games.
OSVR logo
Improvements of the HDK2
The HDK2 is the second major iteration of headset by Razer. HDK2 is a large improvement over the previous 1.4 version with on paper specs equal to or if not better than the VIVE and RIFT. The display features 2160 x 1200 441ppi dual-display technology (1080 X 1200 per eye) and importantly an improved frame rate of 90 hz. It is worth noting that NVIDIA is officially supported NVIDIA, with beta support for AMD.

The HDK2 has a dual lens system design that allows you to change the focus of individual lens on the fly. This is a great feature for those who wear glasses as they can take them off for play The field of view is 110-degrees which is good but not as high as competitors.

The HDK2 comes with a small IR (infrared) camera that works at 100hz for positional head tracking. There are hidden LEDs in the headset faceplate that are used in the tracking. The benefit of IR is that it works well daytime or night. There is no calibration or figure-of-eight movements required you get full 360 degree tracking without any hassle. I found the head tracking to be very responsive in all directions and was fast enough to not induce any motion sickness. Moving towards & away from the IR camera does not provide a lean in/out experience.

More general information about the HDK2 now… I found the HMD to be comfortable to wear with soft foam padding around the eyes and a large adjustable ski-goggle strap. The HMD itself is fairly heavy but not enough to affect general use. The lens do steam up occasionally shortly after starting a VR session. The IR camera comes with a free detachable mount which is very useful, I would have preferred a mount similar to the Logitech C922 for easy monitor mounting. The power supply comes with all travel adapters. And yes first generation VR is an absolute nightmare for cable management…
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Requirements
  • Intel i5-4590 or better
  • Nvidia 970 / Radeon R9 290 or better
  • 8 gb RAM +
  • One free HDMI on GPU (optional DisplayPort to HDMI converter)
  • Two free USB 3.0 ports (optional USB port hub)
OSVR HDK2 Razer Box

What's in the box
  • Head mounted display (HMD) [2160 x 1200 pixel display, 90 fps, 441 ppi] + lens dust covers
  • Infrared (IR) positional tracking camera [360 degrees] + detachable tripod
  • Power cable + travel adapters
  • Braided multi connection cable for HMD (HDMI and USB to computer)
  • Braided USB cable for IR camera
  • Belt cable clip for connecting HMD, IR camera, 3.5mm audio out & optional motion controller
  • Manual & warranty information
  • Air Duster (not shown in image above)
OSVR HDK2 accessories unboxed unboxing

HDK2 setup

First of all it is worth mentioning there are different methods for setting up the HDK2. The recommended path would be to use the new beta "HDK Windows Installer" as it includes everything to get you going. There is nothing stopping you from custom patching afterwards. The alternative is to download and manually install each component from the repository found on the OSVR Developer website.

Having tried both options the “HDK Windows Installer” is my preferred option, setup is less than 2 minutes! Here I will walk through the beta HDK Windows Installer (beta 0.7).

1. Download the “HDK Windows Installer”
First of go to the OSVR website "Getting Started" page and download the “HDK Windows Installer” (beta v0.7 *at time of writing*) or click here.
OSVR HDK windows installer page
2. *Optional* Install Steam & install SteamVR before HDK2 software

3. Plug in your HDK2 and Run Installer

3. Update firmware for HMD
Open HDK Firmware Utility and press "Update Firmware" button. Follow instructions and run HDK_Bootloader_Drivers.exe when asked. Choose the latest HDK2 firmware (at time of wiring HDK2_ONLY_v2.00.hex)
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And that's it! More info is available on the OSVR wiki if needed.

Initially it may be confusing to work out how to turn on and use your headset but in fact it is very simple. The main file you need is the core "HDK_Tray_app.exe" found in C > Program Files > HDK-Software_suite > HDK-TrayApp. Make sure you create a shortcut on your desktop. Simply run the Tray App > Right Click icon > Start Server and you are up and running. Try the OSVR Test Applications to ensure your headset is working correctly. It is strongly recommended you use "Direct Mode" when possible as the headset will detect applications when they are started.

If you want to play games the best place will be over at Steam. To get started Open OSVR_TrayApp > Start OSVR sever > Start Steam > Start SteamVR. The follow the simple SteamVR setup for a seated experience. Assuming you have not got motion controllers on SteamVR you should have 2 green icons (one for the display & one for a tracker).

Problems with VR so far
The main obstacle I found in VR is not having motion controllers. Without motion there is a severe lack of content I feel a motion controller is almost a requirement for VR. A promotional bundle with Leap Motion or Razer Hydra would have been welcome for VR starters.

I have also found that the VR is quite temperamental to break across all VR platforms. With every driver, Windows or Steam update there is a chance something will break and will need to be patched. Once you have your HDK2 working I would avoid updating NVIDIA / SteamVR / Windows drivers until you are sure they are supported. Otherwise you will end up spending more time fixing after each update rather than playing.

The HDK2 does not have a front-camera which would have been very useful for quickly finding the mouse without taking the headset off. It is not essential feature but certainly would be a quality of life improvement to have one.

In the future I could imagine that the advent of full 4k VR would start the slow death for gaming monitors. Current gen VR headsets are 1080p which is not good enough for reading documents or using normal desktop apps in VR due to pixelation. When immersed in a good game the resolution is quickly forgotten but the next-gen HMDs must step up the display quality for a compelling VR experience.

OSVR content
Below are recommendations for content and what to do with your HDK2.

For a quick experience of VR
ShowdownVR (Epic Games)
— OSVR native
— 2 minute cinematic game footage which is great for demoing VR cababilities

INVASION! (Baobab Studios)
— SteamVR
— A 5 minute VR film which gives a taste of the future in animated films. Imagine how great a Pixar full feature film would be!

Destinations (Valve)
— SteamVR + Motion controllers
— Workshop support is particularly great for community submissions. Go anywhere with Destinations!

Itch.io OSVR content
— A whole list of free & paid games native OSVR

Best VR designed games
The Lab (Valve) & NVIDIA® VR Funhouse (Nvidia)
— SteamVR + Motion controllers
— A great example of how fun and different VR is to conventional games. The motion and physics are perfect. You need motion controllers however to play!

Full immersive games for VR
Project Cars (Slightly Mad Games)
— SteamVR
— The greatest driving simulator game with VR support, grab your HMD and steering wheel this is your first must play!

Elite Dangerous (Frontier Games)
— SteamVR
— The best in the business for space sim fans, this time get your flight stick out and experience space in VR. The game is particularly complex so get familiar with the game before trying VR, for example having to take off the HMD to find the right button for docking ruins the immersion.

VR tools
Unity game engine
— Download OSVR addon or SteamVR addon
— Make games or experiences in VR using Unity. Try out the example projects in the addons section to get started. I personally found Unity to be alot easier and faster to get started than Unreal Engine.

Unreal Engine

• VR 360 video players (many available for OSVR and SteamVR)

Firefox Nightly
— OSVR-WebVR web browser plugin
— Use WebVR to check out websites such as Sketchfab

vorpX
— Play any non-VR game with your HMD (did not have licence to try it out)

Viereo Perception
— Same as Vorpx but less refined, but importantly it is free!

Virtual reality is in a strange place at the moment as it is first generation tech and has a serious lack in good VR content. It certainly is not wise to lump up £759.00 for a VIVE when the technology will be changing very quickly. The HDK2 is by far the cheapest high-end VR headset on the market and importantly allows (well in fact encourages) modification of the headset and code. Exploration is key for a new platform such as VR. The new “HDK Windows Installer” has made the HDK2 much more consumer friendly which is very welcome for new and old users alike.

If you are still on the edge about getting into Virtual Reality the HDK2 is the cheapest high-end headset on the market.

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