GameFace: Making a virtual reality Android headset

We get hands and eyes on with the Oculus Rift rival that's taking VR mobile.

GameFace: Making a virtual reality Android headset
© GameFace

We’re inside a crumbling space hulk, the black depths of space twinkling through the distant windows, disintegrating rifle from the future loaded and ready to fire. We spot movement in our peripheral vision.

A tilt of the head - literally, not a shove of a thumbstick - and we turn to get a better look. An arachnid mechnoid scuttles towards us menacingly. Quickly, we settle the laser guided target on it and pull the trigger, once, twice. The robot explodes in a shower of sparks, inches from us. We pull our visor off and we’re back in an office. Exhale.

This experience is not, as you might expect, courtesy of the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that’s seized the imagination of gamers around the globe after decades of false starts. No, it’s the work of GameFace, a small start-up of just three core members working out of London’s One Canada Square, one of the tallest buildings in Europe - and it’s all powered by the same parts as the smartphone in your pocket, tucked away inside the headset.

GameFace
GameFace© GameFace

Of course, that’s not to say that Palmer Luckey, the precociously young founder of Oculus VR, hasn’t tried it - GameFace founder Ed Mason tracked him down at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas just last month to get his thoughts on the team’s prototype.

“He has indeed! He was impressed,” Mason says, when we asked if Luckey gave the GameFace prototype a whirl.

Oculus Rift, in case you’ve missed the hype train, is one of the breakout stars of crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Like the virtual reality headsets of the 90s, it use two lenses with slightly different images right in front of your eyes to simulate a 3D effect, and tilt sensors to allow you to turn your head and move around the world within it as you would IRL - in real life. Of course now it does it with the graphics of top end PCs and the latest games, so the experience is much more immersive - so much so that everyone from Project CARS developer Slightly Mad Studios to industry giant Valve is getting on board with the technology.

Luckey might not know it yet, but GameFace’s headset - which is still to be christened - might just prove to be its greatest competitor, at least in concept if not in sales (neither are commercially available to the public just yet).

You see, not only have GameFace taken a different route, using mobile tech to power virtual reality, not a hulking desktop PC nearby just begging you to trip over it, they’ve come from a different background. Luckey is a hobbyist, a tinkerer, an inventor. But GameFace founder Ed Mason knows that what ultimately matters isn’t the technology - it’s the content. And he’s sitting on a gold mine of 3D material ready to go.

Mason’s last project, 3Dizzy.com was all about cataloguing 3D gaming content, something any virtual reality headset needs. “We started off in stereoscopic 3D, mainly gaming, back in 2009 when 3D was becoming interesting and we started getting the first round of TVs out on the market,” Mason says. “We realised there was a huge lack of content so we found a way to start converting 2D games into stereoscopic 3D. We would then record gameplay of these videos and then upload them. Back in 2009 it was a very difficult thing to do to play a 3D video, so we started collecting a database of very good quality 3D game videos.”

From there, links were established with graphics giant Nvidia. “We started nurturing a stereoscopic 3D gaming community. From there we started opening it up to 3D tablets,” he goes on. Several new Chinese glasses-free 3D tablets are on the way from the likes of Gadmei, NEO3DO and Hampoo, preloaded with the 3Dizzy app. But then Mason read about the Rift and everything changed.

“When the Rift came out we were immediately interested in the potential it held. We realised that Android mobile was really the way to go - the future for mobile was certainly much brighter than for PC gaming in my opinion,” Mason says.

GameFace
GameFace© GameFace

The trio snapped up a few early Rift development kits to give them a go - and immediately spotted the problem. “We tried it out, loved it, downloaded what was available,” says developer Vinnie Rawley. “The one thing we found was this would be amazing if it was wireless [rather than attached to a PC]. You start spinning around you know, you start getting tangled up in wires. It just helps breaks the immersion if you’re wired. We thought let’s have a crack at making a wireless one.”

So they did, cobbling together a prototype from available smartphone parts - and because they used a mobile system on a chip as well, there were no wires necessary.

“Now we do have a bit of an advantage as we are an embedded system,” says Mason. “All other HMDs (head mounted displays) up until now are quite literally just HMDs. They’re head mounted displays. We’re effectively a head mounted device if you will. We’re not tethered to anything.”

That’s good news when you’ve got wide viewing angles (around 100 degrees) and motion tracking games in which you can turn to move without a thumbstick. We found that without cords, an office spinny chair made the perfect upholstery for virtual reality gaming - you don’t even noticed that you’ve gone round several times, until you try to play with an HDMI cable plugged in (the current unnamed prototype supports output to a TV for spectators).

The tech demos we saw were impressive, if not impressively detailed - they look like Android games up close, which is to say polygonal compared to the crisp graphics of a next-gen Xbox One or PS4 game.

But there’s room for improvement, says Mason. A lot. The team are hoping to move onto a new prototype incorporating Nvidia’ Tegra K1 board - it’s a mobile processor with 192 cores of graphical oomph.

Mason, who’s spent the last few weeks travelling around meeting some of the biggest names in gaming, has seen some of the titles on the way, and says we should be excited about the potential. “There’s a tremendous increase in the quality of gamers coming out soon. We’re going to be seeing games, even in-depth RPGs that look amazing - it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing current-generation console type games on mobile devices.”

If you’ve played titles like Infinity Blade, Dead Trigger and Real Racing, you’ll see where he’s coming from - they look great, and with a bit more horsepower they could look great inches from your eyeballs too.

© ChAIRGAMES

All of this will come at a cost, of course. Everyone has to eat, even pioneers in virtual reality. Mason isn’t giving a release date for a consumer version of GameFace’s prototype, but predicts it’ll ring up at a price close to a top end smartphone. “In a perfect world, we'd aim for the £350 mark. If we can get any lower, that'd be fantastic, but that depends on what components we use in the final product.”

In the meantime, Mason is aiming to get hardware ready for developers much sooner. “We're aiming to have devkits available by the end of this year,” he confirms. And he’s piqued the interest of some big name developers - we’re shown photos of some industry heavyweights trying GameFace’ tech out, confirming that the small team mean what they say when they promise to deliver.

GameFace’ prototype is already lightweight-ish at just under a pound, and compared to the Rift, almost attractive. But the fact remains that even as immersive as VR now is, shutting yourself off from the world with a device that almost renders your skull top heavy doesn’t seem like a mainstream pursuit. Even if Valve, the company behind games like Half-Life and Dota 2, ports all of its games to the likes of the Rift, and gets involved in virtual reality as rumoured, will anybody really buy into it in a big way? After all, it’s not like 3D TVs have taken off the way the likes of Samsung intended.

Mason is confident VR will take off. “Over the next five years, I think it's going to be pretty much common place. I think we're going to be seeing a lot more devices on the market, we're going to be seeing some really good content already in existence and we're going to be getting kids who have never played anything other than VR coming into the market, so we're going to have a different attitude to VR.”

“VR is a game changer. You're immersed in the game, and while yes, it's a little cumbersome and heavy at the moment, it's only going to get better from this point forward - so we are going to get to a point in the next six months to a year when the devkit comes out that we'll have a device that's lightweight and comfortable and people will want to put it on, and something that's cool and they'll want to get involved in.”

Besides, says Mason, give it a few years and the display won’t be in front of your eyes anymore - it’ll be inside your head. “Ultimately we'll be having some very clever laser projections to the back of your eyeball technology.”

Of course, unlike 3D, VR may prove a lot more useful beyond gaming. “We've yet to see what devs can come up with. There are a lot more applications with VR than there are with 3D,” Rawley adds.

The Oculus dev kit can be used to help amputees learn to deal with prosthetic arms - or a lack thereof. 3Dizzy has partnered with the British army to photograph the war in Afghanistan in 3D, now viewable on GameFace’ prototype. NASA uses it to control robotic arms, and that’s just the start. Imagine what could be done with a wireless equivalent - like what GameFace is trying to realise.

“There are avenues that we haven't even considered that people are going to create - whole new mediums of entertainment that will evolve from VR that people haven't even thought of yet,” says Mason. Architects can walk in their designs. Soldiers can scout out enemy territory before they even leave camp. The possibilities are endless.

© 3Dizzy.com

If anything will take VR into the mainstream however, it’s the games. The fun comes first. Of course, even with all the developers the team have reached out to, there will always be titles that are out of reach. What would be the one game they’d love to see most rendered in VR? The one title they’d want to live inside?

“It's always been Pokémon,” laughs Mason. “There's an [unofficial] version of Pokémon called Pokemon 3D that’s knocking around the internet, and we got that running on the Rift - that was awesome, to say the least. If we can get something like that ported to the GameFace, that'd be very cool, I'd love to see that.”

Fingers crossed Nintendo will too, some day.