So, late January 2017 a kickstarter was launched promising a low price, low latency, front facing, 6 Degree of Freedom tracking and input solution for mobile VR. It was called Nolo VR, it’s manufactured by Lyrobotix, and I did not participate. I should have, but I was still wary that they could deliver on their promises. The project got a pretty decent response and while it didn’t ship out quite on time, they have delivered the product. After a couple of good reviews came out, I pre-ordered the product on June 8th and it “shipped” out July 17th with the second round of Kickstarter backers. A few weeks after it was originally promised. I don’t have any bad blood towards Lyrobotix, it was their first product and they’re still trying to get their delivery strategy properly ironed out. My biggest peave about the whole process would probably be the lack of updated information on their website about when my order could be expected to be fulfilled. They used a fulfillment partner that it seems shipped the product en masse to their respective countries and shipped out individual orders via local delivery companies from there. It was a very confusing process and my order wasn’t delivered until August 2nd after first sitting in customs for ten days after I recieved my tracking number. Again, not Lyrobotix’s fault, just a frustrating situation lacking information. I order from china a lot, so I understand how these things happen.
Since my order was first shipped, Lyrobotix did put up a page on their website regarding shipping information, but I found it somewhat useless. The time tables didn’t really match up with my experience.
My order arrived August 2nd while I was out of town and I wasn’t able to get my hands on it till August 6th. Quite the ordeal, I know. 😉 The package arrived bagged up in one of those air filled baffles and was thankfully in great condition. The packaging was pretty decent for a first iteration and I was pretty happy with it. The controllers are a bit smaller than what I was expected after having been using a friend’s Vive for the last few months, but I’ve become accustomed to them. I’ve got large hands, so it’s just one of those things I deal with on the regular anyway.
Ultimately, when it boils down to it, the Nolo technology is a single broadcaster, budget adaptation of Valve’s Lighthouse tech. It uses criss-crossing infrared beams for sensors to determine their location in space and an ultrasonic pulse to assist with determining depth or timing. It’s a rather ingenious implimentation… and when it works, it’s pretty decent.
When it works. The first 24 hours were a major headache. Hardware-wise this stuff seems like a Consumer Version. Reasonably decent in quality, it feels solid in your hands. Software-wise it’s much more like a development kit. Most people who ordered the NoloVR did so with hopes of using it as a tracking solution with SteamVR, Riftcat, and whatever headset you may prefer. Various Cardboard, GearVR, PiMax, and other OSVR headset solutions. There’s been some pretty good advancements towards getting that working, but when the NoloVR is shipping for about $200 and the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are dropping their prices, it seems like a waste of money for the quality you’re getting. The NoloVR just can’t compete with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Personally, I bought the NoloVR specifically for mobile VR in order to develop Unity applications for my GearVR. With my lifestyle, I need something I can deploy in a hotel room or the middle of the woods and be able to use it without hauling around a full blown gaming rig and HMD setup. I don’t need the hassle of dragging a GTX 1080ti with me wherever I go, no matter how pretty those Corsair cases are. So, the first thing I did when I got my NoloVR unpacked was download the Unity SDK and build the GearVR examples.
Unity Impressions with GearVR
When it works… Holy shit, did this thing not work right out of the box. In order to use the NoloVR you’re trying to pair 4 pieces of hardware together via what I think is bluetooth so you can plug one of those pieces of hardware (the head tracking sensor) into your phone or computer. Reading the forums, I was lucky enough that I got everything paired properly the first time and no issues since then. But, when I loaded up the GearVR app my controllers were sitting about ten feet above my head, behind me, facing away from me, and moving inverse to where I moved them. I experimented with various things I found on their forums and github to no avail. Finally hours after after unpacking this thing I ran across a reddit comment offering instructions and a link to some sort of Base Station hotfix repair. Now I’m not normally one to download and run random pieces of software I find on the internet, especially when it might brick the $200 hardware I recieved after waiting two months, but I was desperate and it was late. And it actually worked!
With one caveat.
The Nolo controllers rely on the faux Lighthouse for positional tracking, but for directional configuration they rely on internal IMUs (Inertial Measurement Unit) which means each time you start up your software you typically have to recalibrate your controller’s “center”. It’s not a deal breaker, but it can be a bit annoying and I’m not sure how well it’s going to fly when I’m trying to demonstrate this to people who aren’t as forgiving of tech quirks as me. In other words, any software I create is going to be judged for this little weird immediate idiosyncracy by people who are more accustomed to the polish of a finished product. Not a deal breaker, but not ideal.
When it works, it works pretty well. The tracking is Light and Ultrasound based, so ideal environments are quiet, low lit, and lacking reflective surfaces. Obviously, it’s not the precision of an HTC Vive, but for what it is and costs, it’s rather impressive. It’s got a pretty decent range, something like 17ft by 17ft, but you do need a buffer of a few feet between you and the base station in order take full advantage of that range. It’s a single basestation so it’s officially front facing, but depending on height of the base station you can get some leeway. For the PC users there are some NoloVR provided driver versions that allow for mounting the basestation on the ceiling for a downward facing 360 degree usage, but I haven’t played around with that yet. My pc streaming has been less than ideal and not really what I’m interested in.
The Unity SDK comes with 3 scenes demonstrating various features; A Debug script showing that status of every possible controller variable, a weak teleport function, and a handy rotation/scale script akin to the grip and manipulate functions you can find in Tiltbrush. The SDK isn’t nearly as useful as the SteamVR asset, but it’s enough to start a foundation. My hope is something like VRTK or somebody will create an interaction engine that will solidify some of the best practices we should using with this stuff.
I’m happy with my purchase, let me just say that first. For under $200 I got a mobile room scale solution I can use with my GearVR. I look forward to seeing what I can accomplish with it and I’m already feeling like I’ve pushed past a couple of plateaus in my understanding of Unity since I’ve gotten it. However, there’s not really any software for it. Like I said, this is more like a development kit. There’s a single Nolo Tetris game which isn’t half bad, but other than that, only one or two more pieces of software out there that people released a Nolo version as kind of an afterthought. No one has really developed specifically for this yet. Thanks to riftcat, there’s been more development towards getting it to work with a PC and SteamVR than there really is for actual mobile use. Hopefully that will change before Lyrobotix does their second round of pre-order shipments in October.
Other drawbacks and issues: the cable situation is a mess. The cable they provided for use with the GearVR is a really tight fit that often pulls out of the GearVR’s USB-c plug causing all sorts of havoc with your App anytime you accidentally brush the cable. The other cable issue was that a lot of the SteamVR folks found that the two ten foot usb cables provided for streaming from their PC either doesn’t want to work with their phones, or required a powered hub to get the job done. Again, it’s their first time, these are the kind of hurdles and things you hopefully correct for later.
The trigger on the controllers. Not analog. Purely digital. Either on or off. Probably wouldn’t be a big deal if I hadn’t spent a decent amount of time using the HTC Vive months previous to getting the NoloVR, but it’s a drawback.
Though it’s still usable, I’ve already broken the clip that attaches the head sensor to my GearVR. You get two adhesive prepared clips of different configuration depending on how you need to affix your head sensor to your headset. Mine has broken after about a month of use. Lame. Plus, the placement of the clip was somewhat restricting access to my GearVR’s focus knob. Which was even more of a pain in the ass because the slightest wrong move would lead to bumbling that USB cable that might throw everything in to chaos. Which could also happen everytime you start your app and android asks if its okay for your app to use USB and you’ve got to click the side of your GearVR to say yes. That’s not Lyrobotix’s fault, but the cable being so short and tempermental is. Just saying.
There’s probably a couple more negatives I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. Occasionaly tracking burps where your controller goes flying off into space for a moment are understandable with a single base station, if not ideal. Obviously, there’s still a lot to be worked out with the SteamVR streaming, but Lyrobotix and Riftcat seem to really be making progress on that and i’m not the best one to discuss it. I’ll leave it to someone else.
I do not regret my purchase, I’m actually rather satisfied and see a lot of potential here. If you’re a mobile developer looking to get into an early adoption of something that could be a potentially decent mobile VR solution, I say go for it. I think the system has potential, it just needs software to demonstrate it at this point. With more Daydream headsets and the new GearVR coming out you’ve got at least a couple more years of headsets lacking their own real positional tracking and input, this might be a good place to gain your development footing. If you’re PC gamer, you’ve already got a rig, and are looking for something to use with SteamVR… Save your money and get a Vive or whatever lighthouse based VR Headset comes out next. (I’m not an Oculus constellation fan.) The few hundred bucks you save on the Nolo isn’t going to be worth the lack of quality you’re sacrificing. So to reiterate, for early adoption Mobile VR: Buy it. For SteamVR: Pass.
NoloVR Developer SDKs and Documentation
/r/NoloVR on reddit
/r/vridge (riftcat) on reddit
NoloVR Group on Facebook
NoloVR Facebook Page