With HP's Reverb 2, the Omnicept edition, VR experiences you

HP has added a host of physiology-monitoring sensors to its forthcoming Reverb G2 headset in the name of personalizing the experience and closing a feedback loop to gauge the effectiveness of training and simulations.

The tough reality of VR

Particularly when combined with the power of a fully realized 5G network, augmented reality has the potential to be a foundational technology that plays as much of an everyday role in our lives as GPS or streaming video. In contrast, while virtual reality is a more mature technology, it is pushed into pockets of applications. Sub-$500 products from Oculus and Sony stress gaming while professional products from Varjo and VRgineers fetch thousands of dollars for precise design and engineering work.

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HP has stood in the middle, but not alone, sharing the segment with entrants from Samsung, HTC, and Valve, which is also its partner. HP's PC-tethered Reverb headset series has been pushed toward applications in training, simulation, and collaboration, the latest version of which is due to ship before the end of the year. It boasts a strong image quality. Given the company's strength in business computing, HP has been by far the most ardent supporter of the Windows Mixed Reality architecture, pushing ahead with new models while most of the early supporters dropped out.

But factors such as image quality and field of view can take you only so far in terms of differentiation, so HP has built on the core VR experience by adding table-turning sensors that essentially focus on capturing the wearer's reaction to their VR experience through a heart rate monitor, a face cam and eye tracking via Tobii. The latter allows for foveated rendering, which concentrates the highest-quality rendering where the user is looking, a benefit that could have a general advantage.

Taken together with HP's Omnicept SDK, though, it allows both in-house and commercial developers of VR applications to close the feedback loop for training and simulations. For example, someone instructing an aspiring pilot could detect what kinds of scenarios stress out a student during virtual flights. Or, in a broader application enabled through the VR app Ovation, those working on their public speaking skills could monitor their reactions in front of the virtual crowd and even check to see where they are looking within the audience. HP has gone beyond just using the raw data inputs, though, to develop inference engines. These track metrics like cognitive load that takes into account how focused a user is on a task and how well the wearer understands content being tested and adjusting training on the fly to accommodate those reactions. 

Getting access to this data raises a host of privacy issues; HP says it has developed Omnicept with privacy front and center (for example, no data is stored on the headset) and is incorporating input from a diverse range of users to avoid bias. Commercial developers such as Ovation pay for access to Omnicept through a small revenue share while those developing in-house pay a one-time license fee.

Omnicept is available through a new version of the Reverb G2 headset that is nearly identical to the current version -- with the exception of a ratcheting headset for a quick adjustment (a throwback to the first Reverb) versus the Velcro straps on the new one. And while HP will offer the Reverb G2 through consumer channels (it supports Steam VR), it has no plans to make the Omnicept edition or Omnicept functionality available for games. Much of that is likely due to cost constraints even though it would offer some tantalizing possibilities such as a horror genre game that can dial its level of fright inducement up or down depending on your reaction.

Omnicept cleverly borrows the value of sensor-driven body data from the smartwatch and applies it to a scenario where experiences are richer, more targeted, and have fewer power constraints than the casual health monitoring for which those smaller devices are used. The Omnicept edition of HP's Reverb 2 headset is due next year although some functionality such as tracking face expression will show up after launch.

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