Itty Bitty Rants

Infrequent posts about stuff.

Tilt Five First Impressions

My Tilt Five pre-order finally arrived today and I had the chance to get it out of the box and play with it for a little while and where there are some BIG flaws, it also shows a heck of a lot of promise. I never quite know if making a purchase like this is a good idea or not. I’ve had a few too many really cool toys that I get pretty early and never quite seem to pan out, but maybe this time will will be different, right? ;-)

First impressions from the packaging are honestly pretty good. My single user setup came in a nicely designed reusable case which I really appreciate, and also has obvious spots in the foam inserts if I want to expand to add controllers for more users later which is a nice touch. That case also has a plastic handle on the top that seems like it’s probably about the right weight even with a full set of controllers without being too strained. The best part though is that there is a nice and relatively safe way to store and transport this, which is often an afterthought.

Opening up the “gameboard” I was really surprised to see how large it was! I’m not sure I had actually gotten a good idea of the size from any of the press photos, though checking back it does appear that the measurements are posted a few places. 31.5 x 42in just about completely covers the medium sized table I have for playing games. You’re going to want to clear off the dining room table to use this if you don’t have a dedicated gaming space. That said, that generous size really helps with the immersion in the games in subtle ways that don’t become apparent until later. The gameboard does present the first minor flaw of this system though: The outgassing from the plastics used in it’s construction are immense. Enough that the household got a really strong whiff through the floor and a closed attic door. Ideally you will want to unpack in a very well-ventilated space. I opened a couple of windows despite the sub-freezing temps just to make sure I could clear the air a little.

Wearing the glasses was surprising comfortable over my glasses and are surprisingly well balanced for something that has most of the working parts over the top of the lenses. This is a tethered system and the included cable is just shy of 5 feet long which does make it somewhat awkward for being able to get up and move around the game board a lot. They are working on Android support and I’m really looking forward to that so you can just run the cable to a phone in your pocket and not have to drag around something as large as a laptop to be mobile. The cable also connects in a potentially irritating spot just above the left temple but I was able to tuck it behind my ear to keep it out of the way. However that tucking means that I just reduced the length of my tether by 10% which is kind of a big deal. I think I’ll probably try an extension cable but I do have some concerns that may introduce issues with power to the glasses. It’s pretty clear that they probably could have resolved this issue by having the tether attach to the end of one of the temples instead, though at the risk of raising the weight and complexity I suppose. Still, I have to think there is a more elegant solution available.

I do require corrective lenses and do not wear contacts, but I did try the glasses on without my prescription glasses just to get an idea of what they felt like alone and was immediately grateful that I don’t wear contacts as the glasses were VERY painful on the bridge of my nose. As a lifelong glasses wearer I could see immediately that you could put in some nose pads very easily, but the lack of that sort of basic comfort in the base unit is another sign of possible cost cutting and/or just an oversight by the designers. If you don’t wear glasses you will definitely want to get some decent nose pads before you even try these on.

Returning to the working parts of the glasses for a moment we find what I think is probably the actual flaw with this system that I think is going to be a hard sell for most people, and it’s pretty disappointing. The gameboard is a completely passive part of the whole system. The system works by projecting content onto the lenses of the glasses so there are a couple of LED emitters as well as the spatial/IR tracking system to figure out what you are looking at. All of that hardware in the glasses clearly doesn’t run very cool because there are at least two cooling fans that spin up as soon as you plug in the glasses. While you aren’t wearing the glasses the noise is barely noticeable, especially if you are used to something like a gaming PC or even an Xbox or PlayStation from the past decade. However when you put those glasses on the vibration from those fans is directly conducted into your head like a monster mosquito hiding just out of sight. I found it slightly annoying but was able to ignore it for my short first session, but this is going to be a huge problem for a lot of people and honestly I don’t see this system being a success without either an entirely silent cooling system or at least more expensive fans with bearings that aren’t going to drive 3/4 of their target audience completely insane. It really is that bad, especially when you take into account how well the system (mostly) works.

The wand is pretty comfortable even with my larger hands and has decent feel on the buttons and trigger. The plastic quality could probably be brought up a notch but nothing felt fragile or really cheap. A note: two (2) AA batteries for the wand were NOT included that I could find. An understandable cost cutting measure for a startup, but make sure you have a set ready before you start digging in too much.

The driver download is quick, the install was straightforward, and once I deployed the board, connected the glasses, and picked up the wand it was all there waiting for me to start using it. There we get to the next problem: Game support.

The Tilt Five website lists a number of games as being compatible with the platform and as an inveterate table-top gamer I initially decided to give Tabletopia a try especially since it was the only option on the list that wasn’t going to immediately cost me any money. I’ve used Tabletopia previously when my weekly gaming group had been trying to find solutions early in the pandemic and I knew it had pretty good VR support. Finding the games with Tilt Five support is also pretty straightforward since there is a built-in filter which lists everything that should work with the system. So I looked for something simple and started up Backgammon. The game started up fine on the laptop, but on the gameboard: nothing. I poked around for any settings or options and didn’t find any mention of Tilt Five, so quit the room and started it up again. Still nothing. Thinking maybe it hadn’t found the hardware the first time I quit out of Tabletopia fully, then went back in and still nothing. When in doubt read the documentation so I did just that and noted that on the game start dialog it was supposed to have a “Run in Tilt Five” option available but none was in evidence anywhere in the interface that I could find. After spending 20 minutes I gave up and decided to try something else.

Browsing through the list Mark’s Magnificent Marble Maze immediately caught my eye as a simple single-player experience to try so spent the $10 and very shortly had it ready to start. Again I started up the game and was disappointed to get nothing, but I remembered something else from the documentation that said that I should have my glasses looking at the Tilt Five logo on the gameboard to get started so focused on that for about 5 seconds and suddenly there was a wooden marble puzzle on my table! In my excitement I waved the wand around a bit much and so caused this miraculous apparition to suddenly animate wildly, but once I got that under control it was incredibly easy to use the accelerometer in the wand to control the gimbals on the maze to solve it! And then did it again on a very slightly harder maze. And then the next one, and the next.

I should stop here for a moment to talk about the image quality. I’m used to playing AAA games on an Nvidia GTX 2080 Super equipped laptop connected to an LG 34 inch QHD extra-wide vsync display at full resolution with all the bells and whistles enabled and a really solid frame rate. This is NOT that. I did see detail in the wood grain and reflected light on this magical box on the table, but it was also very slightly washed out and not quite as sharp as I would like. “Ghostly” is the most apt description in a lot of ways, like it was phasing in from the universe next door rather than an actual object. I think it’s fine though. Having played with a lot of AR games on my smartphones over the years the fact that this wooden box was so firmly anchored to the table in a way that just is not possible with a device like my phone more than makes up for the noticeable reduction in image quality. I will probably play around with the lighting and some of the device settings to see if I can’t improve things at least slightly, but I’m fairly certain what I’m currently seeing is pretty close to the capabilities of the device and I think that really is good enough.

Playing some more levels I finally got to a maze where there was a significant portion of the floor removed and I carelessly let the marble drop over the edge. Part of the joy of this game so far was the real sense of mass the ball had as it moved around the space. It really moved like a solid steel ball bearing ponderously rolling over a polished wood surface and at this point I was so fully immersed that the first thing I thought as this large steel ball plummeted towards the floor was to move my feet out of the way under the table! The next thing I thought was, “Don’t dent the flooring!” before watching the ball harmlessly accelerate safely into the virtual void without any physical repercussions.

THAT is the magic of this system and where I can see what the designers have been working toward. There on my gaming table was an object that felt real enough to provoke a slight panic reaction even though I was fully cognizant that none of it existed in real space! Despite the off-gassing, the bulky glasses, the slightly restrictive tether, and the giant mosquito hovering out of sight there was real magic being made. Even playing a few more levels I still jerked my feet out of the way a few more times for an ephemeral object that was never going to get anywhere near them.

So I suppose the important question has got to be: Would I recommend that anyone else buy this system?

… Well … … Um …

Maybe. The fan whine is going to be the dealbreaker for most people. The little things like the nose pads and “batteries not included” are pretty easy to get over, but it’s really hard to say if a particular person is going to be able to spend any time with this system because of those horrible little fans. If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who can ignore a giant mosquito nearby, have about 400 USD laying around for spending on a lark, and don’t mind being on the bleeding edge then I really think this is going to be a fun toy. Everyone else should wait for them to improve the fan noise before thinking about it.

If you do decide to take the plunge here’s the list of things to keep in mind:

  1. Have two AA batteries for each wand ready.
  2. If you do NOT wear glasses, make sure to get some decent quality nose pads.
  3. Unpack the gameboard in a well ventilated area the first couple of times!
  4. Read the guide for starting a game the first time.
  5. Make sure you have the logo on the gameboard in view when you are starting the game.
  6. Ignore the giant mosquito. So far it doesn’t bite.