The dream of virtual reality is not new. From Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy to the Hollywood fantasies of Star Trek and Tron, there has long been a vision of removing the barriers between user and monitor, between the digital and physical. In gaming, crossing that boundary makes extra sense; it’s a medium built on the principle of making virtual creations that evoke real emotions. Pushing players deeper into their games is an ambitious yet logical next step.
Today, that next step is closer than ever. And at E3 2013, its future wasn’t pushed by market leaders like Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft. It was tucked away in a bland little meeting room in the back corner of the Los Angeles Convention Center, occupied by an increasingly prevalent startup called Oculus VR.
Led by its 20-year-old, frizzy-haired, sandals-clad founder, Palmer Luckey, this group has been gaining notoriety from gaming industry rookies and luminaries alike for a product that garnered almost $2.5 million in funding through Kickstarter, and could fundamentally change the way people interact with video games. That product is a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift, and TechnologyGuide was able to use it last week.
There’s a simple reason why the Oculus Rift has gained support from most everyone who has come into contact with it: it works. It really does. TG‘s first tech demo was with the 1280 x 800 resolution kit that numerous developers have toyed around with over the past several months. It was made in Epic’s newest Unreal Engine 4, ran at a smooth 60 frames per second, and took TG to a snow-covered castle high up in the mountains.
Using the Rift can appropriately be termed “an experience.” It’s like getting on a rollercoaster for the first time. An Oculus VR representative made sure the black, bulky, heavily padded devkit was tightly and securely fastened around our skull, and told us not to move around too quickly at first so that we could properly avoid motion sickness. When we were in the game, the rep would periodically check in with questions like “Everything going okay?” or “How you holding up in there?” The key words are indeed “in there.”
Once TG started playing, adapting to the Rift’s style of movement took a moment. The headset doesn’t replace traditional controllers entirely – though some developers are building games that change that – but uses them in conjunction with the VR. TG‘s demo was on PC, but it used an Xbox 360 pad, so moving around was still done with the left analog stick. What the Rift effectively does, then, is make the right stick obsolete. That’s a more dramatic endeavor than it sounds.
The trick is giving players full, 360-degree camera control on their own terms. It uses a built-in magnetometer, gyrometer and accelerometer to do this. If a player turns, spins or leans his head — and just his head — around in reality, the in-game avatar does the same. TG spent the first few minutes of its demo simply stopping and staring at the individual snowflakes as they danced to all sides of the ground.
The Rift doesn’t necessarily make games look any better or worse on a technical level. Instead, it uses its dual HD monitors, one for each eyeball, to change a player’s perspective. Instead of staring at a screen, TG felt like it was a part of the screen itself. In other words, we didn’t suddenly feel colder when we watched the snow fall around us, but we felt surrounded by it, which is the point.
Once TG had its fill outdoors, it moved into the castle itself. There, streams of lava flowed from the ground, and a giant demon affectionately termed the “lava lord” rested. Letting players get up close and personal with a highly-detailed character model like this is where the Rift shined the most.
Creatures that are meant to be imposing suddenly feel much more so once they are directly towering over the player’s camera. The monster in TG‘s demo stayed put, but after seeing him right there in front of us, one could easily envision certain fight or chase scenes where players are frantically swinging their heads about or looking over their shoulders.
That was all with the devkit that has been making the rounds with industry types for months now. Oculus VR’s main showing at E3, however, was a new consumer prototype headset that felt noticeably lighter, and ups the Rift’s resolution from 720p to 1080p. The company told TG that the new kit was finalized just days before the expo, and that it was one of only a handful currently in existence.
Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe said that while this 1080p set is only fresh out the oven, it’s the lowest possible resolution that the company would be willing to sell to the public. With the latest PC and console gaming hardware making 1080p a standard, such a move would make sense.
TG was then put through the same Unreal Engine 4 demo on the 1080p prototype. It didn’t take long to notice the upgrade. Textures were sharper, colors popped more, and movement felt a little slicker thanks to the increased clarity. Mind, it wasn’t exactly a night-and-day difference, but one could more easily appreciate the ridges and scales on the lava lord’s skin, for instance, with a 1080p kit. It looked better, and that should bode well for consumers.
The next demo was something completely different. Virtual reality tech has obvious uses in industries beyond gaming, and while multiple Oculus VR reps reiterated to TG that the Rift is solely a gaming product (“This is a passion project, and we’re gamers,” Oculus VR VP of Product Nate Mitchell proclaimed), they did showcase a program that can best be described as a virtual theater simulator.
Built by, in Oculus VR’s words, “one guy from Korea,” the demo put TG into an empty digital cinema. On the theater’s screen was a preview of Man of Steel. The actual preview, not some virtual remake. Once the surreal feeling of watching a screen within a screen wore off, TG turned around to see rows of red seats on all sides, doors up at the front, and even a projector showing the preview at the top of the room. (The program is actually an app called VR Cinema3D, by the way, and it was made by developer Joo-Hyung Ahn.)
It doesn’t sound like much in writing, sure, but it’s something else to see a computer-created place become one’s temporary reality. The word “immersive” has been neutered by marketers and PR men over the years, but if any product genuinely merits the term, it’s the Oculus Rift. Yes, it still replaces the majority of one’s limbs with joysticks and buttons, but the Rift’s ocular tricks are as close to feeling inside of a game as one can get these days. If nothing else, it’s a promising start.
That being said, there are issues. For one, although the consumer prototype is lighter — and not as uncomfortable as it may look from afar — it still isn’t much of a looker. Oculus VR recognizes this, and told TG that the goal is to eventually make the Oculus Rift closer to the size and weight as an everyday pair of ski goggles. As it is now, that ideal design appears months away.
Yet even with a physical makeover, the Rift may still suffer from some nagging technical issues. TG found itself frequently readjusting the headset over its eyes to keep the screen from getting blurry, and moving too quickly in-game lead to some very real nausea. This is somewhat expected, since video game movements are often too fast to be considered lifelike, but users will have to go through some adjustment period before heading into the Rift experience.
Furthermore, while the headset itself is a wonderful tool, it’s still dependent on the games developers build for it. Palmer and Mitchell wouldn’t go so far as to say that their hardware is outpacing its developers’ software when TG asked, but Rift-ready games are certainly in their infancy stages.
Even in the Unreal Engine 4 demo on the 1080p kit, some far-off objects still looked fuzzy. In general, any sort of visual hiccups or glitches are going to become that much more noticeable when they’re right in a player’s face. This is without even mentioning the simple disconnect the Rift causes between controlling one’s body and one’s head, and all the awkward control issues that could cause.
But while there’s still a long way to go before a steady stream of smooth VR games is a reality, the future may not be as far off as one may think. Gaining Epic’s support with Unreal Engine 4 is certainly a big win for Oculus VR when it comes to future blockbusters, current support with Unity helps immensely with a number of smaller developers, and there’s a sizable list of titles either already working with the Rift or planned to work with it in the near future.
Team Fortress 2 and Hawken are already Oculus-certified. The E3 show floor housed four experimental indie games (The Recital, Soundself, If a Tree Screams in the Forest, and Homework from Another World) that are compatible with the headset. CCP Games’ dogfighting sim prototype EVR wowed TG with its deep space atmosphere and head-tilting control too.
Games like these aren’t perfect, but they’re improving. Most importantly, they’re getting more and more creative, which is the kind of thinking new technology like the Rift’s requires. There will be growing pains, but the desire to make VR gaming work is there, which means that the quality titles themselves shouldn’t be too far behind.
And when the games do get here, they may not be limited to just PCs, as they are now. Sony’s Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida has confirmed that the company has “a couple” Oculus Rift devkits in its possession, and TG can confirm that representatives from Microsoft met with Oculus VR at E3 last week as well.
Neither console making company would confirm or deny whether or not their respective next-gen platforms will support the headset in the future, but both systems have internal architectures that are closer to traditional PCs than their predecessors, so porting the tech over may not be an entirely difficult task. Luckey and Mitchell, for their part, told TG that they hope to make the Rift work with consoles down the road, but that their eyes are on just PCs for now.
One last detail that Oculus VR isn’t ready to disclose is what the final version’s price will be. Current developer kits have gone for $300, and while it’s probably safe to assume a 1080p consumer edition won’t be much higher than that, an exact number still hasn’t been decided. But whatever its cost, the Oculus Rift appears to have what it takes to turn more than a few virtual dreams into realities.