Sep 30, 2013
Last week’s Eurogamer Expo at London’s Earls Court Exhibition Centre featured a whole host of new technology. There was next generation gaming to be found in the form of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, but my interest was piqued far more by the presence of Oculus VR and their virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift.
Oculus Rift is the brainchild of Palmer Luckey, a head-mounted display designer at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. He founded Oculus VR, a company dedicated to bringing an inexpensive virtual reality experience to gamers. A prototype homemade headset was shown for the first time at E3 in 2012, which allowed players to look around the game with their own head movements, instead of controlling it by hand. Following E3 the company set up a campaign on the crowd funding website Kickstarter, with the goal of obtaining $250,000. The funds passed $1 million in less than 36 hours, finally reaching a total of just short of $2.5 million. At this time there is no word on a public release date, but developer kits have been shipping since March 2013, and are still available for purchase.
I was lucky enough to go hands-on with Oculus Rift at the Expo and the hardware is every bit as impressive as has been stated. The brief experience put me in the cockpit of a Second World War fighter plane from the game War Thunder played on Xbox 360. Whilst it wouldn’t be my first choice for a gaming genre it was perfect for this demonstration. A largely open cockpit allowed me to look around freely and see some of the amazing scenery on display. Looking down I was able to see virtual legs and hands controlling the plane. As I used the gamepad in the real world, the in-game hands would control the plane accordingly. At times it really felt like I was there, and there was a genuine feeling of panic as the ground rushed towards me in the midst of a crash (which happened more times than I would care to admit).
It doesn’t take much to recognise the possibilities of the technology. The headset takes us one step closer to actually being inside the game. Add in other pieces of hardware, such as the Virtuix Omni – an omnidirectional treadmill which will allow players to walk through the games as well as look – and we are almost there.
There are some downsides. The first one is a minor issue at worst. For a truly immersive virtual reality experience you would have to match your control scheme to whatever the player’s hands were doing on screen. I could never forget I was playing a game because I was holding an Xbox controller, while my virtual hands were doing something different. Also playable with the headset was Surgeon Simulator 2013. I didn’t get to try it myself, but as it was controlled by keyboard I imagine that experience had even more of a disconnect with what the player was seeing. There might be similar problems if your virtual self is standing while you are comfortably seated. Looking down and seeing your legs running while you are sitting in your living room would again take you completely out of the experience. A small price to pay I realise, but a noticeable one nonetheless.
The bigger issue was that I have to admit I did feel a little motion sickness after only a few minutes of play, which was not unlike travel sickness on a boat. I spoke to the operators about it and they claimed only a small proportion, fewer than one in ten, had reported any ill feeling. Whilst I don’t discount that I could have been one of the unlucky few, it has been a long time since I have felt travel sickness and never had side-effects from viewing 3D. It’s worrying that someone like myself who never has similar problems should experience this. A number of other people I spoke to had similar issues. I suspect that when the Oculus Rift sees public release it won’t be long before medical journals are investigating fully. Oculus VR have also stated that they are going to try to add support for positional tracking, so as well as just head movements it will track things like leaning and bending – they claim this should improve the problems. Oculus VR Vice-President Nate Mitchell has also said it gets better with subsequent uses.
So will the Oculus Rift be a success? Well, industry opinions and the success of the Kickstarter campaign seems to point to the fact it will be. Speaking to the crowd at Eurogamer, everyone seems to want to get their hands on it. Game developer support is there, with Valve and their game Team Fortress 2 being the biggest names involved. As of yet it seems none of the new AAA titles are moving to support it, but if the demand is high it will only be a matter of time. Many feared price point may be an issue, but with the developer kit available at $300 the cost to the end user might not be prohibitively high.
Nevertheless, virtual reality has tried and failed before (most notably Nintendo’s Virtual Boy) and the motion sickness issue may yet cause problems. There also seems to be a general feeling that the most popular games – Call of Duty for example – would require a lot of work to work on the system. And there is always the spectre of competitors, with Microsoft rumoured to be developing something similar. For now though Oculus Rift looks to be in a strong position going forward. I for one look forward to another chance to try the headset, even at the risk of feeling a little queasy.