Eye Opener – My Experience with the Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is one of those newer 3D gadgets that has the same problem as the Nintendo 3DS, 3D movies and televisions: it’s impossible to advertise the true experience using traditional media. It’d be like trying to advertise a scent or a taste: you need the original environment in order to truly showcase the experience. Don’t show me a piece of cake. No matter how delectible it looks, I’ll need a bite of it. Marketers for these 3D devices are basically running up sales on pure hype in the strictest sense of the term: unadulterated buzz obnoxiously free of proof that these 3D experiences are actually worth their hefty entrance fee. For movies, it’s a $3-$4 higher ticket price, for the 3DS, a $170 price tag. And for the darling of virtual reality, the potential One True Savior, a $300 development kit that takes 30 days to even ship.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table: I was cautiously skeptical, but genuinely excited about the Oculus Rift during its initial widly successful Kickstarter campaign in Aug 2012. When you’ve got heavies like John Carmack, Cliff Blezinski, Gabe Newell, and Jack McCauley backing your product, saying it’s the next big thing, you have my attention. The Kickstarter raised almost $2.5 million (10 times their original asking amount) and then a whopping $16 million from Spark Capital and Matrix Partners for consumer production. Yet despite that, I had a hard time imagining dropping 300 bones on a gadget I never even demoed and was impossible to demonstrate visually. Yet the feeling remained: I like this thing. For some reason, I’m still curious. I may just have to cough up and get one.
Check out their initial dub-steppy pitch below:
Even as a games journalist, you had to fork over 300 clams to get your greasy mitts on one, or suffer a 2 hour wait at PAX East or GamesCon behind other mouthbreathers to slap one on for a measly 15 minutes. Instead, I went the indirect route. I found a demo unit for sale on Craigslist about 2 hours from where I live, and decided to demo the mother for myself with the sincere possibility of picking one up. I was prepared to drop $300 on the VR American Dream. This is MURICA, dammit, and I’m going to forge the suburban wilderness and the bumpy turnpikes of Ohio if need be. I’m a first world pioneer. The seller’s name was Ricky, a very accomodating and nice young man. He owned a shop called The Sandwich Factory, and despite being a Craigslist contact, was also nice enough to not murder me and leave my body in a dumpster. In a sweaty, cramped backroom office, on a mid-tier gaming PC with the worst cable management I’ve ever seen, I tried the Oculus Rift for the first time.
It’s A Whole New World
The first thing I noticed: it’s very light, only about 379 grams (less than 1 lb) , similar to wearing a large pair of ski goggles. Even though I almost never engage in these things called “sports”, the moderate bulk was easy to handle and quite comfortable for the hour or so that I used the headset. It’s adjustable for all sizes of melons, and even includes different lenses depending on how wrecked your eyes are. You can wear your Coke-bottle glasses with it, as well.
The headset completely covers your vision entirely. I mean, you can’t see shit unless you’re in a game. Your desktop looks like a blurry mess, since the OS and the rendering software aren’t compatible yet (more on this later). You can see a slight line of light seeping in underneath the bridge of your nose, but that may have been due to the headset not being adjusted properly, or my itty-bitty dome. Either way, it was only a slight distraction and was quickly ignored.
Ricky fired up the Tuscany Demo, widely seen as “Baby’s 1st VR”. There’s a brief moment of blackness, and then, Tuscany. I laughed out loud in sheer delight.
Amber Fields of View
I know why people have trouble explaining what the Oculus is. I know why you just need to try it. There are two groups of people: those who have tried, and those who haven’t. It’s impossible to truly express the first moment you turn it on. The most impressive, immediate effect is that the Oculus fills your entire field of view. There’s no borders, no boxes, just the demo itself. I was staring at a branch wafting in the digital breeze. The 1-1 head tracking has extremely low latency, meaning if you turn your head, your digital avatar turns its head too. I was using an Xbox 360 controller to move around and kept looking down at my hands, expecting to see them. A lack of a digital self is slightly disorienting, making me feel disembodied and floaty. I know for a fact that it’s a game, a virtual world, but I still expected to see my hands or lap more so than any other FP game I have ever played. The head movement is smooth, natural, and intuitive.
The Tuscany Demo is an excellent entry into the virtual universe. It’s calm, open-ended, and you can explore at your own pace. And that’s exactly what I did: explore. I stared at fireplaces and tables with a fascination I’ve rarely had in a game. It’s just a furnished country villa with a tree outside, an unimpressive test map given an entirely new dimension, so to speak. I spent a good ten minutes just wandering about, chuckling and wondering where my hands were.
I tried the following games/demos:
- Titans of Space (my personal favorite)
- Dumpy: Going Elephants (my second favorite)
- Don’t Let Go
Titans of Space showcases the most potential of all the demos right now. It’s a simple but elegant concept, a showcase of our solar system in its stupendous scale and majesty, as well as some nearby enormous stars such as Canis Majoris. You’re not just watching some dull astronomy presentation, you’re engaged with our nearby planetary neighbors, watching them whoosh by. I even found myself flinching when the blue giant Rigel zoomed towards me. It’s a great marriage between education and entertainment. Imagine learning about historical cities by wandering around them in the first person, or exploring a strand of DNA at the molecular level.
Need My VR Legs
I am not prone to motion, air, or sea sickness. But recently, I took a family trip to Cedar Point and nearly yacked after going on the Mantis, one of the more hardcore rollercoasters. In my youth, I’ve been to the Point enough and never even had so much as a gurgly stomach, but the Rift gave me the pukies. So maybe I’m just getting older, more wise it seems. I age like a fine wine. I didn’t actually hurl in Ricky’s office, but I certainly had to take a moment and close my eyes and let the feeling pass. The worst nauseating moments are when you’re looking in one direction, but you turn the analog stick to physically turn your virtual body in another, that’s when it kicked in for me. That cold, empty feeling that says “Mayday, eject! Eject breakfast burrito!”
Owners of the Rift complain about this exact same issue and claim that it takes a few green-gilled days to acclimate yourself to the VR-verse. It’s called “getting your VR legs”, which I found was slightly abated by having a virtual body in other demos I tried. Just seeing your chest below you helps orient you in the world. I’m thinking the average FPS player might find themselves at a disadvantage trying to run at a scale 30-40 mph in Unreal Tournament or TF2 and then barfing Cheetos all over their sweatpants. This new environment needs a new type of game, and the uber-fast paced world of the multiplayer shooter will take some adjustment.
The Oculus Rift technically has a 1280×800 display, but since the headset displays a stereoscopic 3D display, it has to project 2 images, one for each eye. This effectively lowers the resolution to approximately 640×800 per eye, which means the image kind of looks like butt. I admit, not a terribly objective analysis, but still. Objects and items are heavily pixelated with the “screen-door” effect, meaning you can see the lines between the pixels. The 3D effect is difficult to see sometimes since the resolution is so low, but then again I’m not sure if the lack of effective 3D was a limitation of Ricky’s PC or the software/hardware itself. I learned it’s a combination of both.
The visual look of Oculus games with the headset are not impressive in terms of graphical fidelity. With the next gen consoles around the bend, and PC graphics leaping steadily forward, the “wow factor” of the Rift comes from other sources, such as the headtracking and immersive field of view. The good news is that the more updated 1080p Oculus prototypes greatly reduce the pixelation effect, and the final consumer version is expected to be 1920×1080.
Some games are big. God of War, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Shadow of the Colossus, and Skyrim: these are games of enormous scope and scale rarely seen in other media. Slap an immersive VR experience on these and you have quite a thing on your hands to say the least. Sadly enough, the next-gen consoles with their beefy tech specs have no concrete plans to support the headset. Sony is “interested”, but until you see a PS4 game being played with it, don’t hold your breath. Plus, I’ve never been of the opinion that serious hardware or software advancements happens first on consoles anyway. Right now, this is a PC-only experience, but recently Oculus announced that they were working to develop an Android SDK for apps that don’t require hefty graphical requirements, such as the VR Cinema. So consoles and iOS are left out in the bitter 2D cold for now. The closed nature of those systems will probably hurt them more than help at this point in terms of VR.
The Oculus Rift is not ready for the mainstream public yet. It looks pixelated, blocky, and just might make you vomit on your first go. Unless you’re a diehard VR fan or a developer looking for a new way to make games, don’t pick up a dev kit. It’s like reading the first draft of a novel: you can see the potential, but the rough edges and typos drive you nuts. It’s the same reason I stopped buying into alphas on Steam: only the die hard fan wants an unfinished product early, no matter how cool. And I’d say the Oculus Rift fits that mold fairly well, but the company is aware of these limitations and considering their substantial achievements so far, plus the influx of capital, I’d give them the benefit of a doubt. Palmer Lucky looks like a Disney character, young, wide-eyed and optimistic, and handed a hype train of unbelievable proportions. Godspeed, Plucky Balmer. Even Grandma agrees you’ve got something here.
Most importantly, the headset needs to improve resolution, but also include a desktop or interface that allows you launch your games or tools from within the headset environment. Right now, it looks like you’re staring at your desktop crosseyed drunk.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Rift has little to do with video games. The technology support flexible engines, such as Unity, Source, and Unreal (all 3 with official Oculus SDK’s) and has the potential for the following:
- Surgical training
- Architectural design
- Autism treatment
- PSTD exposure therapy
- Virtual tourism
- You know… (porn)
Now listen closely, kids: the Oculus Rift is an amazing experience. Of recent years, it’s one of my fondest gaming memories. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s probably coming out in 2014 for around $300. We’re one step closer to the Holodeck, and you’d be a fool to pass up an opportunity to try a Rift out. Just know, that for an hour in a sandwich shop in Boardman, OH, I saw the future of video games.