A year ago at PAX Prime 2012, the Oculus Rift was a fusion of electronics, barely more than an idea and literally held together with duct tape. Even then it delivered an impressive demo running a VR-optimized, playable version Id Software’s Doom 3. What a difference a year makes.
This year PAX Prime 2013 Oculus VR had an entire booth and a dozen stations for press and fans to check out the latest generation of the Oculus Rift technology. And clearly enthusiasm and excitement for the Oculus Rift is exploding. The line to try them was densely packed for the entirety of the show.
The tape is gone and the Oculus Rift looks much closer to a final, polished product. It’s sporting a better screen than its predecessor and now offers a full 1080p VR experience, but otherwise what’s under the hood is still likely to remain unchanged. “This still isn’t the final hardware of course, but we’re getting much closer,” Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR’s VP of Product (and my Oculus Rift tour guide) explains.
This year Oculus VR was showing two new demos: one using a special version of the free-to-play online Mech shooter Hawken, and another using a racing title.
First up was Hawken. And let’s get this out of the way right now: It’s nothing short of incredible played with the Oculus Rift. Turn your head inside the virtual mech’s cockpit, and you see the wall of the cockpit behind you. Look down while firing your jump jets to fly, and you can actually feel a tinge of “tickle tummy” like riding in an elevator.
This highlights the importance of developers in embracing the Oculus to create truly VR-optimized experiences. The Oculus Rift isn’t intended as just a screen and a motion detector to make ‘freelook’ better in your games.
“For the best experience a game has to be made to take advantage of the Oculus Rift. For example, in a role-playing, pulling up your inventory usually brings up a paper doll type screen. This is fine on a standard monitor. But in the Rift, if the inventory screen wasn’t designed for a VR experience, it would just be a flat screen right in front of your face. But if the game was developed to take advantage of the Oculus, you might be able to just look down at your hands and see what you’re carrying.”
My experience with Hawken also highlighted a relatively minor ‘limitation’ of the Oculus, albeit one to affect PC gamers primarily: It would be more difficult to use a mouse and keyboard while using an Oculus. A more tactile, contained device—a gamepad, wheel, motion controller, etc.—will likely be the better weapon of choice to pair with it.
Next up was a non-interactive racing demo: an Oculus-optimized version of iRacing, where I could just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Sporting The Rift, Pax Prime 2013
The Rift is arguably at its absolute best in games where you’re driving a vehicle and sitting. (Standing up while using the Rift is ill-advised because it throws off your equilibrium -- and can result in highly embarassing nerd crashes and potential injury.) In addition, vehicle simulations are usually best-played with a controller (gamepad, flightstick, wheel, etc.)
I can only guess what doing a loop in a flight simulation or star fighter game would feel like, but it’s likely somewhere between “Yeehaw!” and reaching for the barf bag. (On a related note, according to Mitchell the Oculus version of EVE Online won numerous awards at E3 and was reputedly an incredible experience by all accounts.) I can only imagine what the Oculus Rift experience paired with one of Playseat’s racing simulators would be like, or how much scarier the Oculus Rift would make survival horror games.Based on my Oculus VR experience with Doom 3 in 2012, I suspect FPS (First Person Shooter) games might be prone to make the more motion-sensitive among us more queasy. FPS games tend to make your (virtual) body move faster and less naturally (circle strafing, for example) in relation to your senses. In Doom 3, the rapid circle strafing, direction switches, and general movement made my head feel queasy (for lack of a better description). But it’s important to note that not everyone experiences this, and I’m probably in the minority that do.
While games are the key focus for the Rift, it’s not limited to just games. “Imagine a fully virtual cinema experience—you’re not just watching a movie on the screen, for example, but you’re in a theater watching a movie on the screen. What we want to achieve is 100% immersion and deliver it at low cost.”
Developers, developers, developers!
“Technology drives content innovation,” Mitchell explains. “Games have stagnated a bit in recent years, but with the Oculus there’s a ton of innovation just waiting to be discovered.”
So how difficult is it to translate an existing game to the Oculus experience, or make a game from the ground up?
“It completely depends on the content. The technical integration of the Rift is relatively easy—1-2 weeks or even faster depending on the engine. It’s building content designed for virtual reality that's challenging. If you have to rebuild your user interface or menus for virtual reality, that may involve multiple programmers, artists, and even gameplay designers. Again, it all depends on the team, the project, and how they designed it. It's a complex question with a vague answer.”
To date, more than 125,000 Oculus VR developer kits have been shipped globally, according to Mitchell.
So how much will this incredible piece of hardware cost?
“We’re targeting $300. It could be $200, or it might be $400, but our target is $300,” Mitchell says. “Right now we’re really focused on nailing the video. Low latency is extremely important, and once we nail the visuals we’ll see where we go next with things like audio and other features.”
Based on my experience, developer interest, and consumer enthusiasm exhibited at PAX Prime, the Oculus Rift looks like it’s definitely ready to lead the way into virtual reality gaming.