Over the last few months, alongside the Xbox One and PS4 PR trains, articles on John Carmack joined Oculus full time definitely raised my eyebrows, but only for a moment.
My opinion completely changed when, a few weeks ago, I had a go on a dev kit.
We play games not just to entertain ourselves, but to experience things that we otherwise possibly couldn’t. Over the years I’ve won the Formula 1 world championship many times, driven (and crashed) cars that I’ll never be able to afford and flown everything from light aircraft to X-Wings. I’ve explored deep space, been to Hell and back countless times and killed thousands of demons, aliens, Nazi’s and terrorists. I’ve played an Alien creature that has a penchant for fishnet stockings, all the way through to being James Bond, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Games excel at allowing us to play out fantasies that we otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to do, but I’m fully aware that all these experiences have been just me, playing a game.
After just a few seconds in the Tuscany demo for Oculus Rift I’ve experienced something I’ve never had with any other kind of virtual entertainment: I have a memory of being there. Not a memory of playing the game, but of being in that location and exploring. This is very impressive technology, but why? What’s so great about Oculus Rift?
Sense of immersion
The sense of immersion is unlike anything else I’ve tried. It’s nothing to do with graphics – most of the demos are early-Xbox360 quality at best, and the resolution of the headset is very noticeably too low at the moment (something which Oculus have said they’ve fixed, but not yet released out as dev kits).
The things that Oculus Rift does so well, when set up correctly, are:
- The 3D effect is near on perfect. This is not 3D movie billboarding, depth perception feels very close to real life.
- There is no noticeable lag to the head tracking.
- The headset is light enough to barely register that you’re wearing it.
There are flaws, and the biggest one isn’t anything that Oculus can necessarily fix: as you move in the virtual world your eyes are telling your brain that you are moving too, but your inner-ear is saying that you’re stationary. For the first few goes this made me feel incredibly sick, and this seems to be a common response. Calibrating the headset to me made a big difference, and after an hour or so my brain more or less figured out what was going on and has been dealing much better with it since.
How far can it go?
After the initial nausea had passed the designer side of my brain kicked into gear, immediately conjuring up a whole host of ways to use this technology. It’s interesting reading interviews with Nate Mitchell about his dedication to gaming, and there’s no doubt that this is going to become a very important part of gaming in the future. But it has the potential to be much, much more.
There are lots of experiments already in progress, and this sky diving simulator by Nissan caught my eye.
Sky diving is one of those things that I have always thought about trying, but haven’t because part of me is certain that I’d completely choke at the point when I was supposed to jump out of the plane. The video above is very game orientated, and no matter how big the fan is it’s still unlikely to feel like the real thing. But it opens up the possibility for people to experience something that they might not otherwise ever be able to, like doing a space walk around the ISS.
To me, the biggest advancement of the technology is going to happen when Oculus goes mobile. Being tethered to a laptop is definitely a limiting factor, and if you can run the hardware from a phone sized computer (which Oculus have announced is in the works) then you can eliminate the motion sickness as you can allow people to walk around for real. It would have to be in carefully controlled spaces, but I can easily imagine a Laser-Quest type arena being used as a proper game level: modelled basically in the real world but highly detailed in the virtual, and suddenly you have the more realistic war game ever made.
The biggest drawback to the system is that it only really works for experiences that are first person, so gaming wise it already has limited scope: it’s not going to enhance your game of Civilisation for example.
There’s also the problem that you lose almost all connection with the real world. Sure, you can still bump into things, but you really can’t see the guy punching the air 2 inches from your face. I remember my parents struggling to get me off the computer when I was a teenager, getting someone out of Oculus could become a real issue.
Finally though, there’s the distinct possibility that real life will just become boring. If you’ve got all these potential experiences at your fingertips, why wouldn’t you want to stay plugged in? And as you have memories of those virutal experiences, distinguishing them from what’s real could become very difficult indeed.
I don’t know if that’s exciting or scary, but I can’t wait to find out.
Following on from the comments below, and some comments on twitter, it seems I might be wrong to say that Oculus won’t enhance games like Civilisation. Oculus VR know about it and are working on figuring it out:
@mike_acton "it’s not going to enhance your game of Civ" – we're working on it!
— TOMB Forsyth (@tom_forsyth) October 9, 2013
There are also a few demos to try too, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. It’s going to be fun finding out where the limits to this technology are.