4GN Tried The Oculus Rift
Virtual reality has been around as long as humans have had the capacity to dream and/or access to certain plants. For many people, tangerine trees and marmalade skies are just a stealthy hand off and a rolled ten spot away. For others, there is, or rather will be, the Oculus Rift.
Hollowcell, my ex-pat friend here in Japan, managed to get his hands on one of the prototypes and was eager to show it off. For a week now, he has been giving demonstrations of the early, normal definition (non-HD) developer’s kit, and he has learned how to take people through a couple of demos without making them feel sick for hours afterward. Even now, half a day later, I am grateful. I hate nausea.
Due to time constraints and the hot and humid climate conditions of the room we were in, we didn’t bother calibrating the Rift for optimal performance. In addition, Johann and I had to take our glasses off which made the low definition view just that much more indistinct. We were definitely looking through a “screen door” for this demo. Finally, the software itself was proof of concept work, so needless to say, it was not triple A gaming on a bleeding edge graphics card – we are talking just slightly better than Notch’s Minecraft. I mention all this because at my house, we like to game in high definition, with all the bells and whistles. Therefore, predictably, the graphic fidelity aspect of the presentation was underwhelming. The potential, however, was unmistakable.
When asked to look around in the virtual world, I did so not just with my eyes, but with my whole body. I bowed my head to look down and behind me. I tilted my head back and to the left or right to view the moon and the fire works. There was slight lag, but I was told that it was due more to the inadequate specs of the computer than to the OR itself. In the roller coaster demo, I enjoyed getting into the moment and raised my hands for much of the ride, enjoying the thrill of the steep falls and fast turns. It makes me wonder what the experience would be like for someone who has never actually ridden a roller coaster.
When I asked about support for Battlefield 4, Hollo suggested that he had not heard anything yet, but that it wasn’t really the kind of game he would want to play using the Oculus Rift anyway. That answer puzzles me even now, and at the time, I wondered if indeed the OR experience would be overwhelming, and that the gamer might actually experience a form of shell shock.
Hollo elaborated on his statement suggesting that the Oculus Rift was less of a substitute for a monitor and much more an actual gaming platform, at least in as much as it would inspire entirely new genres. I’ve no doubt he is right and perhaps, it should be packaged and marketed not as a visual device but as a next generation, multi-purpose console. Certainly, beyond gaming, it has the potential to become the new interface for the Metaverse (WWW 3.0). Later, when sharing my experience with a colleague, he suggested that people could do their shopping on Amazon, “lifting up the clothing”, “touching” it, to see if they liked it. Utilizing the Kinect to take a few “Captain Morgan” shots for your avatar, you could try the virtual clothing on your own virtual dimensions – see how those tight pants look, right from the comfort of your chair.
But that is just a potential future. In the present, there are several deal breakers. First, there has to be complete and hassle-free options for the visually impaired who can’t make use of contact lenses. John Carmack mentioned that even astigmatism could be corrected for with a “fragment program” – as if it were as simple as getting a chair from the other room for your unexpected guest. Now that the OR is receiving serious dollars beyond the Kickstarter, they need to make that happen. Swapping out lenses or just “making due” doesn’t cut it. Second, they need to mount an external camera and mic on the device itself, complete with a button for toggling them on and off so the user [sic] can switch between the inside and outside world. Effectively removing two of our five senses doesn’t sit well with this control freak. At the press of a button I need to be able to mute the game sound and see and hear what is going around my physical self, not just my virtual self. Similarly, there needs to be an alert system so that one can hear the doorbell or telephone etc. For that, there are many possible solutions. I will leave the problem solving to them.
Were I in management of any of the top developers/publishers, I would be making sure that all middleware henceforth was Oculus Rift ready, regardless of appropriateness. Once its implemented, disabling the code is just an apostrophe away.
In the end, I came away from the demo with more questions than I did answers. On the car ride home, the experience had us all talking excitedly, and somewhat skeptically, mostly because we want to see our first person shooter chocolate in that Oculus Rift peanut butter. Johann posited the question, “What is entertainment?” That, my son, is what we are going to find out.
Note: the presentation was on Friday June 29th. I started writing this article on the 30th, got busy and resumed writing later.