Virtual Insanity – Trying Out The Oculus Rift

Jacked in to the Riftrix
Jacked in to the Riftrix

Ever since John Carmack, space entrepreneur and creator of classic games like Doom, Quake and Commander Keen, demonstrated an early prototype of the Oculus Rift at E3 last year, I’ve been keenly following the development of the technology. Palmer Luckey, a twenty year old kid working at USC Institute of Creative Technology, made a momentous impact with the Kickstarter for his new company’s very early prototype. What differentiates the Rift from three decades of virtual reality research and gaming devices is low latency head tracking, high FOV (meaning the visible area covers pretty much your whole field of view), low weight and most importantly low cost (leveraging the economies of scale that have made mobile phone displays cheap, plentiful and high resolution).

Reddit user illobo was kind enough to demo his Rift units at A4 Sounds Collective Art Studios in Dublin yesterday. Alongside his rift units, illobo brought along a Razer Hydra, which uses a magnetic field to track the motion of two hand-held joypad devices.

On the day, we tried a variety of demos including: Tuscany, Blue Marble, Team Fortress 2, Unity Roller Coaster, Titans of Space, and Proton Pulse (a 3D pong clone).

Irish VR community!
Irish VR community!

In terms of the experience… The unit itself is still very early hardware. The resolution is disappointingly low (resembling an early 90’s VGA display), and the ‘screen door‘ effect (which means that gaps are visible in between individual pixels) is extremely noticeable, as is motion blur when you move your head. It’s also very sensitive to using exactly the right lenses (the unit comes with three interchangeable sets of lenses), and presumably interpupillary distance settings too. So for example the first time I put the headset on my field of view was limited and the 3D didn’t quite work, because I was using it without my glasses (I have an astigmatism in one eye). However once I tried it with glasses (which was quite painful actually, as it really jams them into your face, and my glasses are not particularly big) it was a whole different experience. The 3D effect really is amazing, as is looking around you… You have to train yourself to remember you can see more than just what’s right in front of you – it’s a distinctly different feeling to looking with a mouse or joypad. This is real 3D, not the puppet show planes of 3D cinema / TV or even the pseudo depth of a Nintendo 3DS. When it works, you’re there, in a fully realised alien space.

The Rift’s lack of positional tracking was much less of a problem that I would have expected, the head / neck software modelling in the rift driver is really good. Picking things off the floor in Tuscany with the Hydra was very strange however… You really do need to crouch down and pick them up off the floor, with your waxy lady-like virtual hands.

Struggling with the Hydra
Struggling with the Hydra

I found Hydra Tuscany, Roller Coaster, and Proton Pulse the most convincing demos. The Razer Hydra, or something like it, really is a necessity, although the hydra itself is much less impressive than I expected. The Razer’s relatively slow and inexact hand tracking kept losing focus and ending up with my hands in the wrong orientation, which feels a little like realising you’ve just painlessly broken both your arms. The demo has integrated physics, but I found it’s quite difficult to throw things in Tuscany, certainly on first try, as you really need to throw just as you would in real life – which has practical implications when you’re in front of a desk / monitor / hydra base station etc!

Proton Pulse is immensely fun, and brought home that very alien / digital environments might actually be more immersive, as they hide the limitations of the resolution. The neon glowscape of the play space made me feel like I’d stepped into Tron or The Lawnmower Man. I’m really looking forward to trying Proteus / Dear Esther and similar games on the Rift.

I played a bit of Valve Software’s incredibly popular Team Fortress 2 which demonstrated an amazing sense of scale. It’s not a game I enjoy very much in 2D, but it was far more fun in 3D; and you really could have quite the competitive advantage (given your increased peripheral vision, and the separation of look / aim, which felt immediately natural). Once I found the WSAD keys I was flying – although some means of running a video feed through the Rift to help you locate your keyboard would be enormously helpful.

Something tells me ‘games’ on the Rift might be less fun, at least initially, than ‘experiences’ which play on vertigo, the sense of scale, the size of your body, flying, looking at yourself in a mirror, that kind of thing. I’m looking at you Volo Airsport!

I also played the Aurora Borealis demo, which though an interesting experiment, I found quite two dimensional and unimpressive, but others found genuinely immersive – presumably due to it’s real world setting. Oddly, the demo that most impressed folks at the demo (which I didn’t try) was City Quest where you just sit in an ordinary bedroom, playing an old school 2D point and click adventure game on a virtual computer.

The Rift is, as expected, very very addictive. illobo pretty much had to peel it off attendee’s faces towards the end. I heard numerous folks say – ‘I could live here’. Which is of course quite creepy to hear from someone with an enormous hunk of plastic strapped to their head.

Lots of people experienced mild nausea. I had absolutely none for some reason (perhaps because of my astigmatism?). But I really wanted to stand up and physically walk around. I can definitely see why people are buying those absurd virtual treadmills. The Rift / Hydra cables are quite distracting too. We were sitting in swivel chairs and you’d take off the Rift and discover you’d swiveled feet away from the table and faced the wrong way. Use a fixed chair when you try it first time!

‘Immersion’ really varied. I’d say I found it impressive, but I never felt like I was in another world. One or two folks at the demo had to rip the Rift off their head, so freaked out were they by the eeriness of being somewhere else. That said, the graphics hardware we were running off really wasn’t powerful enough (two units, one on Macbook pro, and one on Macbook air, running windows off an external HD) and that definitely impacted frame rate. Especially in some more demanding demos like Spacewalk.

In summary – I wouldn’t buy one just yet, since the resolution is so low (and because I don’t have a decent gaming PC). However, I would definitely love to pick up the HD consumer version, and I’d jump at the chance to try another demo. After we’d all had a several turns we felt like we’d experienced something momentous, some hint of a future both wonderful and terrible. I kept thinking about children, raised in the Rift and its descendants, their eyes blurring to mundane reality, itchy every moment IRL to return to the calm, safe dreamworld of the game.

Virtual Twins
Virtual Twins
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