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PAX 2012: The uncanny Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift as seen from the display side.

In the 90’s, it seemed like virtual reality headsets were inevitably the computer display of the future. Despite the limitations of 3D graphics at the time, the idea of being fully immersed in a virtual world, each physical movement being translated 1-for-1, was incredibly powerful. But as time went on, the dream of VR headsets seemed to fizzle. Consumer units were expensive and didn’t deliver the sort of experience we all imagined, and even sci-fi movies that were based in virtual worlds, like The Matrix and Inception, explained them with more direct neurological interfaces.

Until the Oculus Rift Kickstarter caught fire, smashing its $250,000 goal by more than $2,000,000, you would have thought that the whole concept was mostly dead.

All that Kickstarter money was a clear sign that gamers, at least, were still interested in the possibilities of a VR headset. And then a number of hands-on reports raved about the performance of the Rift and the immersive gaming experience it created. So when I found out that Rift would make an appearance at PAX 2012, I was eager to see for myself if their display stood up to the hype.

The Oculus Rift, controller, and headset.

The best word to describe my first few minutes using the Rift to play Doom 3: BFG  is “spooky.” The head tracking is remarkably accurate, and being able to look up and see the ceiling, or turn in my chair to see what was behind me, quickly tricked my brain into thinking I was standing in the virtual room. One of the most startling things from my playtest was when the Oculus rep handed me the controller, and I instinctively looked down expecting to see it in the game world — like I said, spooky.

The immersive quality of the Oculus Rift can’t be denied, and with a good set of headphones the simulation would be even more convincing. But as part of the game controls, I found that the VR headset has some limitations. While the display is fully aware of which way your head is facing, it doesn’t know which way your body is facing. So if you turn your head to the left, for instance, pushing forward on the left control stick would then move you in that direction, even though your body hasn’t turned. As a result, I found myself continually using the right stick to get things lined up again, so that “forward” in the game was also “forward” for my body. That problem is specific to first-person games, however. In a game where the player was in a car, plane, or mech (like Hawken, which recently announced support for the Rift) the headset could simply control your view out of the cockpit, and looking forward would always show what was in front of the vehicle.

The head-body disconnect isn’t a deal breaker for the Oculus Rift, but it does say something about the kind of games it’s best suited for. In a twitch reflex FPS, making those right stick adjustments would be a constant hassle. But in a slower paced first-person game, like Minecraft or Skyrim, the ability to look around the world in any direction would be entirely worth an occasional realignment. Considering how convincing Doom 3’s projectiles looked when flying at me during the demo, I might even be willing to use it with something like Left4Dead, simply to see what a horde of charging zombies looks like with the Rift’s added sense of depth.

Another journalist at PAX 2012 tries out the Oculus Rift.

I tried to stand up during the demo, but sat down again almost immediately; the headset is so convincing that I found myself leaning forward to start walking, even though I consciously knew I was standing still. It’s possible that over time I would have adjusted for the difference, and other playtesters have been able to remain standing throughout the demo, but developer Palmer Luckey said he believes it’s an issue that can be addressed. Just as with the facing adjustments, the problem is that the Rift currently doesn’t track your body. It knows when you’re looking down, but it doesn’t know when you’re leaning forward or shifting your stance. If that sort of body awareness can be added later, Luckey believes that using the Rift while standing up won’t cause the sense of unbalance that I felt. Body tracking would also open up some new gameplay possibilities, like leaning to peek around a corner.

The Oculus reps couldn’t say much about the future of the Rift that we don’t already know. Pricing and availability of the final product are still to-be-determined, and the company is keeping quiet about which games, aside from Doom 3: BFG Edition and Hawken, will support the display. But it was encouraging to hear that they’re working on an API that will make the Rift easy to incorporate into existing games.

Ultimately I’m very impressed with what Oculus has developed, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it improves. I don’t expect to be putting on a headset for every game I play one day, but for certain experiences the Rift will be an incredible addition.


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