The Oculus Rift: Moving Us One Step Closer To The Holodeck
Posted on Saturday, March 30 @ 21:26:38 Eastern by blake_peterson
GDC isn't like E3, PAX, or other more highly commercial-oriented shows. So it's something of a surprise when a piece of hardware or software takes on a big draw at the conference. Last year when I had the chance to ask game devs what they were seeing, they were dashing off to see World of Tanks, with its addictive play in manageable short play sessions. This year it was the Oculus Rift.
The Oculus, a virtual reality display that can track head movements and translate them into the game, is one of the toasts of the conference and definitely one of the things to see... if you were willing to wait 2+ hours to get to it. The unit shown on the GDC show floor isn't the final version, but is instead a dev kit that Oculus VR will be sending out to its Kickstarter funders and game developers. Even so, it's incredible.
Jesse Schell, of Schell Games, famous for his DICE 2010 talk on gamification in the future, mentioned the Oculus as one area he also saw in the future of gaming at his GDC talk on Game Narratives, as a way of being able to engage in a more immersive world, which would probably come in the PC space. Valve is already supporting it in Team Fortress 2 with a dedicated VR mode that shipped last week on Steam and four different experimental control schemes.
In a talk about the device, the company founder, Palmer Luckey, likened it to the next evolutionary step in gaming, like the development of the printing press for books and the development of color and sound in movies. He believes that it will make it possible for us to experience more subtle and interesting game narratives because of the heightened realism of the VR experience.
Luckey's VR experience comes from medical simulations of surgeries, military simulations, and psychological fields where VR is used to assist people with confronting fears and PTSD, and he spoke to other uses of the tech, like Formula One's advanced simulations with cars on hydraulic systems to simulate inertia and momentum. In a follow-up at the end of the talk, he touted gaming as the ideal place to push the tech, because gamers are early tech adopters who care about authentic experiences more than public opinion.
The Valve developer, Joe Ludwig, who spoke about working with the VR tech, didn't dispute the claim. In their talk about lessons they learned from translating Team Fortress 2 to VR, they praised it over other VR systems. they tested for its wider field of vision (more on that in a moment) and spoke as if this level of VR integration was a fait accompli—the future being developed today.
After waiting for two hours in line—thank you, Fire Emblem, for staving off the boredom—got a chance to try the device. The Oculus was set up on a dev version of Hawken, which I was also experiencing for the first time. The GDC Oculus techs told us to look for “the sweet spot” when putting on the device, and then strap into it.
The Oculus Rift dev glasses give you a full range of vision and in the demo put you into the cockpit of the Hawken mech. At the techs' suggestion I turned around to look behind me and saw the seatback and metal frame of the cockpit, with the view tracking my head movements. Then he spawned some bots for me to shoot at.
However, for the first time in years, first-person shooter controls were no longer intuitive: The targeting reticule wasn't where I was looking, but instead at the front of my cockpit which I had to turn with a thumbstick instead of my head. Valve dev Ludwig said this was a problem for them too, and that controls were something the industry developers at their talk would have to develop. It made targeting more difficult, but perhaps because it was more realistic; in real life, people don't shoot automatically in the direction that they're looking—they have to aim. One solution for this that's been suggested is motion control interfaces specifically for aiming.
The view itself is amazing and frustrating at the same time. The Oculus Rift isn't like strapping on a pair of 3D glasses at a movie—the VR unit shows a video feed that stretches like an individual IMAX screen for each eye, filling the entire field of vision. The Valve tech praised the Rift as being better than other VR tech because it matched the whole field of vision, while other VR system don't even have peripheral vision. This makes the view much more natural than any video game display you've likely ever seen in the way it handles motion and movement in the frame.
Still, it's frustrating. Due to the limitations of the tech, the dev kit displays information at 640x800 pixels for each eye. That means that you have only 640 pixels (less than a Standard Definition television's 720) to cover the entire horizontal visual range for each eye. This makes it so that the image is only distinct in a central cone of vision, which Ludwig said was about 500 square pixels. Outside of that cone, it's a bit of a blurry mess; the Oculus Rift has a severe myopia problem.
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