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Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality, Revisited

Think back to the early 90′s and some of the extravagant arcades that littered big towns across the country. New York City had more than a few of them. They were loud, often gaudy places that were designed to extract as much cash from your pocket, while giving you the fewest amount of plays for your buck. Some of these mega-arcades had laser tag arenas, while others had BattleTech pods that are almost impossible to find these days.

But a handful of these places also had something that, at the time, seemed like the future of video game immersion: virtual reality systems. I mean, let’s face it, we’d all been told for years, by both movies and television (and even books), that virtual reality would revolutionize how we interact with technology. But the payoff was…less than stellar. Most VR booths were huge, clunky, and expensive systems that broke down often and rarely offered an experience that was superior to those capable by traditional arcade or home console systems.

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Still, the allure of donning a headset and getting fully enveloped in a virtual world has always sounded pretty sweet to anyone who’s ever gotten caught up in some form of interactive entertainment.

For those of us who have always clung to some chance that VR could actually work, and even to those who lost all hope, I give you Oculus VR (previously named Oculus Rift). If you haven’t heard about Oculus VR, I won’t waste your time trying to explain what it is when I can leave that up to the developer himself. His video (above) does a far better job explain the finer details of the system than I ever could.

What I will tell you is, from what I experienced at Indiecade, the virtual reality future we all envisioned might actually be a reality someday.

For the Indiecade demo, participants were able to walk around two environments developed in the Unity engine: A beautiful outdoor landscape and a futuristic, alien interior. While waiting in line to try it out — it was the longest line at the show — we could view a computer screen, split down the middle, that displayed what the person using the system was currently seeing in each eye independently. But seeing the image on the screen gives you almost no perspective on what the actual experience is really like.

The only way to experience Oculus VR is to put it on.

The first thing I noticed when strapping it on to my head was that it is extremely light. Far lighter than any other VR headset I’ve ever used. This is probably one of the biggest sticking points of previous VR systems, since it always felt like you needed super-muscles in your neck to keep your head upright while wearing one. It should also be noted that this was a Dev kit; the final build of the Oculus will be even lighter and stronger than the one I used.

After adjusting the vision so it was in focus (you can use it with or without glasses), I was instantly struck by the sensation that the entire room around me had fallen away and all I could see in front, and to the sides, of me was the 3D environment inside the glasses. My body suddenly seemed to go on the defense, sensing a change, and my inner ear and stomach began to feel slightly unnerved. After being handed an Xbox controller and pushing forward on the stick, a small, smooth movement forward sent this feeling into overdrive: the image was changing, but my body actually wasn’t going anywhere, which cause my brain to flip out more than a little bit.

Rob in Oculus VR

Despite the less-than-gradual sense of nausea, which the demonstrator mentioned “goes away over time” (I wondered, “how much time is that?”) my reaction to everything I was seeing was a very heavy, breathy, and drawn out “Wow.” I was too preoccupied with what I was seeing to complete full sentences. There might have been a “that’s cool” or “awesome” or a few more “wows” in there, but I was mostly occupied with taking in this new world that was, literally, right in front of my eyes.

I was there.

One of the things that really sold this immersion, and is a key feature of the Oculus, is that the headset can keep up with any motion the wearer makes. In realtime. I’d turn my head and the image would keep up with me. There was near zero latency. It didn’t feel like I was looking through a window disconnected from the space I was in. It felt like I could be there. Actual immersion with real-time feedback. The only thing missing, which I was told could be implemented at a later time either in software or hardware, was a motion blur that activates when moving your head at a certain speed.

Considering this isn’t even the final retail product, which I’m sure will make an appearance later this year, Oculus VR really does deliver on its mission statement. It’s a legitimate VR experience designed from the ground up to be open-source, developer friendly, and readily available to a wide array of consumers. Considering that this has been the gold ring no headset has been able to grab in the history of interactive media, it’s a phenomenal achievement.

However, the road to our VR, Neuromancer inspired future isn’t without a few bumps. First off, there’s that whole nausea thing. While I was assured, several times, that with practice it is something you can train your mind to adapt to, it could be a turn off to those not willing to adapt to the initial discomfort.

Another issue is the viewing angle. While the introductory video mentioned an 110-degree viewing angle, the current viewing angle felt much smaller, like the size of a standard computer screen. Eventually it would be nice to have the image really wrap all the way around to include my peripheral vision.

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Finally, the most difficult hurdle for the Oculus to overcome is likely the most obvious one: whatever we use this headset on will have to be developed in a way to take advantage of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the Oculus. Since it is an accessory and not a system in and of its own, using it with systems like the PS4 or Durango or the PC will depend entirely upon who wants to code for it and if there’s a benefit to using it at all. Additionally, since it is a luxury purchase (i.e. you don’t need it to play games) some people may not buy into. And if developers don’t see people adopting this new experience, they may not see a reason to develop for it.

What may ultimately keep this system relevant for the long haul is its integration into other aspects of technological life. For example, how cool would it be if someday this technology was developed in such a way that you could interact with the web in a fully 3D environment that you could fly into, out of, pull apart and examine? It could, potentially, rewrite the book on how we interact with digital information. To illustrate further, the thing that most people seemed to be missing while using the Oculus was the simple ability to put your hands up in front of the glasses and see yourself in the space. That little extra bit of immersion would be the start of something really special.

Considering the history of VR and the long list of failures that have come before it, Oculus VR certainly seems to be on track to change the VR game for the better. And this demo only scratched the surface of what Oculus may really be capable of: just wait until the kickstarter backers star receiving their dev kits. To quote the great Doc Emmett L. Brown, “When this thing hits 88mph, you’re gonna to see some serious, sh-t!”

Oculus VR does not have a release date, but if you are a developer, you can pre-order a dev kit at the Oculus VR website.

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