Over the course of the recent Play Blackpool expo, I was able to get my third hands-on experience with the Oculus Rift. It was the first time I’d been able to test the latest Crescent Bay model and earlier today we learned that the consumer model will launch in the first quarter of 2016. But is Virtual Reality ready to compete in the world of gaming? Can it be the next big thing? Let’s look at the latest evidence via hands-on experiences and by examining the VR climate.
With the ever-growing list of headsets being announced, there’s no denying the industry giants believe Virtual Reality has a large part in the future of gaming. In addition to the Oculus Rift, we have Sony’s Project Morpheus and the HoloLens from Microsoft. More recently we’ve seen Valve/HTC enter the fray with Vive, which could possibly arrive later this year, beating Oculus to the punch.
Frustratingly for the consumer, none of the manufacturers have confirmed a price yet. It would seem they are waiting for their rivals to commit first, possibly so they can gauge the reaction of consumers before announcing their own price. We’re bracing for all the headsets to be quite expensive though, but with any luck they won’t rival the cost of a new TV. Although, by the Oculus Rift 3 in 20XX we could be looking to headsets to replace TVs. Who knows?
The fact that the Oculus Rift was bought by Facebook suggests the goliath company has some big plans for the device and they may try to chisel the price down enough undercut the competition or, more importantly, to make it attractive to an audience beyond core gamers. On the other hand, Facebook’s advertising revenue is down (thanks to the limited ad-space on mobile devices) so they may be looking towards Oculus to make some serious bank. Either way, it’ll be a delicate balance.
Testing the latest build
When using the Oculus Rift headsets, I have noticed developers getting increasingly confident and even smaller independent studios getting to grips with the emerging technology. At Play Blackpool this year, I was able to play more games than before with a proper controller as opposed to head-tracking retro shooters or on-rails flythroughs.
For example, a demo for indie first person shooter, Push for Emor, allowed me to explore a series of cave tunnels. Movement handled as per normal with a controller, but head turning worked in conjunction with the right stick rather than replacing it. So for wider turns I’d use the stick, but looking around within a large field of view was handled by simply turning my head. This worked especially well for a scene with tree roots pushing through the cave’s ceiling, as I was able to stand underneath and arch my head back to look upwards as the sunlight spilled through the cracks in the rock. Very cool and incredibly immersive.
Likewise in another section of the demo, I explored a small town and was able to drive around and look around from the vehicles seat in a way that felt almost identical to real-life. This was even more effective when I drove out of the town towards some hilly terrain, the emphasis on the slope’s inclines were much more effectively portrayed with this immersive perspective that fully surrounded my vision with the Oculus headset as opposed to watching it on a TV from across a room. Considering I haven’t experienced any motion-sickness with Oculus yet (more on that later), I was surprised by one reaction I experienced. As I jumped down from a high window ledge, let’s say 30-40 feet, I felt a little flutter in my stomach not a million miles away from a lurch I might experience on a drop on a rollercoaster. Sure, it’s more of a psychosomatic reaction, but again, it’s making the normal day to day interactions of a video game feel unique and more realistic than I ever expected. If a basic ledge jump can do this, I can’t wait to try out something like Bioshock Infinite’s skylines.
A tech demo I played at the Futureworks: Manchester School of Media stand called Don’t Let Go, made the best use of the tech at the show by showing off just how immersive it could be. When you put on the headset, you find yourself in an office with a laptop in front of you and you simply have to hold the two shift keys down (on the real world laptop), which then animates a pair of hands with arms into the game world to do the same. The aim is simple, don’t let go of those keys for the duration.
The demo then performs various tricks around you to try and make you release the keys. For example a velociraptor strides in through the door and walks right up to your face, which made some people jump if they hadn’t seen the door open as you’re free to move your head to see all around you. Further incidents see knives suddenly drop near your hands, which certainly made me jump, but thankfully I still managed to keep my hands on the keys. Things step up a notch as a spider emerges from behind the laptop and scuttles towards your hand, then up your arm, before doing ‘something’ in your right ear via the headphones. Truly disturbing and a brilliant example of just how immersive Virtual Reality can be.
The graphics may not have been particularly detailed, but the freedom of movement is excellent. For example, when the raptor came and stood next to me, I was able to move my head around its face and lean in (literally) for a closer look. Just another day at the office in first-person shooters with a controller, but physically moving around for a better look feels much different and the main compelling reason that devices like the Oculus Rift could be the future.
There are of course a few often-cited concerns that could hold the Oculus back. The first being motion-sickness. Personally, I’ve never had any issues with motion-sickness or dizziness at all. I wonder if in some way this could be explained by my regular use of motorcycle crash helmets and being used to having my vision-limited within what could be perceived as a slightly ‘claustrophobic’ device. Just my two cents there. But the motion-sickness is a thing for many and that public perception could put people off; it didn’t help that the bloke at the Push for Emor booth said ‘prepare for motion-sickness’ to everyone he passed the headset to.
It seems to be a more common complaint in games with more 3D elements, in particular retro shooters with exploding particles like the TKX demo at the Llamasoft booth. This could also be because the headsets at consumer events are only set up for people with 20/20 vision as a default.
If you wear glasses to read or watch TV, your eyes may struggle to combine the blurry 3D images properly, which can be awfully uncomfortable. Interchangeable lenses (an extra cost?) for the headset will supposedly get around this and depending which developers you speak too, some will say you can wear glasses and the headset simultaneously. I’ll go into more detail about glasses with the Oculus in another article soon though.
The Play Blackpool event focuses on smaller retro and indie titles, so you wouldn’t expect to see the Oculus rocking out with the AAA graphics. It will be challenging to keep graphical standards high in 3D though as images need to be shown twice for the effect, which can be a strain on the processing power of consoles and rigs alike. However, to some extent the Oculus is going to need to be compatible with big games of the future in order to remain a viable option and to stay in regular use in gamers’ homes. The most natural fit would seemingly be first-person titles, space sims and driving titles. If these titles are not supported, then the market is going to dry up very quickly on consoles. You only have to look at the likes of the Wii, PlayStation Move, Kinect and to an extent Rock Band/Guitar Hero to see that even great gaming innovations can fall out of favour quickly.
Oculus could outlive the rest though thanks to enthusiastic developers, the modding community and it already being the name most associated with VR gaming tech. But what if Vive gets there first? Will games support both? Will devs want to tweak setups for different headsets? Will consumers become baffled with the number of options hitting the market before next summer? We’re expecting more announcements during expo season this summer for a clearer picture of the future of Virtual Reality across the gaming platforms, but we certainly think there’s a place for it and have our fingers crossed that it could indeed become the next big thing in gaming.