Aside from a couple of minutes on a DK1 at the beginning of the year, I had never experienced a modern virtual reality headset experience before PAX Prime 2015. That brief exposure in April on deprecated hardware was still impressive as I looked around a virtual movie theatre and a sunny city intersection, it captured my imagination in a way that only other quantum leaps in fidelity and/or uniqueness like the arrival of high definition had accomplished. After spending some time with the consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, I am confident that this will be the next exponential leap.
The headset itself is minimalist: a snug visor that houses a pair of discrete viewing screens, an adjustable strap that wraps around your head and hinge mounted head sets that swing down onto your ears after everything else is in place. It’s really tight, requiring multiple attempts to wedge the headset over my glasses without squishing my face and the expert help of a second person to Velcro strap it into place; there will be a learning curve for users who need to put on and disengage the headset on their own upon release. Grabbing a controller (which I used) or a Oculus Touch (which I didn’t get to try) will be challenging for home users until a deployment pattern is established, fortunately the event staff were on hand to carefully pass an Xbox One controller before each experience launched.
I opted for the most vivid, sensory stimulating demos available and E.V.E. Valkyrie fit the bill as space combat simulator with a full 360 degree range of motion and fast paced action to show off the Rift hardware. This is a great demo to start with: the user interface overlay has an augmented reality design that seamlessly displays info to the pilot, the enemy ships zoom around with an impressive awareness of their surroundings and the full 360 degree of movement and action is the perfect experience to swivel around and look at the world in. This style of virtual combat should translate well into Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and a whole host of other space combat games that need a freedom of movement and level of immersion that hadn’t previously been possible.
In stark contrast is Edge of Nowhere, a title being developed by Insomniac Games as a deliberately paced adventure. The demo combined platforming with a pronounced clamber effect for getting up onto edges, a deliberate stride for your character and a smart mix of in-game lighting sources such as a lantern and the sunlight filtered through the atmosphere of an arctic tundra. The game displays the Rift’s capability to use the player’s point of view independently of the controls with effects such as vignetting around the visible area to emphasize a climactic ending sequence which is better left unspoiled.
Going back to trying older headsets such as the DK2 at smaller demonstration is trying: the video resolution, refresh rate, parallax effect handling and other elements of the virtual reality experience has been noticeably improved with each iteration of the Rift hardware. The upcoming commercial release of the Oculus Rift is poised to be a paradigm shifting device with a combination of world class hardware, stellar technical talent such as John Carmack and the strong financial backing of Facebook puts Oculus at the forefront of the virtual reality revolution.