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.
Huge surprise announcements are exceedingly rare in 2015, a nearly impossible task to accomplish in an era where social media and an unmatched voraciousness for information often overwhelms even the tightest security measures and non-disclosure agreements (I’m still blown away that aerial drone surveillance to look into closed Hollywood sets are already spreading in use). This atmosphere of early leaks and speculation makes the recent announcement of Microsoft HoloLens all the more impressive in its reveal at the recent Windows 10 presentation in its enormous ambition and scope.
Microsoft describes the technology with the specific term of holographic computing, a classification that distinguishes it from the growing field of virtual reality which continues to grow in prevalence in the mind share of digital experience enthusiasts as well as trade shows such as CES. The combination of 3D digital elements, increasingly app centric Microsoft software ecosystem and the focus on complementary rather than replacement content in relation to our physical reality has a lot in common with the original vision for Google Glass or noted futurist author William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy of books about the evolution of blending the barriers between reality and fiction.
Augmented reality has some meaningful challenges that differ from virtual reality, current computing or other digital media interactions over the history of computing. The human-computer interaction form of hand gestures in physical space to manipulate free floating as well as fixed position augmentations can bring a higher level immersion to games that the Kinect and NFC devices are creating a limited but growing appetite for. There is a palpable excitement on my part for playing mech combat simulators in a simulated 3D cockpit while actually seeing myself as the pilot, sports titles with floating playbooks, strategy/RPG titles on top of a real wooden table and many more opportunities that are meaningfully differentiated from full virtual reality.
Microsoft has a huge opportunity as well as a daunting challenge in creating and enforcing design standards that ensure the effective implementation of visual signifiers, audio cues and (initially simulated) tactile feedback for interaction with HoloLens projected images. The free floating display panels will need to flow around physical objects to avoid unsightly clipping in an unnatural manner and the additive components in the demonstrations such as the motorcycle body redesign will have to snap correctly onto the base physical object to avoid an uncanny valley type of negatively disruptive visual feedback for the user.
I have excitement for the various virtual reality sets marching towards a consumer release such as the Oculus VR and Sony’s Project Morpheus prototype, but the concept of closing myself off from reality entirely while immersed in a digital experience is a limited use scenario. The compartmentalized experience does not work for in-person social gatherings, whereas the amalgam of the actual and virtual worlds with HoloLens can facilitate shared 3D interaction without blocking out friends and family; combined with the underrated Kinect camera accessory and the low latency cloud services infrastructure of Azure, Microsoft has an opportunity to disrupt the way we play and think about the future of gaming as well as digital media interaction overall.
VR continues to be a popular topic at gaming conventions such as PAX West 2017, with Seattle a hotbed of video game & virtual reality development talent working on cutting edge projects. Panelists at the Is THIS going to be the year of VR? discussion included Robin Hunicke, Ikrima Elhassan, Geoffrey Zatkin, Todd Hooper & Jeff Pobst.
Robin began the conversation with a discussion on the start of several years of VR from this point forward, a period where developers need to navigate the difference between what the marketplace has & what people want. She felt that VR was generally useful & it was awesome to have access to this kind of technology, as well as the huge amount of responsibility for how their products impact the culture.
Ikrima noted that development has moved a lot faster than anticipated; VR is a contact religion you have to try it to believe it & the industry needed to make it cheaper to accelerate that. Geoffrey advocated for the budget of AAA for VR games, as well as better tools for that development while Robin also advocated for more creativity tools to come out.
On the topic of price, Todd stressed the importance of getting price friction down to $300 or even $200. Jeff pointed out that exclusives are how the content exists today while Robin highlighted the need for better curated stores.
It might not happen for years to come, but I hope someone is looking into the possibility of live streaming future panels from PAX to VR as well as Twitch. It would be a context appropriate way to experience the convention remotely as well as allow panelists to provide 3D presentations & demos of the technology being discussed.