Experienced Points Oculus Rift

Curious about this Oculus Rift stuff you keep hearing about? I talked about it back in April when I said it was a big deal, but now I own one and I’ve had a chance to experience it for myself.

First, some background: We’re now two generations into the Oculus Rift development process. The first Rift had low resolution 1280×800 (only 640×800 pixels per eye!) and had no positional tracking. It had gyroscopes so it could tell when you tilted your head (just like your smartphone can tell which way you’re holding it) so you could rotate your head in place. But if you moved your head (to the side, or forward, or just sat up straight) it had no way of knowing this. This meant that doing these things was intensely uncomfortable. If you absent-mindedly leaned forward, it would feel like the whole world moved with you, because the position of your eyes wasn’t changing relative to the scenery. This would instantly make the average person feel sick. (I’m speaking from experience. I tried some demos aimed at DK1, and they are unpleasant.)

Earlier this year, the next version of the Rift came out (DK2) and it’s a massive improvement. It has more resolution (1920×1080, or 960×1080 per eye) less latency (makes images appear with less blurring) and it can now track your head position using a little camera you stick on top of your monitor. This means you can lean, stand, or otherwise shift in your seat and have those changes reflected in the game world.

Both of these devices are aimed squarely at developers. I know a lot of consumers are thinking about getting a Rift just to see what the fuss is about, but I’ll caution you that this product probably isn’t ready for public use. I know the trend of Early Access games has greatly blurred the line between “Things which are already good and will be even better in the future” and “things still in early stages of development”. But the Rift clearly falls into the latter category. We are literally watching people invent a new thing. (Or perhaps, finally finish inventing something we’ve been trying to build for twenty years.)

Sure, the device itself is pretty good, but as of right now the game library is little more than a collection of janky tech demos, half of which will make you ill because they weren’t properly designed for the Rift. Lots of demos were made for DK1 and then abandoned. Other games were made for traditional screens and then retrofitted for the Rift, which rarely works out. There are precious few comfortable, well-designed demos and you can probably experience most of them in just a few hours. Is that really worth $350 plus shipping to you?

Just to be clear: Even when it’s complete and the technology problems are ironed out the Rift is not going to take over the games industry, nor is it trying to. It’s not going to replace consoles or traditional PC games. Like motion controls, rhythm games, or dance pad games, this is a new niche market for enthusiasts. It’s radical, it’s powerful, and it’s very different, but it’s not going to replace monitors anytime soon.

The trick about the Rift is that – being an experience – it’s very hard to convey to people just how good it feels. (When things work right.)

The Rift is lighter than it looks. If you’ve seen a picture of someone with a Rift on their face then you know it looks like it’s roughly the cubic volume of a GameCube, and I sort of assumed it would weigh about the same. But most of the internal space is foam and air. This empty space is needed between the lenses. It’s basically taking a smartphone screen and warping the image so that it fills a majority of your field of view. This includes a good deal of overlap right in the center. (So that your left eye sees into the space to your right, and your right eye sees into the space on your left. You can’t just cut an image in half and feed each part to an eyeball to get 3D, after all.) The optics to make this happen are complex and require some distance between the lenses. My guess is that even if you could shrink all the technology in the Rift down to Star Trek levels, the Rift itself probably wouldn’t get much smaller, because you’d still need those lenses and the gaps between them.

oculus rift at CES

If the Rift takes off, then the graphics race is officially on again. I’ve really enjoyed the last five years or so where I didn’t have to worry too much about video cards. My son’s mid-range computer has integrated graphics (that is: no dedicated graphics graphics card) that can run Skyrim with most of the visuals turned up. I have a mid-range graphics card from two years ago and I’m able to run most games with the visuals maxed out. It’s been glorious to simply run games without trying to puzzle out the ghastly and baffling naming conventions that NVIDIA and AMD have created. (Seriously. They should be ashamed. But that’s another column.) And I loved not having to pay enough money for a game console just to get the graphics processor needed to run PC games.

But the days of buying cheap cards and using them for years are over if you’re looking to get into VR. The Rift needs power. Lots of power. A 1920×1080 screen updating at 60fps is fine for traditional gaming. That’s the standard we’ve come to expect these days, anyway. But that’s the absolute bare minimum in VR. Stuff that looks detailed and smooth on a screen looks ugly, jagged, and laggy once the same image is strapped to your eyeballs. My graphics card struggles with everything but the most primitive Rift demos. In anything visually complex I need to move my head very slowly to avoid sickness.

The last thing I’ll note is that developers have no idea what to do about interfaces. If you make a game with a Minecraft-style menu (large, friendly buttons stacked up in the middle of the screen) then in VR it feels like you’re trying to read a roadside billboard from just a couple of meters away. Sometimes they use the mouse, but that’s odd because often the pointer gets lost outside of your field of view. Sometimes they use your head position to select things, but that feels fiddly because your neck doesn’t have nearly the dexterity and precision of your fingertips.

Somewhat paradoxically, it seems like the best games for VR are vehicle simulations. Driving and flying various craft feels great. It’s fun to be able to look around the cockpit, which can also serve as a reassuring frame of reference so you don’t get motion sickness. However, vehicle simulations tend to have dense and complex interfaces, and those are very bad in VR. Some of the simulations currently available on the Rift (like Euro Truck Simulator 2) feel great once you get into the vehicle, but their interface-heavy design makes the game itself unplayable. We need a new breed of minimalist vehicle games that focus on accessibility and motion rather than exhaustive simulation.

Team Fortress 2 Oculus Rift social

Yes, VR sickness is a real thing. People call it “motion sickness,” but I’ve had motion sickness before and this feels like something new. I got massively sick playing the VR version of Half-Life 2, and it really was unpleasant and quite different from motion sickness. The effect also lingers even after you take the headset off.

VR sickness is the most worrying problem, because I’m not sure the buying public can handle the risk. Can our litigation-obsessed culture of infantile warning labels handle a product capable of making you sick for real? All we need is one idiot to get in an accident after using VR and we’ll have a circus of hyperbolic news about the DANGERS OF THE NEW THING. Remember how some people freaked out because sometimes players would get hit in the face with a WiiMote? I can’t even guess how they will react to VR, where a bad experience can leave you feeling ill for an hour, and where everyone’s first experience is different and unpredictable. We’re used to ignoring warning labels because they’re everywhere and they’re idiotic. Do not put scissors in mouth. Do not lick these electrical contacts. Do not jam this object in your eye and wiggle it around. But with VR you really do need to read the warnings. And statistically, we know everyone won’t. I’m not anxious to see the result of that.

I hope VR sickness doesn’t create any problems for those of us who understand and accept the risks. VR really is something new and exciting. Here is the best endorsement I can give it: It’s expensive, it takes time to set up, and it made me sick once, but I’m still enamored of it and I’m going to run some more demos as soon as I’m done with this column. It’s what we’re always looking for in a game: A new experience. The Oculus Rift is the ultimate new experience.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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