Tweetminster co-founder and The Independent Online journalist Andrew Walker describes his experiences using the Oculus Rift for the first time.
The Oculus Rift needs no introduction to 3Ders, gamers and social media types. The story has everything it needs to make it an internet buzz sensation. It made ten times more than it asked for on Kickstarter, meaning every social media pundit on Twitter is raving about crowd-funding, again.
Gamers love it because they get really excited about new games and gizmos before they launch. The 3D community is excited because it puts 3D at the heart of the wearable technologies of the future as opposed to its traditional game and Pixar niche. As a PR machine, Oculus Rift is already a huge success, but what’s it actually like?
If you’re old enough to remember Lawnmower Man or early VR headset games in a video game arcade, you’ll naturally be a bit sceptical. VR enabled an affable, learning-disabled gardener to turn into a psychotic super villain in Lawnmower Man and VR arcade games were like watching a NES through a crash helmet with a two inch TV strapped on to your face. But technology has come a long way since then.
‘Rift developer kits are, as one AR developer told me recently, “rare as rocking-horse s@!t”. They’re shipping now, but as of yet, only a couple of hundred have made their way into the developer world and maybe a few dozen have found their way into the hands of reviewers. The back-orders are racking-up, demand is high and it’s getting rave reviews and endorsements from game industry legends like John Carmack and Dean Hall. So I was delighted when I recently tried one for myself at creative production company Inition.
The headset I tried was a MakingView (the 360 degree video capture people) branded version and I got to try three different kinds of ‘Rift experiences’ – a 3D world and two VR videos.
The kit weighs in around 0.4Kg on your head, about the same as a decent quality scuba diving mask. It’s easy to get comfortable and certainly a wearable reality. When my demo started, I noticed the graphics were decidedly Playstation I for about 2 seconds before I became preoccupied by something much more worrying… namely the fact I was balancing on a plank, about a hundred feet above the ground and regardless of the texture mapping, it scared the pants off me.
I don’t like heights and fear of falling to my death, even if it’s falling off a low resolution building onto a pixelated grassy knoll, is a powerful thing. I puzzled over how this could be. My rational self was saying “calm down dear, it’s not real” but my pulse was racing, I was sweaty, giddy and generally wanted it to stop.
The Oculus Rift is a clever piece of kit. Its magical ability to plumb your unthinking emotional reactions comes from its immersive FOV (field of vision) which means you can’t see any edges to the screen and the world moves realistically around you, regardless of whether the surfaces look realistic or not. The ultra low latency head tracking supplied by Oculus’s own 1000Hz ‘Adjacent Reality Tracker’ technology, with 3-axis gyros, accelerometers and magnetometers, makes it so responsive that your eyes trick your brain into thinking it’s a real space.
Basically, these advances in screen resolution (two partially overlapping 640×480 displays feeding each eye independently), motion tracking and rendering speed means the experience triggers neurotransmitter release in the parts of your brain that don’t think, but merely react to sensory stimuli – in a way that viewing a screen with edges doesn’t. That’s why, even if what you see doesn’t look real, it feels real. This new dimension of emotional interaction is important for making VR into a game changer, because many of the titles slated for VR releases involve unreal scenarios like space combat or a zombie apocalypse. A high-res Zombie is, cognitively speaking, no more realistic than Super Mario (neither are real possibilities) but depth, perspective and motion realism bypasses thinking and goes straight for your fight or flight monkey brain. That combination of primal reactions and cognition is what makes real life exciting and scary, and VR makes it a computational vector in user experience design. That’s huge.
I tried out a 360 degree video of an F1 car using the ‘Rift and it left me grinning from ear to ear. I did a base jumping video too, which went from abject terror to elation as the adrenaline gave way to dopamine in my noggin. 360 video is like watching a video where you can look over your shoulder and see what’s behind you, it’s like being there and watching rather than watching from your sofa. It represents a longer term, but nevertheless crucial application for VR, creating a new genre between interactivity and passive viewing. In fact, Virtual Reality’s potential applications – now it actually works properly – are basically as wide as TV, cinema and games combined. It won’t just change gaming, it could disrupt the whole way we experience the gamut of home entertainment.
Good as the ‘Rift is, there’s a possible negative disruption it brings to gaming that the creators might not have anticipated. The kit makes games more adrenaline pumping, thrilling and scary than ever before, so your comfortable exposure time within the game environment will decrease – because all that excitement has a physically draining effect.
We’ve all become glued to the screen for hours on end before, it’s another neurochemically induced behaviour. If you’ve ever done an all night session knee-deep in alien guts in Halo, or lost a day to Bioshock, it’s because every checkpoint passed, problem solved and new level unlocked gives you a hit of dopamine. The more you get, the more you want, even if your eyes sting and you’ve got blistered thumbs.
That physical experience is easy to prolong for couch potato gamers with bad fitness, but mix in some VR-triggered adrenaline and anyone who isn’t actually physically fit enough to battle aliens in a high-octane firefight will turn into a jelly after about ten minutes. That could seriously affect demand for first person VR shooters and shift us towards softer, friendlier games, disrupting the creative pre-eminence of adrenaline pumping blockbusters in favour of sports and social simulations. It’s an unpredictable new market force for studios and publishers, and unpredictable is bad news for marketeers and sales figures. Throw in some motion sensing gloves and you won’t need controllers either. Or a console. Or a PC. Inition’s Andy Millns told me the onboard wireless and processing abilities of the rift mean it could easily become the whole game kit, not just something to plug into your Xbox. That’s another unpredictable market force for the games industry.
The co-founder of Inition, Technical Director Stuart Cupit put it all into perspective. “Like a lot of technology VR’s been round the hype-disappointment curve…” he said, referencing Gartner’s data on public responses to new ideas, which are often hotly anticipated but fail to score a consumer hit “…maybe this won’t be the winning execution, it could be something more like Google Glass, or contact lenses, but it will take off at some point”. He’s right of course, even HD or 3DTV is getting into the realms of incremental improvement on the hardware, not the quantum leaps in experience that keeps consumers opening their wallets.
It’s hard to believe that five years from now, given the availability of VR, we’ll still be thumbing a joystick in front of a flatscreen telly… something new is in high demand right now.
Andrew Walker is also a Chief Plastician and runs the blog UniquePlastique.com. Follow him at @uniqueplastique.
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