One of our last E3 2013 appointments was to check out the Oculus Rift, which was easily one of my most anticipated appointments. Virtual reality technology has certainly seen its fits and starts over the years, but none have managed to latch on. The Oculus Rift feels like the first big step that has been made in VR in a long time, combining true stereoscopic vision with sensitive head-tracking technology. The resulting experience is nothing short of stunning, and the chance to check it out was one of the coolest things that E3 2013 had to offer.
Without delving deeply into the mechanics of the unit, the Oculus Rift is essentially a pair of goggles that you attach to your face via straps. Each eye sees its own screen within the goggles, and the rest of the goggles blocks all peripheral vision. The image presented by each screen is slightly offset from each other to show more of the field of view to the left or right of your head. While wearing the device, your brain sees the two images and marries them into one, combining the two into a sensation of 3-D vision in the exact same way that you do when looking at things in real life.
The unit also is able to track the movement of your head, allowing you to properly look around the environment in a game. It not only senses when you're looking up or down, or left and right, but also knows when you're tilting your head to either direction. It is all done naturally thanks to a kinematic modeling system built into the SDK that accurately moves the camera around the environment as your face and eyes actually would. From an engine perspective, the viewpoint is attached to the character's head, which properly pivots around the neck.
We first got to check out the older, standard-resolution version of the Rift that has been making the rounds for over a year. This model had a maximum combined resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, but when worn, you could really make out individual pixels in the displays due to their close proximity to the face. I'm happy to report that people who wear glasses don't necessarily need to remove them prior to play, but they need to have rather small frames. In the future, the goal is to provide the ability to mount special optics to the unit so the Rift can account for eyeglass prescriptions, thus removing the need to wear glasses while playing.
To get our feet wet with the Rift, we walked around in the Unreal 4 engine demo, Elemental. To make sure everything was properly adjusted, we looked around outside the snowy castle gates and looked up to see the snowfall have true depth of vision as it fell down onto our faces. We were then teleported inside to see the fire demon stand up out of his chair, and we got a feel for the sense of scale that the Rift's stereoscopic vision can impart. After the demon stood, we could walk around him using a gamepad. The head tracking allowed us to really examine it up close, and it felt a lot like when you're checking out a statue up-close. It all felt completely natural, and yet the whole time, the back of my mind was keenly aware of how awesome the sensation was.
Then, we checked out the high-definition model of the Oculus Rift, which was literally just assembled and tested 15 minutes before the show opened on the first day of E3. Given how close of a call that was, you couldn't tell. The new device has all of the previous functionality, but it is now complete with a combined 1080p display resolution. This new HD version of the Rift is leaps and bounds better in terms of visual quality, with everything appearing much more detailed. With everything so close to your eyes, the image still seems a little grainier than what you perceive when sitting a couple of feet away from a monitor of the same resolution, but as you become immersed in the world, it is quickly forgotten.
One of our writers on staff suffers from severe motion sickness, to the point that after only a hour of playing shooters like Borderlands 2, she has to take a break and let her equilibrium recover. She reported that while she felt no nausea while using the Rift, there was a bit to be experienced in the transition from using it to returning to "the real world." This is apparently a fairly common phenomena, and most people are able to use the Rift with no issues. However, if an action in real life would make you dizzy, such as spinning around or doing repeated backflips, doing so in a game while using a Rift will likely do the same for you as well.
Just after our meeting, we went over to CCP's booth to check out their eVR space dog-fighting prototype. This game is a pet project designed specifically to leverage the Rift, and it was absolutely incredible. Starting off, you sit in your fighter craft in a larger ship, and when you look around, you can see the cockpit and your lower body, and you can look around outside of the cockpit glass. This is important because once launched, you need to look around for targets, and the missile targeting system only works against ships that you are looking at directly to lock onto them. With the Rift on our faces and headphones over our ears, it resulted in a sensory blackout of anything that wasn't the game, and with that and the head tracking, it was hard to not get the sensation that you're a hardcore fighter jock blasting his way through space. The experience of playing the prototype was easily one of my favorite things of E3 2013, and it slightly boggles the mind at the potential of what the Rift could offer for other games and game genres.
When it was all said and done, within the span of an hour, I went from wondering if the Rift was going to live up to all the hype to wondering when I can get my hands on a set. The consumer product is still a ways out, and no price can be given yet, and between now and then, the device will continue to see improvements in comfort and adjustments for different facial structures, glasses, etc. In its current state, the Oculus Rift is an amazing piece of work, and after decades of dealing with VR technology, it seems that we may finally see a VR unit that is going to get it right.
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