As a child, one of my biggest dreams was that of Virtual Reality – or VR. Growing up watching the cast of Red Dwarf enter lifelike video game scenarios in Better Than Life and Gunmen of the Apocalypse, and later seeing The Matrix – where the world was a VR construction within which Neo was able to defy the laws of physics, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a passionate gamer like myself could want to see similar technology that would allow us not to simply watch the worlds of our video games – but enter them, and see them as if we were really there.
Of course, it’s something that people have tried for years. But with limited success – the Virtual Boy for instance, was a notorious failure – essentially just applying old-school 3D glasses to your face to give a 3D feel to basic, NES-quality visuals. Not quite the immersive experience that some of us dream of – but it was perhaps one of the first notable attempts. In more recent years, the idea of a real-life VR device seemed like something of a fleeting dream.
Until recently, that is – when I first heard the news of the Oculus Rift, a Kickstarter project with $250,000 goal. The concept of the Oculus Rift is to deal with perhaps the most prominent aspect of VR - the ability to see within a virtual space as though you are really there. And it seems people have taken more interest than maybe expected – seeing as so far, nearly $2.5 million has been pledged to the cause. So what’s the big deal?
Well, the Oculus Rift is a head-mounted stereoscopic 3D display with a wide screen that gives a very realistic field of vision – meaning that unlike 3D experiences such as cinema and the 3DS, the immersion should be much greater, with your perception close to that which you have in real life. And unlike the 3DS, for example, the head-mounted display means that the stereoscopic picture is always positioned at the optimal view of your eyes – no immersion-breaking when you aren’t quite sitting right. Looking through the Rift should supposedly give you perception into a virtual 3D space much in the same way that you get in reality.
While that in itself sounds extremely cool, it’s the next feature that really get me excited about what the Rift can do. The OR has full head-tracking – meaning that if you turn your head to the left, you see left. If you look up, you see up. As if your head was actually in that virtual space – your vision works in the same way. While all 3D devices so far have only allowed 3D perception dependant on the in-game camera, being able to look around in this manner sounds extremely immersive. Here’s some footage of the Oculus Rift in action.
Seems pretty cool, right? Of course, it’s hard to really get a grasp on just how it feels to use the Oculus Rift without actually being able to use one – but it’s easy to see how the tech is looking very strong and how much potential the equipment has. Already, many well-known game developers are getting in on the action – including Epic Games, who will be integrating OR compatibility into the Unreal Engine, Gabe Newell of Valve, and John Carmack of id Software. Some currently existing PC games are already compatible with the OR – including Mirror’s Edge, Half-Life 2 and Portal – but of course, they don’t offer perfect VR experiences, as they were not originally designed for that purpose. Still, I’d love to play BioShock in immersive 3D!
Two of the issues raised in the previous video were that of no position tracking – i.e. only the head’s position is tracked, taking no account of height or lower body movement, and also that you couldn’t see your body. However, both of these issues seem fairly simple to resolve (in context to what the Rift can already do, that is) – similar to motion capture technology, I would think it would be possible to track your body’s movement by attaching devices to key parts of your frame, to be translated in-game and reflected there. Of course, I’m no expert – but I’m not totally making all of this up – in fact, work in this area has already begun. Utilising some handheld devices, and with a basic in-game character model, developers have already managed to create an in-game presence with hands that move as though they were your own.
Of course, being a tech demo this isn’t Triple-A quality visuals – but looking at the concept of this demo makes me very excited:
Imagine how it must feel to be able to look around a virtual landscape, look down and see your body – one that mimics the movements of your own. Sure, the Hydra controllers shown are used for the hands, but what’s to stop there being similar tracking for feet? Obviously, we then start getting into the territory of more expensive equipment and other technology – but perhaps for the first time in my life - something resembling VR could actually happen, and it might not even be that far off.
From a VR perspective, this would only be the tip of the iceberg. Outside of vision and sound, there is of course no sense of feedback of anything within these virtual environments. You can’t feel anything, or move your body in a natural way - sitting on things, walking around as if you were in a real environment – at the moment, forward movement is of course performed by a regular controller. But while it’s a long way off real-life VR, it sounds like an amazing step in terms of gaming technology. Imagine being able to play a first-person game but with a real life field-of-vision and 3D depth perception – or something similar to PlayStation Home where you could meet up with friends online – only you could feel like you were in the room, see each other’s body language, and have a conversation as if you were sitting next to them in real life.
It’s surely going to be a year or two yet until we see the Oculus Rift hitting store shelves to use with your PC games, and much longer until we’ll be seeing console support – but it seems to be off to a strong start. With a fantastic concept and strong backing, this is more exciting to me than even the PS4 or next-gen Xbox at this point. I’m sorely lacking a gaming PC – but I think I may need to change that before too long…
Oh, and if you needed more convincing – here’s a video of a 90-year old woman giving the Oculus Rift a whirl.