The Oculus Rift will not end well.
Not the tech itself. The Oculus Rift headset itself is amazing. Virtual reality has been a pipe dream since at least the early 90s, something that games are made about and rarely as because it’s never been practical. Due to technical shortcomings it’s a future that never came to pass. The Rift might finally turn that dream into a (non-)reality, though.
Based on a few demos I experienced at E3 earlier this month, the Oculus Rift actually works. It makes you feel like you’re in another world. It’s one of the few situations in which the overused games criticism buzzword “immersive” is still useful.
The headset looks like a diving mask, but instead of a clear window there’s an HD screen that projects images directly into your eyeholes. You connect it to a computer, strap it onto your skull and sink into a computer-generated world created with a sense of scale and proportion. It tracks your head movements, so when you look up the camera tilts up and you see what’s above you in the game world. Look right or left or behind you and the camera moves accordingly. Look down and you might see your in-game avatar’s feet.
Nobody looks good wearing this thing.
Before I strapped in I thought it was going to be difficult to adjust to this weird visual stimulation. I almost always turn the 3D effect off on my 3DS because I have a hard time keeping the two separate images in sync. I expected a similar fuzziness from the Rift, with a headache, vertigo and possibly even nausea as a worst case scenario. I didn’t need to worry—it took a little bit of effort to get the headset lined up properly on my face, but after wiggling it into an optimal position I had no problem handling the images within.
After I slid into the headset I found myself exploring a crumbling ruin within a cave on a snow-covered mountain. As I walked into the cave tiny rivulets of lava appeared. They quickly turned into a small pond of fire, in the middle of which sat a demon on a massive throne. He merely stood and stared as I approached. Elsewhere in his fortress was an odd telescope that seemed to defy gravity. I could launch beams of ice with a button press, although they didn’t have any effect on my surroundings. I wouldn’t say this tableau felt real, but it was definitely a smoother and more lifelike experience than I expected. It was especially vibrant on the newer Rift model with a larger screen that runs in high definition. As I stumbled through that cave I kept thinking about how powerful the Rift could be with an all-consuming role-playing game like Skyrim, one that already threatens to suck the player entirely into its world.
There was a slight disconnect in the form of a controller. I had to use a standard Xbox 360 controller to walk, and although I could look around my surroundings I still had to use a joystick to orient the game’s camera in the direction I was moving in. Walking and pulling a shoulder trigger to launch the ice ball didn’t break the Rift’s spell, but for some reason having to move that camera with a joystick slightly undermined the experience.
Oculus Rift development kits are already in circulation, and developers are working on many apps outside of gaming. One programmer has created a virtual movie theater, complete with a screen that displays videos. I watched a trailer for The Hangover Part III in this weird fake theater, with a few rows of seats around me and emergency exits thoughtfully located on either side of the screen. I can see some people watching movies or TV shows through the Rift, but I don’t see the point.
Whereas gaming on the Rift expands on the interactive nature of games by fully engorging our most pertinent senses, watching a movie feels like a form of sensory deprivation. Modern games generally try to limit the distance between the player and the game. That’s the whole point of virtual reality. Distance is vital to watching and understanding cinema, though—we’re observers, not participants, passive recipients of whatever the creators send our way. As a viewer it’s uncomfortable to eliminate or reduce that distance. Plus watching the entire Hangover Part III on the Rift would be like strapping my head inside of Todd Phillips’ brain, and that’s about the last place I’d ever want to visit. Still, this theater demo shows that developers are exploring a wide range of possible uses for the Rift, and other apps in development could find valuable and significant uses for the Rift (such as an application that helps architects construct 3D models of potential designs.)
The best proof of concept for the Oculus Rift wasn’t exhibited by Oculus VR Inc. but by CCP Games. The Icelandic developers of the MMO Eve Online showed off a demo called Eve VR that put me behind the controls of a space fighter. I blasted off into an intergalactic battle that felt like something out of Star Wars, diving and barrel-rolling through space and around massive star cruisers while trying to shoot down enemy ships with guns and targeting missiles. The Oculus Rift turned this basic scenario, this umpteenth iteration on Wing Commander, into the most thrilling and awe-inspiring moment I’ve ever had at an E3. When I looked around my cockpit and gazed at the deep expanse of space that surrounded me I saw something more than just another game. I saw a medium bursting through some of its most fundamental limitations. Eve VR made a believer out of me, but like a single ship floating in the vastness of space this brief demo immediately felt small and insignificant in the face of the Rift’s potential.
That potential can be frightening, though. Like I said, this probably won’t end well. Moralists already grumble over the “adult” game that one studio has announced for the Rift. Will the inevitable virtual reality porn destroy all productivity? And what kind of psychological impact will virtual reality have upon its users? Every kid I’m ever around these days seems to have his or her gaze locked tight on some kind of screen, and I myself regularly get stuck in that constant Twitter-email loop to the detriment of whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. Driving is just something we do to pass the time between checking Facebook at red lights. Will we ever want to look away when that screen is effectively beamed straight into our brain? And will watching Strange Days on a Rift make those brains dribble out of our ears? We’ll have to wait on the answers to questions like this, as plans for a retail release of the Rift headset haven’t been finalized yet.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.