GDC 2013: I have worn the future of gaming, and it is the Oculus Rift

oculus rift headerWhile we generally discourage first-person narrative in Digital Trends’ gaming section, occasionally it’s the best way to convey the impressions of something that defies simple description – something like a virtual reality headset that may change the face of gaming forever.

If you follow gaming, by now you probably know at least a bit about the Oculus Rift, the VR headset that set Kickstarter ablaze last August. It isn’t the only VR headset on the way – far from it, both Sony and Microsoft are working on similar devices – but it’s the furthest along. While gaming’s giants are busy preparing their new consoles (or are busy defending an existing console – looking at you, Nintendo), the Oculus Rift is here today, tangible and working. Oculus VR already sent early prototypes to more than 100 developers, who will poke, pry, hack, mod, and generally do everything in their power to mess with it, to improve the product before it is tentatively released next year. You can also purchase developer kits yourself for $300, but they won’t ship until May.

It also has more visibility than its competitors; Valve boss Gabe Newell, and id Software’s John Carmack have both sung its praises. Jimmy Fallon even gushed over it. Jimmy. Fallon. 

oculus rift jimmy fallon

After hearing all about it at E3, I was interested, but traumatic memories of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy haunted my thoughts. Tech like that can easily go wrong and feel like a forced gimmick. I offer you the Sony Move as evidence. 

After actually playing a game on it at GDC using one of the dev kits, however, I am considering the best way to submit a $300 expense report without getting fired. Listing it as “sundries” probably won’t cut it, but I may take that chance.

I could go on at length about what the Oculus looks and feels like, but it would be somewhat akin to describing how awesome my alma mater is (go Jayhawks!) to anyone who didn’t go there. Not only would it be a race to see how quickly you were bored, it would be annoying. Besides, the model being shown off at GDC is just a development model. It’s black, square, and people wearing it look like their face is being eaten by the offspring of a monitor and ski goggles. The aesthetics are unimportant, and they will certainly change before the final model is released anyway.

oculus rift viewing angle

It weighs just under a pound, and that may change as well. The dev model does not have sound output, and the three straps that keep it on your face may change to make it more comfortable – not that it is particularly uncomfortable, but the final unit will be as light and streamlined as possible. The current version is also not designed for glasses, but it is big enough that I didn’t have any problem wearing mine.

So to surmise: The dev kit model is fairly comfortable and swallows your face. None of that really means a thing, though.

At GDC, Oculus demonstrated Hawken, the mech warrior game set in a dystopian future that is currently in beta. When the official game is released it will join Valve’s Team Fortress 2 as being officially compatible with the Oculus Rift, and more games are to follow. Doom 3 BFG Edition was supposed to be ready as well, but delays pushed it back. Many more are on the way as well.

Hawken puts you in the cockpit of a mech fighter. The directional stick on the gamepad moves the mech. Simple enough. Wearing the Oculus Rift, however, changes things.

After nearly five minutes of looking around and jumping like an idiot, I remembered that I was playing a game with the objective to hunt down the enemies. I did so only grudgingly, and only because I accidentally landed on one of them and figured it was best to end its misery.

The sense of immersion with the Oculus Rift is astounding. Hawken is a fairly detailed game to begin with. You can look left or right out of the mech into what would otherwise be your periphery. You can look up at the sky or down at a partial view obscured by the floor. You can even turn around and look at the metal back wall of the machine if you like. The mech’s cockpit is filled with plenty of gears and lights – parts of the complex, highly sophisticated machine that I was using to jump around like Mario on speed. Looking at the gauges is mostly an aesthetic thing, with the exception of a few meters signifying things like ammo.

Walking around and looking to the sides as quickly as you can turn your head is remarkable enough, but the mech also has the ability to fly. Doing so gives you an incredible sense of scale, scope, and immersion. Although the game is about combat, it was easy to get lost in the movement when paired with the freedom of vision. It was then and there that I decided that I knew what I wanted for Christmas.

The possibilities are endless. There are very few games that wouldn’t benefit from this technology. Some might not have much need of it – games like Mario might be a bit of an overkill to have full, complete visual sensory immersion – but it wouldn’t hurt. However, a first-person shooter with an emphasis on scripted combat, a game like Call of Duty or one of the dozens of games in the same genre, would take on an entirely new level of depth and immersion when you are able to constantly be looking around, watching for the next attack. The level of spectacle a game designer could create by developing with the Oculus Rift boggles the mind.

This is really where the technology will live and die. The canvas is there, but if developers don’t paint on it in new and interesting ways, it may end up on a shelf next to the destroyer of childhood dreams, the Nintendo Virtual Boy. First person games are better suited for this tech, but a cleaver developer could find ways around that for any style of game. Augmenting current games will also go a long way, but this is the first stage of a bigger push towards real VR. Pair the Oculus VR technology with other technologies like the next generation of the Kinect, and you are looking at the birth of true VR gaming. The future may have denied us our jetpacks and hover skateboards, but it may soon deliver on virtual reality.

Over the course of the last few years, I have interviewed dozens of developers, and I often ask the question, “Where do you see gaming technology in general going?” It is my personal equivalent of Barbara Walters’ famously stupid, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be” question. The answers always vary, but one response I have heard more and more often is “Oculus Rift.” It’s a device that developers are excited about, which means it is a device that gamers should be excited about. The Oculus Rift is going to be one of the things leading the charge in the next evolution of gaming.

Right now, it’s still rough around the edges. A built-in sound system would be nice, the actual headset needs some tweaks, and the display is not close to perfect – it is blurry and grainy around the edges. But there is enough here to push the boundaries of gaming. When the final product is released (tentatively in 2014), it will arrive with a bang. It may only be March, but I already know what I want for Christmas, and I am totally cool with a pre-order. The Oculus Rift will be worth the wait.

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