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Oculus Rift: First Impressions

by on Jun.19, 2016, under Musings, On Game Development

I have recently received my Oculus Rift CV1, and I’d like to document my first impressions of it.

I haven’t used any other virtual reality hardware at all, except for some of those 3D glasses and very basic head mounted displays that were available years ago.

Even during setup of the Oculus, while I was configuring the location of the sensor, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sense of presence that the Rift produces. During the Dream Deck Demoscenes, this sense of prescence was truly astounding.

In fact, I had to skip one demo that was set on a ledge on the side of a tall building, due to a genuine discomfort and fear of heights. That is a level of immersion that I have never felt in a game before, and it’s something you could never get from playing on a screen.

In addition to setting up Torque 3D and making my current projects Virtual Reality compatible, I have been exploring some of the other apps and games available on the rift.

The main one would be EVE: Valkyrie. The “launch” scene in this game, when the player is first introduced to the cockpit, and catapulted from the carrier ship into space, is ¬†one of the greatest “wow” moments that I have ever had in a game, and it really impressed upon me the genuine feeling that VR is something different. This is something that is going to be big, because you just don’t get that “wow” factor on a screen.

Being able to look around the cockpit as the lights come on, and then seeing the inside of the carrier, and finally seeing the relative safety of the cramped launch tube disappear as your ship is propelled into the vastness of space, provokes genuine presence and awe. I found myself having to stare straight ahead in order to play the game for some time, since I found looking around made me genuinely uneasy.

I also noticed that at several points while using the rift, I instinctively reached my hands out in an attempt to interact with what was happening on the screen. I knew that the Rift currently has no “touch” controller, but it just feels like such a natural thing to do, you feel like you are “in” the game, and you don’t think to use a controller.

Initially, I felt that “touch” controllers were an important accessory, but an accessory nonetheless. Having used the Rift, I now believe very strongly that touch controllers are an absolutely vital part of the VR experience. To be able to interact with the world by physically moving your hands is essential to maintaining the presence and the immersion in the game world. Using a gamepad or, worse, a keyboard and mouse, would be like buying an expensive car and driving it by sitting in the back seat and shouting directions to the driver. You might get to where you’re going, but you won’t enjoy the ride.

Another point that is shared with the Rifts main competitor, the HTC Vive, is the significant dearth of content for these headsets. I spend time looking through the Steam and Oculus stores and had difficulty finding a game that I wanted to play. There were only a handful of titles that really interested me. I also noticed that most of the titles that were available were from small or independent gaming companies. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, my own work is in the independent gaming sector, and we are in the very early stages of virtual reality. What concerns me, however, is the possibility that the big-name companies are not investing in VR yet because the market is so small. They may be waiting for the second or even third generation of VR headsets to be available, hoping that at that point VR will be cheap enough that a significant customer base will exist.

The problem with this thinking is that I feel, personally,that without a significant investment from Triple-A, Big name games companies, VR may yet fizzle out. It is very much a fledgling industry at this point, and despite my love for independent gaming, I don’t feel it is enough to grow the VR industry. Big budget developers really need to start producing content for VR, at a loss if necessary, in order to encourage adoption of the technology. It would be considered an investment for the future, since I do feel this could be a major player in the future.

On a similar note, I have been looking much more favourably to less expensive VR Heatsets like the Playstation VR. The specs are obviously not going to match the two Rift or the Vive, but with their low cost, they are likely to sell better, and therefore attract more people to the industry, which in turn will drive developers to create more content.

With regards to creating content for VR, I think it is important to design the content specifically for VR, rather than designing the game for a gamepad or keyboard and mouse, and adding VR support after the fact. The latter is tempting, since Unity and Unreal Engine both make VR integration to a project very quick and simple. The problem with this is that conventional control interfaces don’t tend to work too well in VR. This is particularly true when rotating the player. With most first person games, or even third person games, the player is allowed to rapidly turn their character at the push of a button. However, this kind of motion can very often lead to “Sim sickness” in virtual reality. This is due to the same factors that cause motion sickness in a car, the eyes perceive the body to be moving, but the inner ear does not perceive movement, and this dissonance triggers feelings of nausea.

With a game designed for Virtual Reality, the player should be able to look and turn using the headset itself (which means the information from the eye and inner ear will match), or there will be other changes made to the control system to accommodate VR, and reduce the chances of inducing sim sickness. Some games, such as “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” feature some variation of a “comfort mode” designed to reduce the effects of movement on the player. Even with a “comfort mode” it is clear that VR games need to be designed from the ground up to be VR games, it is not sufficient to simply port a non-VR game.

To summarise, I do believe that VR is here to stay. I think that once the content is there, VR will become a standard fixture in gaming, and it is very, very exciting to imagine the possibilities that VR games can explore. This is what myself, and many games dreamed of growing up, of not just “playing” the game, but “being there”. The Rift, as I said, provides this feeling, this sense of presence, that I have never felt before in a game. I still can’t handle more EVE:Valkyrie for more than a few minutes at a time, and I have to remind myself to “not look down”. Investing in VR right now, as a developer creating content or a consumer buying a headset, is a gamble, as with any new technology, but it must be considered an investment into a future that could bring the “Wow” back into gaming.

 

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