Thoughts on the Oculus Rift

I recently had the privilege of testing out an Oculus Rift.  I felt compelled to write up my first impressions.  I’ve been meaning to start a personal blog to write about whatever for a while, and this is as good a place to start as any.  Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you want to skip the intro stuff.  My name is Chris, and I’m a graphics programmer.  I will use this space to write about whatever I’m thinking about that I feel merits sharing and discussion, regardless of topic, but there will be a bias towards computers/programming, music/metal, and fictional media since that’s what occupies a lot of my headspace.  I’ll probably write up a proper intro at some point, but for now, on to the Rift!

I got to try a demo setup of the Rift Dev Kit 2 at work two weeks ago.  This first demo had some issues; certain demos had some kind of weird flickering when you moved your head, and some had some kind of RGB color separation.  Later on I got to demo the Rift again on a setup without these issues and it was an even more amazing experience, but even with these issues I was still impressed.

The first demo I tried was the Oculus World Tuscany demo.  It’s basically a Unity Engine test demo where you walk around and look at some okay art assets.  Normally it’s something I wouldn’t even bother to download, but with the rift, it’s fuckin’ cool.

The first thing I noticed was the head tracking.  The word I would use for it is “immaculate”.  Every other virtual reality type experience I’ve tried was missing this.  I played some sword fighting game at Disney Quest something like a decade ago between the weight of the headset and the touch of lag, it felt like I was playing a virtual reality video game.  While I’m hoping that the consumer headsets are a bit lighter, the Rift doesn’t really have this problem; it’s like being transported to a place.  I felt like I’d become a ghost when, seconds after putting the Rift on, I held my hand in front of my face and saw nothing.

Beyond that, this demo showed me many of the cool things as well as the challenges of VR.  One of the immediately obvious challenges is that once you see a typical game-like virtual scene in VR, you realize how flat our 3d graphics scenes are.  Textures look low resolution and like a facsimile of the surface they’re trying to represent, painted on cardboard.  Many of the tricks we can get away with in traditional games, such as detailed but flat textures, normal mapping, billboards, etc.  just won’t be good enough in VR in many cases because you immediately notice the lack of depth.

The other immediately obvious challenge is aliasing; aliasing bothers me in modern games maxed out on an HD monitor, but in VR it really hampers the experience and is distracting.  The challenge for correcting this is twofold:

1) Virtual reality requires much higher frame rates than you can get away with if you’re just playing a game on a TV with a controller.

2) The rift distorts the rendered image for display, so to have adequate pixel density, the rendered images in the application should be higher resolution than the display resolution.

As you can imagine, trying to render with high frame rates and higher resolution is a challenge.  I also found that the resolution of the rift itself was a little too low, so when they inevitably increase it for the consumer version, this problem is made even harder.

Continuing with the Tuscany demo, I wondered how much of a difference the positional tracking made, so I disabled the positional tracking sensor.  The effect is actually really subtle; I was only really able to see a clear difference when I looked out at the distance and moved my head from left to right with translational motion only without tilting or rotating my head.  You could easily get by without this effect in my opinion, so mobile kits that might not have the ability to tether you to a desk with a sensor should be fine.  On the other hand, the position tracking, however subtle, in some cases is one of the coolest things about the Rift.  One of my favorite experiences with the rift so far is just slowly peering around corners and through windows in the Tuscany demo.  It hearkens back to the days of getting immersed in the original Doom and trying to peer around the edges of your monitor, except now you actually can.  I feel like this is going to be a big deal for horror games like Amnesia, and makes me wish this generation had a proper Thief or System Shock game.

The flip side of all the “problems” with the rift, the demand for higher resolutions, better content, higher framerate, is that when you get all that working, the payoff is much larger because in VR you really notice the world.  It doesn’t even take much, just looking at the geometry of a desk in the Tuscany demo, looking at the depth of a painting hanging on the wall, pretty much anything in the world with depth… it all stands out because you’re right there with it.  With the increasing amount of effort on detailing virtual worlds for games, effort that most players just zip by, it’ll be great when the payoff for this effort gets noticed.

Next I tried out Half-Life 2.  This was a similar type of experience to the Tuscany demo, of just walking around a space in first person.  It felt weird that the scale of everything wasn’t right for VR, with Gordon towering over all the other NPCs.  Half-Life 2 had the advantage of better content, and better lighting however.  Walking down the hallway to the interrogation room at the beginning of the game, stepping under the lights in the hall and having the light fill my vision with brightness… I was there.

I do feel like input is the next frontier; a controller is good enough for now, but it’s really quite lame when you think about it to have this immersive experience where your primary method of interaction with the world is pushing buttons.  That’s a really hard problem though on many levels, and it’s something that’ll be great when we get there but we don’t really need a better solution for this to take off in my opinion.

The next two demos I tried were of a completely different sort.  I tried out Unreal Roller Coaster and AaAaAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity.  Both of these were sort of the opposite of Oculus World and Half-Life 2… instead of a subtle sense of first person immersion and exploring a place, these demos provide extreme speed and motion.  The sense of dropping and falling was unsettling; you could feel the motion from the simulation but you can tell it’s not actually real at the same time.  If you wanted to make a “Vomit Simulator” for the Rift it wouldn’t even take that much.

Final thoughts: You get a lot of mileage just from adding Rift support from an existing game.  However, I can’t wait to see how VR leads to new kinds of experiences.  I feel like the divisive “walking simulator” or “exploration” games like Dear Esther might be a lot more understood on the Rift.  The point of these kinds of games is to experience and explore a new place; that’s been the point of games to many people since the first text adventure, but the inherent reward for this sense of discovery is a lot more immediate on the Rift.  I could see this genre getting a little less esoteric and appealing to a wider audience.  I feel like VR might be one of those inflection points where certain experiences get more potent to the degree where more people who aren’t normally into them might suddenly understand why the people who are get so excited.  A moment like Myst, or the original Doom.  This is not to even mention the applications outside of video games you play by yourself in a room, but if I get into that this will go on forever.  I feel like the community and companies involved in VR are really talented, and that developers are excited and will take us to great new places.  I for one cannot wait to see what developers cook up for the Gear VR and the first Rift Consumer Version.

VR Wishlist:
Descent
Episode 1 Racer
Amnesia
Thief
Doom 3

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