A hands-on with the Oculus Rift headset last week during CES 2013.
"Holy $#!+," I blurted after the Oculus Rift VR goggles were slapped on my face. It had nothing to do with the device's physical aspect – the Oculus Rift was surprisingly light on my head despite its bulky appearance. I just didn't expect to see what my eyes were sending to my brain, and everyone in the dark room laughed at my sudden outburst.
I would have said more, but I found myself a little speechless thereafter, lost wandering the streets of the Epic Citadel demo. I knew the experience would be awesomely cool, but I didn't expect to still be talking about it a week later to everyone I know.
If you were there when id Software and 3Dfx changed PC gaming, then you might know what's coming for you. At the time, John Carmack and his gang turned the grainy, pixilated polygon-based world of 1996's Quake into a super-smooth environment with believable lighting effects. Heck, I can't even remember Quake without GPU support now, but I remember cursing the moment I saw what the difference dedicated hardware support made.
This will likely be the very reaction every PC gamer will have when they use the Oculus Rift. In the private demo held by the Oculus team, I was seated in a chair and given a gamepad. The goggles were placed on my head and I was asked to look up, look down, look left, look right, and then look over my shoulder for calibration. That's right: you can see whatever is behind you without having to turn your virtual body.
Thus began my journey in Epic Citadel. If you've never seen the demo, it might as well be a level ripped out of an Unreal Tournament game, featuring a medieval castle landscape enriched with detailed textures, beautiful architecture, stone-laid roads, dynamic lighting, and more visual goodness. What's missing from the iOS demo is actual weather effects, kingdom inhabitants and objects you can climb onto.
Honestly it took me a while to get used to the fact that I could physically look up to see the cloudy sky and its flying occupants rather than use a thumbstick on the supplied gamepad (this was how I moved in the demo). For so many years I've used my mouse to look around in virtual environments, so the head tracking aspect didn't come naturally. However once I got my footing, the first thing the team pointed out was the falling snow, an effect added for this demonstration.
The following is no over-exaggeration: the snow looked physical enough that I opened my mouth, hoping a flake could land on my tongue. Of course that didn't happen, and I probably looked really stupid opening my mouth. But the falling snow presented an impressive measure of depth, more so than if I had walked through the same environment on my PC.
The demo also saw the insertion of local towns folk. Some moved and some were stationary, talking to other NPCs about whatever fake people discuss. This is what really made my jaw drop the most: how physical the NPCs "felt". I would circle around a knight, keeping my vision focused on his helmet while my hands maneuvered my virtual body around its form. He seemed to be there – I don't know how else to describe it – a seemingly real person in armor with no apparent seams or polygon bleeds or anything. Naturally if you reach out, the knight really isn't there in physical form, but damn if your senses aren't telling you otherwise.
The updated demo also included wooden crates, and Epic Games obviously stacked them for people like myself who felt it necessary to climb and dominate like some virtual king of the mountain. Like most FPS games, you move with the thumbstick and jump with one of the action buttons, and that's what I did, but used my actual head to look up and down as I climbed the boxes. I must admit that I hope to see this headset again with a working rocket launcher in a deathmatch scenario so I can see what it's like to rocket jump over a few opponents.
Keep in mind, if you will, that during my entire venture through Epic Citadel, I was using my head to look around in the virtual world, to point myself in a specific direction, not the gamepad's thumbstick. This may take some getting used to, especially for PC gamers who are accustomed to the keyboard and mouse combo. But there's no question that it makes a virtual environment more "immersive" because you can freely look around as if you were walking in the park, admiring the surrounding scenery and sunny skies.
The only problem I had with the Oculus Rift was that you're completely cut off from reality. That's the point! Yes, I know, but if you also have the sound plugged into your ears, you have no way of knowing if someone is sneaking up on you (intentional or unintentional). It may come down to the team adding a small camera on the outside – along with a possible push button – that allows the user to pause the game and see the feed without forcing the user to take the goggles completely off their head. Founder Palmer Luckey seemed to like the idea, but I may have been full of myself at the time.
Towards the end of our meeting with Oculus, I asked Palmer if he felt overwhelmed by all the recent exposure. Heck, at 20 years old (and it's been a while), I'd be a little overloaded myself hands down. He admitted that it can be at times, but added that he's surrounded by a great group of guys who want to see the goggles succeed. I agreed, and I walked away from the suite thankful for the chance to meet the brilliant guy who has changed gaming as we know it.