In a little secret side room within Nvidia's expansive VR Experience center at the Grand Hyatt during Computex this year, a company called CCP Games was demonstrating Disc Arena using an Oculus Rift DK2 camera mounted on a Kinect 2 sensor with gaffer tape, and the DK2 HMD. The company first demonstrated these experiences at EVE Fanfest in Iceland earlier this year.
My colleague, Seth Colaner, and I got to spend some time with it. It's the first full-body VR experience we've been part of among the many chances we've had with (irony alert) pedestrian VR gaming demonstrations.
It was pretty spectacular, and it's one of those demonstrations that opens your eyes to the creative entertainment possibilities that virtual reality will usher in, and it's what has us — skeptics about many technology trends like smartwatches — excited about VR and the future of gaming. In other words, Disc Arena was yet another level of ah-ha.
CCP Games operates three studios. One is focused on mobile games, namely for the Samsung Gear VR, and is located in Shanghai. We played a space shooter game/tech demo, called Project Nemesis; it was simple and raw and fun. The second, Newcastle, is located in the UK and develops EVE Valkyrie, a VR space-based fighting game. And finally the studio in Atlanta, where the company created Disc Arena. And of course, HQ in Iceland is where CCP works on EVE Online.
CCP has experimented with using the PS Move controller for prototyping. "Using that hardware enables a different interaction model and a different avatar from the Kinect 2 user," a company rep told us. It's team in Atlanta is also "looking into" Leap Motion and how it could be integrated into the experience.
Our demonstration started with what the company called The Workshop, a four-minute training experience that was, in itself, spectacular. It included four different interaction stations, each enabled with broad, swiping hand gestures. The first required picking up a fireball or electroball and tossing it at objects and watching it all explode.
The second station built a pyramid of giant building blocks in front of us, and we could punch and kick the blocks and watch them fly. Obviously, you're not feeling anything, but the body tracking was pretty realistic, all the way down to our toes.
The third station created a tiny holograph-like avatar of ourselves, and while the resolution wasn't good enough to make out detailed features, the avatar was clearly us, obvious in our body frame and posture.
Finally, the fourth station presented a geometric surface field of cylinders, and as we moved our hands over the field, we could push them down. It's sort of the virtual version, in a way, of that metal pin art toy.
Each of these stations showed us the detailed head, hand, and full body tracking. It's important to point this out, because in most VR demonstrations, you can't see your feet or other body parts. Leap Motion does some incredibly detailed hand tracking, and this is definitely not that. But then again, the games are not made for that level of tracking. We've also seen the Sixsense demonstration, but that doesn't involve your feet.
Most of this was pretty realistic, albeit not photorealistic by any stretch. There was an extremely high degree of ghosting around the fireball and our hand movements. The full body renderings of ourselves were heavily pixelated and lacking significant detail, but I could see that my image was an accurate rendering of me, at least structurally.
And when I faced off with Seth for a dual in the Disc Arena, I could see his tall, lanky bearded self — or more accurately, a VR-rendered image of him — standing before me. I flipped him the bird, and saw him taken aback, and he returned the gesture. The battle was on.
In Disc Arena, you're given an endless supply of digital discs, and you're in an enclosed arena (just like the name implies), not unlike a more cramped racquetball court. Every five seconds a new disc appears in your hand, and you can throw it at your opponent. Each of you has a shield, and with that shield you can destroy a disc, or with a well-executed arm swipe you can send it flying back at your opponent. It's a very digital-looking shield, and during the game I kind of lost track of it, or at least what it looked like, but I was always aware that it was there.
The walls in the arena are part of the game, and discs can bounce off of the walls, making things a bit trickier. I'll give Seth credit, because I stupidly started by just throwing my discs straight at him, and he started by using the walls, and he immediately threw off my timing. But I catch on quickly, and I would toss my disc against a high or a low wall and then reflect his discs back to him, but also using the walls. My goal was to have discs flying at him from all angles at different, but quick intervals. And soon I saw his plan was the same.
When I say the walls are part of this, I also mean the back wall, which is important because VR games typically let you see completely around you — the field of view is roughly around 170 degrees, but as you turn your head you can see up and behind, and we always had to be careful about discs we'd dodged, or that somehow slipped by us only to bounce off a back wall and take us out. I was constantly turning around to see a disc within inches of me, knowing that back out in front, more were coming.
Disc Arena, then, involves both ambidexterity and quick reflexes, in addition to a fair bit of planning and savvy. It's not a complex game, but it is pretty intense. As you might imagine, since I'm writing this, and Seth isn't, I won. He probably has a handful of excuses and any added comments you see here after I submit this are likely his own revisionist-history handiwork. In other words, excuses.
(Editor's [Seth's] note: There must be some bugs in the Disc Arena system, because there's no way I got hit six times. And there's no way I dinged the tall, lanky non-bearded Fritz only four times. Because it took him so long to figure out the bounce strategy, and to remember that the shield is both an offensive and defensive weapon, I had four or five discs zipping at him simultaneously from multiple angles before you could say, "Born before video games were a thing.")
(Editor-in-chief's [Fritz's] note: It's always best to have the last word: Scoreboard. Game over.)
Marching Toward Titles
As virtual reality marches to its inevitable opening gambit in the next six to nine months or so, with major systems expected to ship from HTC/Valve and Oculus, we're starting to see more gaming content concepts, and we expect to see even more at E3 in less than two weeks.
We're also starting to see the VR experience expand, making demonstrations from even a few months ago seem practically rudimentary. For example, the HTC/Valve Vive demonstrations have clearly evolved expectations around the idea of more natural human action within an immersive VR world.
The hardware required to perform head tracking without introducing any perceptible visual latency has been one of the major factors in the lengthy delay from development kit to commercial availability. In order to make VR a comfortable and realistic immersive experience, Nvidia and AMD had to give developers access to some of the nuances of their rendering pipelines.
For Disc Arena, the specs outlined by Oculus will do, but the system powering what we saw had an Intel Core i7-5820K processor, 32 GB of DDR4 SDRAM, a 256 GB SSD and an Nvidia Titan X graphics card.
You can read about our experience with HTC/Valve Vive here, with Leap Motion for precision hand tracking here, and SixSense for more peripheral VR add ons here. All of these, and including what CCP Games showed us, are really the next immediate frontier in VR gaming, one that takes us into what both immersion and game-level interaction, and with each other and with game elements and characters, can be.
It's coming. And it's coming really soon.
Update, 6/5/15, 5:15am PT: Updated info on PS Move and Leap Motion.