To Oculus and beyond: Peering into the future of virtual reality at GDC 2014
It's hard to believe it was barely a year ago when the first Oculus Rift prototypes shipped to developers. Shortly thereafter, the first tentative games arrived, more stabs in the dark than real products—experiments in this untested frontier. Where would the limits come? Who would develop the first mass-production game for virtual reality? No one knew.
But you wouldn't know virtual reality is still in its infancy if you wandered the Game Developers Conference show floor this week.
Scattered around Moscone Center in San Francisco were no less than four—and maybe more?—VR headsets, a plethora of different input methods, and even a shot-for-virtual-reality film. Yes, virtual reality's future is dizzying, both figuratively and (occasionally) literally.
VR headsets: Oculus Rift still reigns, but competition's brewing
As of last week, there was only one virtual reality device worth paying attention to: the Oculus Rift. And you know what? When it comes to the PC, that fact hasn't really changed.
Chalk it up to the Oculus team's head start. Chalk it up to the research they receive from Valve. Chalk it up to the fact that the company has attracted some of the top virtual reality talent in the entire nation. Regardless, Oculus is still the company to beat.
The new Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (DK2) looks nearly identical to last year's model—same flat-black case (ditching the Crystal Cove prototype's white-dots-on-front look), similar shape and size. Were it not for the "Development Kit 2" emblazoned on the front, you might not realize it was new at all.
Until you put it on, that is. DK2's vastly upgraded resolution, with 900-by-1080-pixel screens for both eyes, makes the original Dev Kit seem like a toy in comparison. The new OLED panel is also low-persistence, so you'll experience less motion blur and judder, two of the key factors that made people feel sick with the original model.
There's also an external camera, which is used for DK2's newest feature: positional tracking. The original Dev Kit tracked head motion, so you could turn your head in real life and your gaze would shift change in-game. DK2 makes use of an external camera to add another range of motion: leaning. Lean forward to read some text in EVE: Valkyrie, or lean side-to-side to peer around corners, and the camera picks up your motion and translates it to the game.
Add in the bed of developers Oculus has built up, its support for others in the community (even competitors), and its price—$350 for DK2, which Oculus's vice president of product Nate Mitchell told me is "aggressive"—and yeah, Oculus is still the company to beat.
But there are challengers. I tried out three.
On the console side of things, Sony's Project Morpheus also debuted at GDC on Tuesday.
That slick-looking device will be PlayStation 4-only, and is said to be better than the Oculus Rift's original Developers Kit (though that's not exactly the highest bar at this point). Sony's also not expecting to ship Morpheus until 2015—a much safer move than most of these virtual reality models, which are racing to market presumably to beat Oculus into consumer's hands.
The incredible EVE: Valkyrie space dogfighting game, which will debut as an Oculus Rift launch exclusive, will also make its way to Project Morpheus… someday. Sony also showed off a Morpheus-enabled demo of Thief at GDC.
Oh, and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey warmly welcomed Project Morpheus to the burgeoning VR family. Group hug!
The two other VR headsets I tried take a more mobile-focused slant on virtual reality.
Sulon showed off a prototype of The Cortex, which it's billing as a holodeck-like device. It's a virtual-reality/alternate-reality hybrid, with an external-facing camera attached to the top. Put on the unit and the camera maps the walls of whatever space you're in and then plasters textures over top.
For my demo we were in a hotel room, but slipping on the headset suddenly thrust me into an alien spacecraft with a room shaped exactly like the physical hotel room I was in. And because of the camera, The Cortex allows you to walk around the space in real life, and your motions translate to the game.
It was an interesting piece of tech, even though the prototype I wore felt bulky. However it's hard to get over the mental hurdle that comes with walking in virtual reality—"What if the device messes up and I walk head-first into a wall?" was the constant refrain in my head. It's a bit dizzying.
There's no "screen" in The Cortex, per se. Rather, you slot your own Android device into the headset in order to start playing. That makes it hard for me to talk about things like "resolution" and "low-persistence" because depending on what the unit's basic requirements are, you could be using any of a number of devices.
And because the device maps to any environment, it's a bit hard to envision games that are any different from the light-gun, arcade-esque zombie shooter I played on it. It's hard to script anything meaningful when you don't know whether the player is going to be sitting outside (which Sulon confirmed would work) or in a broom closet.
Suffice it to say, it doesn't look as pretty as the Oculus—nor is the experience as seamless. They have time to improve the situation before release, but the holodeck this is not.
Then there's Seebright. Seebright's device also requires you to slot in your own screen, this time taking advantage of the cell phone in your pocket. The company wants to support as many phones as possible at launch, including the iPhone and top Android devices.
Though the prototype has been in development for a while now, Seebright is in some ways a reaction to the Oculus Rift. The Rift is closed-off, isolationist, consuming you in its virtual world. With Seebright, your face remains uncovered. The game itself is bounced onto a mirror positioned in front of your eyes, allowing you to play while still keeping a view of the outside world.
Pros: You can wear glasses. Cons: The unit is heavy and cumbersome to set up, and even once it's set up properly the image is fuzzy and indistinct.
So there you have it: One headset enters. Four headsets leave. Quite a tumultuous week in the virtual reality space! But the VR explosion didn't end with headsets alone.
Beyond VR headsets themselves, the next big question is "How do we control all these great virtual reality experiences?" Obviously you can't see a keyboard or a controller with an enormous box over your eyes, and although longtime players like me can handle a controller just by feel, it's not the most approachable input method.
Virtuix's Omni treadmill—a full-body VR controller, essentially—was back at GDC in full force. When I first tried the Omni at E3 last year they were using prototype shoes hacked together with after-market parts and tracking movement with a Kinect. Then when I saw it in August, I had to strap some controllers onto my legs to sense movement. In other words: Omni was always a cool demo, but the experience needed work.
This time around, the Omni was using professional-looking shoes with capacitive sensors. The difference is night and day. There's still a bit of input lag, and there's still an occasional tendency to drift left or right when you put a foot down off-center and the base accidentally registers a footfall, but the Omni has gone from "a promising Kickstarter-backed tech demo" to "a legitimate product that anyone could use and buy."
A small flood of in-hand motion control devices were on show at GDC. I watched people use a few but didn't bother trying any—they all seem about on a par with the Razer Hydra, which is a decent, but still-flawed piece of tech. For now it looks like we're stuck with gamepads, though with the amount of companies and money tackling this problem, I've no doubt that won't be the case for long.
Games and… film?
And finally, there's the sea change in the actual conference. Oculus Rift-enabled games are absolutely everywhere. I demoed space simulator Elite: Dangerous earlier this week and spent a solid fifteen minutes or so of my pilot career strapped into the Rift. Everywhere you go, developers are huddled in corners showing off demos of their new Rift games—whether officially, at their booths, or unofficially in harried, "Please, would you check out my game?" meetings.
There's even a film built for the Oculus Rift. I briefly wrote about Zero Point before, but I finally got to demo it at GDC. Condition One has melded computer graphics with real footage, shot on the company's proprietary camera, and it's like no movie I've ever seen. Imagine sitting in an IMAX Dome theater, alone, and there's no image distortion around the edges.
Most of the film was shot on Condition One's old prototype camera, and thus doesn't actually provide a 360-degree view of the action—it's more like a panoramic 180 degrees. These include sections where you walk around E3, watch people talk about virtual reality tech to the camera, and a terrifying part (seriously, I got vertigo while sitting in an office chair in a brightly-lit convention hall) where the camera flies off a cliff, courtesy of a drone.
Then at one point you're put in the middle of a military training exercise, which was shot with a full 360-degree view of the action. There's still an awkward black circle on the bottom and top, similar to Google Maps, but your normal field of view is completely unhindered. You can turn around and watch the guy getting into cover behind you, then hurriedly turn back when gunshots erupt over your left shoulder.
It's hard to know what filmmakers will do with the technology. It's expensive, the footage takes up a lot of storage space, and you can't use most of the tools developed for modern cinema (lights, boom poles, etc.). But as a proof of concept, it's incredibly exciting.
To infinity and beyond!
Heck, everything about this crazy, virtual future we're building is exciting. I've yet to meet one person who tried out EVE: Valkyrie on the Oculus and wasn't amazed by it, or one person who hasn't said "I felt a bit sick, but the experience was incredible." It's no wonder our industry, and thus GDC, is enraptured by the prospect.
There's still plenty of work to be done, but 2014 is undeniably the year that GDC went virtual. And with this much progress since the original Oculus Rift Dev Kit last year, which now seems almost like a toy? Well, I can't wait to see what next year holds.