CCP Atlanta has created a beautiful virtual reality monster—a Frankenstein creation hacked together from two separate technologies, tethered by a 24-foot cable, meticulously assembled, and all so that I can play...Discs of Tron.
Take a look at this thing:
It's ridiculous. You've got an Oculus Rift DK2 headset, the accompanying position-tracking camera, and then a Kinect V2 for Windows all tethered up and across the ceiling into a computer (running Nvidia's new Titan X graphics card, I might add). It's the most homebrew of homebrew VR solutions.
CCP's Morgan Godat tells me it used to be even crazier. "Man, you think this thing is a mish-mash Frankenstein—we had an HD [Oculus Rift] kit before DK2s were out, with a PlayStation Move taped to the forehead like a unicorn for doing head-tracking, because head-tracking was critical."
The whole contraption is the core of what CCP is terming "VR Labs," a new experimental virtual reality initiative unveiled at EVE Fanfest 2015.
Off the deep end
VR Labs isn't necessarily for product development. Some of the things at Fanfest aren't even games. Instead, VR Labs is a series of prototypes CCP is showing off at Fanfest this week—similar to the way it demoed EVE-VR two years ago, except these prototypes are arguably even rougher than that early version of what eventually became EVE: Valkyrie.
"We started the team off with the mantra of 'If you had to make EVE in VR, all the same rules—targeting a ship, getting a lock on a ship—how would you be able to do that?' And we just immediately ran into 53 different challenges," said Godat. "So we just sort of evolved from there."
So why does it look so crazy? Why the DK2/Kinect V2 hybrid?
Well, CCP's hacked-together VR solution does something I've never seen in any VR demo: It renders my entire body into the game, thanks to the Kinect's depth camera.
I've seen rudimentary hands in VR before, thanks to controllers like the Razer Hydra or the HTC Vive's two wands, or with the Leap Motion. But the Kinect gets your entire body in place, as well as any objects or people around you. "The concept of looking even at this rudimentary, nasty vision of your own body—two pixels for your pinky finger, the fact those two pixels move when your pinky finger moves, the way your pinky finger moves? You're like, 'Yup, I got it. I'm good,'" said Godat.
This DK2/Kinect hybrid might look ridiculous, and it might be nigh-impossible to set up in your own house, but it enables a couple of things:
1. Motion controls: Every prototype from CCP Atlanta is completely controller-free. Each demo starts by instructing you to look ahead at a white dot, point at it, and flick your hand upward to begin. It's smart: It starts the demo, and it gets you used to the idea of controlling things in VR with your hands.
2. All sorts of game-specific actions that can only be accomplished by rendering you into the world itself. Multiplayer is the most interesting: "I've heard numerous times, numerous quotes from very famous people that I respect the hell out of, that VR is an isolated experience. That's because you haven't made it multiplayer yet," said Godat.
Only one of the three CCP Atlanta demos at Fanfest is multiplayer, but it's by far the most interesting—mostly because it's the most like a real game. And also, it's Tron. I love Tron.
"We're going to be very blunt about that. It was definitely inspired by Discs of Tron," said Godat. "Every man, woman, and child that ever watched Tron as a kid wants to play that game."
Of course, the prototype isn't called "That Game That's Totally Just Discs of Tron." It's called "Disc Arena." But the concept is the same. You're standing on a small platform at one end of a neon-lit room, with a similar platform on the other end. Flicking your right arm causes you to throw a disc down the hall, and the objective is to hit your opponent to score points. Your sole protection? A futuristic force-shield strapped to your left arm, which can either absorb discs if it stays still or deflect discs back at your opponent if you swing it.
And when I say there's a shield strapped to your arm, I mean your arm. The Kinect is rendering your movements into this "room." When you move around, the image of your body tracks 1-to-1 with your motions. It's a crappy holographic projection of you—you're basically a mass made of black squiggles. But you can tell it's your body.
The coolest part is that your opponent is also a real person, and is also rendered into the world. It's the first time I've played a VR game and honestly felt like I was in the same room as another person. Obviously it's a "person" in that it's off-color, slightly low-res, and a bit blurry, but the level of fidelity in tracking movements makes it clear these aren't the stiff, awkward animations of a CGI character. You know it's a real human being inhabiting that avatar.
It's Snow Crash. You can immediately think of all sorts of applications made possible by tracking and rendering your entire body instead of just your hands or other key points.
Of course I immediately started taunting my opponent, making all sorts of obscene gestures in his direction just to see my in-game avatar react in the same manner. Godat laughed when I told him this. "Infinite numbers of profane gestures can be thrown at your opponent," he said.
But it's true—because interaction in this sort of full-body environment feels so natural, you don't encounter the same stiff restrictions common to current VR. I loved that the HTC Vive allowed me to use my hands, but this hacked-together Frankenstein of a VR rig did something even better by letting me express myself like I would in real life.
Another prototype, "The Workshop," is built entirely around full-body interaction. It's actually a collection of demos, all with different mechanics. One lets you kick or swat green blocks around. One has you "splashing" around in a hex map, pushing terrain down and then raising it back up with your hands. One lets you throw fireballs at targets. And then one is just a mirror image of your own Kinect-hologram.
"When you rotate someone 180 degrees they can shake hands with themselves. When they cock their head to one side the guy cocks his head to the other side, or you can circle around yourself. We did a lot of experimentation with that," said Godat. I...well, unsurprisingly I made obscene gestures at myself. Which was weird.
Then there's a third demo, "Ship Spinner," which is the most CCP of the demos. You've got a godlike view of a massive EVE ship, almost like a living, breathing model (and similar to the publicly-available DK2 demo RPG Room). You can, as the name implies, spin the ship around, watch it launch drones, et cetera. Leaning in allows you to poke your head into the ship, looking at people on the bridge or down hallways or finding the dead guy splattered in a lower room.
It's not so much a game as it's an interactive sculpture, but it's an interesting example of how VR's not necessarily limited to first-person games—and, again, it shows the power of a controller-free environment.
Will anything come of these demos? For the mainstream, probably not. At least, not for a while. I don't see Oculus or Valve including something like the Kinect's depth sensor in VR anytime soon. But I asked Godat whether CCP would consider putting the demos on Oculus Share or something similar. He said, "We may very well, hopefully, see that exact thing happening."
"Print out a cool little PDF, the airplane guide on how to build that 24-foot-long tether. That's not exactly a piece of end-user hardware," said Godat. "But if we found a hardcore audience of people that said, 'we want to build that tether and start doing this walking-around-VR with you guys,' I think that's absolutely something we'd love to pursue. That's a route we can begin engaging with an audience of people who are hungry and want to do things."
I'll keep an eye out, since I'd love to play more "Disc Arena"—even if it potentially means buying a Kinect to do so. After all, Godat told me, "Nobody's been able to pull off a backflip yet—you've still got that tether in the way." There's still time for me to be the first.
[Disclosure: My roommate works with LewisPR as part of an external PR team that coordinates with CCP.]