The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset, some industry experts say it is one of the most technologically advanced, even compared to the very high end military training technology.
After following this scene for over a year, I finally experienced "The Rift" in a long session, and I would say this kind of thing will have a big place in the future.
There is so much to say about this, it is being hyped to the moon right now (more on that later). Some of the stuff was worse that I was expecting, other stuff, blew my expectations out of the water, and you might not understand this until spending quite some time with the technology, in a way that speaks to you personally.
I wanted to experience the Rift after buying into the intense hype. It was quite easy to arrange, I used the Oculus Google map, and found a developer nearby.
We exchanged emails, phone calls, and made friends quickly. Micheal, known in the virtual world as "Mickman" is a game developer and collector of all kinds of novel technologies.
Talking on the phone he warned me that by far the worst thing about the rift was that it is a pure nausea machine (this was coming from a guy who worked with helicopters in the Navy), but everything else is pretty good. I am someone who is very prone to nausea, to the extent that it has made me a little bit underweight.
Other people on the net were saying I should consider taking anti-nausea meds before doing this. I forgot.
Ok, so my first impression with my new friend is going to be me throwing up all over his cutting edge technology. Oh well, at least I'll be able to see the Rift for 2 minutes, maybe! ;-)
I ended up spending (I think, time flies in this thing) well over 2 hours, more like 3, Rifting around.
Did I feel bad at any time? ill? nauseous?
Not at all. Never did I feel bad. The worst I can say is that I felt some fairly mild dizziness that would never, ever bother me if I were really enjoying the experience.
After a few hours you get a light "airplane feeling", but it's probably not as bad as the real airplane feeling, which itself isn't such a big deal.
(Heck, this was probably partly me just sitting down for too long, like on a plane!).
Alex's adventures in Pixelland
When I played the first few games, the first thing that hit me is how totally unlike the Matrix this thing is. The memory of the sharpness of "real-reality" was fresh in my mind. The first games were very simple, (involving balls and looking at shapes), 3D-pong like, and I felt it reminded me more of an optician's eye test built into a minigame. Thinking back on it, this might have actually been some kind of test disguised as a simple game. (It was much more fun!).
I assume this was partly for checking the device I/O, checking if it needs to be adjusted for the user's vision, and then training the user in the basics of virtual reality interaction, because it's not exactly like normal computer gaming. Your first experience in this case will be with the technology's problems. (Later I would realize it's not about what it can't do (yet), it's all about what the tech can and could do.)
It all had a very light start, the exact opposite of Neo's entrance into the real world (this probably would not be a mainstream selling point). I didn't feel evicted from reality, just by loading up a program, ever.
It's an early development kit, but I'll just say what I think of the experience as a whole... honesty is the best feedback! Inventor Palmer Luckey, - You said you read everything.
I've been reading for a long time about the problems with the devkit screen, and how it's not really a big deal, you just get used to it, and doesn't do too much to break the immersion.
I'm afraid not, the screen was by far the worst thing. It wasn't a little issue for me. It was just distractingly bad, some people say you don't notice the low resolution, screen door effect and other screen problems, like rippling, but this was the main thing in the whole experience that I felt was letting the rest of it down.
This is not news to Oculus, and it is stated by the young company that this issue will be massively improved by the consumer version; maybe we will look back on this thing as an apple 1-like relic!
There is nothing much to say about the head tracking, because it just works.
What followed was a little bit of a waking-dreamlike experience. In fact that's exactly how I would best describe it. Again and Again.
Towards the beginning I enjoyed a great little digging game called VRover (previously called RiftRover) developed by Mickman, who was showing me the Rift. I think it is the start of a very cool little indie game, it was fun, (much more than Angry Birds!) but it is just the basics, a lot of work is about to be done on it.
I then remember being in some room with an anime character, that kept staring at me with huge saucer eyes and following me. Realistic/volumetric stereo anime people are a little psychologically disturbing to me. Especially when they are there right in the room with you, moving slowly, naturally and realistically, and you're thinking, "oh, this thing could easily kill me". And now this thing is slowly invading my personal space beyond all recognition. You really don't want to look at it, and it is right there behind you!
This wasnt really too unnerving, but it was perhaps the most uncomfortable experience.
The next thing I remember may be the most notable of all and I learned so much about virtual reality from it!
I was an astronaut doing an EVA near a lunar lander in a moon base area. Earth overhead. Amazing. The lander felt a believable size, like you were looking up and down at a small building. This I guess, was an imaginary alternate timeline where failure was an option for NASA, because they tried to make a rudimentary (i.e realistic) moonbase, and they had something believable, built on an actual budget.
It wasn't a city on the moon, but a small outpost. It was all a very believable continuation of Apollo. This thing was gold for a space fan like me.
I learned something from this. You could have had the most perfect VR, and that's all you have- "Oh, that's great VR." In order to use VR to make an amazing experience, you have to hit the player emotionally. How do you do this?
I had some incredible experiences on the moon. When I'm alone on the surface of the moon, and I see the earth in the distance, I get this overwhelming feeling of, "You are far out of town". You are incredibly small and vulnerable and it is just unbelievably unnatural for you to even be in this place at all!.
Then when I see the base in the distance, I get a feeling of... why are you worried?, we are so technologically advanced, It's not like there isn't help, a medical facility, or that this is the first moonwalk, it's obviously a routine thing for humans now.
Of course, that base may not even exist in the game, (I'm not actually sure, it may even have been just a simple picture.) Who cares? None of it actually exists!
I then fall off a 12 ft ledge, thinking that I'm dead now (I've played games before), it turns out that Lunar gravity has it's advantages after all.
No harm done!
It's all in the design, it's making the little things hit you, the clever attention to various details, that hit the player emotionally when they least expect it.
The buzzes and unexpected faint beeps through the comm and the fuzzy radio chatter made it for me. WOW. The volumetric effects of the surroundings compared with the earth in the sky. Sometimes you can't see the Earth because you are physically in the wrong orientation, rather than looking in the wrong direction with your mouse. Physically look for it. Try turning to look right behind you.
It's all in the little things, it changes everything, no longer is it "oh, this is a cool VR moon sim", it becomes "what the heck is VR?, I need to concentrate because I'm on the moon!"
It's not a constant feeling however, it comes briefly and goes quickly when something prompts it.
Oh, and I was a little dizzy, I had airplane feeling, I was warm and a bit sweaty, I obviously had something on my head, and I had an faint itch near my eye I knew I was not going to be scratching.
This greatly added to the Astronaut experience!
(but not so much to the Tuscany holiday villa experience).
After experiencing the anime "uncanny valley" effect in full force, now I had experienced what I propose to call, The "just real enough effect" -
Once you make the VR experience good enough, and emotionallyconvincing, (especially the occasional little thing done just right), it doesn't even need to be any more perfect technically to create a realistically, overwhelming experience. I've seen some better graphics than the moon sim.
But when (just real enough is) done right, the flaws, you either don't notice or don't care about. Like not noticing/caring how many birds you saw while driving through the streets today, it's just not on the radar. This comes down to the psychological idea of selective attention.
The brain is the ultimate virtual reality machine and it can make whatever you nudge it to make or ignore whatever you persuade it to ignore. This idea will greatly affect the future of the industry.
The moon was the VR experience I will remember from all this, because it set my imagination on fire. Perhaps instinctive imagination is the only thing that actually matters in creative entertainment. This may be one of the closest experiences to being on the moon these days. I got hit with the oldschool scifi feeling.
Here I actually felt something that means something to me other than just, "oh, isn't this curious?, I'm now in pixelland".
If the content developer does not excel, this might be your main impression of the technology. If the developer does a really good job, VR could be everything.
I had a ton of other interesting experiences, but before I make this too long I'll stick to some of the most memorable.
I tried a helicopter pilot sim. The interesting thing here is that I had a new body, I felt I was wearing a helmet, and it really looked like I had a body. I was sitting a little bit differently to how my helicopter pilot body was sitting. From one moment to the next, You see yourself with an obvious, fairly realistic and correctly sized, stereo body, just like you would see yourself in real life, but your real life body feels in a slightly different position, and moving your legs in real life doesn't move your dead VR body (It will one day soon!). As I looked at my body, I got this crazy brain feeling where I think my brain was seriously confused as to what the heck was going on. It was not unpleasant, just very weird. Then you've forgotten about it after a few minutes, because of the missiles and stuff, you look down, and go through momentary extreme weirdness all over again until your brain figures it out again.
I don't think it really happened again after this time however.
It feels very primitive and advanced.
The whole experience can swing wildly from unimpressive to mind blowing at the drop of a hat.
One minute you could feel like you are watching a fairly bad attempt at a 3D movie on the world's biggest cinema screen (different people will have different tastes), then something totally unique happens in your brain the next minute. As soon as you think you have your opinion figured out, prepare to change your mind! (and then maybe back again).
The Tuscany Villa; I can see why this is one of the go-to tech demos, it's very impressive in many ways. Immersive. It's interesting, relaxing, and demonstrates the technology in a great general way. Again, momentarily, I experienced the "just real enough effect" when I looked down at a very slight variation in the grainy stone texture of the balcony rail and it caught my eye. I didn't expect it to! It was a few inches before my eyes, and instinctively, I thought to rest my hand on it. It looked cool in the temperature sense. This was also one of the most effective 3D effects I remember because even though it was a bit game-arty, and the screen was trying to ruin everything as usual, it was really right there in front of me.
For the very briefest moment (a second?), I wasn't on a virtual holiday, this was just all there was. It's all in the very little things which matter.
Then, instantly, the screen effects took over the feeling and it was gone! I was in virtual reality.
The 3D effects were not all equally well done in these demos - the effects usually need a lot of work, often you are in a 3D room but it doesn't look quite like real life 3D, but occasionally it absolutely does- I would say better than in film, because you naturally control the view. Other flaws aside, some occasional objects are not a million miles away from Star Trek holograms in these cases.
The optics mean you don't sense any actual distance of the screen itself, that's not in the experience, but in reality, it's a low res screen, very close, stretched far across your vision, and you have to accept that as the world. Think about how unconvincing that must be!
It very much reminds me of crystal sugar or large salt grains. Not a pixel powder, but a collection of crystals.
Also, it's kind of hard to believe you are on holiday when you were just kind of believing the thing on your head was a space helmet.
I didn't get to experience my favorite games like Half life 2 (they say you shouldn't miss this- it's the best experience!), but arranging that shouldn't be too difficult one day.
If you have expectations that this device can just turn you into Neo in the Matrix, you will be very, very disappointed. However, I have seen the core of something unique here. And it is probably about to dramatically improve because people know how to make next-gen displays, and game graphics are improving. Other issues could also be fixed. This has nowhere to go but up!
I don't think the VR train can be stopped now, for the long term. People have seen too much. The tech community has had a tiny taste of what might be possible one day and won't let go anymore.
Close the world, Open the next
I could see VR and virtual worlds going mainstream someday. People point to the failure of Second Life to move from niche interest to the mainstream, and say the virtual stuff will never appeal to the mainstream because it's always a bit too sci-fi and a bit too silly for "normal people". The problem isn't with virtual worlds and VR, the problem was the experience of Second Life (and similar things). If the film industry can turn itself into a superhero farm, and when they are not doing that, the biggest movie has 3D blue alien people fighting giant machines on another world, I think the mainstream just might be ready for a bit of virtual reality done well.
I have actually heard people say that combined with making you feel very ill, this thing is a much more powerfully strange and alien experience than hallucinogens. Even famous tech journalist Josh Topolsky was making the comparison. Hyperbole? I will say that after coming out of the rift, my mind was still racing, and when I had my eyes closed I was still seeing dreamy visuals for a brief while. This may just have been a retinal after-effect combined with a racing imagination, but it's pretty obvious by now that this device can mess with your reality in all kinds of different ways.
It's certainly a unique experience, and you can always exit it and be quite back to normal within seconds (at least for me).
This may not be Neo's Matrix, but if the original style and flavor of (virtual visionaries) William Gibson and Neal Stephenson's Cyberspace was an imperfect but immersive collection of computerized universes that you can inhabit by putting a device over your eyes,
complete with resolution problems, very variable stereo quality, and rippling effects when you turn unnaturally hard, then this devkit is as close to Cyberspace as you will ever get, because it is cyberspace, any improvements might stray from the hacker-prototype feeling.
William Gibson Tweets:
"Tried an Oculus Rift for the first time last night. People weren't kidding: it's scary impressive. It felt exactly like dreaming."
Go on Youtube and you can see people's first impressions, they are wailing and flailing and screaming and laughing and falling around;
it may well be genuine, these people are making a whole lot of fuss! but honestly, when it shines, there's nothing quite like it- 3D cinema can't give you the immersion, it is very interesting.
In order to stare into the future though the devkit, you have to see past the obvious flaws, the ones we already know how to fix.
After taking off the head mount I look around the room. Reality feels obviously more real, like reality compared to a dream. But VR is far more interesting than the glowing rectangle monitor the developer is looking at. Whilst in VR its very easy to forget that people these days use computers by looking at a flat rectangle. Perhaps that's all you need to start a revolution.
In VR, the occasional little things just seem to matter 100 times more than in normal games or in film, because in VR little things can unexpectedly play with your sense of immersion and reality.
VR can be a bit of a curiosity, or, when designed right, VR can be a whole new kind internal experience. This is the most important thing to remember.
Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Rift is, you have to see it for yourself.