Games systems get more and more powerful but it seems like we’ve been on the cusp of a virtual reality revolution for decades now, one that will put us inside the games we play, not on the other side of a screen. Remember the Virtual Boy? Back in the mid-90s, the ill-fated headset induced more headaches than smiles and Nintendo was forced to kill it after only a year on sale and a handful of games.
But a new headset from an unlikely Californian start-up run by a 20 year finally promises to change this once and for all. Imagine being able to don a visor the size of a pair of ski goggles, and jump straight into Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City, or your favourite Team Fortress 2 map, and look or even walk around, all without the need for a mouse or gamepad. Now imagine no more: meet the Oculus Rift, the headset that finally promises to make immersive virtual reality a reality.
Pop it on, plug it into your computer and you can dive right into any supported games as though you were there: the two lenses inside combine to appear as one 720p HD screen, putting you right in the action. It’s only a developer prototype right now (though anyone can order one for $300), but the company behind it, Oculus VR, hope to bring a final product to the market sometime next year, with a full HD display inside.
They’ve got the expertise to pull it off too. Founder Palmer Luckey, despite his youth, is an expert in virtual reality technology and head-mounted displays (HMDs), and the company has the backing of industry legend John Carmack, one of the creators of games including Doom and Quake. Last month, he joined Oculus VR as its chief technology officer - if nothing else, he’s got the contact book to take the Rift mainstream.
And it deserves to. The Oculus Rift has earned rave reviews from developers and journalists, and in a year of next-generation console hardware, even managed to scoop the award for best hardware at the E3 expo last last summer.
“Personally speaking it's the best thing I've ever tested,” says BBC Focus reviews editor Daniel Bennett, who has used the Rift extensively. “The overall effect is so convincing your brain is genuinely tricked into thinking that you've stepped into another world.”
It’s that convincing: wear one, and you’ll find yourself reaching out to touch objects in the game, jumping out of the way of enemies, or even getting dizzy as you spin around on an in-game rollercoaster. Oculus Rift games have reduced gamers to tears.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy floundered with its jarring, red and black graphics, but to HMD collector Luckey, who only set out to build his own headset when he was unable to buy one online that met his needs, the solution was staring us right in the face all along: cheap, commoditized smartphone technology.
The screens inside the Oculus Rift is simply a mobile display like you’d find on your iPhone, with two lenses and two images shown on it, one for each eye. Luckey’s simple concept caught Carmack’s attention in a VR forum online. A Kickstarter campaign followed in August 2012, which smashed its $250,000 (£160,000) by almost tenfold, raising $2,437,429 (£1,561,553).
A year on, more than 17,000 developer kits have been shipped, and two of the leading game engines, Unity and Epic’s Unreal, support the headset. Valve meanwhile has adapted two of its flagship games to work with the Rift, Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, but it’s the games on the way that are perhaps the most exciting.
Take CCP’s jaw dropping space dogfighter Eve: Valkyrie. The Icelandic studio is better known for its sci-fi online war game, Eve Online, but Valkyrie is the closest thing to living out the final assault on the Death Star we’ve seen yet.
Other games in the pipeline that promise Rift support include the standalone version of zombie survival horror epic DayZ.
The Oculus Rift hasn’t merely created a new category of gaming accessory however: it’s created an eco-system. The Rift provides you with the ability to look around inside a game more naturally, but inventors are scrambling to come up with ways to help you move more realistically too.
Jan Goetgeluk for instance has come up with the ultimate accessory for the Rift: a 360-degree movement treadmill. Called the Omni, a combination of belts work to let you walk or run on the spot in any direction, it too has stormed Kickstarter, and is set to launch in January next year. Combine it with the Rift and a huge open world like Skyrim, and you’ve got the most incredible, realistic adventure game yet.
Goetgeluk says this type of set-up will be revolutionary, even if it is absurdly elaborate. “This is the next step in entertainment,” he tells Red Bull UK. “Virtual reality will be front and center in our daily lives, way beyond video gaming. Think about exercise and fitness, physical therapy, education, virtual tourism, training and simulation. The possibilities are limitless. True virtual reality cannot be experienced while sitting down and pushing buttons on a keyboard or mouse.”
And that’s what’s got everyone so excited, and helped Oculus VR grow to a company of almost 30 employees: the Rift’s potential extends far beyond gaming. It’s already helping surgeons to practice and get used to the pressures of an operating theatre, and it can even be used to help the disabled to cope with phantom limb syndrome.
Surgeon Simulator in action.
For MSN UK tech editor Paul Lamkin, the most remarkable Rift experience wasn’t a game, but a spacewalk simulation. “I could see earth in the distance and could see the exterior of the ISS. There was an Xbox controller in use as my jetpack thruster,” he says. “It was incredible. It was like I imagined virtual reality to be like when it was first touted back in the 1990s, like real life Lawnmower Man.”
“For ages I was just moving around using the Xbox controller even that was cool. But then I was reminded that I could also move my head to look around my surroundings. That took things to a new level. I could look to my right and see the ISS, look to my left and see the outline of continental America on the distant planet earth, and even look down far enough to see the inside of my space helmet. Within a few minutes I really did forget I was, in fact, sitting in a classroom in a university.”
The Oculus VR team have nailed the experience. Now all they need to do is finish the hardware, and spread the word, says Bennett.
“The resolution of the screen is the only limit right now. Putting your eyes so close to a screen inevitably means you see pixels. Once displays are cheap enough and plentiful enough for the Rift team to stick them in the goggles without harming to device's price to much, we'll see them in shops.”
Well, that, and maybe sort the nausea problem.
“Yes there is nausea, but that's actually a credit to just how convincing the Rift is,” says Bennett.
“Your eyes tell your brain you're moving around , while your inner ear senses you're sat perfectly still. After a few stints with the Rift, I was fine, but yes, the first ew times are always a bit queasy.”
As the legend goes, the first cinema audiences threw themselves out of the way of the train speeding towards the camera in The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Gamers are reacting in much the same way to their first Rift experience. Will it create an art form for a century to come? Don’t put it past Luckey.