First Experience with the Oculus Rift

18:37 Sun 05 May 2013
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The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset, with one screen per eye and covering that blocks other vision.

It’s not available yet, but a co-worker has one of the development kits and brought that into the office this week for us to play with.

I don’t have a lot of experience with VR headsets—in fact I can’t remember when I last used one, although I think I have before—but the hardware itself looks familiar, thanks perhaps to plenty of Hollywood depictions of VR. It’s not too heavy, which seems important. There’s no audio, to keep the price down and to allow for personal headphone preferences, and while I was playing with it I wasn’t listening to any in-game audio—I’m not sure the demo had any.

The quality of the display wasn’t fantastic. Pixels were clearly visible and the resolution felt low—because it was: the development kit has a resolution of 1280×800. It felt lower than that, however, partly because it’s doing stereoscopic 3D and partly because the screens are physically close to the eyes. The initial effect of this was to make the game environment seem like something from the late 1990s.

While that impression never entirely went away, it was pushed aside by the rest of the experience. The head-tracking sensors are excellent, and there was no sense at all of drift or disconnection from head movement. You move your head, and the view shifts in a very natural fashion. The most impressive thing about that is that it didn’t seem impressive at all—only consciously thinking about it made me consider that aspect. Combined with the 3D effects, it comes across very much as viewing a “real” place. (A pixelated real place, but still.) It feels almost unmediated, which is different from all the many games I’ve played over the years: I’ve been entranced by them, and eliminated much of the sense of mediation as I’ve learned to navigate them[1], but while this has sometimes reduced my experience of the screen to a window “into” the game, it’s still a screen or at very best a window, and a small one. The Oculus Rift doesn’t feel like a window.

From Doom to Half-Life 2, I’ve played, and gone through periods of obsession with, many 3D-environment first-person perspective games. I learned their environments intimately, and my brain definitely stored their layouts in the same way it stores real places, except perhaps that I got to know the game environments better through vigorously testing many of their bounds. Put me in those maps now and I’ll swiftly remember how they’re laid out even after years of not playing them.

None of them gave me the same sense of “there-ness” as the several minutes I spent wandering around the Oculus Rift demo of a house in Tuscany. That house isn’t that interesting, and in many respects in unmemorable, and I don’t remember it better than e.g. cpm1a, but I had a sense of actually being there that’s unmatched by any other gaming experience.

There’s nothing to really do in the demo other than wander around the house and garden, at least not that I found. It might have helped that while I was wandering around it, my real-world location was in hot and sunny San Francisco, but that’s not a consideration I would normally consider when exploring a virtual environment. One of the most interesting aspects for me was that while I was using the Oculus Rift, and people spoke in the real room around me, I realized that I expected to be able to turn my head in their direction and see them in the virtual house. Even though I knew that wasn’t true. It wasn’t a simple impulse easily dismissed, like trying to look around a pillar in an FPS game by moving your head to look around it on your screen; it stayed with me even after I thought about it. Less persistent but still interesting was that after I took my hands off the keyboard while in the demo, I really wanted to look down to find the keyboard again.

“Immersive” is an apt description here, despite its overuse in video game PR. If the environment had had 3D audio components as well[2], that would have made it an even more powerful illusion.

I didn’t experience nausea, although some of my workmates did. I didn’t have any trouble taking the headset off and reorienting myself; there have been reports (with VR headsets in general, not just the Oculus Rift) of people having difficulty with this. I wasn’t using it for very long, and I also wasn’t engaged in any non-visual sense. There was no narrative to follow, no audio, no challenge. If you added those elements, and brought the level of engagement up to the point where I was struggling hard to accomplish some task rather than simply thinking, “I’m in an Oculus Rift demo”, it could get extremely interesting.

Afterwards, I had a strong desire to play games using it. Something like Half-Life 2 would be fantastic to go through again with the Oculus Rift, and I’d love to try it with Left 4 Dead (which I’ve never played). Despite a generally waning interest in computer games, and in particular with single-player non-competitive computer games, I would love to play games that supported it even if they were single-player.

I’m also quite interested in non-game use. I appreciate screen real estate greatly, but with devices like the Oculus Rift, maybe it’s not actually important anymore. If the subjective pixel density[3] were equivalent to that of current desktop monitors, and the focal area of the Rift had as much resolution as what I look at on a screen, why not ditch the monitor and instead have gigantic virtual monitors hanging in the VR space? How long before eye-tracking is as cheap as head-tracking, thus making it possible to simply glance from virtual screen to virtual screen within the simulation? That might be the next really significant step in user interfaces[4]. It doesn’t feel far away.

[1] “Navigate” isn’t precisely the right verb: the interaction is deeper than that and is tightly linked with learning the controls of the game.

[2] It’s possible it did have those but that we weren’t using them.

[3] I.e. how many pixels are in a given area combined with how far away that area is.

[4] I suspect, too, that there’ll be some demand for cameras mounted on or near the headsets, with the views from those cameras available inside the simulation.

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