For months now, I’ve been reading raves for Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality gaming headset that’s among the most famous Kickstarter projects. One of them came from my own colleague Lev Grossman. Like many folks, he got downright giddy after receiving a demo.
On Friday, I finally tried the headset for myself. And even though my expectations were sky-high, it exceeded them. It really is spectacular.
My time with Oculus Rift was part of a visit with CCP Games, the Icelandic creators of EVE Online, the multi-player game that’s been popular for a decade now. They’re working on a game tailored for the headset, EVE: Valkyrie, which they plan to release in 2014. The version I played was a technical preview, basically a proof-of-concept mini-game.
Boy, did it prove the concept.
You strap Oculus Rift to your head, and it tracks your head movements to create an all-encompassing view of the virtual world, in 3D — but head movements are the only thing that the Oculus tracks. Halldor Fannar, CCP’s CTO, told me that the company decided to play to the headset’s strengths by creating a game involving dogfighting in space: Pilots sit inside cockpits anyhow, so the fact that the system doesn’t track your whole body isn’t as big of a deal. (You steer and shoot with a standard game controller.)
I wear glasses, have an enormous head and don’t like 3D movies, so I assumed that the headset would be ill-fitting and provide only a fuzzy view of what was going on. But it was surprisingly comfortable, and the effect just plain worked. I saw everything in surprisingly pleasing 3D and could look up, left and right. And when I stared down, I saw my body sitting in the cockpit.
Lev mentioned in his story that the headset gives some people motion sickness. Fannar brought that up, too. My tummy stayed happy, though. And the whole experience of seeing space all around me was so awe-inspiring that I kept forgetting to shoot at anything. (The video at the top of this post gives you a hint of what I saw — but just a hint.)
Now, EVE: Valkyrie didn’t look photorealistic to me. Actually, it was obvious that it was made of pixels, more so than with the most sophisticated conventional video games. But the demo CCP gave me used the original standard-definition version of the Oculus headset; Fannar told me that the newer HD version provides a major visual upgrade.
The level-headed skeptic in me keeps piping up and pointing out that Oculus Rift is still just a developer’s kit, not a commercial product for gamers. As always with new breakthrough gaming technology, it’s the software which will sell the hardware, and there are probably all sorts of games that won’t translate as well as a flying simulation like Valkyrie. Still, I can’t imagine anyone strapping this thing on and remaining calm and objective. Your eyes will tell you that it has the potential to be a big part of the future of gaming.