Virtual reality, much like 3D movies, is a fad that ebbs and flows. As technology progresses it rears its head every few years to entertain and 'wow' before falling off the map again until the next great leap is made.
In essence, the Oculus Rift is a small screen, the size of a large mobile phone, which is viewed through a couple of ‘lenses’ which magnify the screen. This allows what you are seeing to completely and comfortably envelope your vision. Your eyes are tricked into perceiving this virtual world as tangible, no matter how otherworldly the output of the screen. I’ve read reports of people who have fallen asleep wearing the Rift and awoke in a confused state on the deck of a starship or on a beach full of cartoon animals!
Having followed developments with the Oculus Rift for a while, I finally took the plunge a month or so ago and bought a Developer Kit from their website for approximately £180. Designed as a prototype for game developers, the Developer Kit has some limitations and rough edges that the commercial version won’t; the resolution of the screen is low and blurry, and the headset can’t perceive changes to depth (so you can’t lean forward and become closer to something).
Regardless, the Rift offers an immersion that is hard to describe beyond “you have to try it for yourself.” The potential applications of the Oculus Rift extend far beyond the ‘wow factor', too. A company called Arch Virtual has begun using the device to model virtual real estate, letting designers walk around a building before it’s even built. They also produce training environments such as hospital surgery rooms to familiarise staff with the layout and function of medical facilities.
At present there are hundreds of Rift-tailored VR experiences out there on the internet to be downloaded. Below I’ve outlined a few of the adventures I’ve had on the Rift so far.
My first foray into this brave new virtual world was a test demo simply named 'Tuscany'. Designed for new users to acclimatise to the initially disconcerting experience, Tuscany lets you wander around a small house and surrounding gardens, gawping at how real it all feels, and how you could almost reach out and touch that sunflower or old wooden table. To me, more amazing than the simulated 3D of the world is the headtracking. I am able to look over my shoulder and see what is actually behind me in the videogame world!
I would not recommend anyone attempt to stand up during their first go on the Rift – the disorientation of walking in-game and staying motionless in real life takes a while for the brain to parse, and looking down at where your feet should be and seeing nothing doesn’t help!
Titans of Space
Showing the educational applications of the rift, Titans of Space is the sort of thing you might have queued up to try at a museum or the Kennedy Space centre in years past. At the push of a button, Titans of Space whisks you on a small space pod from planet to planet, allowing panoramic vistas of our solar system. The thing that makes this so exciting is the sense of scale. I had to crane my neck right back to see the curve of the Sun’s surface as a tiny speck (Mercury) drifted slowly by. The experience concludes with a comparison of the largest stars in galaxy, along with some jawdropping statistics. (Did you know the Sun emits the heat of 100,000 hydrogen bombs?)
Don't Let Go
Not for the faint of heart! Don't Let Go presents the player with a virtual office, where they are sat at a virtual desk with their virtual hands on a virtual keyboard. As an instructional video pops up on the laptop screen the goal becomes clear: hold down the CTRL keys on your keyboard and don’t let go. Headphones are recommended as the game attempts to coerce you into releasing the keys in any way it can. You will be attacked by a swarm of bees, a dinosaur will enter the room and come right up to you; and a spider will emerge from behind the laptop, slowly crawl up your arm….and into your ear. You can see it in action here.
What’s really striking is the sense of ‘phantom limb’ syndrome that hits when that spider begins the slow amble up your virtual self. This also comes as a nasty surprise when daggers fall from the roof, narrowly missing all your fingers!
These days it feels as though a trip to the cinema is a bit like spin the wheel. Will the audience talk all the way through? Will you be sat next to a loud popcorn-muncher? Will it be too packed to sit anywhere good? VR Cinema does away with all these concerns, making you the only patron in a large cinema auditorium in front of a big, correctly projected screen. The program even lets you choose your own video file so you can sit back and watch your favourite film in a quiet cinema – and not have to pay hundreds for the privilege!
Some cinematic apps for the Oculus Rift even support 3D video and multiplayer. Is popcorn throwing the future of online games?
Creating A Game
Impressed by what I had seen, I set out to create an Oculus Rift experience myself. Having a bit of experience making games I hit upon an idea and began work in earnest. The way that the Oculus Rift works is such that it is easy to implement in existing or new games – something I found out as I put the finishing touches to mine.
Last Saturday at Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire, my girlfriend and I celebrated five years of dating each other - the Oculus Rift game I had created was my anniversary gift to her. I had gone through an old box of memories I'd kept (Valentine’s Day cards, letters, tickets) and taken pictures of them from all angles. I had then modelled these items on my computer and put them into a virtual museum, which I had also modelled, however haphazardly.
The result was a two room exhibit which she could walk around, filled to the brim with her favourite books, framed pictures of us, and various other trinkets which I had brought into this virtual world. The table covered in Double Decker chocolate bars was a particular highlight, and all to the sound of James Blunt’s ‘Bonfire Heart’ emanating from one of the museum’s virtual speakers!
This was all window dressing for main event though: a white corridor which opened out onto a balcony overlooking the ocean (the sound of crashing waves included). Here I had modelled a small purple box. At this point my girlfriend took off the Rift to find the same box in my hand, and an engagement ring inside.
It all went perfectly – aided in no small part by the fact that my girlfriend (now fiancée) couldn’t see me running around the room looking for the ring while she was looking around a fake museum.
For what feels like an easily justifiable amount of money I have been thoroughly impressed by what I could achieve with the Oculus Rift. If the commercial product lives up to the promise I have seen so far then this fad might finally be here to stay.
Written By: Joe Tonks