If these Oculus add-ons are the future, book me a ticket into the past, McFly. Here are some of the stand-out Rift products at South by Southwest (SXSW).
If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of it by now, SXSW is a big festival in Austin, Texas. Originally, it was all about music, but it now offers whole venues for movies and interactive media. One of the interactive shows is a three-day gaming convention that was held March 13-15 at the Palmer Events Center.
The most popular thing on the convention floor was the Oculus Rift, and I spotted several within the first few moments on the floor. I had never used an Oculus Rift before, but I was excited to get the chance. And this was the place to be, because you couldn’t throw a stone in the Palmer Center without hitting a booth with an Oculus. Believe me, I tried. Management wasn’t pleased.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed. I never once saw an official booth manned by Oculus employees, but I think at least a quarter of the booths I saw, if not more, were using Oculus Rifts to show off their add-ons. I tried out a few of them, and I was rather disappointed with the showing that was available.
One of the few things I stood in line for was the Nikon Nu Reality Desert Home Experience. That’s a very fancy name for an Oculus program that claims to show a photo-realistic environment. They didn’t explain this to me when I was strapped in. Most of my information on this program was from the website. All I saw during my time in the chair was a menu giving the title of the program.
The entirety of the experience involves sitting on a couch in a virtual house. I was told to look down at a magazine on the table, which glowed when I did so. But I have no way of knowing if that happened because I looked at it or because it was scripted. Anyway, I looked at the magazine just long enough for it to trigger the virtual television to turn on, then I started to turn my head in every direction.
I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about the program itself. It involves being moved around in one frozen space within a pretty midcentury modern house. I don’t see a whole lot of practical applications for this, but I’m not the most VR-savvy person. Despite the website’s claims that it replicates a real place with photographic realism, I saw some of the seams around the outside environment. Also, by moving my head as much as I did, I somehow managed to reset the neutral position by ninety degrees. I don’t know if I broke the program or the Rift, but I broke something.
The second add-on I tried was the Nod ring. This unwieldy ring is about the size of one of those Ring Pop candies without any of the positive sensory feedback. The demo that everyone stood in line for was a little game where you walked around the floor of a child’s room, shooting enormous toys that chased you around. It was surprisingly polished for a demo, and my enjoyment increased tenfold when the assistant showed me how to unlock the secret minigun. (Said I: “Why is this not the default weapon?!”)
Trouble was, the instant I assumed the position – arm straight forward, pointer finger outstretched and rigid – my body started to protest. I’m in fairly good shape, but I couldn’t physically hold my arm in place without suffering from muscle aches. I even tried standing in an isosceles shooting stance, with my other hand supporting my wrist to try and relax my muscles. It didn’t work. The shooting motion requires you to press down a millimeter to the left of your right forefinger, a motion that makes your hand curl a bit if you do in more than a few times. This throws off the virtual weapon’s aim entirely.
I also couldn’t hold my hand in the proper position no matter how hard I tried. To shoot, you touch the side of the ring facing up. To walk forward, you touch the side of the ring that is pointed out from your palm. To walk backwards, you press a button on that same side. If this sounds confusing, it was. I almost wish I had tried the prototype version that came with an analog stick. The Power Glove was probably more precise than this thing.
Sixense STEM System
I really wanted to try this one, but the line for the booth was out the door. I don’t blame them: This was the demo that allowed you to wield a lightsaber in virtual reality. I did stay and watch some people try it out, so keep in mind that this opinion is given by someone who wasn’t actually able to try it. But I think, compared to the other things I saw and tried, the STEM System shows the most promise.
The STEM System is a full-body tracking system that lets your whole body move within the virtual space. It comes with two handheld totally-not-Wiimotes with analog sticks and a full suite of buttons on each one. Some models not shown on the floor have tracking packs that attach to other places on your body, allowing the system to track your whole form within the game. It’s a very cool, if not precisely innovative, device. The developers also claim it’s compatible with many different game engines and offers users the ability to customize the controls.
The cons? First of all, it is expensive, and it doesn’t come with an Oculus Rift. Without one, it’s useless. I don’t know if it even works with other VR headsets. It’s also enormous, with the base being about the size of a video game console. Also, the people I saw playing the demo would frequently make small wrist twitches that translated to wild swings of the lightsaber on the screen.
I have no way of knowing if the showing at SXSW is typical of Oculus add-ons, or indeed of the Oculus Rift itself. There were a number of other Oculus devices on the floor, but nothing else really struck me as very useful or innovative. I really want to be impressed by the Oculus and the veritable army of add-ons that are coming out for it. But nothing I saw at SXSW really blew my mind.
Tell me what you think!
If you’ve seen better Oculus products, or you were at SXSW, let me know in the comments so that we can compare notes!