The StarTrek Holodeck – the epitome of a virtual immersive environment – has been a sci-fi dream for far too long now. A week ago, Oculus launched a Kickstarter project for a $300 consumer VR headset, complete with head tracking and 3D visuals. It’s very rare that I get this excited for a bit of new hardware, but this is a game changer. This may shape the future of gaming forever.
Virtual reality is certainly nothing new though.
Walk into any arcade and you’ll find immersive experiences of fighter planes, racing and Gundam fighting – and though the exaggerated movements certainly add something to the experience, it all still feels like a toy, and comes to an abrupt end once your coins have run out.
Crucially, the screens themselves are still 2D, and no matter how many 2D screens they wrap around you, it’s still missing something. Hydraulics are cool, but they only work for a fairground experience and are neither practical nor desirable for the home. Let’s not even talk about the cost.
There’s 3D gaming ofcourse, which I’m a huge fan of because it’s probably the most immersive experience you can get thus far – and although prices are at a consumer level, it’s still a relatively unadopted technology thanks to the bad reputation given to 3D in general by badly directed 3D movies and terrible consumer devices like the Nintendo 3DS. You’re also limited by the size of the screen, of course, and the technical difficulties of competing and incompatible technologies (Can I play 3d games on my PC or laptop? Probably not)
So we’re left with VR “goggles”, which do actually exist. At the consumer level, Sony offers the HMZ-T1, but looking at an equivalent 50″ screen at a distance of 7-feet is not really that immersive. Quite apart from the fact that even this $800 device doesn’t do head tracking.
Great devices exist for military and engineering applications, but certainly not at a price most of us could even dream of affording. The latency of most of these devices (by which we mean, the speed at which the environment moves in relation to your head movements) is also prohibitive for gaming applications.
Essentially, there is no consumer level, true VR device. But Oculus Rift plans to change all that.
Created by a passionate enginneer and gamer who went in search and found nothing, the Oculus Rift is a VR headset, with a high resolution screen that’s aiming to produce the most immersive 3D experience you can buy at a consumer level. Combined with low latency head tracking, the key is in the size of the screen – a 110 degree viewing angle (compared to 45 of similar devices) means you mostly can’t “see” the screen at all – you’re just in the game. This is really only possible in recent years because of the dramatic reduction in manufacturing costs for small screens. The resolution will be 640×800 per eye on the dev kits (but possibly higher in the final consumer version) – in 3D – with a full 6 degrees of freedom (meaning you can move your head in any direction). Support will initially be PC or Mac only – no consoles. In fairness, leaked Xbox documents suggested Microsoft will launch a similar device in 2014 – but that’s a while away yet and completely unconfirmed.
Here’s a render of the Rift.
Though in reality, it’s held together with duct-tape right now.
Rest assured, the industry is very much behind this. iD Software, Valve, Epic Games (who own the Unreal engine), and Unity couldn’t be more excited, and have all pledged support to get this integrated into their respective gaming experiences as soon as possible.
The company behind the project – Oculus – is formed from veterans of RedOctane (Guitar Hero), Scaleform, and Gaikai (a cloud gaming company).
Back the project, now!
At the time of writing – a day after the Kickstarter project launched – the initial goal of $250,000 has already been fully funded – and is set to break $1 million by the end of the day.
$300 will net you a developer kit, access to the SDK and copy of the new “Doom 3 BFG”, the flagship supporting game from John Carmack, and shipping dates are estimated for December this year (perhaps a little optimistically). Bear in mind, this won’t be the final consumer version – it really is just intended for developers, but that’s certainly not going to stop droves of gamers like myself from backing it anyway.
Is this the beginning of end?
As excited as I am for this unbelievable project, I must admit I’m a little scared. We already have people dying in front of a 2D screen as they play World of Warcraft, but what will happen when we whack up the intensity of the visual depth and emotional attachment; when we are – quite literally – immersed in this fake world? Gaming addiction is about to level up.
We’ve got mounting evidence that shows our physical relationships suffer immensely when our minds and bodies are exposed to online porn; and if there’s one thing you can guarantee about any new technology, it’s that someone, somewhere will figure out how to get naked girls on it. Legions of Japanese otaku have already begun to shun real women in favor of virtual 2D girlfriends – how long will it be before some enterprising publisher brings the highly sucessful “Real Girlfriend” simulation game (pictured below) to the Rift? In fact, they won’t even need to – it’s a DirectX game, and likely it’ll work out of the box. Say goodbye, humanity.
Ok, maybe I’m over-reacting – and I’m still backing this project no matter what – but we’re going to face increasingly tougher choices in our future between the harsh reality of tough economic times, and the virtual world of infinite possibilities. Is this the beginning of the world portrayed by the Matrix sci-fi thriller?
What do you think – will you be backing the project? Are you worried about the implications a truly immersive game might have on society? If you can’t tell, I’m excited as hell, and I can’t wait to get my hands on one of these.