Sitting at the Oculus Rift press event earlier this morning in San Francisco, I felt a buzz of excitement. A large sign on the wall displayed the following message:
"Since the earliest days of the Oculus Kickstarter, The Rift has been shaped by gamers, backers, developers, and enthusiasts around the world. Today, we're incredibly excited to announce that the Oculus Rift will be shipping to consumers in Q1 2016, with pre-orders later this year."
"The Rift delivers on the dream of consumer VR with compelling content, a full ecosystem, and a fully-integrated hardware/software tech stack designed specifically for virtual reality. It's a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers and engineers to re-imagine what gaming can be."
Even though it's all essentially marketing puffery, those are bold words indeed. My interest is piqued. But then it's been piqued for the last few years. I've used Oculus a couple of times already, and each demonstration has left me feeling impressed. Impressed, but never fully convinced. I like VR and am definitely very interested in the technology, but so far I've yet to see anything that screams, "must have this" to me. The best demo I've seen is Elite: Dangerous, which looks terrific on Oculus. But even that didn't fully win me over. It's a great-looking experience, but ultimately, there are many, many other games I'd prefer to spend my time with. Traditional games.
It's a little bit like 3D TV. Watching a movie in 3D clearly makes the viewing experience more immersive and impressive – but I don't really feel the need to rush out and buy a 3D TV set just yet.
An hour later, following the presentation and the unveiling of the new, smaller, sleeker Rift headset, my interest is still piqued, but I feel a little underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong: Oculus Rift looks like it's a Very Cool Thing, but I'm not convinced that it's the future of gaming – and certainly not a reimagining of what gaming can be. It feels like an exciting new peripheral that will appeal to a particular kind of gamer, but as of yet, isn't necessarily a device that everyone will want to play.
Part of the problem for me is that we've been imagining VR since the early 90's. It's been a novelty item for years. Finally, the the tech has become available to facilitate the kind of VR experience dreamed of for the last quarter-century, but it still feels somewhat of a novelty item. Yes, the gear does look very impressive, and yes, and in particular, the space battle demo of Eve Valkyrie shown during the Oculus presentation does look amazing. The other two games shown from Insomniac and Gunfire, Edge of Nowhere and Chronos, are both third-person adventures that demoed like console games that you can look around in. It makes me wonder how many classic games might end up being "remastered" as VR games that are basically the same game, but with full 360-degree view capabilities. But I was hoping to see more. Something that would really blow me away. Something that you can only do in VR – and not just a game that is basically like a regular video game that you're looking around in.
Another big announcement was that Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller. Early adopters will basically play games using it, which is not a bad thing. However, the news that you'll be able to stream Xbox One games to your PC and play them in a virtual living room created by Oculus didn't do much for me. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm not quite sure why I would necessarily want to do that. Given a choice, I'd prefer to play my Xbox One games on a higher resolution big TV screen. It just feels like a bit of a stopgap: something that Oculus can do while you're waiting for real VR games to arrive.
We were shown the Oculus Home and hub, and it looks similar in some respects to the Xbox One interface. Players will be able to sample VR demos of games, and launch experiences directly from it, which is kind of what you'd expect. It looks good, but again, it didn't exactly blow me away. Perhaps I'm expecting too much, but I was waiting for a demo of the interface in full VR, where you're looking around a series of floating 3D screens. It didn't happen.
The final major reveal of the event was the new Touch controllers. Feeling like an evolution of the Wii controllers, they're very good-looking, with buttons and triggers on them, plus haptic technology that will apparently bring VR games to life. Imagine picking up a gun, we were told, and then pulling the trigger. Not quite a reimagining of gaming, but we get the drift. I'm just hoping that we'll see interesting experiences that go way, way beyond that.
Damn my inner cynic, and I'm sure some people will accuse me of "hating" on Oculus Rift, but ultimately I'm on the fence at the moment. Don't get me wrong: I'm excited for VR, but I feel like I've been waiting for it for half a lifetime. Which is actually true: I first tried a virtual reality experience almost 25 years ago. It was interesting, but felt crude and needed a lot of work. Now it's here, it really looks impressive, and it's clearly here to stay – but so far, I'm still waiting for that killer app. That something that truly convinces me that it's worth buying. Given the opportunity that Oculus had this morning to really blow us away, I feel they fell somewhat short. There weren't enough game demos to truly showcase the product, and while Eve Valkyrie does look impressive, I need more than that and a couple of games that look like console titles to sell me on the system.
I'm very sure that VR will play an important part in gaming's future, but just how much remains to be seen. Oculus looks like a relevant consumer product, but what it needs is software. Software that we can see and play with. Perhaps we'll see lots of interesting new stuff at E3 next week? I hope so. I'm definitely looking forward to trying VR and want to be sold on it. Just so far, I haven't been.
Maybe next week I'll have my mind changed? I'll keep you posted.