The Oculus Rift has come a long way. I remember playing the original machine showed to the press at E3 2012, a heavy monster of ducted-taped tech. The device was so early that I couldn't wear my glasses with it on. I had to take them off, have someone help me put the device around my head, strap on some headphones, and stare into the VR version of Doom 3 for the first time. As a proof-of-concept, I was impressed. When I finished my demo, my eyes were watering because I hadn't blinked. I was also a bit dizzy, as my vision was trying to correct itself. I walked away thinking, "That's cool."
Fast-forward a year and I played what would eventually become EVE Valkyrie on the Oculus VR's new HD prototype. There was still a bit of fuzziness in the presentation, but I was happy with the upgrade. It was lighter, my glasses were a part of the equation, and the chosen headphones were a bit smaller. EVR highlighted the sense of presence you get when what's happening in the game matches what your body is doing in the real world. The divergence is called vestibular disconnect; the more you minimize that, the better the experience. I came away very intrigued, but was convinced that VR's sweet spot was in flying and driving games.
Since those demos, I've played with Development Kit 2. I've seen further improvements at other trade shows. I've seen students at universities playing with their own Oculus Rift kits, crafting new experiences. I've played F1 Racing, Couch Knights, and EVE: Valkyrie. I left those demos impressed, but not fully onboard with VR. The hardware got better each time, but it still hadn't hooked me.
Now, I'm sitting here ready to try on the retail version of the Oculus Rift. Three years of research and development, the combined effort of some of the smartest engineers in our industry, and Facebook's resources have gone into this device.
The retail Oculus Rift is a smooth, matte black device. It's much smaller than the original monster I put on my head and the weight is almost unnoticeable at this point. The headphones are now integrated into the device. The Xbox 360 controller I've used with previous demos has given way to an Xbox One controller, which will be packed-in with every Rift. It slides on my head with little issue this time. The platform feels like it's ready for prime time finally.
In front of me in the virtual world is Oculus Home, the new store front, with a number of preselected games for me to choose from: VR Sports Challenge, Chronos, Edge of Nowhere, Air Mech VR, Esper, Damaged Core, Herobound, and Lucky's Tale. I have time to play three of the games. Which ones are completely up to me. I decide to start small and pick VR Sports Challenge by Sanzaru Games.
Like Kinect Sports, VR Sports Challenge is a light VR experience meant to guide you into VR. The title loads up with hockey, where you play as the goalie. The controls are simple: if you're looking at the puck, you'll stop it. Occasionally, you'll also get a chance to score on the other opponent's goal in a separate mini-game. I'm not that great at this game. In fact, I' was'm usually looking in the opposite direction when the puck came screaming by.
I follow VR Sports Challenge up with Air Mech VR. I've played Air Mech before, it's a great real-time strategy game that you can play on almost any platform. Like the Sega Genesis classic Herzog Zwei, you have direct control over a transformable ship that can ferry other units around the battlefield. If you're looking for a more active strategy title, Air Mech is your game. This VR version of Air Mech isn't actually the full title. Instead, you start on with specific base in the center of the map and enemies simply pour in from all sides.
Unlike most of my previous VR experiences, your field of view in Air Mech VR isn't tied to the character you're playing. Instead, you're looking down onto the playing field. You can galance around to see enemies coming from different directions. It's like playing with a moving toy box. Air Mech VR is the first game to convince me that VR can be more than just first-person experiences. Strategy and 4X titles - really any title with a top-down view - can also benefit from the Oculus Rift. Does the technology provide additional gameplay benefits? Not really, but it is fun looking down onto the battlefield below. I'd definitely play some Civilization V, Endless Legend, Cities: Skylines, or Heroes of the Storm on Rift.
The coup de grace of my demo is Insomniac's Edge of Nowhere. This is another Oculus title that's not in first-person. Instead, your viewpoint is just behind the back of a lone explorer trapped in the Antarctic mountains. The game plays like Uncharted or Tomb Raider, with the player running, jumping, and climbing their way through an environment dead set on killing them. Well, "lone" is a bit of a misnomer... there's also Cthulu-esque horrors walking free. Most of them probably want you dead.
Where VR helps in a game like Edge is a sense of scale and framing. When you make a jump on an old bridge that begins to fall apart beneath you, you can look down and see the wooden planks crashed into the ice below. In a darkened cave, when you light a torch for some visibility, you'll find yourself peering into the darkness, wondering what's out there. I walk out into a graveyard of ships, only for the screen to shake. I look up to see a giant Lovecraftian horror shambling along, ignorant to my presence. Another scene has you descending a rope, torch in hand; not only can you look down to see how far you have to go, but looking around allows you to catch glimpses of smaller creatures scurrying around you. Finally, the demo ends with tentacles coming from behind you to cut off your vision.
Your viewpoint isn't tied to the character, but the Rift, when used correctly, improves the feeling of presence within the game world. It's like watching an interactive film almost; you're not the character, but you're there in the room with them. The experience - the fear, the vertigo - is real. Oculus needs titles like Edge of Nowhere. It's a pretty traditional gaming experience, but like Air Mech, it's enhanced by VR. Edge of Nowhere is more of an adventure title, but a great VR horror game? Oh, be still my beating heart.
Finally, I'm ushered into a different room to try Oculus VR's newest technology: Oculus Touch. This version is called the Half Moon prototype due to its distinct shape. Imagine a pair Wii Nunchucks with with an extra ring of sensors and two additional buttons next to the analog sticks. The Touch is Oculus' stab at improved input in VR. There's two triggers on each controller, one under your index finger and another under your middle finger. The index trigger is for certain actions within the game, while the middle finger trigger makes your virtual hands open and close.
The sensors on the Half Moon work in tandem with the Rift's infrared camera to track your hands in space, but they also keep track of your finger position, allowing the controllers to tell when you're pointing or have your thumbs up. This means you have the closest input representation of your actual hands that I've ever played with.
The demo was called the Toybox, which is simply a room with virtual objects to play with. The Toybox itself is prototype software, full of simple models and figures to mess with. I figured I was playing alone, but across the table from me was Oculus creator and founder Palmer Luckey, represented in game by a pair of floating hands and transparent floating Rift. Thing is, Luckey wasn't in the same room as me, but within the virtual space, it felt like we were together. (The integrated headphones help.)
Luckey walked me through a few different concepts, but you don't really need the walkthrough because the Touch is amazingly intuitive. Once you've gotten the basic gist of it, using the controllers is almost second nature. In a short time I was able to pick up a box and toss it from hand-to-hand easily.
That was the moment that made me a full believer in Oculus Rift.
We played ping-pong together. We shot laser guns in a virtual shooting gallery. We lit fireworks and threw them into the sky. We played tetherball in space and drove R/C vehicles around. I played in a virtual romper room with the guy who created the Oculus Rift. We had fun. It was amazing. But that moment of being able to simply and easily toss virtual objects around was my "Come to Jesus" moment.
The Oculus Rift is a great bit of technology, but the Oculus Touch is absolutely amazing. Do I need it in every game? No, not at all. but the technology works and it works well. There are games that I can't wait to try with a fully kitted Oculus Rift/Touch combo (Skyrim!). I don't know if it's our complete future - I'm lazy and sometimes I just want to play on a controller - but it feels like it's part of what's next.
So yeah, I'm all-in on Oculus Rift. It's not for everyone, since you have to have a beefy rig just to reach the recommended specs for the device. Despite that, I'll be in line for the commercial release and a set of Oculus Touch controllers. I'll tread boldly into that VR frontier because the hour I had was nowhere near enough.