18th June 2013
I’ve just got back from E3, where the usual suspects wheeled out their hopes for the next few years. If the punters on the show floor are to be believed, it was a landslide victory for Sony.
But I’m no gamer. In fact, my pre-E3 preparation consisted mostly of swatting up on the latest titles that weren’t Fifa, just so I wasn’t completely out of my depth.
Yet even with my lack of knowledge, I don’t think it’s an unfair judgement to say that nothing on the show floor was really mindblowing. Sure, next-gen has gone up a notch, and yup, games are deeper and more immersive than before.
But in one corner of the LA Convention Centre (and I mean corner – upstairs, next to the toilets, room 517), was one of the most exciting technologies I have ever seen.
Oculus Rift has been doing the rounds a bit – it started as a Kickstarter campaign – but it is now primed and ready to go.
For those not famiiar, it’s a virtual reality headset. In one of those rare instances of science fiction meeting the eventual reality, it looks and feels just like you’d expect it to.
It’s a pair of goggles; you put it over your head; and then you look around.
I first tried Oculus Rift at the Consumer Electronics Show at the start of the year. It was held together with black tape, and my slightly googly eyes (I’m short-sighted) couldn’t really get to grips with it.
What’s more, the demo was basic, an uninterative shell of a world. You could look around, yes, but you were essentially just floating about with nothing to do.
Fast forward to E3, and Oculus Rift has moved on leaps and bounds.
For starters, it’s now HD. In standard definition you were always aware of being in a game, looking at screens. In HD, you’re suddenly transported to a new world.
Essentially, all the headset gives you is the power to look around. Movement and control is still achieved by using a controller, a system that feels like a cop-out until you see the alternative – this stupid treadmill, for example.
I had my go during one of the many briefings the creators were giving to journalists. They were running drastically behind schedule, such was the level of excitement in each briefing – and the makers’ willingness to talk about it at length and with gusto.
While wearning the device, the technology was being explained to me.
I wish I could tell you more about it … but I was distracted by an enormous beast. It looked to be sleeping, but as I edged closer to it, he burst into life – and I legged it.
Which brings me to my main point here: Oculus Rift makes games utterly, utterly terrifying.
Think about it – with today’s titles, you never come face-to-face with anything. The screen always adds that degree of removal, the thing that stops it feeling too real.
But when you’re wearing that headset, it’s deeply (and addictively) unsettling. It changes how you play. It triggers fight or flight immediately, when typically games have only ever managed to inspire fight.
The makers told me that when they’ve observed people playing some demos, they noticed they instinctively smile back when characters smile, and will maintain eye contact if another character is speaking to them. To start looking around – as we often do during dull dialogue in games – would just be rude.
The Rift team had two rooms set up at E3. One for journalists, one for potential clients. The stream of people in and out of both was constant. While I waited (they’re the only company that weren’t able to see the BBC quickly), I observed several teams from major companies arrive for a meeting, as well as an excited man from Epic Games chattering about the big demo session they had arranged for the next day.
While I was having my briefing, a major figure from video gaming turned up at their room keen to discuss business – the identity of which it would be unfair to disclose, lest I scupper a future deal which could have massive implications.
The team is undeniably smart. They’ve built the Oculus Rift with lofty ambitions, but have been able to advance to that goal in positive baby steps.
One early task has been to figure out how to make it as easy as possible to create compatiable games for it, and there seems to be two stages to this: most games will work with the Rift, but to truly make the most of it, games designers will need to code in special optimisation.
To aid this, they’ve taken something of a wholesale approach – working with Epic to get Rift compatiability built-in to Unreal Engine 4, a foundation upon which many brilliant titles are being made.
Games aside, one demonstration placed the wearer in a cinema theatre, watching a movie. Pretty pointless – why not just watch a film on your own screen? – but it did highlight the Rift’s telepresence potential.
I asked them if they had any serious plans in this area – they coyly said they couldn’t talk about it, but were in advanced discussions.
I don’t know if Oculus Rift, or something like it, will change gaming. I just really, really hope it does.