PAX East 2015 is underway in Boston, and that means a lot of new toys to play with over the weekend. One of the few that I have been most looking forward to finally get a chance to use was virtual reality, and I did just that with a brief demo of the Oculus Rift.
By some miracle (or soundproofing material, but I’ll stick with miracle), Oculus was able to present their product in a room completely void of the blaring sounds from the rest of the convention for the demo. I was given a small, soft square to stand on as a guide, had the Oculus Rift prototype strapped to my head, and it was good to go. Well, almost. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get the unit around my giant head and my glasses, so I did the demo with everything glasses-free just a bit blurry, but that didn’t make anything any less fantastical.
The 10-part demo played on the Oculus ‘Crescent Bay’ headset is a quick moving slideshow of interactive environments showing many uses that the Oculus Rift (or other VR devices) could have in the future. It starts right off the bat with a scene showing you what a space horror game could entail. Typical of a James Cameron film or any video game that features an alien menace ever, you’re transported to the interior of a ship that has seen better days, with red lights blinking, sirens blaring, and a light fog covering everything. My first instinct was to walk to the door, but as I quickly remember, you can’t actually move in the demo. Considering just how far we’ve come in VR, this little downside shouldn’t be too discouraging, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t constantly wanting to fully embrace the fact that I was no longer in Boston and instead on the top of a skyscraper in an alternate-reality past in another part of the demo.
One of the more impressive parts of the experience is a scene on a distant planet where a tiny little alien waves at you. Against my better judgement, knowing that the Oculus employee was there watching, I waved. Sure, the CGI alien can’t really see me, and I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but it’s so engrossing and right there in your face that it’s hard to ignore. It bizarrely wasn’t anything like seeing a video game character wave – or even a human in a movie wave. It triggered that awkward feeling that occurs when you see someone wave, but you can’t tell if they are waving at you or someone behind you. I can’t remember ever being at a theater and seeing a character do anything where it drew such a visceral reaction, but this ten second alien certainly did.
One scene in particular was meant to show off the motion tracking on the new Crescent Bay headset. It was simply a mirror with a series of masks, but it mimicked my head movements to the tee.
Another impressive one was showing a miniature city landscape. In this scene I could lean down and look in the windows to see tiny fake people going about their business in their tiny fake homes, but again, it felt strangely real. Don’t get me wrong, you will also be aware that there is something strapped to your head, but it triggers something deeper, that sense of actually being in the place when your brain knows you are not.
Following a quick Jurassic Park-esque scene with a T-Rex yelling in my face and walking over my head, the presenter told me hold on because “now here comes the best part.” The museum scene exploded away into something straight out of a big-budget AAA first-person shooter. Bullets were flying, soldiers were yelling, and at the end of a long city road, surrounded by rubble and explosions, was an alien-controlled mech. The simulation was moving me forward closer to it, and you could not have convinced me that I wasn’t actually moving. When I turned to follow a rocket trail to watch it hit a car, I could feel the momentum moving me forward in a weird way, throwing me almost off balance. The entire thing was in slow motion, so I’m assuming it either wouldn’t have worked at full speed, or it may work too well at full speed and the Oculus folks don’t want to trigger any hidden fear of war inside their demo users.
As immersive and believable as it is, the Oculus still isn’t flawless. A lot of minor annoyances, such as the cable constantly touching my head and taking me out of the experience, the lack of being able to wear my glasses, and a tiny little gap at the bottom of the headset took away from the whole thing quite a bit. I was assured that the small gap at the bottom of the screen is “normal” and I “wouldn’t even notice it’s there” when the experience began, but I definitely did. I just hope that was PR speak, and not a hint that Oculus doesn’t plan to fix that little gap.
Given the leaps and bounds VR has come in only a few short years, I can’t wait to see what iterations follow from Oculus and its blossoming market competitors. In the meantime, check out Tested’s video demo and overview of Oculus from this years CES in the video below, or our very own hands-on of a different VR application at the Chicago Auto Show.