Unless you've been living under a rock, then you've probably been hearing a lot about the Oculus Rift virtual reality platform. This Kickstarted virtual reality system provides a set of goggles that will take you into another world, much like people do in Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" while fleeing the real world for one made out of pixels. At QuakeCon two years ago, John Carmack demoed a prototype unit to the media that was running "Doom 3." Even through the thing was held together with duct tape, baling wire, and sheer grit, it was a very impressive demo. The development kit has been available from Oculus for some time now, clocking in at $300 and only available in standard definition. However, at PAX Prime, we were able to check out the HD prototype unit, which will most likely be available next year. And? It is one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced.
On the way to my appointment with Nate Mitchell, one of the co-founders of the company and the VP of Product, I went post the Oculus Rift booth on the show floor. It was a surreal sight: dozens of players goggled in and playing "Hawken" or circling the track in iRacing.com's latest build. This meant players standing or sitting and looking in all directions at things only they could see, with a massive line of of players waiting to give it a try themselves. It's great PR, because when you walk past these gamers, you instantly want to know what's going on inside those goggles. Normally you can watch over the shoulder of someone trying out the latest and greatest, but with the Oculus, it doesn't work until you try it yourself.
Mitchell explained that coming to shows like PAX and putting the units into the hands of actual gamers is important for them, but it's even more important that they connect with developers to see what the unit is capable of. "If we get just one good game out of going to a show like PAX, then it is more than worth it." He also said that the best game he has seen on the device so far has been "EVE: Valkyrie," a dogfighting, science fiction game set in the EVE universe. There are a large number of games that now have built-in Rift support, which is pretty impressive considering that the consumer version of the device isn't set to ship until next year, and the developer kit available now only provides a standard definition experience. Just imagine the experiences that might be available down the line.
I met up with Mitchell in a nearby hotel room and was treated to two demos. The first was a brief look into the VR version of the Unreal 4 Elemental demo, complete with glowing and flowing lava, falling snow, a massive volcano, and a brooding demo lord. Extremely impressive, and realistic enough to give you the chills. There was no real gameplay here, just the ability to move through the environment, but it was so realistic that you would frequently turn all the way around just to see what was behind you. Mitchell keyed up a few magic missiles, meant to look as though I was casting them, and you could track them with your head and follow them throughout the cavern. While a bit disorienting at first, it was easy to see how amazing it would be to play games like this.
I asked Mitchell if the VR experience could expand to reading books and watching movies through the device, and he said "Funny you should ask that" before keying up the second demo. Slipping the headset on, I was dropped into an incredibly realistic movie that, complete with cupholders in the armrests and exit signs over the doors. The lights dimmed, and the trailer for "Man of Steel" started playing. It was a completely breathtaking experience, and it felt like I was sitting in my very own multiplex. When the lights came back up, I attempted to lean over and look behind my seat... and promptly whacked my head into the wall of the actual hotel room I was sitting in. That's how realistic the experience was. I can't wait to see what this unit can really do once it goes wide.