Getting in the Game
The Oculus Rift makes virtual reality a reality
One thing video games have always been good at is immersing players in a world. When you're being attacked by zombies or aliens in a half-lit world with a creeping soundtrack, it's not hard to feel the art form's pull. But even with centuries of music, movies, and interactive art at their disposal, games have only begun to scratch the surface of what they're really capable of in terms of world-building. Their reach is about to get much broader with the development of a virtual reality system that finally lives up to its fictional counterparts.
Virtual reality was the ultimate Nineties dream – one built up by hype and dashed against the rocks of the technological realities of decades past. People read about consumer VR devices in cyberpunk novels and saw them in sci-fi shows and movies of the time and assumed that reality was just around the corner, but attempts at such a feat were underwhelming at best and colossal flops at worst (Dactyl Nightmare and Nintendo's Virtual Boy, respectively). The main barrier to success was the inability of the processors to keep the built-in screens up to speed with the user's head movements, which turned the environment into a stuttering visual mess. Before long, the fad had died, and those with a dream of a device that would transport them into their favorite game soon realized that the hardware necessary either didn't exist yet or was prohibitively expensive.
Thanks to the Oculus Rift and the 9,500 people who believed in it enough to fund its development, that may be changing.
Two decades have a way of changing the technological landscape. And those who never stopped believing recently saw their opening. One of those believers was baby-faced Palmer Luckey, who recognized that the proliferation of smartphones had sent the prices of things like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and lightweight, high-res screens down significantly. These just happened to be three important components of his virtual reality device that has since been dubbed the Oculus Rift.
As Luckey and his crew geared up to crowdfund their goal of getting VR technology into the hands of developers, they couldn't have been prepared for the outpouring of hopes (and money) that ultimately led to a roughly $2.5 million payday, 10 times what was asked. Either all those crushed dreams were twitching back to life or everyone wanted a Lawnmower Man-esque transformation (minus the psychotic break).
It helped that the project had support from game developer rock stars like Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War), Gabe Newell (co-founder of Valve), John Carmack (Doom, Quake), and Chris Roberts, who has vowed to make his upcoming space dogfighting game, Star Citizen, Rift compatible. His company, Cloud Imperium Games, itself gathered more than $6 million through crowdfunding, largely due to his Nineties cred from the popular Wing Commander games, which would have been prime VR candidates had the Rift been around then. "It's sort of been, for lack of a better word, a pipe dream," Roberts says about his long path to a decent VR experience. "Especially when you're making first-person-style games." There appears to be light at the end of that pipe, though, and it's fast approaching.
Early prototypes of the Rift are being sent out to more than a thousand developers later in March to help them visualize and work out the kinks of games hoping to release with VR compatibility. Oculus Rift's vice president of product, Nate Mitchell, makes it clear that while the company is committed to making a great gaming experience, they're also encouraging other industries to try VR on for size. "We decided early on to make the developer kits open not just to game developers," Mitchell says. "Whether they were in the medical field or the military or dentistry or whatever it was, if you wanted a Rift developer kit to experiment with, you could get one." A virtual tour of someone's dental work doesn't have the allure of a video game, but considering the Xbox's Kinect motion sensor ended up flying helicopters, driving cars, and even helping stroke victims send email, who knows what uses people will come up with for a virtual reality rig.
For now, you'll have to be content with the promise of eye-widening gaming immersion to come. Maybe watch a few videos of folks trying the Rift for the first time to tide you over (spoiler alert: there's invariably excited swearing). Although, as Mitchell himself admits, "It's impossible to show them what the experience will be like without putting it on them." Luckily for you, the VR panel is part of the Gaming Expo, which is free and open to the public, and the folks from Oculus Rift will have prototypes in tow for attendees to try out before and after the talk. Prepare for a crowd of VR nonbelievers and the dreamers ready to finally see the inside of the gaming world.
Virtual Reality: The Holy Grail of Gaming
Friday, March 8, 6pm
Palmer Events Center, Exhibit Hall 1
Friday-Sunday, March 8-10
Palmer Events Center