Most people have heard about the Oculus Rift and the hype surrounding the rise of virtual reality by now, but few people have yet to actually experience the jaw-dropping magic of high-end VR. On Monday, the highly-anticipated Oculus Rift launched, and with it, the next chapter of entertainment and art was ushered in.
After using the Rift on and off for the last week, it’s clear that this is the virtual reality experience we’ve been waiting for. Armed with Facebook’s war chest of funding and the smartest minds in the VR industry, the Oculus team has crafted the best tool for escapism since the television and internet were born.
It’s a powerful thing, the ability to seemingly leave your body behind and climb into a game world or film where you find yourself experiencing a new form of storytelling, one where your room melts away and is replaced with something so seemingly tangible that it tricks your brain into believing it’s close enough to reach out and touch. After pulling the goggles over your eyes and staring around in every direction, it’s hard not to feel like Lucy Pevensie stepping from wooden wardrobe into the fantastical lands of Narnia, or Harry Potter disappearing through Platform 9 3/4, or Neo plugging into The Matrix for the first time.
The ability to teleport into the creative works of game developers and filmmakers and artists is nothing to take lightly — this is culture-shaping technology with huge implications for the future. I don’t think even the folks at Oculus know what the virtual reality landscape is going to look like a decade from now, once the creatives of the world get their hands dirty with the device and begin to push the boundaries of the art form.
After getting a taste of what the launch catalogue of experiences offer, all I can say is that we’re off to a fantastic start.
The Rift itself
Unlike many latecomers to virtual reality, the Oculus team has had years to fine-tune the design and ergonomics of the Rift headset itself, and it shows in the overall hardware design and experience of using it. Clad in sleek fabric, the Rift goggles feel lightweight and polished, a huge improvement over the developer kits that it evolved from.
The box itself acts as a nice carrying case. For $600, you get the Rift headset, an infrared camera, wireless remote, wireless Xbox One controller, and “Lucky’s Tale,” a made-for-VR game that’s like a mixture of “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Crash Bandicoot.” While you can use your own headphones if you want, you probably won’t, as the attached headphones don’t add much to the overall weight while upping the immersion levels with their support of three-dimensional sound design within games and movies.
Setup and calibration is a breeze, and the step-by-step instructions are easy enough to follow and only require you to plug in four cables. The setup client will even let you know if you’re plugging things into the right ports. The rest of the calibrating process is done within virtual reality, where you’ll stare at a green crosshair and tweak a dial until it’s crystal clear, indicating that you’ve dialed-in the lenses to match the exact distance between your eyes.
Calibration is key to a stunning first time in VR, and a potential pain point if ignored, but Oculus thankfully makes it easy.
You’ll need a beefy computer to power the Rift, and that means an all-in cost of somewhere between $1400 – $1500. That price tag is undoubtedly the biggest thing keeping more people from getting the chance to try virtual reality how it’s intended to be experienced. But like the first colour televisions, computers, or iPhone, the cost of the headset and necessary computer will only go down over time before converging with mobile around a decade from now. With the Rift’s stellar design and top-notch technology hiding beneath the faceplate, Oculus is ensuring that early adopters will be able to show curious newcomers an experience that’s uncompromising in its pursuit of virtual reality’s holy grail — “presence” — that sliding-scale measurement of how fully fooled your brain is into believing you’re somewhere you’re not. The higher the presence the better.
Lots of factors go into achieving high levels of “presence,” and Rift utilises many of these — high-end optics, precise sensors, two made-for-VR displays — before combining them with a library of content that rivals most game console launches.
By nailing the necessary technology and comfortable design with the Rift, you’re free to dive into the many worlds that the Oculus Store offers, and that’s where the real feeling of wonder begins to kick in.
Virtual reality games: Explorable worlds where fear and wonder come alive
It’s easy to become jaded with modern-day video games and movies. Most of the time we already know what to expect, but that goes out the window with virtual reality. The stakes are immediately raised when you move from observing the action through the border of the TV screen and into the action itself. You’re no longer able to look away from the screen when things get tense as you might in a theatre; you’re literally in it now, surrounded on all sides.
Everything feels like it means more: there’s a heightened connection to characters, both in games and short films, and the action carries weight.
One of the best demonstrations of presence and what compelling VR is really like is found in the space dogfighting game “Eve: Valkyrie,” which puts you in the cockpit of a spaceship as you shoot through a launch tunnel and into the frantic madness that is a space battle.
There’s a somewhat shallow multiplayer campaign, but it’s the online multiplayer dogfights that most people will spend their time in, and the fact that you play the entire game from the cockpit of a space fighter anchors the experience and helps you avoid any motion sickness.
Turning around in your seat and watching an enemy fighter scream overhead immediately causes you tense up, and flying through the wreckage of a mid-air collision feels exhilarating, like something straight out of “Star Wars.”
“Eve: Valkyrie” is another game built for the ground up for VR, and it shows — there’s no annoying menu up in your face as you try to play, everything is off in your peripherals for the most part, tucked away into the design of the cockpit itself until you need it. When you do, you just stare down as you would at the dashboard of a car before returning your eyes to the road, which in this case is usually an asteroid belt or floating space station teeming with things far more interesting to look at through the glass canopy of your ship.
The beautiful thing is this heightened sense of everything doesn’t just magnify the thrill of combat, it also holds true for games that favour imagination and wonder over tense action. Things slow down as you take in the sheer spectacle of the ethereal floating buildings in “Windlands,” an exploration game where you must leap across chasms and swing between tree branches with the aid of grappling hooks.
There’s a whole camp out there that believes simple exploration of beautifully detailed worlds is going to be the killer feature of VR, and it’s a tough position to argue against.
While it’s not quite flying — you’ll need to wait for upcoming games like Ubisoft’s “Eagle Flight” later this year to truly transform into a bird — “Windlands” demonstrates how fun simply jumping from platform to platform can be in virtual reality. With a lava-like ground you must avoid, falling to your death in VR is an unsettling thing, and I often found myself closing my eyes or immediately respawning to avoid the inevitable collision. But if you survive, the final ascent and reward of looking out over the floating trail you just conquered is a delightful thing, something that made me better realise the draw that causes adrenaline junkies to summit mountains like Everest. The view from the top is invigorating, and all the more sweet when the path to it was difficult, puzzle-like.
Because of the newfound appreciation for the true scale of things that immediately becomes evident within virtual reality, exploration-oriented games thrive.
Another great example of this on a more minute scale is “Lucky’s Tale,” the platformer that comes bundled with every Rift.
Created by Oculus’ in-house game studio, Playful, “Lucky’s Tale” proves exploration can be fun while controlling a character in third-person. Built from the ground up for virtual reality, the game hardly features a user interface at all (can you sense a trend?). Your health is only visible in tiny hearts that float above the body of Lucky the fox when he’s hurt, and likewise your in-game coin count is displayed through a tiny number engraved upon each subsequent coin you collect (get a 100 and you’ll unlock another life).
“Lucky’s Tale” is one of the best games out for VR right now, there’s a reason Oculus decided to bundle it with every Rift. The game’s premise is one of wide-eyed wonderment and delight, and it’s only stressful if you consider the enemies in Mario games something to be nervous about.
A master class in detailed scene design, each level of “Lucky’s Tale” is jammed packed with colourful detail. And since the gameplay is tailored to take advantage of VR, you’ll need to look all around you to notice hidden coins, crystals, and foxholes, which acts a portals to bonus levels where you gaze into an underground tunnel as one would look into a dollhouse.
The controls are simple enough. You use the Xbox controller to make Lucky jump or attack by whipping his tail around quickly, it’s low-stakes combat where you can enjoy taking the time to look into every nook and cranny.
In games like “ADR1FT,” where you play as an untethered astronaut drifting through various levels set in the ruins of a destroyed space station, your environment becomes your lifeline along with the canisters of oxygen that float listlessly around in zero gravity.
“ADR1FT” is a first-person game where you gaze out at the world around you through a space helmet, slowly manoeuvring through space wreckage where your objective might be above or below. If you’ve seen the movie “Gravity,” you’ll know the type of experience you’re in for. There’s no violence, the only danger is running out of air and suffocating — where your environment slowly pulses into white oblivion — and that means you can’t dawdle.
This particular game mechanic combined with the beauty of floating through space gives the game a unique feel.
Another game where the environment plays a part is “Chronos,” a third-person game that plays like a mixture of “The Legend of Zelda” and “Dark Souls.”
While third-person games fight an uphill battle to be as immersive as first-person games simply because of the difference of perspective, “Chronos” is a good reminder that the old gameplay mechanics are still fun when translated into VR environments. Your vantage point switches throughout “Chronos,” maintaining a fixed place within the room you’re currently exploring until your hero disappears through the next doorway, where the camera will seamlessly transition to another corridor.
The camera’s vantage point and transition to the next matter immensely in third-person games like “Chronos,” as it can be used to both frame a scene in a striking way — such as your hero walking across a rickety bridge while the moon illuminates his silhouette — or as a “wow” moment where a series of lights spring to life and you find yourself looking up to see you’re actually at the bottom of the an elevator shaft that extends hundreds of feet above you.
After a week of casual play, I still have to make my way through more than a few levels of each of the Rift’s 30 launch titles, but there’s a depth here that will keep early adopters busy until the second wave of releases hits in a few months. Oculus is promising over a 100 titles by the end of 2016, so it’s going to be more of a question of how many games you can afford, and what genres you prefer the most.
Movies: The next frontier in storytelling
One of my favourite experiences so far in the Rift has been watching the films designed solely to be experienced in virtual reality.
A budding medium for cinema, the groundwork is still very much being laid for VR films, and Oculus is leading the charge with its own in-house film studio, Oculus Story Studio. Helmed by former Pixar execs, Oculus Story Studio is the division of Oculus devoted to figuring out how the hell movies are going to look in virtual reality. How will scene transitions work? Will jump cuts be nauseating? How long should a short film be? How about a feature-length film? Is camera technology advanced to the point where live-action films are “presence” inducing, or should we stick to fully rendered CGI characters and environments, a la Pixar, for the foreseeable future?
The good news is that even while these huge questions are being solved, the experimental films along the way are more than capable of being heartwarming or heart-racing, sad or scary, and, arguably most important when comparing it to other forms of cinema, visually spectacular.
I enjoyed the character-driven short film “Henry” from Oculus Story Studio, narrated by Elijah Wood, and the “Iron Giant”-like short film “Lost,” which drops you in the middle of a forest at night to watch eye-opening reunion between a mechanical robot hand and its giant owner.
But my favourite so far wasn’t made by Oculus, it was a quietly beautiful and peaceful short film called “The Rose and I,” a charming adaption of “The Little Prince” created by San-Francisco based studio Penrose.
Premiering at Sundance 2015, “The Rose and I” is a master class in how less is often more in virtual reality storytelling, and the experience now takes full advantage of the Rift’s positional tracking for an added sense that you’re really there, observing the little prince as he goes about his daily routine.
You watch the film standing up, and the film opens with a tiny asteroid floating in front of you framed by a children’s-book-like sky brimming with twinkling stars. A larger, ringed planet passes slowly overhead, and then a billow of smoke puffs out of one of the asteroid’s holes and out pops our protagonist, the prince, a tiny little character who you can examine by standing up and leaning in.
It’s hard to describe the delight of being able to stand up on your tip-toes and gaze down upon the prince as he scurries about his tiny little planet, where he notices a lone rose growing upon desolate rock. There’s still an emotional core to the film even though there isn’t any action. The little prince disappears into his planet’s crater only to return with a watering bucket, which he uses to nurture the rose. The closing shot lets you observe as the prince sits down next to his new plant friend and watches the space sunset; it’s remarkably moving for a story so simple.
It’s easier to be struck by the importance of friendship and companionship when all you have to do is turn your head to see the empty expanse that surrounds the planet in all directions.
The beginning of something big
The Oculus Rift nails a lot of things right out of the gate. Its design is comfortable and well thought out, and the technology inside it is second-to-none thanks to the in-house research conducted by John Carmack and Michael Abrash. Its expansive library of games, movies, and experiences means there’s something for everyone, and Oculus Home is an easy-to-navigate hub for browsing your library and purchasing new games.
Sure, the resolution could be better and I’m a bit annoyed the front-facing camera that Palmer Lucky told me was being tested out didn’t end up making the final cut, but Oculus does a good job of making any limitations incredibly easy to ignore. This thing is polished, and at a time when anything out of place will be called out by sceptics who haven’t tried high-end VR, nothing feels glaringly lacking.
Should you buy one? If you can afford it, yes. If you already have a PlayStation 4, your best bet is waiting for PlayStation VR to launch later this year, but even that will be hindered by the game console’s ageing hardware. HTC’s Vive headset does offer features that the Rift doesn’t, including room-scale VR where you can walk around, but that package is even more expensive, and will likely appeal more to hardcore gamers who already have an empty room to devote entirely to VR.
Looking to the next couple of years, the games catalogue will only get better, the games richer, the genres more diverse, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what the future of films, productivity programs, and educational and travel experiences will look like. When Oculus launches its “Touch” hand-tracking controllers in the latter half of this year, we’ll finally be able to see our hands represented in VR, and that alone will spur a whole new generation of games where you can dual-wield pistols or illuminate the path in front of you by lantern light.
The important thing is Oculus has set the bar incredibly high for what virtual reality should look and feel like, and because they took the time to build out a strong ecosystem of experiences, we can safely say virtual reality is here to stay for the long haul.
If you can find a way to try out the Rift, do it. The future is finally here.