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DoubleTake: Oculus Rift HD Prototype

Posted on September 4, 2013 AT 05:05pm

A whole new virtual world

As part of the PAX Prime 2013 festivities, the folks working on the Oculus Rift invited us over to try out the new HD prototype of their much-talked-about VR headset. Some people go into trying the Rift with doubt or disbelief—but I’ve never seen someone so against everything the device stood for as you were! Eric
Andrew It’s not that I’m necessarily against the concept—it’s just that homo sapiens have evolved for the past 200,000 years without bizarre VR contraptions shoved in front of our eyeballs, and I worry about being a test subject for this technology! (Why isn’t the FDA involved here?) I will openly admit it: I fear change. I get headaches from the 3DS and turn off the slider completely, and I tried the Virtual Boy in Toys “R” Us once in 1995, an experience that left lasting scars. To this day, I swear that a tiny red tennis-playing Mario haunts my peripheral vision.
The story, as I’ve heard it, was that full-color tech of the type that Nintendo used was only months away, but they wanted to keep things for the system cheap. Had the games actually been playable in full color, our opinion on Nintendo’s most maligned hardware might be very different. Now, however, we have the Oculus Rift—and as I can attest from seeing you here in the office, the unit did not, in fact, melt your eyeballs. Eric
Andrew It did not…yet! I was actually quite surprised at how unobtrusive the whole experience was (well, aside from the fact that I had to keep my glasses on in order to see anything—it was a tight fit under the headgear). I was apprehensive about the experience, but I can say that I really didn’t expect much, given my past run-ins with VR tech. I expected to feel like I was smooshed up against a giant TV screen, but it truly felt like there was a real depth to what I was experiencing, particularly during the “snowy” sequence created in Unreal Engine 4—it felt like I was back in my college days in the Minnesota permafrost as I stared up at the falling flakes. From what I gather, you seemed to have a problem with some blurriness, though?
Well, so, I had the chance to try a much earlier version of the Rift last year, and given that, at the time, I was going in with absolutely no expectations of what I’d be seeing—much like you were here—I was totally blown away, even if the resolution the unit could push was much lower. Now that I had some working knowledge of the experience and was being told that I’d be seeing the new HD prototype, I did anticipate my eyes being melted from their sockets from awesomeness. The truth was, it wasn’t the huge jump I thought I’d be getting. Indeed, I felt the overall visuals were somewhat blurrier than I should be seeing, even after I tried the unit again with my glasses on. The higher pixel-count display certainly helped fix things such as the “screen door” effect present on the previous models, and to be fair, I also spend no time doing any fine adjusting to make sure the unit better fit my face. Eric
Andrew Yeah, that’s the thing—the finished product will be tuned to an individual user’s facial features, but the unit we used was one-size-fits-all, and I don’t think either of us were wholly satisfied with the fit. With VR, getting that aspect right is such an integral part of the experience, which is why the session we had won’t be an accurate reflection of the final product. I will say that I enjoyed exploring the Unreal Engine environment far more than the other VR space they showed us, a virtual movie theater only capable of showing one thing on its screen: the Man of Steel trailer on an infinite loop. That might not quite be hell, but it’s damn close to purgatory as far as I’m concerned. I would’ve liked to have just done some more walking around in the Unreal Engine space, to be honest. You actually got to do some flying in the Unreal area, which I was too nervous to check out myself—I didn’t want to induce nausea at 10:00 am with a full slate of appointments for the rest of the day. How was that experience? You seemed to almost have an epiphany—at least looking at your reaction from outside the headset!
That’s part of the fun of the Rift: watching other people using it. Of course, with Fitch—the human equivalent of Grumpy Cat—his sour attitude during his amazing trip through a virtual world would have led you to believe our cheerful Oculus host had loaded up a simulation about spending time with your in-laws during the holidays. During my turn, I could hear him laughing as I was physically reacting to some of the things that were going on before my eyes. The biggest thing, for me, was when I was told to fly through objects. Clipping was turned off, so I just went straight through the formations of a crumbled castle that we had been set down in front of. It was such a bizarre experience; using the Rift, and having things seem to exist all around you, when you’re flying toward a wall and are about to hit it, your brain is sending you signals almost as it would in real life. The moment I hit the wall and started phasing through it, I had a legitimate physical reaction inside my body—something I never expected to feel. What about you? I know you knew it was all just computer-crafted imagery projected on a display, but did you feel yourself having any emotional or physical reactions to things that you weren’t expecting? Eric
Andrew Hey, I’m offended! I’ll have you know that I’ve specifically taken one of those LOLcat Internet quizzes, and I’m actually Serious Cat! Get it right! And I was definitely feeling the Unreal section, even if I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first—it was only when I moved to the second demo and Henry Cavill had the audacity to show himself an inch from my irises that I became entirely unimpressed. My overall emotional and physical reactions weren’t as intense as yours, since I eased into the experience. To me, the 360-degree view was the most jarring thing, and it was also the element that made me feel like I was actually exploring a “world.” I’m used to using the right analog stick to control a camera in a game, but to think that I could just turn around and look at my party in, say, a Dragon Quest game and start chatting with them makes me—dare I say it—excited about the potential of the technology! If I’m driving in Grand Theft Auto, I can’t look behind me like I would in real life to check if anyone’s in my blind spot, but with the Oculus Rift, I could. That, to me, is the biggest draw here: reacting more realistically inside a world instead of constantly being reminded that you’re playing a game—and playing by those rules.
Here’s the big—and most important question—though: Would you ever use the Oculus Rift as a primary means of playing videogames? I mean, putting aside any paranoia of what this might be doing to our eyesight, is this something you think you could come to find as an integral part of playing a game? Because, honestly, that’s where I keep getting tripped up. I think the technology the team behind the Rift has come up with is fantastic, and it’s absolutely impressive—but I also don’t know how long I’d want to use it as my main way to connect with the latest releases. Well, I mean, outside of letting me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a crowd at a Hatsune Miku concert in a future version of Project Diva. I mean, there’s something just so right about virtually being at a live event for a singer who is, herself, virtual. Eric
Andrew Assuming there aren’t any long-term health consequences for using it—and you’re asking me to take quite a leap of faith there!—I could actually see myself really getting into games on the Oculus Rift, provided they find a way to make it comfortable to use the headset while wearing glasses. I tend to get more “into” a game if I’m playing on a handheld, where I can put on headphones and turn off the outside world and hold the system an inch or two from my face. When I’m playing on a TV screen, I can get distracted from time to time and fall out of the experience. I mentioned Dragon Quest earlier, and that’s the kind of game I’d like to see emulated with VR technology. One of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had over the past decade was simply running around Dragon Quest VIII‘s expansive overworld and wondering what I’d uncover next, and to be able to do that using technology like we experienced would be the next step in evolving the “role-playing” portion of an RPG. I’m not so much interested in a world like GTA or Watch Dogs, but the thought of Dragon Quest or Tales on the Oculus Rift is actually quite appealing to me.
Being locked in a virtual world with a bunch of obnoxious JRPG characters driving me crazy in three dimensions—you were talking about the Oculus Rift’s ability to open a gateway to hell earlier, and to me, that sounds like a perfect example of that. Eric

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