// 19 May, 2013

Oculus Rift

Who cares if it makes you look like a dork?

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The age of open technology experimentation is upon us.

Every time something is introduced that proposes to shift the paradigm of gaming beyond button-based inputs reacting via a single screen, it’s difficult not to prognosticate about its potential, revolutionary aspects, or simply condemn it to irrelevancy.

The Oculus Rift certainly made waves after its introduction through Kickstarter. It promised a cheap, accessible introduction to virtual reality, one that allegedly wouldn’t be marred by the issues of earlier VR implementations. The best part is that it actually seems to work rather well: after a successful Kickstarter campaign, developer kits are out in the wild and plenty of positive feedback is popping up regarding the device.

While it’s far too soon to tell whether or not the Rift will become as entrenched in the world of PC gaming as the keyboard and mouse, it does represent a new era of hardware experimentation as a result of once advanced technology becoming commonplace. The Rift contains a variety of basic, off-the-shelf parts: a 7", high resolution screen and a collection of gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers, all of which are built into a relatively small head mounted unit. It’s the kind of configuration that wouldn’t have been as universally viable even five years ago, with the rise of mobile devices to thank for the proliferation of what used to be extremely expensive technology.

Even if the Rift turns out to be a bit of gimmick, the possibility for rich experimentation in hardware design is higher than ever. Devices such as the Rift and the Leap Motion can potentially open up new formats for developers to build upon, much in the same way that the Wii’s introduction of accessible motion control paved the way for developers to think about game design differently. Granted, that was somewhat to the Wii’s detriment, but the PC’s advantage is its ability to adapt and change without necessarily sacrificing its history and conventions. Neither the Rift nor the Leap necessitate a complete change in gameplay: they can both be used to possibly accentuate or alter an existing experience.

Personally, the Rift does excite me. 3D film has always seemed like a monumental waste of time, as its touted increase in immersion is directly contradicted by the fact that a film is led by the whims of its director. Games, however, let the player control the experience as they see fit. Playing Team Fortress 2 allows the player to look, run, jump and shoot of their own accord, instead of the action being composed by an external director. The potential for a more immersive experience is certainly there, and while the demonstration videos for the Rift aren’t quite able to communicate that immersion, it’s clear that using one will be quite interesting.

The obvious issue for the Rift (and something that’s less of a problem for the Leap) is one of practicality. Strapping on a gaudy headset anytime a person wishes to play a game is not as natural as resorting to the hardware that’s already in use. Furthermore, a keyboard and mouse (and monitor for that matter) are incredibly non-intrusive as devices, and serve purposes beyond gaming. Lastly, the Rift just isn’t a required device: games can be played without it, but the same cannot be said for a keyboard or mouse (or controller). The Rift will have to contend with issues of relevancy, issues that it will only overcome should the experience of using the device be one of utmost brilliance. In that regard, it’s reassuring that the developers of the Rift are dedicated to ensuring the consumer version is as best as it can possibly be.

Virtual reality is slowly becoming viable, but it still has a long way to go.

Logic & Trick By Logic & Trick

The Oculus Rift is an interesting device. It might just be two screens and some sensors in a headset, but it’s a step in the direction of something that gamers and developers have dreamed about for a long time: True virtual reality.

Full-on virtual reality is still a very long way away, and the functionality of the Rift is really just a tiny fraction of what is actually needed for it. However, as just a simple display-and-gyro setup, the device still has potential to be a very interesting device for years to come.

It does depend on a number of things, however. First of all is how popular the device is. It’s hard to imagine the Rift, as a niche consumer product, ever gaining enough popularity and selling enough units to make its way into the list of mainstream gaming hardware.

This of course leads on to the next problem, which is support for the device itself in games and software. If the hardware is not popular, it simply will not be supported in games. We saw this in devastating proportions with the Razer Hydra, which after 3 years and has a grand total of 8 supported games – not a great return on a $150 investment. The Rift development kits are already doing better than that, with the wiki page showing about 40 games with current or upcoming support for the device.

Assuming the device can get "mainstream" enough to get long-term support, there is also the problem that it just looks pretty ridiculous. That might not a problem for some, but it will be with a lot of people. This is probably the biggest problem with virtual and augmented reality technology at the moment – it’s too chunky and intrusive. The Google Glass device suffers from this as well – it gets in the way and looks silly. Until VR technology can remove these two limitations, it will always be a very hard sell outside of the enthusiast niche.

And after all that comes the most difficult part of all: Standardisation. If the Rift does indeed become popular and gains a lot of support, competitors will start popping up all over the place. The technology will evolve very quickly if enough people jump onto the bandwagon – just look at how quickly the tablet and smartphone business ramped up after Apple made them mainstream!

Once there is a healthy line-up of competing devices, manufacturers will need to figure out a way to ensure universal compatibility between hardware and implementation. There are many places this standard could live – it could live in the GPU drivers, depending on manufacturers like Nvidia and AMD to keep them working long into the future. It could live in a separate low-level library, however this would need to be published and maintained by a dedicated group under a permissive license to ensure it is maintained correctly. However it is done, it will then fall back onto the developers to update their Rift-specific implementations to work using a universal compatibility layer.

And most importantly of all, the software will need to remain patent-free. If the implementation of software is limited by patents, it will make it extremely difficult and cost-prohibitive for developers to support. Furthermore, if every competing device has a different implementation, developers will have to choose which one to support – fragmentation like that is a sure-fire way to kill off a technology.

In the short term, though, the Rift looks like a fun toy for people to play around with. If it’s not too expensive and gets supported by a few more games, I would consider buying one around release time just for the novelty. However, if it’s somewhat pricey and only has limited support, I would definitely avoid picking one up until one of those factors has improved. It also might be a good idea to wait for an inevitable "version 2" of the device. An obvious improvement is to make it wireless – nobody wants a cable attached to your head tracking device.

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