Heads-On With the Oculus RiftMaking your games more real than ever before.
February 06, 2014
by Steve Butts
Though I’ve had plenty of time with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, I hadn’t seen any updated hardware since E3 last year. While that previous demo was one of the more impressive experiences at the show, the newest version of the hardware is on display here at DICE, which Scott Lowe reported on from CES, offers an even better experience thanks to better visuals and more natural tracking. We had a chance to try it out ourselves using a demo of CCP’s space shooter, Valkyrie, and chat with the teams behind the experience.
The HD prototype shown at E3 used an LCD HD display but had 15-16ms f pixel switching time. That meant images would persist on the screen at a rate that was perceptible, which accounted for some of the blurry smudging and discomfort that some people experienced during the demo. The new hardware is running at a higher refresh rate and cutting out the smudged frames.
The new kit also includes positional tracking for your head. Now, in addition to the pitch, yaw and tilt sensing, you can move his head in real space, which allows you to lean in to get a closer look at instruments, or to change the position of your perspective. While it allows for a greater level of comfort and immersion, it also means you can move around in the cockpit and see that your avatar has no head. That provides an entirely different kind of discomfort.
The Bexel has forty micro LEDs that are tracked by the units external camera and reads your head position like a traditional motion-capture setup. As soon as I was strapped into the unit, I leaned in to get a better look at the readouts on the various instrument panels and the movement is clean and natural. Right now, there’s really not much reason to check these gauges or panels, but it’s a great feature that absolutely works, especially when you’re locked into a static position. For that, the presence of a consistent frame of reference via the cockpit really helps to ground your perspective.
Real combat pilots talk about having their head on a swivel, which basically means they’re constantly scanning the entire area around their plane, tracking enemies and looking for new threats. With the position tracking, as an enemy ship flies under your ship, you can actually lean your body towards the edge of the cockpit to get a better view of what’s beneath or beside you.
The first Rift titles will generally be geared towards a seated experience, and the team will work with developers to display a comfort level for software. A simple flight sim or virtual tour might be rated at a comfort level of 1, meaning it’s not terribly disorienting or confusing to most players. Rollercoaster sims or very mobile shooters would be rated much higher, meaning they’re more likely to create discomfort among especially susceptible gamers.
The team is also considering some of the ways that game design may have to change to fit the virtual reality presentation. Most shooters have avatars that run far faster and jump far longer than people are used to experiencing, for instance. Additionally, the corner leans in most shooters are far more exaggerated than those same movements would be in the real world. In much the same way that touchscreen games had to adjust to suit the peculiarities of the interface, the Rift team thinks that some of the ordinary conventions in games will have to adjust to meet the experience players have while using the headset.
To help developers make better experiences, the Rift team has published a list of best practices to help make the experiences more suited to the platform. For instance, where most games have no problem with the player walking backwards, that type of motion in virtual reality seems far less natural and can disorient players. There’s also a greater chance to move informational displays away from abstract or artificial HUD elements like health bars, ammo counts, speedometers
It’s what Palmer Luckey of Oculus Rift calls the “magic of presence,” the trick that virtual reality pulls to convince you that you’re not merely some abstract representation in an invented world, but actually a real participant in a concrete world. Of course, to do that, the hardware will require custom-made content designed with the specific platform in mind.
The team isn’t talking about what’s next, apart from just promising several general improvements as the platform moves towards a commercial release, and subsequent improvements in the size and power of the hardware. Oculus Rift is interested in exploring the potential of the game to add even more natural interactions including hand and face tracking. Those advances are still well away, but the innovations Oculus Rift is bringing are making your interactions and experiences within game worlds more compelling and credible than ever before.