Oculus Rift – an Asian impression

This week I had the chance to try out the Oculus Rift thanks to a fellow twitter user (hooray for @d_brane aka Alex). A few people asked how it was, so I thought I’ll sum up my impressions in a post. Why did I add the Asians subtitle? Read on …

Super short version: It’s awesome! … Where’s my sick bag?!

Short version: This is virtual reality that works. Immersion is very good, but there are still many open issues that need to be resolved. One thing you can say though is that VR this time finally is here to stay.

Long version

Let’s start from the beginning. First time I tried out a VR system was about 20 years ago, I can’t remember the exact date, but it was early 90ies at some computer expo in Vienna and the experience was really poor. Hardware at that time simply wasn’t up to the task.

Fast forward to today and we have GPU power oozing out of our PCs and 5 inch smartphones with full HD screens. Add a motion tracking sensor, two fish eye lenses, tape it all together and that’s my very simplified description of what the Oculus Rift is.

When I put on the Rift my first reaction as for most people was “Wow, that’s really impressive”. Tracking is slightly laggy, but not distractingly so. The second thing you’ll immediately notice is the low screen resolution. The devkits come with a 1280×800 screen split between both eyes. With each eye getting a 640×800 picture that is the size of your average room wall you can imagine that the image gets very pixely. Oculus obviously knows that and are aiming for at least 1920×1080 for the consumer version. What’s more distracting than the resolution itself is that at such a huge magnification you can see the grid between the pixels, it’s like your whole world is covered with a grid of thin black lines. So resolution is a big issue, but luckily display dpi-resolution has been skyrocketing over the last couple of years, so I expect this to be fixed in future revisions of the Rift. Also due to the low resolution I didn’t notice the stereoscopic 3D that well, the world seemed “less 3D” than I had expected (and I have no problems watching stereoscopic movies).

Eyes and nose

Asian faces are different. One of the biggest differences is that our eyes are less recessed (or deep set). A thing I notice often when I put on my wife’s sunglasses and my eyebrows scratch the glass when I blink. With the Oculus Rift I managed to stain the lenses with my eyelids when I put them on, so the first 2 minutes I was wondering why everything was so foggy until I realized that the fog is not part of the demo. Luckily you can adjust the lense distance and when you put the goggles on carefully it’s not a problem. Another thing that’s different with our faces is that our noses are flat, which resulted in a small gap above the back of my nose where I could see through into the real world, but nothing that a piece of foam wouldn’t fix. (Keep that in mind, evil machines. When you send humanity into the Matrix, we Asians will notice!)

When I tried out the Rift Alex went through the Italian mansion demo that comes with the devkit, the well known Unreal Citadel and Team Fortress 2. All three worked really well. Immersion and tracking was good. One thing I noticed is that rolling your head slightly bends straight lines which I think is a combo of the low resolution and the lenses. The effect is not very noticeable but when you look at a window in Citadel and tilt your head you’ll see it. Many people complained that the Rift doesn’t track head position, something I didn’t find that distracting actually but it might subconsciously add to the motion sickness. As long as you don’t move and only look around the experience is fantastic.

Controls

Once you start moving you’ll notice two issues that’ll require future research on the software side. Movement quite frankly feels odd. First of all in all three demos you move way too fast. What’s ok in a non virtual reality FPS  doesn’t work at all in VR, at least for me. It feels like you move too fast. On a monitor you don’t mind if you run around at 50km/h (think Quake Arena). In VR you’ll notice that you move like a car instead of a human. Second, controls will be a big area of research in the future. I preferred a game controller over mouse/keyboard simply because when you can’t see your hands handling a controller is easier than finding the correct keys on a keyboard. But using a controller still breaks immersion. When you are in the world then walking with a thumbstick feels weird. That might also be attributed to the control schemes that were used. In all 3 demos when you pushed forward on the stick you’d walk into the direction you looked. To me this felt unnatural because obviously in real life I can walk forward and look sideways. But with our current control methods developers now have to somehow combine the head’s looking direction with the mouse’s/thumbstick’s look direction. I assume that for every individual the result of what feels most comfortable will differ, so we’ll see how gamedevs come up with new control scheme’s in the future. Right now playing Team Fortress 2 I felt like being a first time FPS player again. Shooting people? Forget that, walking in a straight line was the challenge. But your brain adapts quite quickly until …

… motion sickness kicks in

To begin with first you gotta know that Asians are more susceptible to motion sickness. So not only can’t we drink alcohol or milk, no – we also throw up in the Matrix. Getting sick driving the buggy in Half Life 2 on a 19 inch screen? I’m that guy. So I was a bit worried when I read all the reports about nausea from the Rift already. For me the experience ended up quite ok. As long as I didn’t move I only experienced slight motion sickness. Once I started moving it got worse but I could still try it out for about 20-30 minutes until I had to stop. I can only guess but I think there are many reasons why VR causes motion sickness. I assume that anything that makes VR feel different than real life causes the brain to go “WTF, that was unexpected!”. E.g. Changing your heads position doesn’t change the view, you move too fast and too smooth, moving eyes only doesn’t change the view, tilting head bends lines, you don’t see your body, low resolution, control scheme causes unexpected movement, stereoscopic vs real 3D. Combine all this and your brain will respond in motion sickness, that’s my theory.

Design and Applications

The Future of gaming? I think all game designers should try this out and think about implications of VR on games. Personally I think that VR will introduce a lot of new genres or revive old ones. Adventure games e.g are very well suited for VR. Solving spacial puzzles, finding hidden items, all of that makes more sense with that degree of immersion. RPGs, games like Tron of course, on rail shooters like Rez, music games like Space Channel 5, being in a cockpit of a Formula 1 car or Helicopter … all those look promising to me. Where I don’t see VR work that well is fast FPSs. Fast twitch gameplay and motion sickness don’t work well in my opinion. Slower FPS games like Doom3 or RPGs like Oblivion would work better.

Other applications. Apart from gaming there’ll be many other applications for VR, controlling robots in hazardous situations, medical applications, science applications, VR chat rooms, maybe VR vacation one day? I am sure we will see a lot of VR apps that we haven’t even thought about once the Oculus Rift consumer version is released.

Summary

I am very excited that virtual reality is finally here. As a child of the 70s I’ve dreamed of VR for ages, watched Tron, Lawnmower Man read Neuromancer and imagined being in the Matrix. Now, finally I can say that VR has arrived. Sure there are still a lot of issues to iron out and I’m not certain if the sickness problem will go away once you get used to VR, but this has me more excited than any PS4 or Xbox Next.

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  • http://towardsbetterafrica.blogspot.com/ Abdul Rahman

    VR vacation one day? that will be probably the best application ever: to be transferred into a new place that is hundred of miles away in a few seconds.