There were plenty of big booths in PAX Aus's Expo Hall, but you needed a keen-eye to find the Oculus Rift team, who opted for a low-key, quieter floor-space to demo the more compact, 1080p HD prototype of their product, which, in my time with it, was the most impressive device on the floor.
From the get-go, the Oculus Rift team's enthusiasm and passion for their project was infectious and charming. The three gushed over not just the many advancements made since the Oculus Rift’s humble Kickstarter beginnings, but the work of others who have used the OR dev kits – shipped earlier this year in March – to create their own games, and even other applications outside of gaming that the team never imagined.
The VR experience they keep striving forward to refine and perfect was on display for me to try myself before I had a chat with the team. The first was a demonstration of the Unreal Engine 4's Elemental demo, which shows the team has incredible big-name developer support and that, while there was no native audio and a lack of optimisation – black bars remained in my peripheral vision – they're continuously improving the visual experience and the Rift's design.
Turning around and staring at the Unreal's Lava King in stereoscopic 3D was a sight to behold, and trying out a second demo from a independent developer in Korea which placed me in a virtual movie cinema watching Man of Steel was a truly immersive experience. While they are still early prototypes with plenty of further refinements needed, it's not hard to imagine VR will deliver a major paradigm shift in the way people play games and experience entertainment.
MMGN: It’s safe to say the Oculus Rift is a much-hyped device, being one of the first virtual-reality headsets tailored for the consumer and gamer market. How exactly does the Oculus Rift work, and how will it enhance the overall gaming experience for the average gamer willing to give it a try?
Nate Mitchell, VP of Product: Generally, the Oculus Rift works by using very precise sensor and tracking technology combined with very high-resolution displays and modern display technology to create an immersive VR experience where the player can actually step inside the game and feel like they are part of the world rather than looking through a window at that world.
Our goal is to really put players inside the game in every way possible and moving as many abstractions we can. With the Rift, when you have very low NC high-performance head-tracking and you can’t see the screen anymore, that sense of presence is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
The other quick thing – and I can geek about this all day – is that VR is really a new medium, and it’s unlike, in terms of sharing experiences – there’s books, movies, and video games – and VR has really always been the holy grail because controlling Nathan Drake skydiving and actually going skydiving are two very different experiences.
With VR, you’ll be able, and game developers will be able to share and cause players to experience things they've never been able to before, like a sense of falling or a sense of height or a sense of scale. All that abstraction is removed – you can tell I can geek about this all day. It takes everything you love about gaming and enhances it and then adds all these new features you've never been able to tap into before.
With the aim to provide an immersive experience inside a game’s world, what sort of new graphical techniques can gamers look forward to (and 3D artists dread) in relation to the environments and objects gamers can view in with more detail with the Rift?
Nate: I did a talk at GDC, and one of the things I touched on was artstyle and level of detail. I think that it really depends on the game and the artstyle. If you have a game like Minecraft, for example – Minecraft is still incredibly fun in VR, and actually because of the artstyle, it doesn’t really lose anything because that’s just the way Minecraft looks. I think the same is said for TF2. TF2 it has this very comic-book art style, very, very limited bump mapping and detail, but that’s the artstyle and it works incredibly well in VR even though they’re not doing anything that’s necessarily realistic.
...controlling Nathan Drake skydiving and actually going skydiving are two very different experiences. With VR, you’ll be able to share and cause players to experience things they've never been able to before.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum, if a [developer] is trying to make a game look really realistic, then there is an increased level of detail – and this is our humble opinion, not necessarily fact – but gamers, especially in high-detail areas, tend to look and explore things so much more. Things without bump-mapping, for example suddenly look quite fake: that barrel is trying to look real but it’s totally flat and totally fake. So, I think you’re going to see artists totally appreciate VR because people are going to be looking at their content and appreciating it so much more.
The fact that you can look up – using Doom 3 as an example – John Carmack was saying the first time he tried the Rift in Doom 3, he looked up at all the pipes and said, “God, there’s all this great art assets up here; I’ve never even seen this stuff before!” That is very much true for what we’re seeing. Gamers explore these spaces in entirely new ways and take the time to appreciate it more, so for artists it’s a double-edged sword in that sense. I don’t know really what new techniques people will see; I think we’re getting very close now to photorealism, where we’re just going to keep approaching that, and there’s tons of new techniques inside like bump-mapping that continue to improve the quality of the visual fidelity.
Joe Chen, Product Lead: [laughs] I think it’s important to note that difference between visual fidelity and the impact on graphics, whether it’s from an engine, hardware or artist standpoint. Minecraft of course is just one example of a lot of these games that have incredibly impactful visuals that are really engaging people to want to be a part of that world even if that does mean you’re a cartoon. If you walk just a few steps over to the indie pavilion, you’ll see that you don’t necessarily have to have a photorealistic game. There’s still tons of awesome games out there that don’t require photorealistic graphics.
Just talking about John Carmack a moment ago: Id and Valve were among the first developers to publicly show interest and support the device. Are there any OR-specific projects in the pipeline from these studios?
Nate: [Grins] Nothing to announce at this time.
Will the Oculus Rift be eventually integrated in some form for the next-generation consoles? Is that a hope for the team, or will it be up to Microsoft and Sony?
Nate: We’d love to work with the next-gen consoles, but we don’t have anything to announce quite yet. There’s no technical reason – right now the Rift uses an HDMI and USB signal, and that’s all – so there’s no reason you couldn’t plug it into a console. But Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo hold the keys to the platform, and it’s up to them.
That said, we’re very heavily invested, regardless of what happens with us and the consoles, in PC and Android [mobile]. The reason is the hardware of those spaces – aside from being an open-platform which is just awesome – the hardware moves very rapidly. With VR at its infancy, we want to constantly be at the cutting-edge. I think what we’re going to see on the PC is we’re going to get a very high-fidelity, incredible experience as year-on-year improvements continue to be awesome.
So, VR is going to improve drastically over the next five years. Five years from now it’s going to be an entirely different ballgame. PC and mobile allow us to keep up with that cutting edge tech. Consoles will be super-interesting, but I think what gamers should be excited for is next-gen consoles AND VR gaming altogether as, “this is next-gen gaming”. They don’t have to be the same thing or work together, but it’s going to be this whole wide set and as a gamer, the next five years is going to be awesome because we’re going to see next-gen consoles finally and VR gaming is going to take off.
Has the team been happy with the response that the indie community has given to the OR, and just how much it has enabled them to jump to an entirely new medium?
Joe: The response has been phenomenal from indie developers. It’s super-flattering because these are the guys that are really willing to hang it in there and experiment: they have the agility, they have the insight and the creativity to do the things we know we can’t do. I mean, we’re hardware guys, we’re software tools guys and we’re going to keep working on what we think we’re good at, and hopefully keep supporting them and give them the capabilities to really apply their art and craft.
Consoles will be super-interesting, but I think what gamers should be excited for is next-gen consoles AND VR gaming altogether as, 'this is next-gen gaming.'
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that there’s a new beta is uploaded everyday on the official Rift forums. You can literally go on the boards and try something new on the Rift everyday. The indie developers are really going to be the ones to uncover that genre we never predicted.
Will the Oculus Rift have one single model for consumer launch? Could there be another model for those “hardcore” gamers out there wanting and willing to shell out extra for a higher-end VR experience?
Nate: We haven’t ruled anything out, and we don’t have any announcements to make at this time. What we will say is from a product standpoint, we do believe that having a single spec is the most convenient for both developers and gamers. We want what developers are targeting to know that it works for every Oculus user out there. That’s why console development is sometimes simpler than PC development, and the same reason why iOS has such a higher popularity in terms of apps than Android because the fragmentation on Android is so brutal.
What we want to do is really nail that first platform. That said, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of having a more expensive deluxe edition with added usability features. So, rather than changing the core spec that the game developers are targeting, maybe we make it wireless. Maybe it has a special carrying case. Maybe it has a more comfortable [design] or something. You see where I’m going. Again, it doesn’t change the core experience and there’s no extra features, but maybe more usability things that make it a more convenient device.
Joe: We want everyone to have that awesome core experience. We’re finding in VR that it’s much more fun when there’s more people in it. To have each and everyone of your friends in the same VR experience is much more fun than being you and the other guy that can afford the higher-end VR headset.
There are a few gamers out there – myself included – that love the idea of VR but get motion-sickness or otherwise headaches from stereoscopic 3D easily. Are you doing anything to minimise simulator nausea or sickness that may affect some gamers?
Badly configured stereo 3D bothers just about everybody. All the 3D that people experience in movies and on monitors – it’s been calibrated for near-plane convergence. If you go to a movie theatre, there’s basically a general calibrated 3D for everyone, right? It’s not taking into account people’s IPDs (interpupillary distance), the depth, or your individual eye characteristics. With the Rift, we can actually dial all that stuff in and have the experience very much tuned to you. We present two parallel images in the Rift rather than a converging image, which is the same way your eyes perceive reality.
So, a lot of people say when they try the Rift for the first time, like ‘wow, this is the 3D I always thought it would be’. That’s what also gives it that level of immersion where it’s not that things are popping out at you, it’s just that you feel as though you’re actually there.
In the consumer version of the Rift, there are some things we can’t change right now. Like, for example, you can’t actually move the lens, but over time we’re going to have more [individual tailoring] integrated and have it mapped into the software. Right now, we have player profiles and an IPD calibration tool where you measure it on your computer, writes it to your profile and games can actually read that back and change the cameras to actually match your eyes.
Joe: In order to be a fun experience, it’s first got to be comfortable!
What is the team’s take on current projects for the OR, such as Wicked Paradise and the Kickstarter-funded The Gallery: Six Elements?
Nate: Two very different projects! So we’re huge fans of The Gallery: we must have donated thousands of dollars to that Kickstarter project between individuals, like I backed and I was like, ‘yeah I backed $50!’, then Joe was like, ‘wait, I backed,’, and it goes on.
Joe: To work at Oculus you have to be an avid Kickstarter backer!
Nate: We love Kickstarter, so we're big fans of what they’re doing. We love made-for-VR games and we think that’s going to be the best experiences on the Rift. To see that team doing a made-for-VR game on the Rift is super-exciting and we couldn’t be more thrilled.
I think Wicked Paradise – that’s a can of worms – I think in a broad sense we’re excited about people doing all sorts of things on the platform and we always knew people were going to do things we didn’t expect. Frankly, adult entertainment was something we expected and the industry has driven so much technology and it’s a key part of the billion-dollar business. So, not a project we’re endorsing but developers are doing all kinds of stuff and frankly, you don’t have to be a game developer to buy a kit.
What vision for the future do you see for the OR? Could the OR be used in areas outside of gaming?
Nate: We have people in architecture, sports, movies, all these people are already doing awesome projects – tons we don’t even know about! Often people ask us ‘have you heard about this?’ and we’re like, ‘no, but that’s awesome!’ One particular project is on medical treatment, specifically [post-tramuatic stress disorder] treatment, a bunch of that is happening with the Rift.
Joe: There’s so many opportunities outside of gaming that, whether they’re officially endorsed or not, that we really think that Oculus, that VR in general is going to provide a completely new platform. Developers are just going to do what they will with it.
Nate: It is an open platform at the end of the day. We’re not trying to scare anyone off: it’s so hard that we do need other people’s help. The more people that are involved, the better VR is going to be, faster.
Thanks for your time!