Last weekend my friend Nick took me and my other half to a strange purple office, and showed me the nice pyramid of playing cards he on his desk. Then we went to a beautiful old house by the edge of Lake Como, with lovely candelabra and trees in the garden. Finally, we went to an asteroid field, and then docked at a space station. All virtual of course, but also real, as what Nick was demonstrating to us was the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is making it seem like VR is here, once again.
People of my age are probably quite cynical when it comes to VR. We remember in the early 90s Virtuality, a full VR gaming rig, made popular in the UK by the TV game show Cyberzone. It seemed back then VR was here, but for various reasons it never took off and fizzled out, and then we got all excited about this thing called the Internet and forgot about it. But having seen it back then, it's still something that gets me excited about the possibilities, so having watched skeptically the rise of the Oculus Rift for a while, I finally begged Nick to let me have a go in his Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (DK2), and he was gracious enough to provide us with a physical tour of virtual reality.
The Oculus Rift is a nice bit of hardware. You can imagine it as a pair of skiing goggles with an LCD screen strapped to the front; and indeed that's what the early demo units where. The DK2 unit however is well built and feels solid. It's not light, but for me it wasn't too heavy either. Inside it has mobile phone LCD screen designed for 1920x1080, which is shared between both eyes, giving you 980x1080 per eye. Also in the unit are a bunch of hidden IR emitters, that are then tracked by a small sensor you clip to you screen, and it's through this it can track your head position. You have to provide your own sound, or in our case Nick had a nice Turtle Beach headset.
So, what's it like?
Firstly it's a little disorientating, so I'm glad Nick started us off with some simple demos. You go into this virtual world that you see, but know isn't real, and that first experience takes a few minutes to get used to. It really is confusing when you look down and fail to see your hands. You then spend the next few minutes bobbing your head trying to find anything that exhibits parallax to get the obvious 3D benefits. And here it really does deliver a solid feeling world.
From a technical standpoint there's two main factors that you want for a VR headset to work well, the most of important one is low latency (or low lag as most people say). Put simply, if you move your head, you want the world to move with you with as little delay as possible. In the stock demos for DK2, the latency is effectively not noticeable. Objects in the demos seem totally solid, you move your head and they move (or rather don’t move) as you'd expect. The demos don't have the highest of graphical fidelity, but they get this basic point across well: the world feels solid. The things you see really do feel like they're anchored into position in the world. One of the criticisms of the first Rift dev kit (DK1) was that even with just 15 ms of delay between sampling your head orientation and delivering the picture to your eyes, it was still noticeable. For DK2 they've got that down to an effective 5 ms, by adding an extra rendering stage in which after they've drawn the picture, they sample where your head is now, and apply a little skew to try to correct for any change. It's a noticeable improvement (to me at least); you can switch between the DK1 and DK2 modes and you can see a slight wobble with DK1 mode that is gone in DK2.
The second technical issue you want is visual fidelity too, aka screen resolution. Although 1980x1080 is a lot of pixels for a screen that is a few feet from your face, in the DK2 the pixels can be noticeable at times when a few inches from your face. I suspect they're probably noticeable all the time but your brain fuzzes it out; things more than a few virtual feet away all seem fine, but when you look at things up close, you start to notice the pixels, presumably as they limit the virtual fidelity of nearby objects. This to me was the main technical let down of the Rift in its current form (which we should remember is still a development kit, not a shipping product).
Thus far in all my DK2 experience I've been stood still, gawping like an idiot at these virtual worlds. Next I tried walking, moving around the world using keyboard and mouse input like a first person shooter (FPS), and it was here my body decided it was really confused, and I got something akin to motion sickness. Your eyes have this very convincing input telling you that you're by Lake Como in this house and that you're walking up the stairs to look off the balcony, but your inner ear is saying your sat in a chair in Tooting not moving. I found this to be particularly unsettling, such that I ended up blurring my eyes whilst I moved from location to location, then revelling in the wonder of that particular spot, before repeating the process to move about. Thus it would appear that playing Skyrim (essentially a fell running simulator) with the Rift is not going to be my thing any time soon.
But before we decide this is a show stopper - not all immersive experiences require the viewer to be the source of movement. So long as the world moves about you rather than you in the world, it's not a problem. Thankfully Nick had one of those, having saved the best demo to last: Elite: Dangerous. Elite, incase you're not a child of the 80s, is a space faring simulator, where you pilot your spaceship along trade routes trying to either make an honest living or being a pirate attacking the others and evading the police. This new version is wonderfully detailed, as this screenshot of me playing it on a conventional screen shows:
Now put that into VR, and you're getting somewhere interesting. Nick started me off at the same position as in that picture above: in the pilot seat of a stationary spaceship floating in an asteroid field, and it was absolutely mesmerising. I could look all around me: before me where the controls, and left, right, up were slowly tumbling asteroids, and beyond them a wall of stars and the band of the Milky Way. With the headset on to mask out the sounds of an office in London, I was briefly there inside this vast vista; not watching someone else in that vista on a screen, I was for the first time truly there myself. The cabin of my spaceship was all there too: I could see the thermos flask strapped in to the right of my chair, I could stand up and see bits of my spaceship out of the canopy. Once sat back down, I fumbled and found the throttle and joystick Nick has, and as I moved them, my virtual hands moved, and I piloted the field, gawping some more, and adding healthily to Nick's spaceship insurance premiums as I failed to spot all the asteroids.
Here, sat in deep space, there's no problem with inner ear and eye disagreeing, it all feels very comfortable. I've never flown a spaceship, so my brain quite happily accepts the whizzing spaceship has no sense of motion (just like in Star Trek then, where they can accelerate beyond the speed of light and no one as much as spills their tea). It really is quite jaw dropping, but I do suspect I'm also getting waves of nostalgia here, as this was the first time I've played Elite since the early 90s.
The one thing that does hamper Elite is that lack of resolution. The menus in the cockpit of my spaceship are a little hard to read (though wonderfully 3D - I can't tell you how pleased I was to see the iconic Elite scanner in real 3D). But there you can at least do one trick that I did naturally but didn't expect to work - you can just move your head closer. Even in space people still need varifocals clearly.
The main sense of wonder though is that canopy and the view beyond. Being able to look not just forward, but any which way, changes things. The space station we docked in felt truly vast. I could look over my shoulder for things buzzing me. A totally new set on experiences in a video game, that make it so much bigger. Elite on my LCD monitor at home is still fun, but I know it's not the Real Thing™, that there's a much better experience out there to be had by those fortunate enough to have a stonking PC and an Oculus Rift.
Summing up - is VR here now, 20 years later? I don't quite think the Rift is ready for the general public, but it's a damned good approach. You need to find more than just Elite to compel it, and the resolution is just too low to make it a replacement for polarised glasses to watch 3D films at home. But assuming hype doesn't overtake it, and it slowly continues to improve over the next couple of years, there's definitely something there that should make an impact on the video game market if nothing else. I hope it's successful, as it really is an amazing experience, of which I'd like to have more, rather than waiting another 20 years.