Oculus Rift: Valve promises to take virtual reality to the masses

Valve is backing the Kickstarter-funded VR headset. But will consumers warm to immersive technologies?
For a few years, back in the early 90s, virtual reality (VR) looked like the obvious future for video games. Here was a technology capable of truly immersing participants in the digital environment; the essentially alienating presence of the 2D screen would be gone for ever, to be replaced by computer-generated realms that we could step into and exist in. Consumer headsets by companies such as Virtuality and Victormaxx crept on to the market, as films like the Lawnmower Man and Disclosure considered the implications of our soon-to-be lives in cyberspace. But the screens were low-resolution and the motion tracking primitive, the sensors prone to sickening lag. The gulf between expectation and reality was impassable. The future moved on.

Two decades later, in a packed room at the Washington State Convention Centre, Valve Corporation told the industry that virtual reality can become a consumer reality by 2015. When Valve says something, people in the technology sector listen. Not only has it produced two of the most beautiful and sophisticated science fiction game series’ of all time (Half-Life and Portal), it also runs the Steam digital distribution service, where 75m PC owners purchase 20m games a month. During a talk at the company’s Steam Dev Days conference, attendees discovered that Valve will be working closely with the creators of the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift, a VR device that has received a huge amount of positive attention in the gaming press. The aim? To “drive PC VR forward”.

The attendees have seen in Valve’s declarations a genuine desire to explore and support the technology rather than to stake a claim on the mega-bucks that could ensue. “I remember when computer entertainment companies were careful about toying with new technology, and constantly missed new trends because they lacked sufficient mainstream exposure,” says Leonard Ritter of German studio Duangle, currently working on Nowhere, an experimental RPG for Oculus Rift. “I’m happy to see that an established player isn’t afraid to meddle with cutting edge tech, not because someone did the numbers, but because they think it’s cool and they’d like to see it succeed.”

On a PowerPoint slide that has been widely photographed and shared through Twitter, the proposed specifications for a consumer VR technology were laid out. It would have a mere 20 milliseconds of latency, 110-degree field of vision, and one million pixels per eye. Valve now seems to be suggesting that it won’t bring its own prototype head-mounted display to market – despite impressing developers with a short demo. Instead, the company is set to release a VR platform that will make it easier for developers to create and share virtual reality games; there’s even a VR interface in development for its Steam service, which would turn the online store into a virtual space. It seems Oculus Rift,will be the go-to hardware.

And there is plenty of support for Rift from an enthused and curious development community. The main candidate for “killer app” right now is perhaps space combat title EVE Valkyrie, which astonished many who saw it at Gamescom and CES. But the likes of zombie survival adventure DayZ, forthcoming shooter Doom 4 and David Braben’s long-awaited modern day Elite sequel, Elite: Dangerous, have all promised implementation.

These are all a way off. Right now, the Rift is available only as a developer kit, which lacks some of the specifications of the proposed consumer version set to arrive later this year. The company, which has attracted almost $100m in funding since its successful Kickstarter campaign, showed the latest version of its head-mounted display (HMD) technology, dubbed Crystal Cove, at the CES show – to impressive effect. Developers are lining up to support the device, which is relatively easy to accommodate. The $300 developer version comes with an SDK, documentation and sample code, and current game projects can be retro-fitted with compatibility in a matter of days.”The process involves increasing the internal framebuffer resolution, inserting a post processing shader and applying an additional transformation to the camera,” says Ritter. “We integrated Oculus VR support across all three platforms – Windows, OSX, Linux – within a week or so.”

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But the real challenge for coders and designers is to learn the new language and conventions that virtual reality demands. “Details are vital,” says Daniël Ernst, who has produced the highly regarded Rift demo, The Shoebox Diorama, and is now working on a narrative adventure. “In a traditional game, environmental micro-details are less important. You won’ t really notice the names of the books on the shelve, or what text is written on a piece of paper on a desk. There is always a distance between you and the environment. With the Oculus Rift, you don’ t have this distance. Things can be a couple of inches from your face and if the texture is blurry or pixelated it will break the immersion. You actually have to measure objects before replicating them in 3D. You will even notice if a telephone is a couple inches too big.”

Interestingly then, true immersion may well put the brakes on mainstream gaming’s constant sense of forward momentum. Titles like Call of Duty are always prodding the player forward through corridors of escalating sensory violence – is that just compensation for the lack of physical ownership of the game space. In VR worlds, we may be happy spending several hours exploring every aspect of one room. “We’ve found that a vast majority of our players behave differently in VR,” says Hrafn Thorri Thorisson, co-founder of Icelandic games and simulation company, Aldin Dynamics. “When you’re inside a virtual world, as opposed to looking at it on a regular monitor, the urge to explore and inspect is really compelling.”

Henrique Olifiers is overseeing the Oculus Rift version of Bossa Studio’s hugely successful Surgeon Simulator title. For him, the problems are in jettisoning some of the effects we usually see in first-person games designed for a 2D screen. “The difficult bit is grasping what works and doesn’t fly on VR from a content point of view,” he says. “For instance, you don’t want abstract interfaces in a VR game, the information has to be shown in the world itself. You want to avoid movements that are not triggered by the player, such as camera shakes as they cause discomfort. You have to strip out unnatural behaviour like running backwards or strafing laterally – all hallmarks of first-person shooters. The manual on game development for virtual reality is yet to be written, there’s a lot to learn before we can create amazing games with it.”

James Parker at Bristol-based developer Opposable Games sees similar challenges. “There’s an ongoing issue with what’s the most appropriate control system, particularly in shooters,” he says. “Traditionally, players are used to pointing their gun essentially in the same way as their face – as soon as you separate those two things, it’s a pretty radical shift in control experience. On the other hand, if you keep the two locked together you lose a lot of what make VR so immersive.” Meanwhile, David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, believes developers will need to consider the playing position of the participants. “Oculus Rift is great, but it works particularly well with games where, in the setting you’d actually be sitting.”

Clearly, there is powerful potential in the concept of inhabiting a virtual environment; indeed the technology has been used in science, medicine and the military for many years, aiding in everything from training to therapy. If nothing else, a cheap HMD like Oculus Rift will allow more researchers to try out a greater range of serious implementations – just as the Wii Remote and Kinect camera have done with motion tracking. “Imagine VR for learning life-saving skills such as first aid, for example,” says Thorisson. “That’s something that the Icelandic Institute for Intelligent Machines has been exploring in collaboration with us.”

But for consumer appliance, it’s about whether developers can pull themselves away from the forms we’re used to. “My general view of VR is sceptical,” says Ed Key whose exploration game Proteus is currently being retro-fitted with Rift compatibility by programmers Aubrey Hesselgren and Nick Ludlam. “At the moment it seems like not many people having figured out good things to do with it beyond naively trying to make current FPS games into a holodeck. I think there are a lot of unsolvable problems if one just assumes you can put on a headset and amplify immersion. You’re still just pressing buttons to move around, and you’re not getting most of the sensory input that you get from actually moving – ie inner-ear stuff, forces on the body, proprioception. Any successful VR work has to understand the limitations before making something satisfying.”