I look over a gothic cityscape from atop a tall building, a bridge and a billboard are behind me and cars go by a dizzying distance below. Then I’m an explorer on an alien world, trying to communicate with a wide-eyed alien that has two thumbs per hand. But it’s standing in a museum and seeing a towering T-rex coming toward me when I really feel it–the creators of Oculus Rift call this sense of being lost in the experience “presence.”
Oculus Rift’s new Crescent Bay headset prototype, unveiled this weekend at the company’s Oculus Connect conference, shows that mainstream virtual experiences are almost a reality.
“The most important moment of my life in VR was when I saw this kind of quality experience. It was the time where I knew VR was finally going to work. Not just for me, but for everybody,” says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus. “That switch flipped in the back of my head that said you really are there in this virtual space.”
Crescent Bay is one iteration above the tens of thousands of Developer Kit 2 versions the Oculus Rift has been sending out since July. The changes are incremental, but add up. Oculus wouldn’t share any specs about the screen that is being used, which is made by Samsung. But Epic Games, which made the last part of the demo, confirmed it was running at 90 frames per second. That is triple the number of images per second that television shows are filmed in.
Three-dimensional audio has been integrated into the headset, adding directionality to the sound effects. And despite the addition of over-the-ear headphones, the head mount is lighter and has a more comfortable shape.
The camera capturing my movement sees a larger volume, which means the imaginary boundary where the camera stops working is much bigger than before. This allows me to move around the virtual space, walking for several feet in any direction, as well as stretching low to the ground. This freedom of movement inside the digital world seen through the headset makes it feel like a real place.
“The quality of the experience is good enough that it could ship as a product and we wouldn’t be ashamed of it, but there is still a lot of last-minute tweaking that needs to go on,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey tells Fast Company. “The optics are not final, the ergonomics still have some issues, but overall it is getting very close.”
Oculus created a variety of scenes to show what the headset is capable of–you stand inside a submarine, watch a velociraptor, examine an insect at a microscopic level, go camping with some animals in a field, look down at a futuristic map UI, examine a papercraft town up close, float through a Tron-esque cyber-world, and ending with a walk through a destructive firefight between a SWAT team and a towering robot in slow motion. There are moments during the demos when you forget it is a digital creation that is static.
You want to interact with the environment, but can’t. I wanted to travel through the world and not just circle around the space that the camera allows. What is over the hill on that alien world? What other creatures can be found in that museum? This would require a game controller, which the demo didn’t use. And I was tempted to grab bannisters, turn doorknobs to open doors, or move the paper model pieces. But Oculus is not showing any sort of motion controller yet, though Luckey has stated in the past that Oculus R&D is making an input device. But getting the headset right is the first step toward building a VR ecosystem.
As great as these demos were, Crescent Bay is only a prototype. Most consumers will never use it and only a handful of AAA developers will get to use it to make games. The rabid fans and indie game makers will have to stick with their now obsolete DK2 headsets. CES is around the corner, and who knows what Oculus will reveal then.
“When people look at the history of VR, at decades of not working, to suddenly Oculus launching on Kickstarter in 2012, then showing something like Crescent Bay which delivers presence and largely eliminates motion sickness two years later,” says Iribe, “to shipping a product some short amount of time after that, it’s going to feel like VR came out of nowhere and took off.”