Flying a spaceship, exploring a dungeon as a knight, and exploring the ocean's depths were among the dozens of virtual reality demos at the Oculus Connect conference this weekend. These prototypes—some of which used the latest Crescent Bay headset—show the promise of what's to come.
"This is a prototype, a lot of one-off hardware. Everything in the consumer product is going to be the same as this or better in many cases," says Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR. "But this is the first time that you can deliver a pretty powerful sense of presence reliably across a wide variety of content."
Here are four of the Oculus Rift developers I encountered that achieve "presence" and are taking an innovative approach to virtual game design.
While most studios and indie developers are making first-person experiences for Oculus Rift, Playful Corp. decided to go third-person. Your view in Lucky's Tale is looking down at a colorful world as you move a cartoon fox below. Paul Bettner, the co-creator of the well-known game Words With Friends, founded Playful and is working on a full release of the platforming game. He sees Crescent Bay as Oculus taking that first real step toward a new era in tech.
"In technology , we have different inflection points. When you are on one side of it, it feels like we will never get to the other side of it. But once you get over that hurdle, you never look back. This is just how it's going to be now," Bettner tells Co.Labs. "Since the very first DK1, they had gotten over some hurdles, it still had a ton of compromises and issues , but it was able to invoke a sense of presence. And now with Crescent Bay, they have just nailed that."
There are a few moments in Lucky's Tale where you feel like you couldn't have experienced it, except using VR. "There's this part where Lucky holds up a bomb and you just look where you want it to go and he throws it right there," says Bettner. "The feedback was that those were the best parts. We have taken that to heart and been building a lot more of those things."
Cloudhead Games is one of the first indie developers to announce, and then Kickstart, a game for Oculus Rift. The developer's founder is Denny Unger who, along with over a decade of experience working on role-playing and strategy games (both physical and digital), has strong views about the potential for VR to accidentally cause a death. His title The Gallery: Six Elements is an exploration puzzle game in the vein of the famous Myst.
"When they originally came out with DK2, and this has been the party line of Oculus, one of the constraints was seated experiences only. Don't make people stand up. Don't take that risk," says Unger. "With Crescent Bay, the fact that they put tracking components on the back of the headset, it feels like a validation of where things should ultimately be going and it allows us to open up again those gameplay mechanics that we locked down."
He's right: The eight-minute demo that Oculus created to showcase the capabilities of the Crescent Bay prototype was about a dozen short experiences, all done while standing up in a small room. That opens another dimension to the kinds of puzzles that can be used in a game like The Gallery, thanks to the improved camera of Crescent Bay that tracks the user's position in a room.
It creates a, "volumetric experience where you actually walk around and experience objects with full depth and experience them from all angles—that's when you experience presence, when you are untethered and you can walk around this small volume," says Unger. "That's the future of VR."
The company behind the hit sci-fi game Eve Online latched onto the promise of VR early and has been working on a spaceship dogfighting game, Eve Valkyrie, since April 2013. The game, which has been used to illustrate Oculus's technology at conferences and trade shows, brings to mind the dogfighting scenes in the Star Wars films—except you are there in the cockpit. You can look around the control panel of your ship, out the glass and into the vastness of space, and find the enemy fighters shooting at you. This is only possible with the accurate head tracking of the headset and the positional tracking of the camera.
"With every revision we've seen, the comfort level improves," says Richard Smith, the technical director of Eve Valkyrie. "That's a combination of the hardware getting better and software developers finding better ways to create VR experiences for people. It's also just understanding what the boundaries are for what we can do and what we can put the player through, without them having problems. There is a climatization curve that players go through when playing VR."
Most dogfighting games cheat around the lack of peripheral vision by, say, sending a beep to your heads-up display warning that an opponent is chasing you, says Smith. "Now I can look behind me and I can actually see the guy."
Oculus VR's Crescent Bay demo ended with a scene called Showdown, which was created by Epic Games and ran on its Unreal Engine 4 software. Players are dropped into a street where a firefight is taking place between a robot and a squad of SWAT officers. You move around in slow motion, dodging bullets, debris, and explosions.
"There' s a scene operating around you, in actual 3-D," says Nick Donaldson, a senior designer at Epic. "It's kind of a hybrid of cinema and interactive experiences. You get to choose the way that you view the experience. It's much more like a play. You are not necessarily interacting with the actors in the same way and it seems like a new thing."
Epic Games is in a unique position to discuss the Crescent Bay prototype headset. Epic and its Unreal Engine, which many companies here have licensed to make their games, has supported Oculus since the beginning. The developer has made demos for every iteration of Oculus's VR headsets. The man at Epic Games behind virtual reality integration is Nick Whiting, the company's lead programmer of VR and Visual Scripting.
"A lot of people who put on the first Development Kit could not see what's beyond the front of their face," says Whiting. "You put someone in the Crescent Bay prototype, you don't have to have a leap of imagination. It's on your face. You can see the quality. You can feel the presence in a good demo. That's the religious moment that everybody has. They put on really good VR for the first time and they are like, 'I get it now.'"
The biggest takeaway from Oculus Connect is that virtual reality will not be lacking for worthwhile content, even if some of it is only for novelty. You'll be able to fly through mountains and outer space, explore a garden or an alien space station, or enjoy a virtual meal. The sense of presence, a term used to describe the way quality VR makes you forget you are having a digital experience, becomes easier to obtain. You are having a dogfight in space. You are exploring a forest with a fox.
"Despite the fact that we've been working on Lucky's Tale for a while," Bettner says, "when I playtest one of the levels and then I go home and sit down to play a game on my PlayStation 4 and it's like, 'Meh.' I just wish I could experience all my games in VR."