When I started the game after donning the headset and slipping on the headphones, what I saw and heard and did felt real: I had to physically turn my head around to look to the side or up or behind, not just press a button or nudge a joystick. They let you stand up and reach over to grab or reach something. And video game experiences can only gain, not lose, in the forthcoming pioneering years of the burgeoning technology giving birth to it all: virtual reality (VR).
What the heck is virtual reality? Is it safe? Will it be affordable? Is it worth the money? When are models going to be available for you to buy?
Answering all of these questions, and much, much more, will be my duty to the best of my ability as your eyes scan this page and send the info in the form of electrical impulses to your brain for interpretation.
Why am I going all technical and science-y on you? Because that is precisely what virtual reality is: tricking your brain into thinking it’s seeing a three dimensional real-world scene when, in reality, you’re only looking at an electricity-powered screen with stereoscopic images. Add the recent innovations in motion controllers from the likes of Playstation and Oculus, among others, that compliment their respective VR technology, and you’ve got everything you need: A headset that tricks your brain visually, and controllers that trick it locomotion-wise.
I’m going to repeat this over and over until it gets figuratively tattooed on the inside of your skull: VR fully immerses the player in the game. To “look around” the game world, players need to physically turn their own heads left, right, up, down, and back.
Unfortunately, it is the optical illusions themselves that can cause what has been coined as virtual reality sickness. Also termed cybersickness on Wikipedia, VR sickness is very similar to motion sickness. There are two causes attributed to VR sickness. One cause of it that is agreed upon by many scientists is believed to be sensory conflict, which occurs when what you see and feel while looking through the headset don’t match what your body is sensing. Sound confusing? Well yeah, it’s science…
So, to simplify think of it this way. Your brain senses you are moving when looking through the headset and seeing yourself moving, but then gets confused when it simultaneously senses that your physical body is at rest and not moving.
The other possible cause, which may explain why some VR experiences involving in-game virtual motion do not cause VR sickness despite sensory conflict, is postural instability. The theory posits that motion-sickness-like symptoms may be due to some disturbance of the person’s posture while playing.
Like I wrote in my article on my experience with the Crytek demo at E3, it’s hard to describe just how epic VR is with just a general description of what it is. It takes someone who has played VR games to give it justice. So, that’s what I’m gonna do from here on out: describe how it felt and how it played.
With what I saw and played at E3 and at San Diego Comic-Con, the work of Crytek with CryEngine, Cyberith with The Virtualizer and an independent developer that each use the Oculus Rift headset, as well as Sony with their Project Morpheus headset, go beyond just turning your head. Physical movement of your whole body is incorporated by both platforms to give shape to tantalizingly-immersive gameplay.
NOTE: I chose these two VR platforms (Oculus and Sony’s Project Morpheus) because they are the only two I have been able to play personally. There are several other options out there, such as the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive headset coming out later this year. I invite you to search for them if you’re interested in less mainstream platforms as the two above. Also, several VR headsets are already available, but they are mostly for the PC (see this) and smartphones, including Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. And so many more.
The Oculus Rift @ E3 and San Diego Comic-Con 2015
While I did not get the chance to try out the new Oculus Touch controllers during E3 (the line was crazy, and I was not wasting the last hour of E3 waiting in line just for that), I did get plenty of hands-on time with the Oculus Rift at both E3 and San Diego Comic-Con 2015.
My first paragraph essentially sums up what the experience is like: reality. But it’s not real, it’s virtual, no pun intended.
Let’s start with what it feels like…
Putting on the Rift is simple with adjustable extensions that you can lock into place to fit snugly but comfortably, as well as an overhead strap. Fitting snugly is important, since it is critical to getting the two screens (one for each eye) to merge into one (hopefully) focused image. The two screens I speak of are the two, one for each eye, that display the images that your brain merges into one (hopefully focused) image. If not in focus right away, focusing it is as easy as adjusting the tightness and moving the headset up, down, left, or right to get the screens in the proper places for your eyes.
The controller I used with the Rift differed each of the three times I experienced it this year. The first ever was a Playstation 4 controller when experiencing the technology demo crafted by Crytek for their VR-only title, Robinson: The Journey. My second taste came during a tech demo while harnessed into one of Cyberith’s Virtualizers, which allows full-body motion control while being complimented by the Oculus Rift, on the last day of E3. Third and last, but certainly not least, was also a controller (although I’m not sure what kind) while playing a VR game based on TNT’s The Last Ship at the San Diego Comic-Con last month.
The most special of these three experiences was definitely the Crytek demo. During the E3 appointment that I wrote about here, the demo at one point had me have to physically lean forward in order to make virtual-me reach out to the side to grab the next set of handlebars on a cable line on the way up a steep cliffside. Facilitating this motion-controlled feature are the headset’s gyroscopes combined with the feedback from a sensor placed in front of you that translates the movement and angle of the headset (which are transmitted using IR LEDs on the headset) into what you see. I can’t say enough good things about the strange feeling of having to turn your head around in order to look around the virtual surroundings, rather than with a controller, but then this piece would get even more overly long than it already is.
Coming in a close second was my time with Cyberith’s Virtualizer and their first IP, Acan’s Call, which was paired with Oculus Rift as its headset component. For the unfamiliar, Cyberith’s Virtualizer consists of an adjustable harness attached to pole foundations in the central ring “floor.” The ring I speak of is where the magic happens with this Kickstarter-funded VR peripheral. Your feet and their motion are sensed by the ring floor (although Cyberith does offer an optional set of shoe sleeves that enhance the contact between your shoe sole and the ring, which in turn makes it more sensitive to player input).
By player input, I mean actual real physical player movement in real-time while hooked up to the Virtualizer. When you push yourself forward against the harness to walk while making the walking motions with your feet sliding on the ring floor (and I tell you this was very hard for me to do without fearing I was gonna fall over, and very nearly did so several times), the in-game you, which you see through the eyes of via the Oculus Rift headset, also walks forward.
Having been in development since 2012, the Oculus Rift has advanced in sophistication and popularity by leaps and bounds. It’s a wonder that it will soon be ready for public consumption and purchase in Quarter 1 of 2016. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been given a price point, but I’d imagine it to be somewhere near half of what the Playstation 3 cost at launch, which equates to approximately $200. What do you think? Too high, too low, or just right?
Enter… Project Morpheus @ San Diego Comic-Con 2015
There’s no doubt that the Oculus Rift headset is turning heads and taking names, but Sony has it’s own dog in the VR race. And in my opinion, the worlds it can transport you to and make you feel have me wanting to choose the blue pill if I were Neo.
Set up and designed very similarly to the Oculus Rift headset, the Project Morpheus I saw at San Diego Comic-Con was very promising for consumer use. With an adjustable one-size-fits-all format, it surprisingly felt more comfortable than the Rift. This could, however, be merely because I personally adjusted it on my own head, rather than let someone else do it like my times with the Rift.
The headset, as you can see below, has several LED lights built into the rim lining the LCD screen. These LED lights are the Morpheus equivalent of the IR lights in the Rift I described earlier, only instead of an IR sensor, the LED lights are detected and tracked by a Playstation 4 camera. This is in addition to the readings from the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope.
As you may have already guessed and which I elaborated on a few paragraphs ago, a portion of the data that the Morpheus uses to generate what you see on the LCD comes from the input from the LED light tracking of the Playstation 4 camera. So, any movement and turn and standing up or sitting down or leaning over is detected and projected onto the screen with extremely-low latency (which is just a fancy term for lag-time between what you click/press/choose and what is shown on the screen or is done or performed by the on-screen avatar).
With three or so game demos to choose from, I ended up going to one of the stations running The London Heist. As was also true for most of the other demo games around the Morpheus area, I played using two Playstation Move controllers in addition to the Morpheus headset.
I really love the look and feel and gameplay of what I saw of The London Heist. In fact, I think this is the very epitome of the great potential VR has in the video game industry, as well as the entertainment industry as a whole. Without further ado, let’s dive into the game…
After being given the Playstation Move controllers and with headset donned, I was transported into a warehouse-type of building, where I awoke groggily to the sight of a muscle-bound thug. After a monologue of sorts to me, said thug was set on torturing me with a welding torch, until his phone rang. On the other line was my guardian angel, who I assumed asked the thug to hold off on the torture until the mysterious savior could talk to me.
This is where the interactive part of the game began. Keep in mind, though, that I was free to turn my head around during the entire aforementioned scene and “look” around my holding area, but I chose not to. Instructed to stand up to listen to the voice on the phone, I literally had to stand up from my sitting position on a chair in the demo area. The voice asked me what happened exactly in London, and then began the truly fun part…
You got it, flashback time, Project Morpheus style. The Playstation Move controllers act as your hands in the game world. The Move button is used to interact, or hold or pick up/drop objects, while the trigger button is used to fire a picked up weapon. The objective in the office-looking room I was taken to in the flashback: find a key to open a locked cabinet while dealing with armed hostiles aware of my presence.
Being without possession of quick reflexes, I of course didn’t find the key before those hostiles started shooting. So, I had to open one of the drawers in front of me (which, coincidentally, is pretty much all you need to do in this demo other than shoot) to find a gun and loaded magazines. Loading the gun required picking up the gun in one hand, then pushing a magazine in the other hand in the direction of your hand with the gun. Having to physically make the motion of doing so was a uniquely-fun and immersive experience in and of itself.
The shooting mechanic was a little goofy to me, but it could be just my lack of coordination to blame. Pointing and shooting in the general direction of the guys you’re trying to take out turned out to be harder than I thought, with the majority of my shots not hitting the heads and larger torsos I aimed at. Add in the fact that they don’t go down with just one or two body shots and the fact that headshots are tough to make, and I had a little bit of a headache on my hands.
Taking cover is as simple and direct as leaning over to duck behind the desk you’re in front of in the game world. Fortunately, I didn’t die, but I did get hit a lot, and after taking an embarrassingly-long time to take out all the guys attacking me, I finally found the key in one of the drawers and used it to open the locked cabinet. Opening drawers, by the way, is intuitive: grab the drawer handle with the Move button, then pull out while releasing the button, and the same but opposite in order to close them…
And that’s the end of the demo. But boy, as short of a demo as it may sound, I really enjoyed the experience. In my opinion, you will too. At least I hope. And Sony hopes so too, when Project Morpheus releases sometime in the first half of 2016. No price point known yet for it either, but I would expect around (and probably more than) the price for the Rift: approximately $250.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. What virtual reality is, how safe it is, if it’s worth the money, and when the two most hotly-anticipated models are coming out for the consumer public with my opinions on my experiences with them.
I hope that, after reading this, you now have a better idea of what virtual reality is and, armed with this knowledge, can now make an informed decision in considering whether to buy the launch versions of the two platforms. But, I know the price point not being known may yet prove to be a big sticking point in your decision.
What games can you look forward to with this? To name a few of the high-profile ones: The Assembly, The London Heist, Edge of Nowhere…I’m sure that list is just a small portion of what’s to come.
Virtual reality is, and still has the potential to transcend, truly full immersion. The future is now. How will you greet it?