There has been a rather large surge in interest in Virtual Reality (VR) this year. Talking to marketers, developers, publishers and VR fans alike, 2015 is being thought of as the make or break year for VR. With the release of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift soon on the horizon, people involved in the VR industry are trying to grasp the potential of this new feat of technology and, rather than openly competing with one and other to see who can utilize the technology best, are instead looking to share ideas with one another. The night at the Loading Bar in Dalston was part an opportunity to show off the tech to the public and part networking opportunity to share ideas and create contacts within the VR world. Virtual Umbrella are one of the first marketing companies in the UK to set up events like this. We went along to check it out.
It is evident that this recent wave of VR is still in its very early stages; speaking to Jon Hibbins of Psytec Games, developers of Crystal Rift, the tech is frankly "embarrassing" in comparison to what the public will see in the near future. In this independent VR scene, there seems to be very little direct competition as everyone is still learning; people just seem to be feeding off each other, trying to think of the various ways to harness this tech. It’s a time of experimentation for gaming and for technology as a whole.
There was a large variety of tech present in such a small location, as well as a large number of VR fans, developers and people looking to network. The main tech I decided to focus on are the Oculus Rift, the Roto, the Leap Motion and Google Cardboard. The main attraction seemed to be the Virtual Reality Cricket in which many of the 100 or so people at the event flocked to try. I sadly did not have the opportunity, but the website can be seen for more information.
With the Oculus Rift being at the forefront of this VR technological revolution, it was necessary to try it out. I tried out 4 demos on the Oculus DK2. It was my first experience trying out the Oculus and, even in the development stages, it is really something. There have been many a review or written impressions of the Oculus Rift online and there is nothing I can really add. It really is a game changer; even in the less visually impressive games, the immersion is absolutely fantastic. The head tracking is fantastically responsive, with no latency issues and provides an entirely new perspective in all virtual endeavors.
The Rift shows unbelievable potential but it does have some issues. First off, motion sickness will be a real issue for some people. I can't remember ever feeling motion sick as a result of a videogame, but the Oculus does really take some adjusting; I felt the need to pause occasionally to gather my bearings before continuing on. I would strongly recommend trying before you buy to see if this is an issue for you. Secondly, even at 1080p, the pixels were still visible, with the consumer model moving up to 2160x1200, this idea will most likely be minimized. However, this presents another problem: performance. It's just not viable for the vast majority of the gaming populace to own a gaming machine that runs 2160x1200 at 75fps with 0 frame drops, which is what Oculus suggests. This is fine for lower end or independent titles but playing the latest and greatest games on the Oculus is probably a little ways off for the average consumer.
However, computer hardware will get there. At the moment we are seeing a couple of more basic looking games designed for the Oculus. Most of these games are tech demos that attempt to demonstrate the potential of the hardware. That’s not to say people aren’t developing full titles with the Oculus in mind. One of the games shown off was the Early Access title Crystal Rift.
Crystal Rift is a grid-based Dungeon Crawler on Early Access designed with the Oculus in mind. The demo version I played worked pretty well with the Oculus, utilizing the free look ability of the Rift to give some hidden little scares to those looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. I also found being locked into a grid actually benefited the immersive nature of the Oculus. The grid allowed the developers to layout an exact scene, knowing you were going to be in a specific place and looking in a specific direction. It might not be the game itself that won me over, but more the idea of a dungeon crawler using the Rift. Limiting movement, visual puzzles and jump scares are amazingly effective in virtual reality horror. From the little I played, it is obvious that games developed with the Rift in mind will have to be designed very different to what we’re typically used to in order to make best use of the hardware.
With the reservations I have about the Oculus DK2, this makes me concerned about the potential Project Morpheus experience. The lower resolutions and the lower graphical horsepower of the consoles compared to a high end PC makes me question how good the experience will be in comparison. However, the supposed support for 120fps will probably be hugely beneficial for virtual reality. Whether the PS4 will make use of the high refresh rate remains to be seen. Despite my reservations, the early reception of the Morpheus has been pretty positive.
The second piece of technology I tried out was the Roto. The Roto is a concept for a chair that accompanies virtual reality tech like the Oculus and aims to solve a myriad of little issues present with the existing tech. The product began as a Kickstarter project but was pulled late on into the campaign. This has not stopped RotoVR from pushing forward developing this technology. According to RotoVR founder Elliott Myers, "Roto is very much alive."
The Roto is a hard thing to imagine being a popular consumer item. The idea of having a designated chair for a specific type of gaming would seem too niche to be a popular product unless the effects were truly astounding. However, this might possibly be the case. There was certainly promise in the idea and the demo model of the Roto I tested.
The idea of the product stems from an attempt to fix the majority of the issues apparent with the early stages of the Rift. One of the issues addressed was the problem of Oculus users rarely turning around to see what was behind them for fear of losing balance or tangling wires. The Roto solves both these problems, giving you a cable management solution and a free 360 degree movement that is easily achievable through minor movement of your feet. Whilst the prototype model I tried was not representative of the advertised product, and with a couple of hiccups in the demo they used to display the model, it still managed to pique my interest and demonstrate its rather vast potential. Elliot Myers says:
"We are currently in the midst of a more traditional fundraising mission. We are upbeat and hopeful we'll be able to launch Roto next year, ideally during Q2 alongside the highly anticipated HMD launches."
One common theme for a lot of the demonstrations was Google Cardboard, with there being a variant for almost every single company. Google Cardboard is a simple concept; it’s a folded cardboard contraption which you slide your phone into and use as a handheld virtual reality headset. Whilst not the most elegant solution, it is certainly a cost effective means of providing a cheap VR experience. There are a number of apps that make use of this product to provide fun and unique gaming and entertainment experiences with the use of the Google Cardboard app. You should definitely pick this up if you want a cheap little taster.
The place where Google cardboard has the most potential, however, is at entertainment events, i.e. concerts. Virtual reality production studio Formation was recently responsible for providing a virtual reality experience to go along with a recent concert by Hackers composer Simon Boswell. This experience provided every audience member with the Cardboard to see some trippy virtual reality visuals with an app designed specifically for the concert. This is the direction I can see the Cardboard going. Whilst the other apps may be fun, it is a limited solution that I cannot really see a large consumer base adopting.
If you want to dip your toe into VR, then Google Cardboard is the best way to get a basic feeling for it. With something as expensive as Virtual Reality, it’s hard to really get on board or even test it yourself. Google Cardboard gives you a small taste of the experience for next to nothing.
Finally, there is the Leap Motion controller. This is a little sensor that sits on your desk and allows you to interact with the computer by waving your hands and fingers. The demo that I tried was Happy Cat!, available on the Oculus store now. Again, little more than a tech demo that had you bat objects around in a room using your fluffy virtual cat paws. Nothing spectacular but it did show off the tech reasonably well.
The Leap Motion is not perfect; the limited range of the sensor means that it's very easy for you to move your hands out of range, especially if coupled with a VR headset, meaning you cannot see the position of your hands. This might be less of an issue if used independently. Also, the lack of haptic feedback was a problem; with even the smallest delay between your hand movement and the movement on screen, it's hard to judge how far your virtual hands will go, meaning you sometimes overshoot your target, making quick, precise movements a little tricky. Again, this could be an issue with my limited exposure to the product and might become second nature with extended use. Other than that, the sensor was a nice little toy that I can imagine having a lot of great uses, just not in any situation that required precise fast movements.
The main focus of this event seemed to be based around gaming. Despite this, there was a lot of discussion about the potential of VR in many other fields. Speaking to one of the main figures behind the event, Samantha Kingston, the subjects of education, military, fashion and even property viewings were talked about being revolutionized by VR. Regarding the future of this industry, Samantha says that "E3 will put everything into place." It seems that a lot of focus will be put on Virtual Reality and will be a defining moment in this make or break year of VR.
Are you excited about the new wave of virtual reality? Have you tried the Oculus Rift or any other piece of VR tech? Let us know in the comments.