I have a reasonably decent PC for video editing and so decided to get the Oculus Rift when it went up for pre-order in January (I’d also been following the Rift’s progress obsessively for years). Now, months later, it’s finally arrived, and there’s no doubt it’s the future. Perhaps the future of movies too. VR is literally a whole new medium, one that feels a little bit like having a 360° 3D cinema strapped to your face, in a good way. But with a few of the strains you’d expect from that.
The first thing that struck me putting on the Rift was how, despite only being short-sighted, my glasses were a must for getting the most out of it. Squeezing glasses into the headset is tricky, I bent one arm and popped out a lens over the course of an evening. Even wearing them in the Rift, the picture quality is disappointingly low resolution. This thing needs 2k or 4k screens as soon as possible. Chances are, with nearly every big tech firm gearing up to enter this race, we won’t have to wait long. But once you find the ‘sweet spot’ by moving the headset up or down your forehead and adjusting the eye-spacing, and once you get into actual motion in a game, then the magic takes over. Imagine feeling present in a darkened corridor, walking through a life-sized door, and being confronted by a witch that looks the same size as you (see: Dreadhalls). No other medium can give you that.
Also unique is that when someone looks at you, you feel a connection (at least a glimmer), just as you would in real life. It’s far more powerful than, say, a character on TV looking at the camera, and the implications for storytelling are huge. This connection means while playing Mario-alike platformer Lucky’s Tale, for instance, it’s hard not to talk to the fox you’re guiding, as you would a cat in real life.
There are different game types that VR does extremely well. Cockpit games, sitting in a detailed one-person spaceship, looking at the storage area behind you and up to see enemy fighters flying overhead (Eve: Valkyrie) works incredibly. My interest in space dogfighting games has gone from zero to max. Anything with miniature figures is fantastic too, they look strikingly lifelike and you can lean in and around objects to examine them up close. It won’t be long before playing Warhammer 40k with global friends will feel very natural in this environment. First person experiences, walking around environments, are awesome too, but tend to be a bit problematic…
…Because all VR sessions pretty much go like this -> “That’s amazing.” [Play for a short while.] “Oh God I gotta take this off.” I’m sort of glad it makes me feel nauseous after half an hour (also friends who have tried it) because otherwise I’d probably never come out. As it is, as soon as the headset goes on it’s on a time limit. The more turning, spinning around and walking you do the quicker that time limit runs out. Turning your head with a control stick rather than your actual head is perhaps the worst for the brain, but walking generally is never without creeping “brain irritation”, and if you couple either of those with a framerate of 60 or below (90 is recommended), then it magnifies it. A low framerate is not usually detectable until it gets really too low – if you can see any skipping then in the words of the Amityville House, “Get out”.
I’ve heard from the VR community that ginger is good for motion sickness so I’ve stocked up on ginger ale. Entering Virtual Reality then emerging to sip a ginger drink, and contemplate what you’ve just experienced, feels so cyberpunk future it’s awesome. Don’t be surprised if ginger beer emerges to become the biggest selling soft drink of the future. Invest in shares now.
When it comes to cinema, VR and traditional screens are going to accompany each other for some time. The likes of The Martian and The Conjuring have already had VR experiences made to promote them. In the case of horror, the VR experience is nearly always going to be far more frightening than the movie it’s complimenting.
Within VR alone, Oculus has demonstrated with a series of free animated shorts (such as Henry) what virtual storytelling is going to look like. It’s clear that nothing will beat this medium for empathy and sense of scale. Since you control where you look, you’ll find your attention is often drawn in a particular direction with sound before the action occurs. Indeed, storytellers are still nervous about key events being missed so I haven’t seen much that incorporated more than 90 degrees of the surroundings at any time. I’m looking forward to techniques being refined that allow simultaneous events in all directions.
These stories are nearly all animated because live-action 360 cameras are still very poor. The 360 video section is the most disappointing for this reason, though the potential once they increase camera quality is huge.
You can also watch traditional movies, and 3D ones, on giant screens within VR, as if you are sitting in a cinema (see: Cineveo). It’s impressive too but the disappointing lens resolution definitely detracts from that a little, for now.
If you already have a gaming PC and any interest in future tech then the Oculus Rift (or the Vive) is a must buy. There’s a surprising amount of content, far more than you would get at a console launch. With new VR-ready Playstations and XBoxes expected to hit market in the coming months, these headsets will be all over the place within a year.
Get excited. Buy ginger ale.