Editorial: The Church of Oculus Rift

...in his pants.
John Carmack is having a religious experience…

Earlier this year, Oculus Rift took all the money from its Kickstarted dev kits and bought more money with it in the form of Zuckerbux, at which point various gaming forums were overwhelmed with panty-twisted rabble declaring the death of the Virtual Reality platform. In some subconscious effort to avoid being swept up in the hype machine, I wrote off Oculus Rift as a silly novelty that will end up causing circle jerks at trade shows without ever achieving the ubiquity of other platforms, particularly mobile. Now John Carmack, the Moses to Palmer Luckey’s burning bush, has recently stated that “When you experience Oculus technology, it’s like getting religion on contact. People that try it walk out a believer.” Well, that sounds quite interesting, if I may say so, and everyone loves a blasphemous dose of hyperbole, so I polished my monocle and headed over to the Fortune article to read his prophetic words. Sadly, just like visiting a real church, I was left wanting.

Oculus Rift can certainly boast a following, and I feel I need to be clear on that since my opinion of its novelty remains the same. To simply sit here and nay say a technology that will probably take ages to get right would be too stupid of a move even for me, a person who once payed real dollars for a minidisc deck. People are out there, working with this little device, and once again proving to me that ingenuity in the gaming community is not completely lost. However, I have to be realistic about what Carmack says he wants for the future of Oculus Rift, even considering a genius like Pekka Väänänen is out there firing up Quake on a freaking oscilloscope, and what might become of an Oculus Rift in his hands.

Experience Nature in all its glory through the magic of virtual reality. Way easier than just looking.
This seems like a remarkably unsafe place to cover your eyes.

There are plenty in the community that want this technology to be something it is not, but Carmack takes the cake. When he says “Mobile VR should be much like mobile [devices] in that case, where you can carry it around with you with a tablet and, at some random time when you have some time to kill, you can jump into VR,” I have to question if he misunderstand how the markets use their technology, or if I am misunderstanding how to use my own. My smartphone, of course, is always in my pocket, and yes, on it I will play a game or two while in the waiting room at the dentist, or lunching solo on my latest fill of Chinese food, yet I am still responding to my immediate environment. Smartphones are small and convenient to carry, where the Oculus Rift in the current iteration is anything but.

If that means there are plans in the works, and I am betting there are, to shrink the headset to something more manageable than sticking elastic on a tablet and strapping it to my face, that would be excellent. While the current unit does not look completely uncomfortable with weight, the sheer bulk would be a problem, even for a student with a backpack that is already laden with books, a laptop, and other school supplies. I barely carry around my own tablet because it is inconveniently sized, and I stopped wearing cargo pants in 1997.

Not only can I not imagine where I would store an Oculus Rift on the go, but just using it in a public setting brings up all sorts of social anxiety. I do not think that I have to point out how ridiculous it looks to have a box strapped to one’s face while swinging one’s head about, but I think it is important to mention how one is also, more or less, blind to the surrounding environment. Maybe I am misinterpreting Carmack’s dreamy images of this thing being as easy to game on the go as mobile phones are, however, I get the impression he said this with his fingers crossed and I am not going to see anyone firing up their Oculus Rift on a public bus anytime soon. Of course, if they do, they are asking to be screwed with the way friends draw dicks on the face of the first guy to pass out at the party.

Roller Coaster while you Roller Coaster. That one is free, Xzibit.
So. Meta.

With Samsung on board, and Oculus Rift moving toward a promised consumer version in 2015, mobility might be the name of the game. Samsung’s Gear VR dev kit seems to streamline things a wee bit, but still does not look like it will fit in any of my pockets, and I wear some pretty loose fitting clothing. I am not demanding that this tech be ultra portable, but if they manage to condense it into a unit that does not require a marsupial pouch, I would be okay with that. I still can only imagine myself using it in the privacy of my own home (porn), or on particularly long road trips (probably not porn).

So with Facebook, John ‘Daddy’ Carmack, and Samsung throwing their hats into this ring, and tons of development units out there already, what exactly are people doing with it? One thing I know for sure is horror games that beg for immersion will never be the same. The first person experience is the rightfully obvious way to go. YouTuber penkamaster1 managed to fiddle with some decapitation code and get Mario Kart up and running. Roller coaster simulators have clearly found a nice home on the device, but that only inspired Thomas Wagner and a student team from the University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern to take one on an actual roller coaster, and run a virtual environment that removes the rails. Since the Oculus Rift relies heavily on creating the illusion of presence, one can imagine the rush when we can add the vestibular system of the human ear into the equation, which I am sure theme parks will pounce on.

Sometimes I wonder if Samsung is just slowly building a cyborg army.
Samsung Gear VR. Human head not included.

Samsung’s Gear VR comes with access to Milk VR, yet another attempt to remove pesky choices from the consumer and build their proprietary domain. I can not really blame them, in this case, since it will offer an immediate marketplace for videos that want to take advantage of VR technology, a business that has gone largely untapped even though Oculus Rift has been around for awhile. Carmack mentions watching a film where “…they had this animated game engine going on around it, so you had this environment where the characters from the animated movie are waving at you…” which is promising for animated films. While having something bulky sit on my face for the length of a film may not sound terrifically appealing since I am not into that sort of thing, short clips or music videos might be okay and play off that nostalgia aspect of heading to the IMAX theater for a hang gliding thrill or flight through the solar system. However, anyone is welcome to save a few bucks and build their own Google Cardboard to achieve the same effect. Oculus Rift and its various incarnations will be mostly about gaming, and jokes about the adult film industry.

All that being said, I remain on the fence about the product, and probably will stay that way after the consumer release. My face is glued to enough screens as it is, so I do not think I need to make that closer to a literal statement. I have tried VR sets in the past, prior to Oculus Rift, and while the idea is very cool, the technology to make it robust, compact, and affordable just is not quite there yet. It will be, but let us not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Carmack. The days of people strapping these to their heads when they have a few minutes to kill at the DMV are a long way off, but hey, at least it is not as idiotic as Google Glass.

9 comments

  1. I asked myself, disregarding all hype around this machine, am I excited by the prospect of virtual reality headsets? Short answer, no. But I do oddly miss the mid-90’s VR games that made no sense gameplay-wise and hadn’t evolved graphically since the “Money For Nothing” video.

  2. @DancingMatt: I remember that horrible one they had an Dave & Busters for a minute. Had the little round corral to keep you from running amok, and the headset put all its weight on the bridge of your nose. Awful contraption.

    I don’t ever see virtual reality being much more than a novelty, even if it was perfect. Even the cyberpunk movement favors a more augmented reality-driven future as opposed strict virtual reality. Even so, it will never achieve any popularity until they fix that absurdly cumbersome hardware design, which requires a better understanding of physics. Fun for fifteen minutes, then back to ‘normal’ reality, and that’s about it. There’s no pragmatic reason to play a video game this way.

  3. Yeaaaahhhh Super Glove! Awful. Awful, awful, awful.

    Virtual Boy at least had a few amazing titles: Mario Clash was brilliant, and has not yet been redone (although it should be); and Red Alarm, which was like a cross between StarFox and Descent. Both were an absolute blast to play, and are the only reason I miss my three Virtual Boys.

    Mario Tennis was ALSO excellent. Best version of that game they ever made: simple, straightforward, and solid.

  4. I STILL love my MiniDisc player, although it got stolen. Until the iPod Touch, it was easily the best portable music player I had owned.

    As for VR, I will wait patiently. I will try it with an open mind if I get the opportunity, and I will wait a few years before I consider paying for it. I’ll watch the kinks work themselves out or see it fade away as a gimmick from the outside. Sometimes I like being an early adopter although I know that it’s a complete indulgence. (See: PS4, Nintendo Wii), but other times, I just do not think it is worth it, even if I had the money to spare which, these days, I do not.

  5. Just like to say that first paragraph all came together nicely -and- delivered on the promise of the article title.

    That said, the Rift looks like nothing more than the modern incarnation of the Virtual Boy. At the very least your eyes won’t be scorched with a red tint after a test play.

    Anyways, who really wants to wear all this Ghost in the Shell looking gear to play what are going to amount to first person waling simulators? Let’s just jump ahead a few centuries and get started on a Holodeck.

  6. @Ethos: I had a deck and a portable player purchased as a bundle. MP3 players were starting to emerge on the scene, but I liked the idea of having a desktop unit that played the same media. I also had absolutely horrendous taste in music at the time, so perhaps that’s partly why I feel it is best forgotten.

    @Wolfe: I would kill for a Holodeck, but I’d probably just have it simulate Iceland and play D&D in it. Wait, that actually sounds incredible.

  7. Nice article, points well made.

    I think a lot of the overassessment of this technology comes from tunnel vision on behalf of its prophets. VR can be a nice (short-time) gimmick for the kind of first-person “experience” games, like the horror games you mention. Carmack did well with that kind of thing, which is probably why he massively overestimates its importance in the market. I know this trap well, being involved in some R&D myself. You look for cool uses for this new technology you’re developing, and kind of lose track of how little your demos and examples might relate to what people are actually interested in doing.

    Immersion, this big word that’s been waved around by media since the 90s as the highest goal for video games. I don’t think immersion is really that big of a deal for most games. Other aspects are massively more important in deciding how gripping a game is. Sensory immersion is just superficial. If your game is boring, making it fully surround me is not going to change much about it. Likewise, I’ll quickly forget that I’m just looking at a screen when your story and atmosphere hold up. The same goes for movies and the whole stereo 3D fad, really, which is why the only films still doing it are C movies with nothing else to offer, and some niche titles (documentaries).

    Nor is it all that desirable. I think like me, a lot of people would usually prefer to not be “fully immersed” in a game. I like to take quick moments to look out the window, exchange some words with family and friends, or take a sip of tea. To quote Marge Simpson: “I didn’t say you couldn’t, I said you shouldn’t.”

  8. Daniel, that’s probably the best worded argument against VR I’ve ever read.

    If your game is boring, making it fully surround me is not going to change much about it.

    Exactly! If your game is shit, being CLOSER to it isn’t going to help. It’s a hilariously obvious downside to VR.

    This is just a case of throwing dollars as bad design to make it look fresher, like the 3D movie craze that crops up every now and again.

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