Years from now the Oculus Rift I hold in my hand will gather dust in your attic. You’ll stumble across it like your very first mobile phone. I can’t believe how big this thing was, you’ll say. How the hell did I walk around with this thing strapped to my head?
You’ll say these things because the technology housed within this clunky device — with its low resolution, its cables that tie you in knots — will be as common and essential as a modern smart phone. It’ll be something everyone recognises. It will be a device that transforms so quickly, evolves so rapidly, that you’ll barely be able to keep pace. It will be streamlined and accessible, it will be overdesigned or under-designed depending on what happens to be fashionable at that specific time. In five years time the Oculus Rift I hold in my hand right now will look and feel like a lumbering brachiosaurus.
And this is not a criticism; quite the opposite. It’s the highest compliment I can pay to a piece of technology that I expect will change lives and almost certainly transform the way we play video games in the very near future.
The Oculus Rift feels like the beginning of something actually incredible.
Strangely, it’s the moments when you’re dragged out of the experience that reminds you how potent the Oculus Rift can be.
I’m staring down at the ocean; I quickly shift round. In the real world I lift my hands, but I can’t see them. It’s instantly disorientating. Consciously I am aware that my own hands will not appear in this virtual simulation, but sub-consciously I expect them to exist in this space. That’s the dissonance right there.
Whoah. This is not real. It's unreal.
But the dissonance only serves to highlight how ‘immersive’ the Oculus Rift experience is. In video game writing ‘immersive’ is a dead, lifeless word, but we must use it to describe this experience because no other word will suffice. ‘Immersive’: the adjective has a new weight and meaning through the existence of the Oculus Rift.
Here’s another example. As a test my friends placed a chair in real life relative to the point where a virtual chair existed in the virtual world. They placed an object on it and asked me to pick it up. As I leaned forward to pick it up I didn’t move forward in the virtual world like I did in the real world — obviously. The disorientation of these conflating worlds was significant, to the point where my brain tried to compensate. My brain tried to tell me that the chair was actually moving away from me.
Here’s a simpler example: I’ve shown the Oculus Rift to a number of people now and every single person has attempted to walk forward in real life in order to move forward in the virtual world. And every single one felt disorientated, confused and weird when they continued to stand still.
The Oculus Rift makes small things significant again. Take yourself back to your very first gaming experience, walking in a 2D environment, from left to right. Back then it felt like the most liberating experience entertainment could offer.
Now remember the first time you played Mario 64. For the first five minutes you forgot about the Princess, you couldn’t care less about Bowser, you just wanted to run in frantic, careless circles because you could, because that was possible.
The beauty of the Oculus Rift is the resurrection of that feeling; that precise same feeling. Something bewilderingly new; new enough that doing something silly and inconsequential feels like the most important thing you could be doing at that particular point in space and time.
Ironically it’s when playing traditional games — with traditional goals and traditional verbs — that the experience starts to lose its lustre. Playing Team Fortress 2, the instant I placed my hands on the mouse and keyboard the novelty of this strange new experience was sucked right up and out through my fingers. It was all too easy to remember I was playing a video game; all too easy to slip into the same old routines.
It’s hard to say precisely what the Oculus Rift will do for games, how it will change them, if at all. It’s a difficult discussion to have but I will say this: the Rift brings out the game designer in all of us. Everyone I showed it to removed the device with a crazed look and an idea for how it might be used. Every. Single. One.
I can’t wait until I can do this, shoot a gun, move with my feet, explore this type of world, do this thing. They should make a game that lets you this.
They should, they could. Hopefully they will.
That’s the power of the Oculus Rift — it removes the strait jacket and sends your imagination spiralling in multiple different directions at once, towards multiple different stratospheres. Every single person who has received this device in the mail over the last week has opened the box with wide eyes and a giddy feeling in their gut. Every single one of them has an idea for a game and I can’t wait to see if they can transform these wonderful possibilities into a (virtual) reality.