Here’s me doing my best Mark Serrels Oculus Rift impersonation. Yeah, it ain’t great, but hey, me at that point in time was standing in front of one of the more intimidating sights in next-gen gaming.
That sight was the armoured volcano king — that’s my name for him, anyway — of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 demo. He’s already a terrifying image on a standard display, but in your face and in stereoscopic 3D… man, I felt a tiny sliver of real fear.
The Oculus Rift guys don’t have a majestic booth or a big chunk of floor space to demo their product at PAX Australia. In fact, unless you know where to look, it’s unlikely you’ll ever find them. That, of course, didn’t stop the random expo-goer knocking on the door (or just opening it) and asking if they could don the magical goggles that do something.
The model I got to try is somewhat more compact than the one Mark strapped to his head and I believe more refined. I’m assuming Mark tried the 720p version, while mine was 1080p. It’s connected via HDMI and USB, however there’s no native audio coming from the device. Chatting to Oculus’ VP of product Nate Mitchell and head of product Joseph Chen, the company is — understandably — focused on getting the visual experience right.
But they agree there are plenty of options to explore if they do pursue that direction, be it partnering with world-class acoustic magicians or providing some sort of certification for manufacturers.
I couldn’t help but pose the question to Mitchell: Why do virtual reality hardware now? What’s changed since other failed attempts — the Virtual Boy and Sega VR — graced our heads?
The obvious answer, which Mitchell conceded, is that the hardware has finally caught up with ambition. The more surprising fact is that driver of this tech: the smartphone.
Thanks to the relatively recent focus on crafting small-sized, high-resolution and pixel-dense displays, technology like the Oculus Rift is viable, at least according to the guys behind it. And it’s crazy to think that something so mainstream and dare I say it, casual, has given birth to a device so hardcore. Combined with improvements in accelerometers, gyroscopes and other motion tech — again, thanks to smartphones — a proper VR headset that people will want to buy is not at all insane.
And like smartphones, the Oculus team is constantly iterating over its design, reaping the rewards of mobile’s meteoric uptake in the process.
As impressive as Oculus is, the nit-picker in me couldn’t help but spot its weaker areas, areas Chen readily accepted they’re improving on. For one, 1080p is not quite enough and the quality of the panel itself will need to be improved. I could immediately notice the black lines of the LCD matrix, which make the display appear worse than it is. This is a side-effect of the magnifying lenses, a necessary component of the device.
The accuracy is top notch, but latency is still an issue. Moving one’s head results in a slight, but noticeable, stuttering effect, though this could be a software issue, rather than a hardware one.
Even so, Oculus Rift is an impressive gadget that everyone should try, just to get a heads-up on what the future of gaming potentially holds. There are a few development devices floating around PAX — I saw the Lunar Flight team at the ANZ Pavilion sporting one — so if you’re at the expo, there are ways to get your virtual reality on… in goggle form.