Monday, August 6, 2012

Initial Impressions of The Oculus Rift

Yup, I'm gonna talk about a Kickstarter again.

The Oculus Rift. A 3D VR headset. I gotta tell you, when I was a kid, this was the dream. This was the pinnacle of video gaming technology. The holy grail.

Over time, though, I became sort of jaded about it. I went to Epcot and Six Flags and they had these demos with VR headsets and they were both really underwhelming. Also, let's not forget the VirtualBoy, which I actually OWNED. Don't get me wrong, I actually kind of enjoyed the VirtualBoy, but at that point, I sort of realized that any VR headset that would actually do the cool things you'd want it to do would have to be so sophisticated that it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for the most part that was true.

So when I initially started looking at this Kickstarter page, I was VERY VERY skeptical about the whole thing. But after seeing the video and seeing the kind of support they have and getting the impression that the consumer version of this could potentially cost around $300, I was more than a little intrigued.

First of all, this headset potentially fixes the main problems with 3D. The first problem is that in most commercial 3D situations, you are looking at a screen that in some way has been designed to trick your eyes. With a VR headset, no sort of mindhackery is afoot. Additionally, when you're looking at 3D on a screen, the 3D effect is destroyed when something falls out of frame, which is why 3D usually works much better in IMAX. With the increased field of vision, the 3D would be fully immersive and it would theoretically appear just as 3D as the real world. Very cool.

Second of all, it seems like this headset actually has a lot of developer support, which is something most other VR headsets don't have usually due to their ridiculous price point.

Finally, I feel like the advances we've made in terms of displays and 3D have brought us to a point where this sort of device is feasible in a commercial environment. I think the technology is there.

That being said, I still have some major reservations regarding this project. Major enough that I'm not giving them any money.

Power Source

What powers this headset? Does it run on rechargeable batteries? How long do they last? Can they be charged via USB or do they require a dedicated AC adapter? Or does the headset need to be connected to a power source at all times? Depending on the nature of this device's power source, players may be very limited in terms of where they can use it.

Weight and Prolonged Use

Gamers play games for hours and hours on end. While the headset only weighs .6 kg (about 1.3 lbs), the fact that the weight is primarily on your face could lead to some unpleasant neck pain after a few hours.

Shutting Out the Rest of the World

This is probably my biggest concern about the Oculus Rift. While I'm sure the device is cool in a tech demo sense, if I owned one right now, I might not actually play with it all that much. We live in an age of constant multitasking. While I play "Crusader Kings II", I'm also watching the Olympics and eating dinner and chatting with my roommate and checking my e-mail on my phone or tablet. But if I were to play "Minecraft" with the Oculus Rift, as cool as that would be, I still would not be able to do ANYTHING else except talk. "Minecraft" would require my full undivided attention. That's not to say I'm never in the mood to focus entirely on one specific task, just that it's not a common thing, mainly because when I DO hole myself up and play a video game for an entire weekend, when I emerge from my media saturation, I find that the world kept moving on without me and I'm left trying to play catch-up. On top of that, I like to play games with an audience and the Oculus Rift might prevent that.

I'm not so much concerned that the Oculus Rift won't be popular for this reason, I'm more concerned that if it DOES become popular, gamers might start interacting even less than they already are. Video games have made a lot of recent strides at becoming a more social medium. We play online with our friends, we chat in-game, we integrate games in our daily lives so they're more casual. A VR headset is a step in the opposite direction. Gaming with the Oculus Rift could be the most antisocial gaming experience possible.

Let me put it a different way. Do you have a friend who's obsessed with "Minecraft"? OK, you know how hard it is to get them to do anything else while they play "Minecraft"? Now imagine that "Minecraft" is a fully-immersive 3D world. Suddenly your friend is playing "Minecraft" just as much, but now they can't look at anything else or hear anything while they play (assuming they play with headphones to aid the immersion). Congratulations, you just lost a friend.

Don't get me wrong. If the Oculus Rift delivers on its promises, it will be a huge technological achievement that could also probably affect other media as well. Imagine a film shot with a 3D panoramic camera that you can view with this device. Eat your heart out, "Avatar". If this is actually released commercially for an affordable price, I will likely buy one. But as cool as this is, I'm not sure if it should completely replace the current model of console and PC gaming, at least until they develop ways to better integrate it with the user's surroundings (perhaps finding a way to switch between VR and AR?) and social aspects (multiplayer with these could be fun if done right).

In any case, it's certainly pretty cool-looking.