Thursday, May 30, 2013

My first day with Oculus Rift

So my own dev-kit of the head mounted display for virtual reality that’s been storming the news has finally arrived, giving a swift end to my inpatient waiting and after trying it out for the whole day, I’m taking a break and sharing my thoughts in the meanwhile.

Let me just say it right away: It’s incredibly awesome and exceeded my expectations that were quite high to begin with. The first moment I put it on my head with the official tuscany demo I was dazzled, despite the fact that I took my glasses off and didn't even put correction lenses in.

Even though that resulted in somewhat blurry image, I was totally taken. Taken into a totally different place. I looked around and found myself in large stone building. I looked at the chair in the room, I looked at the fireplace, I looked at the stairs. It all felt very real. Bit blurry, but real.

I ventured outside and just walked around and observed things. The trees, the rocks, the mountains and the sea in the distance. I couldn't believe this was the same demo I tried out on my computer screen prior to my dev-kits’ arrival, the same demo with crude models and textures.

This just demonstrated how huge difference can the Oculus make to the perception of the virtual world. I was no longer external observer. I looked up at the trees and my head spun from how tall they were, the same models trees that I considered “weird and ugly” before.

After letting my cousin, brother and mum try out the same demo, yielding similar reactions of amazement, I later tried out the corrective cups, finding that C’s worked the best and allowed me to see sharp and tried some actual games.

The blocky world of Minecraft was the first one I choose as a candidate for transformation by the device and what transformation it was! Although I was long aware that the blocks are supposed to be 1 meter long in all directions, they never felt that way when I played the game before.

As you might guess, Oculus changed that. My first impression was that the blocks are HUGE. The whole world felt huge and more proportional, more like I was really inside of it, roaming around. Whenever I looked up to a high hill, I felt like I couldn't even make it to the top, despite fact that I easily bounced around the terrain up and down before.

Oculus gave me a totally different perspective. I was no longer an external observer, viewing the actions on the computer screen, I was really inside of it. Although this is where I first noticed the major shortcoming of the Oculus Prototype – the display resolution. Anything in distance was blurry without much detail. But if the display resolution is upped to the full HD in the consumer version, the experience is going to be nearly perfect.

Despite the low resolution the world felt much more real to me and it was an indescribable experience. Just like a person in certain hypothetical thought experiment who has all the technical information about color red, but never ever saw it before, Oculus Rift is very much the same – you have to see it with your own eyes. Words, however plentiful, cannot describe it enough.

After Minecraft, I moved to Team Fortress 2 for a brief moment, which is one of the first games to have official support. The experience was similarly incredible. I tried Pyro and noticed that his gun is really huge (that seems to be recurring theme with the Oculus). It just really “is there”.

The visual effects of fire particles or debris from bullets are highly amplified by adding the depth perception and the whole world just has way stronger impact on you. Despite all the motion sickness warnings, I quickly switched to Scout and started running around the map as fast as I can.

At first, it really feels nauseating to run and jump around, because you have heightened sensation of falling or hurtling towards an (im)possible injury.

A good idea is to take breaks. I felt sort of sick after trying all these demos, but not about to puke, motion sickness never really impacted me before so I suppose I have high resistance. If you’re more sensitive to it, you’ll definitely want to take it slow the first few times. Even the real world felt odd after exiting the virtual one and bit of disorienting.

Everything changed for me with Half Life 2, at least as far as motion sickness goes.

Although I still felt a bit of it when I started, the game totally pulled me in and I spent several hours playing it, after which I realized that all the motion sickness was gone, as well as the disorienting feeling I felt when I took a break to make myself tea and get a snack in the reality-reality of course, as the virtual ones aren't very nutritious. I’m quite happy that I adapted and my body got accustomed to it so quickly.

But back to the Half Life 2 experience for a moment. I started the whole game from beginning, arriving at the City 17. Although the intro was sort of glitchy (it’s still beta after all), the moment I was thrown, or to be more precise “inserted” into the game at the train to City 17, something struck me: there were people on that train.

Of course I noticed them when I first played the game, but this experience was radically different. They felt as people standing in front of me. Same goes for the civil protection units – it just feels like they’re right there in front of you, like they have the right proportions and right human size. And then the vortigaunts? They’re just… wow. Way more believable.

Same as with Minecraft, I no longer feel like an external observer (from the visual standpoint), because what Oculus does with games is that it pulls you right into the middle of them, giving truth to their slogan “Step Into The Game”.

Maybe you might feel like I'm repeating myself, but everything suddenly feels to be the right size, from the smallest items in the game, to the whole buildings, giving birth to breathtaking moments like when a gunship or a chopper flies over you or when you swim in the water with crates or when train rushes by you very fast or even when you crawl through the notoriously known air ducts.

As I already mentioned, at first use, there was some discomfort with a bit of nausea and a bit pain because the plastic part of the head strap was pressing too tightly to my head, but nausea soon went away as my brain adjusted to the new experience and same happened to pain, although in this case my brain adjusted to it by generating motion stimuli to hands that adjusted the strap itself. So in the end I could spend several hours in the game and feel completely comfortable and jump back and forth between the virtual and real reality when needed without any adverse effects (sans the craving for more VR experience ;-) ).

One thing I found out myself however is that it’s important to calibrate the Oculus to your interpupillary distance otherwise the stereoscopic effect isn't very strong and everything just feels… odd, including the proportions of things.

So this is pretty much my first day with the Oculus Rift and I must say, I'm very impressed despite having very high expectations. Everything feels near perfect, except the display resolution, but that’s going to (hopefully) change in the future.

I'll go play a bit more and once I start developing my own stuff for Oculus, I'll make sure to share my thoughts with you again on that matter.

Thanks for reading!

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