While it has popped up at trade shows here and there for the better part of the past seven months, the Oculus Rift has only been in the hands of three groups for more than a few minutes: id Software, Valve Software and the team at Oculus itself.
That all changes in March, when the company plans to ship out some 10,000 developer kits. And while a lot of those will end up in the hands of eager fans who won’t quite know what to do with them, Oculus is hoping the ones who do will move the virtual reality headset into the fast lane.
While the system made its splash when John Carmack showcased it at E3 last year, showing it running Doom 3, senior product manager Joseph Chen says id’s graphics engines will not be officially supported when the dev kits ship. Instead, the Rift will work with Unity 4 and Unreal Engine 3.
The lack of id support doesn’t imply that the studio is uninterested — Carmack may decide to support it in future games, in fact. In the meantime, Oculus is also working closely with Epic to support the upcoming Unreal Engine 4.
Content, as it is with everything else in the video game business, is king when it comes to the revived virtual reality trend Oculus is hoping to kick off.
“We have to have great virtual reality content,” says Chen. “That’s why we’re putting such emphasis on game developers.”
While there’s plenty of developer interest, consumer expectations could be the biggest challenge the Rift faces. Laudatory press stories and the mania of the company’s Kickstarter project have many people thinking this is a device that’s ready for prime time – with a number of games ready to support it.
Chen, in fact, doesn’t think the system will launch with a triple-A game. Instead, he says, it’s more likely to be ports or mid-range titles in the first wave.
“We’re gonna have triple-A, but triple-A takes time,” he says. “We’ll initially get ports – and those will be cool – but it’s that second generation where things start to get really exciting.”
As for the experience itself, there are a few crutches developers will have to do away with. Cut scenes, for example, rip players who are using the Oculus Rift out of the interactive experience much more so than standard players. And the bobbing movement that many developers insert to simulate footsteps is distracting when you’ve got the headset on.
There’s also a big difference between a 3D demo and gameplay. Make no mistake, the no-action demo is fantastic. A scene showing off the Unreal 3 engine makes the falling snow more realistic and one has to fight the urge to reach down and touch the crate beside them. But hop into a game of Unreal Tournament and there’s sensory overload as you keep track with the movement.
Expect gamers to have to go through another training process for their brains, as they did when 3D graphics were first introduced. After 10 minutes or so of play, I found myself feeling a bit motion sick, something I never experienced in the early days of Wolfenstein or Doom.
There’s also a motion blur that’s in the prototype models that’s distracting – and while the graphics are good, the screen resolution, at present, doesn’t live up to what many gamers are used to. It is, at times, like you’re playing a game through a screen door.
(That said, it’s still the most immersive sort of gaming you’ve ever experienced.)
Chen says many of these problems will be resolved with the 7-inch screen that will be a part of the developer kits that ship out.
The company is also working on latency issues. Right now, Oculus hopes to get latency down to 50 milliseconds for the developer kit, with a goal of closer to 30 milliseconds for the retail kit. (Valve, to put things in perspective, posits that 7 milliseconds is indistinguishable from reality.)
To help with this, Oculus is working on predictive tracking technology – and it’s sticking with its graphical hard deck of 60 fps.
“Bad VR will get to you,” says Chen. “That’s why we need to work with the developers to let them know what we’ve learned.”
In fact, he says, the Rift may well find a home beyond the world of shooters and other genres that are the industry’s bread and butter these days.
“We think new games will evolve out of this,” says Chen. “It’s not just going to be ‘go there, kill this.'”