How Oculus VR is building the future we were promised

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The CCP developer slips a noise-cancelling headset over my ears. The chatter in the packed media lobby goes silent. I look around.

I’m in a starfighter, waiting in the launch tube like the Viper pilots of Battlestar Galactica. Everything is quiet except for the faint hissing of hydraulics and hum of the engines on standby. Then the launch sequence starts, the engines get louder, and suddenly I’m accelerating through the tube. An instant later I’m ejected into the star-dusted night of space. Above and to my right, I see my wingman rocketing out of the carrier, backlit by the glow of a distant planet.

A minute later, my missiles begin acquiring a target. The missile targeter tracks my head movement, the reticle pinned to a space roughly in line with my gaze, so I make sure to keep glaring at the incoming flight of bandits as I twist and corkscrew through my attack run. Below, my wingmen are flying straight and level, opening fire with guns. I get the lock tone and release the trigger; they go spiraling after their prey. A second later my own missile-warning light grabs my attention, burning red on the cockpit frame. I stomp on the thruster and dive, twisting furiously in my seat to spot the missiles.

There, coming in from directly above, almost into my cockpit. I hammer down on the retro rockets and the ship lurches. Never taking my eyes off the missiles, I hit the left rudder pedal, slewing the ship in that direction, and pull into a climb. The missiles don’t make the turn and go streaking past my cockpit window, vanishing over my right shoulder. Then an enemy fighter goes streaking past, chasing one of my wingmen, and I bank to follow him. I don’t get motion-sick, but it’s getting disorienting as the stars twist and turn around our chase. At one point we hug the contours of a huge asteroid, yo-yoing around it. As thebandit begins his climb, I cut it closer to the asteroid and manage to lead him with my guns. He vanishes in a fireball.

I look around at the space battle that surrounds me. The Oculus Rift is not even released, but it has already made one dream come true. I would say I never imagined something like this, but that would be a lie. I always imagined this, from the moment I first played X-Wing.

I just never expected it.

“With VR you can tap into those human sensations of falling and depth and speed,” Nate Mitchell, Oculus VR’s VP of product, tells me later. “All your emotions are enhanced, like fear, you’re that much more panicked and that sort of thing. All that stuff makes the gaming experience that much more real. And it’s sort of like an empty canvas for game devs to step in and do incredible exciting new things with.”

I’ve just come back from my visit with CCP’s Oculus-enabled space shooter, EVR, and Mitchell and Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey are telling me about the strides they’ve made in the last year of working on the Oculus Rift.

Mitchell and Luckey are tech entrepreneurs straight from central casting: young, charismatic, and so enthusiastic about their work that they have trouble staying on-topic. Throughout our interview, they keep detouring into asides and even begin reopening old arguments. It might almost feel like shtick, the Absentminded Professors, except they are so evidently engaged with the topic. It’s suddenly clear why they are running almost an hour behind schedule.

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A year ago, things were very different. They tell me about traveling to Gamescom with an early prototype, trying to get people to pay attention to a device that kept breaking down and looked like it was largely made out of electrical tape and exposed wiring.

“And we were demoing an early version of Doom 3 with the Rift, and we had a monitor that we brought,” Mitchell tells me. “And we opened it up at the show and it was shattered, and the first time that we plugged in the Rift, the power supply exploded because we didn’t have an adapter!” He grins. “Palmer and I were having an awesome time. It was a good trip, good memories.”

Now they have a suite of rooms at E3 and Peter Molyneux is being kept waiting outside, where he’s trying to get a look at the Oculus.

“Wait, who’s outside?” Mitchell asks, when another developers comes in and whispers the news to him.

“—r Molyneux,” in an undertone.

Luckey looks confused. “Did he have an appointment?”

The developer waves his arms helplessly. “He just dropped by.”

Mitchell and Luckey look at each other, wearing matching expressions of pain and excitement. Mitchell looks at his phone, “Can he wait? Ask him if we can wait. Tell him we really want to get him in here today. But we’re behind. But we really want to show him it!”

It might not matter for Peter Molyneux, but Mitchell assures me that the Oculus Rift hasn’t set anyone’s hair on fire in ages. Palmer adds that, “We haven’t blown up any power supplies in a while,” and then the two fall to arguing about whether a laser power supply counts. Because in that case, something exploded just last week.

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Getting things to stop exploding is always a great first step in hardware development, but the Oculus Rift is currently overcoming its next major hurdle: a too-low pixel count.

“One of the things that we struggled with in the development kit is distant objects,” Mitchell says. “Because you start to lose them in the ‘screen door’. The pixelation means you just lose distant objects, it just looks like darkness. With HD kit you really can see so much more. It’s that much more immersive, especially when visual fidelity is key to the Rift. It’s what we’re aiming for. Immersion.”

It was a major drawback when I played TF2 on the Rift last winter, but since then Oculus have been working on HD Rift headsets. According to Luckey, they still struggle due to the constraints of some of their equipment. Oculus displays are basically mobile displays, which means low-power consumption and high latency — usually the kiss of death for gaming displays. But in my time with EVR and TF2, it’s not nearly as bad as Luckey sometimes makes it sound. And when Luckey and Mitchell break out their new 720 and 1080 models, the sense of presence is so strong as to erase my awareness of response issues.

They show me some tech demos from Unreal Engine 4 that were specially optimized for the Rift. The first one starts on the steps of a mountain castle, in a light snowstorm. Where on the old Rifts the distant mountains disappeared into a dark gray smear, now they come in clearly. Not perfectly: 1080 on the Rift does not look as sharp as 1080 on your monitor, but it’s still acceptable where the earlier ones ultimately were not.

But more than the shiny UE4 demo stuff, it’s the snow that’s getting me. Maybe it’s the 3D effect, but it’s the single most evocative part of the scene. Mitchell and Luckey keep trying to direct me around the demo, suggesting things to look at, but I keep looking down at where my forearm should be. I expect to see the white flakes gathering on a woolen sleeve.

Reactions like mine are the rule, not the exception, and they can pop up in some surprising ways.

“In Half Life 2 the whole game is shown through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, right? And all the characters — you’re interacting with them and they’re looking you in the eye. You feel really connected to the characters and the world around you and it does feel that much more like real life,” Mitchell tells me. “To the point that people smile at you, NPCs smile and [players] tend to smile back. And it’s just subconscious right? Because your brain is tricked into thinking this is a real person. So the perception is there even if not all the other details are.”

I’m skeptical, and ask if those reactions fade as players spend more time with the Rift. Luckey is adamant.

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“No. They’re things that you learn to do in real life. So you’re not doing it because it’s novelty and because it’s new but because that’s how you you’ve been trained to react in real life,” he insists. “So in the same way if in real life you’ve trained yourself not to smile at people who’re smiling and you’re just Mr. Stoneface,” here he gives me a disapproving look that makes me wonder if I have been a Mr. Stoneface, “then, yes, I guess that might be the case, but I don’t think that that kind of effect fades.”

I still think this is a case of acclimation, the same way there’s that legend about how the first people who saw the Lumiere Brothers “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” supposedly tried to run from the theater in fear of their lives. Any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but the corollary is that once it becomes familiar, it becomes about as magical as the morning paper.

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But maybe the Rift is different. It felt different when I played EVR. VR, honest-to-God VR, has always been one of the coolest of the “wouldn’t it be cool” thought experiments, and when you play something specially designed for a working headset, it’s not so far from those daydreams.

Mitchell thinks, from what he’s seen, that the Rift can change how people play games. They engage more with them, and are less inclined to rush around trying to break them. “It’s sort of a thing where everything you love about games is ratcheted up to the next level,” he says. “So if you felt a connection to a character playing the game again in VR is a great experience where you feel that that character is so much more real. And you tend to do things that are strange. Like you don’t glance away, you don’t start scanning the room for loot when you’re talking to someone because you feel like you’re actually talking to someone and connecting with them.”

That’s far from the only thing players may start adapting to. When I talk to Joe Chen, another member of the product team, we start out by discussing our experiences in EVR. But after a few minutes of hand-waving dogfight re-creations, he admit, “But EVR has it easy, right? You’re still sitting a spaceship. Forward is always forward. You’re looking around, but it’s not like everything else is moving independently. Where it’s going to be tough is shooters.”

He mimicks a mouse-flick. “We’ve had decades of getting used to this gesture. And controlling characters who respond to it. Yeah, you play a lot of human characters in shooters, but most of the control schema we know give us superhuman abilities. That’s what feels normal, [what feels] right.”

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The hurdle facing the Oculus Rift in shooters, he tells me, is to overcome the fact that it’s an undeniable competitive disadvantage. It’s why he suspects that, while shooters seem like the natural home of the Rift, they either won’t be the kinds of shooters we’re used to or we’ll see the RIft used for entirely different genres.

None of this bothers the people behind the headset. What games people make for the Rift is not really their problem. They just want to make sure they have the tools to make something amazing.

“VR is really an exciting uncharted territory for a lot of game developers,” Mitchell says. “This generation of game developers has never really had a fair shot at developing VR games and we’re really hoping to provide the hardware and the toolset to let people dive into this super exciting area and really do it justice correctly for the first time. But like I said it’s a community driven effort even now we don’t have all the answers, were researching and prototyping and the community is helping us. They’re just as much writing the book as we are.”

Our VR future may be close at hand. Mitchell tells me that they’re “months, not years away” from release. They have a close partnership with Epic (all their demos are from the UE4 presentation), and have at least had “conversations” with people like CryTek and the console manufacturers. In just a few months, the image quality has more than doubled. After playing EVR, it seems like it will be far more than a novelty.

As I’m leaving, I ask them whether they ever discuss, in the blue-est of blue-sky conversations, going in some Snow Crash directions with Oculus. Palmer smiles, “I don’t see us building the Metaverse.”

They probably won’t. But you never know: on my way out the door, I hear that Peter Molyneux had to leave. But he’ll be back in the morning.