Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oculus Rift : the Buzz, the Fad and the Ugly

Alright, its video game time. Awesome!!

So this post is not about a particular game, instead it is about the latest buzz in the video game scene. Oculus Rift, promises to be the next big thing in video entertainment.

In a nutshell, the Rift is a head mounted display. What that disgusting description means is that it is effectively a virtual reality simulator. Think goggles with a screen that effectively surrounds your field of view.

it does look like an iPad glued to your goggles...
Is it really Virtual Reality??

If you are not too tech savvy or don't really think about it too hard, you might think this would be silly... gluing an iPad to your face is not virtual reality. But that would be really underestimating the current state of technology. Once the hardware is out there, software will rapidly catch up. The video can be drawn from a first person perspective, in a way to reflect an elliptical field of vision, sounds in the video modified to reflect first person interaction. Gyroscopes are getting remarkably accurate and easy to make, allowing every tween to sport the same technology in their phone that was once only limited to only the greatest scientific structures like the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station. Combined with accelerometers we have the technology to detect motion of the player, tracking the head and hand movements. So hopefully you can see that if the video, audio and motion tracking is accurate to a first person experience, you pretty much have everything to start approaching close to virtual reality. Add to that 3D video, and imagine the epic (yes epic is a noun).
Somehow this Rift looks just a little bit sexier than the one above.
So what is the Oculus Rift going to be used for?
VR systems similar to the Rift have been around for a while, but at a much more limited and prototypical state. They are used mostly as training and simulator tools. The Rift was started from the beginning as a commercial venture and naturally the first use would be for movies and video games, the big money. However, in my serious gaming opinion, even the Wii motion tracking technology is not good enough to have anything more intricate that simple games for cool moms, or games that are awesome despite, not because of, the motion tracking.

Its getting better everyday, so the future is promising, but I would still think that the first games on the Rift would not quite be as immersive an action experience as we expect. Call of Duty would suck, but it sucks anyway so that's not much of a loss, I guess. But imagine the movies and Mass Effect/Dungeon Siege-like RPG games that we could see soon. Exploring massive arenas and solving structural puzzles in a 3D POV game... its the dream. The first movies would probably be a Non Playable Character (NPC) experience, still awesome from a first person 3D perspective. Imagine documentaries, educational videos, lab tours, video conferencing... oh the humanity... I cannot wait.
Total Recall, so crazy its good... Virtual Vacations are on the way...
So when do we get to live our childhood Total Recall/Matrix fantasies?
The consumer version of the Rift is still in development and is expected to hit stores in a couple of years. But you can get a developer's version of the Rift right now for $300. This, while raising some money, is intended to provide developer an early version of the hardware which they can test and build applications for so that when the consumer version is finally launched, the software support is not lacking. As a result there are a whole bunch of videos and modded games that already support the Rift, and the preliminary reports say that the Rift VR is amazing. The best part is that this is just the beginning. Studios are coming forth to declare their projects which will be focused at really exploring the limits of the Rift's capabilities.
Its a long video, and not all that interesting, but it highlights one potential problem that VR will cause reverse motion sickness, loss of balance because of perception of motion despite no motion detected by the inner ear balance centers of the body.
Breaking News
4 days ago, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion!!!
Wow!! That came as a surprise to a lot of people including me. So what does this mean.
The Oculus founders have publicly stated to be surprised by the large negative reaction on the World Wide Web. There are two reasons for this. One, all the money that the indie developers gave to support this product (Oculus raised over $2 million on Kickstarter and selling developer kits) is effectively gone, since the investors and developers are very likely to lose a lot of the control over the final product. Secondly, most of the indie tech scene really hates Facebook. Facebook is no longer cool with the tech crowd, it has sold out to Grandmas and Farmvillers and Instagrammers. They have violated privacy concerns and most people, including me, believe it is ridiculously overvalued, an unwelcome reminder of unbalanced state of technology innovation and monetization.
One of the many memes flooding in after the FB deal, referencing Margaritaville South Park S13e3
But its not all that bad. The founders of Oculus have promised that the contract with Facebook does not take the control away from independent developers. Nor would usage of the Rift require any affiliation with Facebook. If these promises indeed hold up, the big money backing could be great for the development of the technology. I would hate for the Rift to become a lame platform like Facebook games... an insult to the whole institution and history of video games. But at the same time, I am ok with the Rift being more mainstream than, say the Playstation, and reach a higher level, e.g. movies, in the spectrum of entertainment possibilities. Only time will tell if Facebook does the smart thing and allows Oculus to realize its potential or destroy it in pursuit of the shitty Instagram demographic.

But the good news is that though Oculus is the biggest player in the field, there are alternatives. Sony has declared Project Morpheus to be the future of VR gaming, working in tandem with the PS4. Microsoft has so far expressed sly intent, but no actual commitment. Google's already got its Glass, not sure how that measures up to the Rift. I wish I had one of each to test out :P

The future is virtual, my friends, and it is going to be awesome.

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