Heads-On: Playing Elite Dangerous With The Oculus Rift

By Craig Pearson on December 20th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.


My trip to Frontier was a costly one. All through the day, David Braben kept teasing me about a special surprise he had for me, one that I was forbidden to mention (until today). Was it the Thargoids? Was he a Thargoid? I took note that his office was curiously round, like the cockpit of a ship, and I warily entered it. It wasn’t that: as I sat down, he asked me if I wanted to play Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift? Did I? I did. I’m allowed to tell you this because the Elite alpha has just updated support for Track IR, 3D TVs, and the Oculus Rift, and my time with it has convinced me I need a Rift in my life.


He gave me the device–and in my head he whispered “you will believe” while he was swathed in a heavenly shaft of light, but really he just said “put this on”–and handed me an Xbox controller. I’ve tried the Rift one time before, and it wasn’t very smooth. It made me feel slightly nauseous, which was my final thought as I slipped the headset over my face. Though it arrived like this: “Don’t you dare puke on David Braben’s nice jumper.”

I was in. A gentle turn of my head didn’t elicit any comets of vomit, which was a good sign because the first time the effect was immediately apparent. I think the lagginess of the previous game was to blame, as it didn’t keep up with my head movements. I was in a cockpit and beyond that frame I could see asteroids and the little spaceship I was to hunt down and destroy. They were a little low-res and pixelated (the Rift’s dev kit is 640×800 per eye), but nonetheless my brain clicked and said: “You’re in a space ship. You’re in Elite.”

Me, making a conscious effort to keep my tongue in my mouth.

My brain and I do a lot of talking, and it always sounds like a portentous TV character. But it was right: I was inside the new Elite! I did the thing everybody does when they put on the headset and span my head around like I was a human bobblehead. Just a few hours prior, if I turned like this, I’d have caught the attention of three Elite: Dangerous developers and their PR lady. Now I saw stars, asteroids, and even the back of my seat and the door of the cockpit. I looked down, but I was bodiless, though that’s something Frontier plan on changing.

Apparently this build lagged a few weeks behind the one I’d been playing. It was also missing a crosshair, which I asked about. One will arrive, but Braben explained it’s a tough element to get right: “They were disabled as they didn’t have a position on 3D. We’re experimenting with them at different 3D distances in the world – it feels wrong to have the gun-sight feel like it is inside the cockpit but should be further out into the world – a bit like they do with HUDs in real planes or even in some recent cars like BMWs. We will tune it until it feels ‘right’ but this is the beauty of an Alpha – we can adjust it over time.”

All the impressive, immersive tricks the HUD needed to pull to help you to track a target aren’t needed when you can just move my head. It changed everything. I tracked the ship for a little bit, watching it slink through the asteroids. I could still see the jets burn as he twisted away in front of me, though in the confines of the Rift he now felt further away. I boosted to keep him close, but instead of locking on to keep track, I just watched, tilting my head as he swam to the left of my view and then following with the ship’s controls. If you think about that for a second, you’ll realise it reverses a lot of what’s true in dog-fighting situations without head-tracking: I’d have had to keep up with it before to keep it in view, constantly adjusting to keep it in sight. Now I knew exactly where I was turning to, which enabled me to adjust my speed a lot more accurately. The ship was never out of my view, though the missing crosshair did cause me some trouble with aiming. I won’t be ending this piece with a triumphant final blast of my weapons.

But something better happened: I boosted a little bit more, trying to get the ship directly in front of me to help with my aim. It was fighting me all the way, swimming and spinning off centre, locking the pair of us into a spiral. I decided the best way to solve this was to get closer and just ram it. I steadied and then pushed the throttle all the way up, this time just minutely adjusting my trajectory to avoid oversteering. As I got closer, I fired again and the ship took evasive action; it pulled sharply up and I passed underneath him. I could see the detail of the ship as it drifted overhead: the thrusters burned on one side as it tried to push out and away, there was a little smear of damage from where I’d clipped it.

I followed the ship as it passed over my head, the transparent cockpit roof enabling me to track it without any trouble. It carried on, nearly dipping behind the back of my ship before I snapped out of it: he was trying to get behind me. I swapped power from the weapons to the engines to make my turn tighter, reversed thrusters, and let his momentum carry him back over me. I didn’t lose sight of him at any point. It was a moment that took me out of the game, a purely instinctive response to the situation. I never thought about the steps I needed to take, I just did it. I felt like an amazing pilot.

It turns out Braben had a similar experience. He said: “To me, it felt quite different too. It felt very open. I loved the feeling of watching an opponent’s ship soar above my cockpit and as it came close seeing the damage I had done to it. It had the feeling of being in a cockpit of a small plane, where I could see all around me, rather than just looking out of a front window.”

The rest of the time was spent trying to shoot it, but the missing crosshairs left me firing bullets into the abyss. They’re probably still travelling, alone and lost. I’d quite like to join them. There are games you know how you’re going to play before you ever get the chance to play them. When I pledged to the Kickstarter, it was with the aim of eventually playing as an Explorer class. I’d be alone and on the edge of space, the canopy of my ship creeping with ice. I always imagined that, in that position, I’d be aware of my surroundings, because all my memories of Frontier seem to be wrapped in a cockpit, and not sat in front of a portable television with a CD32 controllers in my hands. This experience was dangerously close to fulfilling that vision.

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56 Comments »

  1. guygodbois00 says:

    “…he asked me if I wanted to play Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift?”
    He had to ask, didn’t he? You lucky dog, you.

  2. Darth Gangrel says:

    “I need a Rift in my life” Luckily, you don’t have to be a spendth-rift to get one.

  3. GallonOfAlan says:

    SQUEEEEEEEE

  4. remoteDefecator says:

    I want to apply this article directly to my forehead.

  5. aldo_14 says:

    Stop it. just bloody stop it. I don’t have any money or time and you people with your fancy words and stuff are trying to take more off of me AAARGH.

    • luukdeman111 says:

      Actually, it amazes the hell out of me how cheap this thing is supposed to be… $300,- for a device that it so sophisticated and arguably the first of it’s kind…. That really is incredible..

      Still, I understand that $300,- is still quite a bit for the average human being (myself included). So this is not necessarily an attack at your comment. It’s just that I had to express my feelings about the price… Thank you for letting me share…

      • rustybroomhandle says:

        First of its kind? How? Explain.

        • Malarious says:

          Sure, there have been VR headsets before. But nothing even approaching what the Rift achieves. Low-latency head-tracking and stereoscopic 3D obviously aren’t new technologies, but no device has combined them so effectively before so as to create a truly immersive experience. The consumer version, which will fix the only two significant issues the Rift has (low resolution and the absence of lateral head tracking) is going to change everything.

      • Richard Burton says:

        I agree, I’m with you on the price. $300 isn’t too bad, considering the fact we’ll pay more for huge LCD / plasma TV’s or multi-monitor setups. The Oculus is technically better than a huge TV or three monitors. Admittedly, you probably need a full HOTAS kit to get the most out of it. Think throttle, pedals and full programmable joystick or steering wheel. Or, of course… a gamepad, heh. Luckily I have those already, so I wouldn’t need to buy any extra kit for this. Anyone thinking of upgrading to a huge TV or multi-monitor setup in the future would do well to consider Oculus as a viable alternative. I suppose it wouldn’t be *quite* so value for money for those with large families, who would then of course probably have to by an extra Oculus for several people! (where a single huge TV purchase would work) but for an individual gamer it’s great for sure. Really looking forward to trying it out in some racing games as well as those flight sims! I imagine that companies who sell “simpits” designed for multi-monitors aren’t too happy though. Who needs to spend days building cockpits or buying expensive multi-monitor simpits when you can virtually sit inside one?

  6. Lamb Chop says:

    I do enjoy moving Craig’s head to track my target.

  7. Emeraude says:

    Call me grumpy and old fashioned, but I still don’t see what the fuss is about with those…

    I mean, I understand it being an interesting *option* added to the PC arsenal, but like, say, a joystick, or a driving wheel controller, I don’t see it revolutionizing the field as some seem to claim…

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      Immersion. To be able to see around you that freely in a cockpit environment just sounds so freaking awesome. I remember driving in Far Cry 2 being a revelation, as I actually had to look ‘behind’ me to reverse. That little touch really helped ground me in that world.

      That said, it will be interesting to see how they get around the issue of current control inputs to make it all ‘gel’ together. e.g. how does one sharpshoot with a Rift strapped to one’s face?

      • waltC says:

        It seems like the obvious immersion potential would be difficult to balance with the feeling of claustrophobia evinced by wearing the goggles & strap around the head. Visually it reminds me of an underwater diver’s mask. It’ll be interesting to see reviews of what it’s like to use for an hour or more without interlude, or if that’s going to be possible. I’m somewhat surprised to see it still in alpha state as I would have thought they’d be approaching market by now. It would also be nice if OR would supply some general information about developer tools and what it takes to support the device as that will make an abundance of difference in the eventual success of the device. I’m skeptical, but by no means am I ready to assess a negative judgment!

        • particlese says:

          I can’t speak to the claustrophobia aspect as I don’t suffer from it in general, but I imagine it’s not a whole lot worse than wearing ski goggles with some black tape on the sides would be, since that’s essentially what it is when a world is being displayed. As for “what it’s like to use for an hour or more without interlude”, I’d say it becomes less magical the more you use a mouse to look around, at least in HL2. Driving/flying games are better, as sitting in a cockpit better matches reality if you’re in a chair. The immersion becomes much less magical if you can’t tolerate arguments between your inner ears (head movement) and eyeballs. Fortunately, they’ve been working like crazy on preventing those arguments, so by the time the consumer model comes out (2014, last I heard), the Technicolor yawns should be fairly rare. (Part of that is the devs’ responsibility, though. Computer-controlled cameras are unforgivable, so CoD, Bioshock, and friends will have to adapt.)

          Fortunately, Oculus realizes that dev support is one of the biggest keys to their success, and they’ve spent much effort to teach people what’s required of a VR developer. (Look up the Oculus blog, as well as Michael Abrash’s “Ramblings in Valve Time”, John Carmack’s AltDevBlog post on latency, and many others’ writings for excellent looks at what’s required. I can’t post many links without the post exploding, so I’ll post none.) If you own a Rift dev kit, you also have access to source code examples and libraries, nearly-trouble-free Unity and UDK integration, and related documentation. If you’re looking to dive into code right now and/or don’t want to worry about licenses, there are some related software projects like OpenHMD.

          [Must...balance...positives...] There’s room for adjustment, but the current dev kit can be really uncomfortable in its widest FOV position when you have a big nose. Also, I advise against sharing a Rift with people who sweat profusely from their face or who have contact-communicable eyeball diseases.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      When you use one, you’ll understand. It’s the difference between playing the game and being in the game.

    • phuzz says:

      I’ve not used a Rift, or anything else like that, except for 10 mins on one of those VR games about 20 years ago, but I can see how it would make a difference.
      Do you drive a car? Think about how much easier it is in real life to know how far away from other cars you are, and how you can just look over when you change lanes.
      Now think about a driving game, where you probably pull the camera as far back from the car as possible, so you can actually see what’s going on, and judging distances becomes a bit more of a guessing game.
      It’s that sort of game I’m looking forward to playing on a Rift (et al), something where you’re sat in a cockpit/seat, but now you have an easy way of looking around to judge distance and speed.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Have you ever tried a head tracker like TrackIR in an air combat game? It provides that critical “eyes always on the target” experience. It’s much more than just a nice accessory for a game with good TrackIR support like Rise of Flight.

      There were partial attempts to duplicate it with “padlock” features in earlier games, but there is nothing like actual head tracking for combat effectiveness. The Rift just takes that to the next level, by blocking out the real-world environment and throwing you “into” the sim for deep immersion. But it’s the “eyes on target” aspect that makes it a perfect match for this type of game.

      • waltC says:

        I have to admit, though, that I sort of prefer the idea of a large monitor in front of me so that I can move my eyes over the screen instead of moving my entire head–man, I’ve got a crick in my neck just thinking about it…;) And how do I access a keyboard while wearing this–or will the OR have to ship with a braille-like controller device for the hands by necessity?

        • taristo says:

          With the right accessories and a Rift you won’t “have to move your eyes across the screen”, but will feel like you are in the plane, for instance check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75f12kDE2Pk

          A lot of games are played with a Controller, otherwise you’ll probably access the Keyboard about the same you do now, there’s only a limited number of keys like WASD, Shift and Space required for movement.

      • Emeraude says:

        I have. That’s why I made the comparison with a joystick and wheel controller actually, that’s how the whole thing appears to me: an interesting accessory to have for some particular games, but hardly worth it for others.
        One more cool option, nothing revolutionary.

    • Vandelay says:

      I’m with you and I wouldn’t describe myself as old fashioned. I get the arguments for immersion, certainly more so than when they are used for 3D glasses in films, but I can’t see this being a game changer. We will still be playing the same old games in the same old way, just that it will be a bit more immersive.

      I think I have probably said it before on articles regarding the Rift, but I just don’t see how this can be so exciting for many people, yet motion controls, something that actually does offer the potential for new ways of playing games and certainly is a big improvement on playing more traditional games with a controller, just gets ignored and scoffed at.

      That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to try the Rift out, but I’m not interested in buying one until I have actually given it a go.

  8. HAdr55 says:

    just before I looked at the check for $8124, I have faith that…my… mom in-law was trully bringing in money in their spare time from there pretty old laptop.. there friend brother haz done this less than eleven months and by now paid for the depts on there home and purchased a great new McLaren F1. visit homepage http://Buzz95.com

  9. Harlander says:

    So, they’re going to give you a body later, eh?

    I wonder which will feel weirder:

    being able to move your head but not seeing your body, or
    seeing your body but not being able to move it.

    I’d rather be invisible than paralysed, personally.

    • aldo_14 says:

      I’d imagine the body will be animated in line with the controls. Although that might also be a tad weird, as the cockpit controls won’t correspond 1-to-1 with the actual controls you use.

      • iucounu says:

        Back in the days of Elite and Frontier the manual art would show the controls of your ship as looking a lot like a BBC Micro with a joystick in Port B, if I remember correctly. Would be cool if the new game detected your input device and showed that in-engine.

  10. kwyjibo says:

    I had a go on Strike Suit Zero with the Rift earlier in the year. Was pretty cool, but they’re miles off with the resolution, so it was more a “Oh, I see how this could take off”, versus ” Mindblowing!!111″.

    Especially with a space sim, where everything is miles away – you can’t make anything out until it’s a few hundred meters in front of you. And then it looks like you’re viewing it through a cage mesh.

    • mukuste says:

      You whippersnappers with your “high resolution” and all that! When we were young we would have been happy to have that 640×800 in our space sims! We did just fine on our 320×200 VGA displays and said thank you, too.

      • BTAxis says:

        Yeah, but we’re not young anymore, are we?

        • Alfy says:

          That. My eyes are not what they used to be. Tried Baldur’s Gate II in its original version recently, and reading the text or trying to make sense of the pixellating blobs gave me headaches.

    • Meat Circus says:

      Fortunately, the release Rift is gonna be *at least* 1080p.

      • aldo_14 says:

        Does that mean the PC has to render two images at 1080p/60 (or equiv to, say, one 1080p image at 120fps)?

        Because that sounds like it could be quite demanding.

        • Rian Snuff says:

          It’s already been confirmed to be 4k. Which means you won’t need to use anti-aliasing at all. Much like pumping up the resolution scale in in Arma 2, (Simulated x2) which removed the need for anti-aliasing also meanwhile keeping lines very crispy, even much much nicer and done so with a much better pixel density. You also don’t need to use the 3D functionality, but can. Any current top of the line GPU should be efficient for a good experience. However perhaps G-Sync technology will also be incorporated into the Rift. Which would be a really good idea for nvidia as it’s the one market that could mostly benefit from it’s technology. So…. Toss in another 280/290 or 770/780 and you’re good to go.

          On the good side of things a ton of very cheap 290′s passed down from Bit-miners will be available the second anything even slightly better comes out. So yea. It’s not the unattainable by far.

          : )

          • Parge says:

            No it hasn’t.

            They have said 4k will be possible in the future (could be years away) but the consumer version will DEFINITELY not be 4k. Please check your facts before commenting, its polite.

        • mwoody says:

          No, it’s a single image, split for each eye: there’s only one screen in the device. So currently, the dev kit is a 1280×800 screen split horizontally, hence 640×800 for each eye (actually much less, as the lenses don’t divide the screen completely in half; there’s a good chunk of screen you can’t see). The consumer version is most likely to be a 1920×1080 screen (960×1080 per eye). I believe they’re aiming to have a smaller screen (dimensions not resolution) in the final product so that more of the screen is actually used.

          There have been rumors of a 4k screen for the consumer version, but these are all traced back to an offhand comment by a dev that they’d like to do it eventually; it’s extremely unlikely to be available at launch when you consider the cost and latency concerns of current-gen tech.

          For the record: have the dev kit, love it. Nausea is a huge factor, but that’s largely because a lot of the demos are by people still learning what NOT to do. My only disappointment is that since each eye only gets half, horizontally, of a flat image, peripheral vision is not engaged: it feels like being in another world… wearing goggles.

          • Gap Gen says:

            How much of the Oculus display tech is public and easily accessible? It seems like this sort of thing should be avoidable with a simple “here’s how to do everything” guide on their website. After all, it’s in their interests for games not to make people vomit.

          • spacedyemeerkat says:

            What a shame about the lack of peripheral vision. That’s a real disappointment.

          • Sunjammer says:

            Playing ARMA3 with TrackIR is a dream when in vehicles, and a nauseous nightmare on foot, so the motion sickness isn’t 100% a factor of the lack of head tracking and situational awareness. There’s something about how the brain calibrates to the idea of being in a vehicle versus being, er, in a person, that has a pretty stark effect on motion sickness. Even proper 6DOF head tracking isn’t going to fix the nausea of VR in an FPS, I think.

            Being able to sit up straight to look over the edge of a cockpit is gloriously immersive stuff though. I truly hope Oculus can work that stuff out.

          • SuicideKing says:

            consumer 4k may not be that far off, really. Phones and tablets (i.e. small screens) are already getting quite high resolutions, it’s possible that, if not at release, then within a year or so of it they release a 4k version. At that magnitude of PPI i don’t think anti-aliasing would be required, but could be wrong.

  11. DarrenGrey says:

    I’m personally more intrigued about trying out their red/blue 3D glasses mode! I’ve not seen a game with support for those before – should be cool :)

    • Al__S says:

      Trackmania 2 (and I think the earlier versions too?) supports red/blue 3D- I guess Shootmaina might as well, given it uses the same engine.

      • DigitalImpostor says:

        Is in the first Trackmania series. It has a bunch of 3D options.

  12. caff says:

    I really do want to be playing like this. Elite looks excellent as-is, the Rift will take it up a level.

  13. jellydonut says:

    What’s it like compared to eve valkyrie?

  14. GamesInquirer says:

    Supersampling might help.

  15. Surlywombat says:

    Elite: Dangerous is still a very silly name, and if you are going for silly why not do it properly and make a deal with Cosgrove Hall to do: Elite: Dangermouse.

  16. DatonKallandor says:

    It’s really insane just how good Elite is looking. Going with the cartoony style over a more realistic one turned out to be a fantastic choice.

  17. nmarebfly says:

    Re: the crosshair question the devs should check out what the Enemy Starfighter guy has to say, he has a nice breakdown here: http://enemystarfighter.com/blog/2013/9/5/vr-lessons-learned

  18. Stevostin says:

    Ok, they’ll have spend some more gear money, I guess.

  19. Cockie says:

    The Hello Games peoples recently hinted on Twitter that they had gotten something from Oculus. No Man’s Sky with Rift support?

  20. JonSolo says:

    After reading this, all I can think about is using Oculus Rift to pilot an X-Wing. Please, Disney, make this happen!

  21. Brifyinutly says:

    my neighbor’s ex-wife makes $87/hour on the laptop. She has been unemployed for ten months but last month her check was $13286 just working on the laptop for a few hours. visit this site……
    http://www.Rush64.com

  22. kirkkh1 says:

    S O M U C H E N V Y . . . M E L T I N G

  23. Richard Burton says:

    Craig, is that you in the picture mate? If so, may I say that you look like an extra from Das Boot, and I think I want to buy you a Phillishave stubble clipper for Christmas. We are insanely jealous of your Braben encounter sir. Give our regards to Sir David, we love him!

    • Sharlie Shaplin says:

      My dad keeps calling me Johan from Das Boot, I guess I need a Phillishave too hehe. The Occulus sure sounds real nice.