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Tunnel Vision: The Fortnight In VR

Ocidental tourist

The real name for this column is "Alec tries to justify eventually buying an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 by convincing himself that all the neat things happening in VR at the moment are absolutely essential to his day-to-day life". It's too long for the headline box though, innit?

We'll get to my DK2 dilemma shortly, but also covered in this inaugural Tunnel Vision are: Optimus Prime, catbus, VR cinemagoing with friends and Unreal 4-powered Italian opera.

I haven't bought a DK2 yet, partly because aaargh money and partly due to fears that the consumer version will be announced the second I do so, but there is a strong chance I'll bite the bullet this week. Rumours swirl that we won't see the consumer version - which will likely have an even higher resolution display and some sort of wireless attributes - until next Christmas, and I'm just not sure I can wait that long. Almost everything I've tried on the very low resolution, motion sickness-inducing first-gen Oculus has been impressive, but its huge handicaps have kept from truly gaming on it, and that's something I yearn to do.

VR is the future, I am quite sure, though I don't know quite what form it will eventually take. What I do know is that people are already doing amazing things with even the immature first-wave tech. I'm currently in possession of a borrowed Oculus Rift Development Kit 1, and it's that which will be basis of everything I cover in this column until such time as I get hold of any other hardware.

First, a note. There is every chance you'll already have seen much of what I cover. That's OK! This is a round-up, not breaking news. Also, I am entirely aware that most people don't have access to an Oculus. That's OK too! The point of this column is not "you have to buy one and try these things immediately", but instead to try and give the more casual observer a sense of what's going on out there.

Robots In De Eyes

Let's start in safe and simple territory. Transformers VR is nothing more than a static statue of Optimus Prime standing in a faintly Autobotish warehouse. You're free to move around him, and there's a ramp that'll take you up to head-height, but that's it. It's a decent piece of 3D modelling, and in any other context it'd elicit little more than a shrug. The reason it's so much more effective on a Rift is scale - stationary this Cybertronian may be, but his massiveness is inescapable and powerful. From a first person, wraparound, 3D perspective, he's there, and his impossibility as he towers above me is mesmerising. Everything that's always been wrong with Transformers games is revealed in an instant - we've only ever seen these beings as third-person action characters, battling foes of the same size, and never been able to convey that they're titanic robots made from unfolded vehicles and who are more than capable of squishing us with an errant footstep. More than that, just imagine this scale concept applied to something like Planetside or Titanfall. Once the Rift approaches the mainstream, I'm quite sure it won't be long until we get to feel minuscule on the ground, ducking between enormous stomping mech feet, completely lost in a wondrous, terrifying future-war.

An animated and transforming Optimus is apparently in the pipeline - can't wait.

Thanks to Pete D for the tip

The Face of The Future

This is something else, buddy, something else. Created as a companion piece to Italian 'mini opera' short film Senza Peso, this Unreal Engine 4-powered vignette is a tour of a fantastical afterlife (as opposed to all those non-fantastical afterlives, eh?) that fuses sumptuous hardware-accelerated landscapes with full-motion video of human beings.

There's a bit where the gigantic face of a sinister man with stick-on giant eyebrows appears and gazes crossly as you as you pass through, and the 3D effect is wonderful. The environment is lavish enough that I wasn't thinking "oh, these are two different things stitched together" - this was one world. Games can do environments pretty well now - it's faces where they still stumble, and which so often play a role in their characters and stories failing to convince.

Which has got me thinking: is this going to be one of the big wins for VR-powered games? Clearly, shooting and editing enough 3D film footage to allow a player to gaze upon a real human face from whatever angle they so choose is a huge practical and technical undertaking, but perhaps there's scope to at least pop a filmed face onto a rendered body and have Oculus' stereoscopic tricks turn it 3D rather than a distracting flat surface (hello, Max Payne). Maybe it's too tall an order - but I hope some mad bastard gives it a shot at least.

Here's the mini opera which the VR sequence is based upon. I won't pretend it's for me; I'm only interested in the pretty, strange, Unreal-powered hellscape that span out of it.

Cinema for Shut-Ins

This isn't quite videogames, but get stuffed, it's my website, right? What's taken me closest to pulling the trigger on an Oculus DK2 is its potential for movie-watching. Being the father of a one-year-old means cinema trips are no longer possible (or, at least, watching a costumed man punch other costumed men against a greenscreen background is not reward enough for the several days' of domestic bitterness that would result from such an excursion), but I miss them dearly. I was already aware that an Oculus Rift could be used for watching 3D movies, but what I hadn't yet considered was its application for 2D movies (i.e. anything I'd actually want to watch).

There's much the cinema can do that even a telly so large that it causes friends and family to anxiously question your priorities in life cannot, and one of those is simple size. To go to the cinema is to watch a screen that exceeds your field of view, that makes actors so large that you feel you've sidled right up to them, and to have you moving your head around to follow the action or conversation. Clearly, a projector can recreate much of this, but to do it well requires lots of kit and lots of scale. A £250 face-box can do it better, in any size of house. I was watching a film on a giant screen. I moved my head and my view changed. It was wonderful. (Apart from motion sickness and eye-strain that was still with me the next morning, at any rate. I pray DK2 fixes that, though I also pray that it doesn't so that I can talk myself out of buying one.)

My basic VR movie-watching was done with VR Player, but one step beyond is RiftMax. As well as the screen, this renders an entire cinema - seats, foyer, pretend popcorn and all. It sounds faintly ludicrous ('what do I really gain from seeing some pixel-shaded chairs in my peripheral vision?') until you factor in the multiplayer potential. It's early days for RiftMax (a Kickstarter campaign is coming) but it is able to stream films online and invite in other 'players.' Round up a few fellow socially-ostracised early adopters and you've got yourself a happy nerds' cinema outing without leaving the house. There's voice chat, there're multiple screening rooms, there's avatar customisation and gestures, and the only thing that really troubles me is the crushing inevitability with which this will become Second Life. I don't really want to stumble into a live-streamed 3D porn movie in a theatre stuffed full with plastic-faced onanists when all I'd wanted to do was watch Dredd with a chum.

And finally

The catbus sequence from My Neighbour Totoro, rendered semi-interactive and explorable. Comparable in effect to the Optimus Prime statue (i.e. Totoro is massive, and in VR becomes faintly terrifying because of it), but as well as including animation and events, this does much with light, shadow and depth too, which builds a powerful atmosphere and a delectable sense of truly being Elsewhere. Walking Simulators are the games most likely to benefit from Rift support in the short term, and this demonstrates how much they can achieve by not shying away from the unusual and playful.

Finally and finally

If you haven't had a chance to play with a Rift yourself and are UK-based, I'm informed that there'll be units hooked up to Elite: Dangerous (with Frontier staff in attendance) for you to play with at LaveCon in Kettering on 5/6 July and Fantasticon in Hull on 16 August.

That's it for now. This column will be fortnightly, partly so I don't run out of things to cover and partly because I need a few days to recover after any extended use of the first-gen Oculus. Speaking of which, if anyone has had any experience with DK2 and can find a non-NDA-breaking way of assuring me that the motion sickness/eyestrain issues have definitely been dealt with, they'll be my best friend.

Tips and suggestions for this column are extremely welcome - please send 'em here.

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