The Goggles, They Do Something

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Ben isn’t a video-gamer. Oh, he’s a gamer: I’ve never seen a board game that Ben couldn’t dominate after thirty minutes of playing, he is wicked good at laser tag, and we still tell stories about “The Grom” from a tabletop RPG we last played eight years ago. And he’s usually up for anything. We’ve climbed up a cliff unharnessed to a point where we were genuinely afraid of death, sang karaoke with some Russian mobsters (at least I think they were mobsters – I didn't press the question), and we built a life size Papier-mâché giraffe which caused children to morn when it was blown over in a storm. We did all that stuff with each other, but in the ten years I’ve known the man we have never once played a video game together. I was hoping the Oculus Rift would change that. I was wrong.

I told him that, “What the Rift does is make it look like you’re inside a video game – not watching the video game from a screen, but being inside the world of the video game. This isn’t like wearing 3D glasses and watching a movie at the movie theater. It looks much more like how reality looks through your own eyeballs.”

“Mmm-hmmm,” Ben replied.

“Look at your surroundings right now. Well, if you were wearing the Rift and playing a video game that simulated your current environment, it would look to you pretty much how your environment looks to you as you read this.”

“Yea, but …”

“Look, Imagine that the Minecraft world was a real place. You do know about Minecraft, right?”

“I think I picked up the gist through nerd-osmosis.”

“Well, imagine that you could walk around in it. Well, when you use the Oculus Rift, your eyes see the Minecraft world (or any video game) like it was a real world. Your brain goes, “I know I was just sitting down at my desk but now I’m obviously in The Minecraft-verse.” Or on the Millennium Falcon, or riding a horse in Middle Earth or whatever. It looks real.”

My explanations did no good. “It’s still a video game, and those just aren’t my thing,” he says, ending the discussion.

Well.

Ok then.

I had such high hopes when I ordered it. Usually when I order stuff online I forget what I bought by the time UPS knocks at the door. Not that time. That time I was refreshing the UPS tracking website like I was playing Cookie Clicker. First it went to Atlanta, then to Seattle, then back to Atlanta (How does that make sense?), and finally to glorious Portland, Oregon.

I unpack the sucker and slowly and carefully remove it from the package. Hurriedly I read through the instructions and plug it in. It doesn’t work. I fiddle. It doesn’t work. I read the instructions again. I move a few plugs around. I put it on. And then I am inside The Matrix. Because it really does look like I am inside a totally different world. Something I had dreamed about ever since I was a little kid watching Captain N has been, visually at least, achieved. Way to go, science!

And that’s when I start to truly geek out. I buy some specialty programs to hack old games – games that were never designed to be shown of the Rift. And then I am inside Fallout 3. I look around, and it really does seem like I am turning my head left and right to look at Megaton City. No need to launch those missiles, Pyongyang! Thanks to technology I can now trick my brain into thinking that I’m in a hellish nightmarish radioactive landscape without actually having to nuke the planet.

THIS IS SO AWESOME!

I can not wait to show it to my friends and family. They are going to be so amazed. I plan to have entire parties based upon it. And then I call Ben and get shot down. So I go to my back back-up friend and call Chris. He’s a video gamer and plays more than I do, so I asked if he’d like to come on over and try it.

“Sounds pretty cool, man, but with the newborn and the remodel I’m just not sure when I can make the drive.”

Chris lives forty minutes away, which is a big reason for him being my back-up friend, so it’s a reasonable excuse. But with literally all of my social group, except for Ben who doesn’t play video games, having kids in the 0-5 range, same as me, we just don’t have much free time to hang out in situations where sticking a big-ass electronic bucket on your face and tuning out the world is practical. Toddlers and total immersive gaming don’t mix well together.

Ah, but at least there is someone I can count on: my wife. She will play board games with me every now and then, and is at a ridiculously high level of Candy Crush, but in the nine years we’ve been with each other, the only time we’ve ever played a video game together was in our first month of dating. (I swear it was just part of her ploy to “woo” me – or, you know, to try being open to my interests? Romance is tricky.) So she’s not the ideal audience for the Rift, but at least she is, you know, physically in my house and able to try it.

I loaded up the movie-theater simulator as a test run. Just to get her VR-legs running and to calibrate the Rift to the dimensions of her face.

“It looks like it’s Back to the Future.”

“Yea, but does the theater look real?”

“Yes, it kinda does.”

“Isn’t that cool?”

“I’ve been in theaters before.”

IMAGE(http://i.ytimg.com/vi/raRFdVki-xQ/0.jpg)

The thrill was not exactly overwhelming her. Maybe she was whelmed up to her ankles. Knees at best.

I get it. I mean, it doesn’t actually feel real so much as real-ish. There are still plenty of problems with the Rift: It’s not 4k, so it looks like you are watching the world through a screen door; and nausea is an issue for some people. This thing is a prototype, and it has all the flaws of a prototype.

But ... but ... but it is so cool! What I showed her was only potential. It was a proof-of-concept toy, to a large degree. But what potential! What a toy! I have to get her to see that.

I try a space demo that takes her on a tour of the cosmos. I try a demo where she is a Godzilla-like creature. I try a roller-coasting simulator while I shake her chair.

Her response isn’t quite on the level of “That’s nice, dear,” but it isn’t far off.

But maybe a gamer would see it differently. I have this neighbor named Chad. We aren’t friends, but we could be someday. We see each other at neighborhood gatherings, and it’s always pleasant. Maybe if we both had more time we could hang out one-on-one sometime, but it just hasn’t happened yet. But whenever we do meet up we exchange polite chit-chat and we usually end up talking about what the other guy is playing. So I get him and his wife over to our house for a playdate. Once he’s there I snatch him away to my private office for some alone time so I can whip out the Rift.

I hope that line doesn’t sound as dirty reading it as it did typing.

I take him into my office and start him out with Space. He’s pretty impressed and says how cool it is. Then I try and boot up Arkham Asylum, which I know he’s a big fan of. But the computer has deleted all my saves on that game for some reason, and we spend a few precious minutes trying to get through the cut scenes and into the gameplay. And that is when one of our kids begins crying. Remember what I said about total-immersion gaming and toddlers?

We emerge from my office and resume our Dad duties, neither wife exactly overjoyed that we ditched the kids for 10 minutes. 10 minutes may not seem like much time, but trust me: If you’ve got four kids running around a house and all are under four years of age, it can feel like an eternity.

Before he leaves, I ask him what he thinks. Chad says it’s pretty cool but doesn’t think he’ll get one. I ask why and he tells me that he just doesn’t need another gaming peripheral right now. It just didn’t strike him as something he needed to get.

And I smile and I nod. And I think to myself, “Well why the hell not?” He was inside of Arkham Fricken Asylum! Granted it was only for around one minute of actual game play, but he was still there. He looked up and there was the celling. He looked to his right and Commissioner Gordon was standing next to him. Gordon! Next-to-him! He got to experience being the god-damned-Batman for Pete’s sake, and that didn’t cause him to want one? What was wrong with him?

Or what was wrong with me? I’d shown or tried to show the Rift to multiple people, and none of them were getting as excited and jazzed about it as I was. Why was that? Was it the idea of the Rift I liked, or the reality?

Probably the idea, if I’m being honest with myself. That I could walk around the world of Mass Effect and see what Shepard saw in the way that she saw it was so compelling that I could overlook the flaws in the experience. I loved the idea that if I could ever get the hacks working right I could be in the Shire in LOTRO. I love the idea so much that troubleshooting to try and it do it actually felt fun. And in the background, the idea that this was the next step in life in the 21st century – that I was part of the cutting edge of the Next Big Thing – pulled on me quite seductively.

And the reality? I found playing games with the Rift to be a huge leap forward in immersion. For example, I wanted to try the Rift on a game that I had never played before, so I gave Dragon Age: Origins a shot while using it. Playing that game on the Rift made me feel like I stepped through the wardrobe and finally got my entrance letter to Hogwarts right before getting a ride on Falcor – so much so that when I tried to play the game without the Rift, it felt flat and unreal. Why is The Fade just a bunch of lines on my computer screen when yesterday it was clearly a real place that I had walked around and been physically present in?

Why did I try to play it without the Rift? Well, that is actually the crucial “but.”

Because it was actually hard to play Dragon Age in the Rift. Difficult. Clunky. Frustrating. I couldn’t pull up or read my menus very clearly, and there was a lot of difficulty in doing things that would have been simple if I had looking at them on a screen. Playing it on the Rift feels like a kludge because it is a kludge. It wasn’t designed for that, and it shows.

But the ideal still sings to me quite sweetly. I know that my wants and desires aren’t some objective absolute standard that those around me must share. They are my wants and desires, and nothing more. If the Rift failed to find the audience I’d hope for, does that mean that my own personal experience will be any less fun?

Yes. Yes it does. Because humans are social creatures. We don’t do anything in isolation. We are still hunter-gathers at heart, and if Ug makes a comment that hunting the gazelle is just OK while hunting zebras is just fantastic, and the rest of the tribe nods in agreement, we cannot help but take that to heart. If the members of our tribe don’t share our interest in hunting the gazelle, pretty soon we’ll have to stop hunting the gazelle.

So I’ve stopped trying to share the Rift and am just keeping it to myself. It’s sitting up on a shelf to my right as I type this and hasn’t been taken down in all of 2015. I still plan on using it, at some undefined time. I genuinely want to take it down and walk around Skyrim or San Andreas, even if no one wants to be there with me. I just haven’t felt the urge to actually do it. All year.

But I will. Eventually.

Right?

Comments

I blame this article for making me relapse in my Cookie Clicker addiction. True story, I just opened it up again in another tab with an old save I'd kept in a email draft.

This was a great article, very interesting feedback on the Rift and how others with varying degrees of gamerhood, react to it. The conclusion still rings true though, and even though I haven't ever even seen a Rift, I find myself, indeed, nodding in agreement. The premise of the Rift seems amazing, but in practice... I'd foresee quite a few potential hurdles for me: toddlers, nausea and isolation.
I love the idea of it, I'd love to be walking around in Morrowind, or on the Citadel in Mass Effect, but... In practice, I just don't see it working out. Perhaps some day...

Anyhow, thumbs up, JR Ralls! It's nice to see you on the front page again.

I've never properly seen the Rift in action, despite having several chances to do so. The closest I got was when I was actually wearing the thing, but not properly adjusted to my glasses or vision, so everything was blurry and I couldn't make much out. (And then the computer overheated.) So I'm sitting here just barely outside the promised land, peering at it like a myopic Moses, while you tell me that it has a few drawbacks.

Also, I'm told that Elite: Dangerous is one of the few games with an interface properly designed to work in 3D.

I know that my wants and desires aren’t some objective absolute standard that those around me must share. They are my wants and desires, and nothing more. If the Rift failed to find the audience I’d hope for, does that mean that my own personal experience will be any less fun?

Yes. Yes it does. Because humans are social creatures. We don’t do anything in isolation. We are still hunter-gathers at heart, and if Ug makes a comment that hunting the gazelle is just OK while hunting zebras is just fantastic, and the rest of the tribe nods in agreement, we cannot help but take that to heart. If the members of our tribe don’t share our interest in hunting the gazelle, pretty soon we’ll have to stop hunting the gazelle.

I really, really liked this.

I think this helped me realize one of the reasons I don't care about or for VR. The concept of walking around the Normandy sounds like a great theme park experience, but I have no interest in experiencing a game that way. I appreciate deep and interesting worlds. Love them, even. But walking around an environment doesn't make it deeper or more interesting. It just means it'll take even longer to get from point a to b, and once you implement something like fast travel to get rid of that problem the concept of immersion is broken.

It's amazing technology, but I feel like the application of such possibilities are limited. VR is, to me at least, the new 3D.

I'm super pumped for the Rift for Elite, flight sims, and ARMA-family games (DayZ included). Basically the list of games one would use a TrackIR on currently.

But anything 3rd person or heavily menu driven, I doubt it will be that great of an experience.

*Legion* wrote:

But anything 3rd person or heavily menu driven, I doubt it will be that great of an experience.

Actually being in any 3rd person game is an amazing experience. Literally jaw dropping. As in, when I put it on and booted up Fallout 3 my jaw did literally drop as I looked around a nuclear wasteland.

It's just not a very good GAME.

Eleima wrote:

I blame this article for making me relapse in my Cookie Clicker addiction. True story, I just opened it up again in another tab with an old save I'd kept in a email draft.

I've been CC-sober for probably a year now. Any cool new changes?

ccesarano wrote:

I have no interest in experiencing a game that way.

Yes you do!

*ahem*

Ok, sorry. Let me try that again.

We just don't know yet. What we have for the Rift are essentially tech demos put together by a few guys for a not very big user-base, or kludges (and not very good kludges) for games that were never designed for the Rift.

New technologies require new tricks and tips that simply take time and experience to figure out. The switch from 2-D to 3-D required a completely new method of level design, to pick one thing among many. One of the problems with early 3d games isn't just the technical limitations of them, it's that their levels are, mostly, badly designed for a 3d environment compared to those that we design today after 20 years of figuring out what type of levels work best for 3d environments.

I imagine similar things will happen with VR games but right now we don't know what we don't know.

Just to make sure there is clear communication, when I said 3D I meant the effect like in film, or on the Nintendo 3DS (assuming you ever actually turn it on, which I admittedly do not).

I just feel like the sort of game where a VR headset is beneficial or worth the time is very limited. Perhaps not as limited as, say, the number of games that can benefit from a Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar controller, but limited nonetheless. Take a game like Final Fantasy Tactics. I love it for the tactical combat, the multitude of character classes, and the story. None of these would benefit from being in a VR environment. Even more so, how do you take the role of a disembodied commander over a battlefield and work it in with the Rift? Simply allow the player to position themselves from any location? What's stopping us from doing that now? Doesn't that mean you now have to render games in a lot more detail, and therefore budgets are going to be higher? Even if you develop the game on the budget, couldn't that time be instead used on mechanical polish? Won't you open up the opportunity for bugs?

And if you're not going to allow the player to swoop around the battlefield, then really, what other purpose would you have to a VR headset?

The Occulus Rift is, to me, a very fancy version of the Powerglove, Superscope, or Guitar Hero controller or Wiimote. It's a peripheral, and when a game is designed to take advantage of its strengths it'll be fantastic (okay, Powerglove doesn't quite apply there), but it's not going to change gaming as we know it because there will be too much it will be unable to replicate.

Or perhaps, going back to what you said about third person games, I really am viewing this a bit incorrectly. By turning my head I get to move the camera. And thus introduce the possibility of a tired, painful neck after so much time playing. I dunno. About any good reason I can think of or someone can mention about using the Rift, I feel like I can come up with a negative possibility or detriment to the thing.

Maybe I'll completely change my mind when I finally use one, but I just cannot fall under that same spell.

Even more so, how do you take the role of a disembodied commander over a battlefield and work it in with the Rift?

You don't. Anymore than you used 3d (which I am using in terms of 3d shooters alla Doom because I grew up in the 8-bit world) to do that.

What you do use VR alla the Rift to do is to create a truly realistic Gettysburg General experience. Being a general during the Civil War was nothing any video game I've ever seen. They didn't see hexes, and they couldn't command a bird eye view to zoom over the battlefield. They got written reports and if they wanted to see something themselves they had to hop on a horse and gallup around until they got their to take a look at it. That's something the Rift could deliver that no other experience really could match. But that doesn't mean it has to be used for everything anymore than 3d alla doom has to be used in everything.

ccesarano wrote:

J And thus introduce the possibility of a tired, painful neck after so much time playing.

For what it's worth, I never personally experienced that.

jrralls wrote:

You don't. Anymore than you used 3d (which I am using in terms of 3d shooters alla Doom because I grew up in the 8-bit world) to do that.

What you do use VR alla the Rift to do is to create a truly realistic Gettysburg General experience. Being a general during the Civil War was nothing any video game I've ever seen. They didn't see hexes, and they couldn't command a bird eye view to zoom over the battlefield. They got written reports and if they wanted to see something themselves they had to hop on a horse and gallup around until they got their to take a look at it. That's something the Rift could deliver that no other experience really could match. But that doesn't mean it has to be used for everything anymore than 3d alla doom has to be used in everything.

In other words, leaving "video game" territory and entering "simulation" territory. Assuming we want to get into those semantics.

I imagine the first Truck Simulator built exclusively for the Occulus Rift will be a major killer app for the thing.

ccesarano wrote:
jrralls wrote:

You don't. Anymore than you used 3d (which I am using in terms of 3d shooters alla Doom because I grew up in the 8-bit world) to do that.

What you do use VR alla the Rift to do is to create a truly realistic Gettysburg General experience. Being a general during the Civil War was nothing any video game I've ever seen. They didn't see hexes, and they couldn't command a bird eye view to zoom over the battlefield. They got written reports and if they wanted to see something themselves they had to hop on a horse and gallup around until they got their to take a look at it. That's something the Rift could deliver that no other experience really could match. But that doesn't mean it has to be used for everything anymore than 3d alla doom has to be used in everything.

In other words, leaving "video game" territory and entering "simulation" territory. Assuming we want to get into those semantics.

I imagine the first Truck Simulator built exclusively for the Occulus Rift will be a major killer app for the thing.

Desert Bus HD with built in Oculus support. Someone get on it at once!

Civil War Surgeon: exclusive for the Wiimote+Oculus

The appeal of the Rift is a mystery to me.

No, that's not right, I see the appeal as a curiosity, but I don't see the appeal as being enough to overcome the down sides. I don't even like gaming with headphones on, so completely cutting myself off from my surroundings seems both uncomfortable and selfish. I also have a child that needs attention after all. Even though my wife is an absolute super hero I can't in good conscience cut myself off from the family.

And I don't play enough games that would really benefit. If I had the time for Elite and flight sims I could see it as being the next logical step from a hotas, but with RPGs and strategy games being my entertainment of choice the rift just comes across as a cool, but expensive and unnecessary, toy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I think I'm Chad.

Great piece JR.

jrralls wrote:
Eleima wrote:

I blame this article for making me relapse in my Cookie Clicker addiction. True story, I just opened it up again in another tab with an old save I'd kept in a email draft.

I've been CC-sober for probably a year now. Any cool new changes?

Not really. They added antimatter condensers and prisms, more cookies to add bonuses, more achievements... It's just more of the same. Why am I still playing?

Eleima wrote:

It's just more of the same. Why am I still playing?

The games industry in a nutshell, folks. Heyoooo!

cheeze_pavilion wrote:

Civil War Surgeon: exclusive for the Wiimote+Oculus

I'd play it.

ccesarano wrote:
jrralls wrote:

You don't. Anymore than you used 3d (which I am using in terms of 3d shooters alla Doom because I grew up in the 8-bit world) to do that.

What you do use VR alla the Rift to do is to create a truly realistic Gettysburg General experience. Being a general during the Civil War was nothing any video game I've ever seen. They didn't see hexes, and they couldn't command a bird eye view to zoom over the battlefield. They got written reports and if they wanted to see something themselves they had to hop on a horse and gallup around until they got their to take a look at it. That's something the Rift could deliver that no other experience really could match. But that doesn't mean it has to be used for everything anymore than 3d alla doom has to be used in everything.

In other words, leaving "video game" territory and entering "simulation" territory. Assuming we want to get into those semantics.

I imagine the first Truck Simulator built exclusively for the Occulus Rift will be a major killer app for the thing.

I'm actually pretty excited about the way something like the Rift could make us reimagine the possibilities of our traditional videogame camera angles. I'm excited enough that I made it my boldest prediction of the year.

Hell, I just want the Oculus Rift so I can get 3D that works.
It's been one disappointment after another ever since I found that Freespace 2 does not play nicely with shutter glasses.
The 3DS works, but it's the same with 3D movies, there's a thing in 3D which my brain already knew was in 3D because I've been translating 2D images into 3D all my life. It barely adds information, though there was at least two times when it came in handy in Link Between Worlds.
And red-cyan? eff that.
(Apparently the cyan on my glasses is ever so slightly different than what everyone else on the internet seems to use.)

There's multiple kinds of anachromatic/anaglyph stereo 3d. Red/cyan is only one combination: red/green, red/blue, anachrome, mirachrome, etc. (And which eye is which affects things, red is usually left). The paper ones are usually less than perfect.

Much less relevant these days, with polarized glasses and the Oculus.

The Rift isn't a "3D" experience in the sense of 3D TV or movies. Yes, the presentation is technically stereoscopic 3D, but you don't experience it in that way.

When you go to the cinema to watch Gravity, you think "that's a pretty nifty 3D effect", when you're in the Rift you think "there's a spaceship over there".

Comparing the Rift to the failed non-immersive 3D technologies seems to be a key indicator of people who haven't spent much/any time in the Rift. Another indicator (which cracked me up when Rabbit did it on the conference call) is comparing it to TrackIR, becuase they both use head-tracking techniques to achieve their (very different) goals.

Using the Rift is not like "playing a game, but in 3D", or "playing a game, but with head-tracking". Using the rift is like "I am in a new place, and why can't I see my hands?".

After 3-4 hours in the same space, like Half Life 2 for example, it's actually disorienting to take it off, because then you're unexpectadly in another new place: your house.

Mildly curious: Anyone who read this article originally experience VR since? What were your thoughts?

I actually did try a Rift and a Vive myself, and the experience of the latter felt to me like I had the 3DS strapped to my face with two Wiimotes in hand. Which generated a rather violent Nintendo fanboy response of "This is it?! This is the big innovation? Taking tech I've already experienced and just shoving my face in it?!"

I don't feel as negatively towards it, but I'm still not sold on it being great, either. In fact I felt increasingly limited and still just prefer a controller, a TV, and a comfy couch.

I'm starting to suspect that there must be tangible neurological differences in the ways that people experience VR. Nearly three years later and my brain mostly doesn't tell me I have a TV on my face. It's mostly telling me that I'm flying a plane. I guess the ratio of those perceptions is pretty key.