I’m not a big fan of the Kickstarter craze that has snowballed over the last year. Every jagoff with a semblance of an idea panhandling on the service for you to pay for their cockamamie poodle walker/salad strainer combo that you never knew you needed. So I’m especially cautious when it comes to some wunderkid working out of his basement telling me that he’s going to design the latest and greatest in gaming stereoscopic 3D virtual reality, head-mounted display. I mean, seriously?
However, Palmer Luckey is just that wunderkid and he’s made it happen somehow with the Oculus Rift, the world’s first commercial based virtual reality headset. Where most college kids are working some minimum wage slave job at McDonalds, Luckey dropped out of college as a journalism major to work on the heads up display of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a military contractor with Lockheed Martin (lord only knows how THAT connection happened). Luckey’s true love are the sciences and he has the heart of a tinkerer; he apparently made 43 other prototypes in his basement of the headset that is now being whispered about excitedly by even the most jaded games journalist. I’m typically in the “cautiously optimistic” camp…that is, until I got hands on the device at PAX Prime and had my head blown clean off my shoulders in surprise.
First, the prototype unit they were showing off was simply a pair of what looked to be taped up Oakley ski goggles being plugged into a long rectangular box with A/V cables. However, the second I had the Oculus Rift in hand, I was stunned at how light they were; the unit weighs less than a pound, which seems like an impossibility based on what most people think about VR headsets being giant black Tron-style face-covering helmets. Of course, having a lightweight headset is critical to keep you in the experience and reduce neck strain for long gaming sessions.
The experience truly began when I put the headset on. I was instantly immersed in Doom 3 BFG Edition; iD Games own resident genius John Carmack has taken a liking to the potential behind the headset and has jumped on board emphatically helping to develop the demo I played. As the game was being rendered twice for each of the two eyepieces, the screens were coming back as a touch fuzzy as a lower resolution, but that was hardly noticeable as I was struggling to catch my breath from the shock.
The Oculus Rift is an intense experience. Instead of aiming with the right thumbstick, you can simply turn your head to aim. Having been indoctrinated into using the thumbstick for camera control from years of console gaming, it felt particular tricky getting used to the idea of being able to just swivel your head around to look, including being able to turn yourself 360 degrees from seemingly inside the game.
But it all worked…and not just that, but it all worked well. Outside of the low resolution fuzz, I literally wanted to reach down and pick up ammo and health kits on the ground, actually sticking my head out from behind cover to look around. It was an amazing experience, almost too good at taking me out of reality. The goggles and headset combo can be a tad disorienting when you’ve got them both on as you will have no idea what’s going on in the real world. I can already see my wife shrieking at me while I’ve got a pair of stereo surround headphones on and the Oculus Rift, being completely unable to hear her barking at me to take out the trash as I’m killing Cacodemons on Mars in Doom 3.
Speaking with Luckey following the demo, he’s looking to have a ready-for-commercial-sale product ready to show for next PAX Prime, including the commercial sale price. Most current generation virtual reality headsets are in the low five-digit price range, but Luckey is trying to make VR affordable to the masses, presumably shooting to keep the price down to what you’d be paying for a next generation console. Apparently, since getting hands on over the last few months, more and more devs are coming forward as converts wanting to get their games in the prospective lineup for this fantastical device. Obviously, the Rift will be great for first person shooters, driving and flying simulators, but I was also told even in non-first person titles like Gears of War, we will still feel fully immersed in the world.
I am much more interested in the Oculus Rift than I was 48 hours ago. I want to take a minute to thank Luckey for his dogged determination and never say die attitude that got us to this point in the timeline where he is. Not everyone is willing to bang their head against that brick wall of progress until there’s a breakthrough, but that’s exactly what Luckey has done here.