Virtual reality has long been the stuff of fantasy in the world of games and gamers; a matter of dreams and science fiction. In some respects, true, stepping-into-another-world virtual reality represents the pinnacle of video games and an overall technological goal in the industry. Small steps have been made towards this goal, perhaps, if the definition of virtual reality is broadened. Second Life offers up some of the ambition and goals of virtual reality, but is a stilted overall experience that is now quite dated. Recent video games with enhanced high definition graphics and increasingly sophisticated immersion techniques, while not attempting true virtual reality, have created worlds for gamers that come alive in their own respect. The oft-praised Bethesda gem, Skyrim, is one of the finest examples of immersive gaming, opening an exciting, rich, detailed, and often beautiful world for gamers to explore. How could the world of Skyrim be made even more immersive?
Enter the Oculus Rift, a new head-mounted display (HMD) that is poised to light the gaming industry on fire. What’s so special about the Rift? It actually works. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the track record of head-mounted displays used for video games sucks. All fingers point to Nintendo’s 1997 Virtual Boy for tarnishing the general image. Promising to offer a virtual reality experience with true 3-D graphics, the Virtual Boy turned out to be a blurry, red-stained mess that quickly fell out of favor with the public, taking the idea of head-mounted displays and virtual reality with it. Gimmick after gimmick marketed similar games and displays in the following years, promising “real” boxing, sword fighting, and the like. Ten years ago, these cheap, knock-offs flooded the discount bins at Toys R Us. Now, no one even takes the idea seriously.
The Occulus Rift needs to be taken seriously. First shown at E3 2012, the Rift had a bigger showing recently at CES 2013, igniting excitement across the internet. What’s remarkable about the Rift is that it isn’t very flashy or equipped with an abundance of special features and promises. It just works. Though little information on the official specs and design of the Rift have been announced, what can be seen from video footage is a HMD with two optical lenses for each eye that interacts seamlessly with whatever game it is applied to, allowing gamers to move their heads to view the world around them and see the world even through their peripheral vision. Already programmed in testing for such classics as Doom 3 and Crysis, the Rift has already proved more than capability. If the footage of the Rift in action doesn’t sell it enough, watching first timers try it out at CES is truly a thing to behold. Time and time again, the second each tester moves their head for the first time, their jaws drop in disbelief.
And why shouldn’t they? This is an awesome new technology entering the industry at a time when there are already concerns in the news about new games being dangerously immersive. Things are moving fast. One of the most remarkable constraints that the Rift may remove from first-person games in particular is the stationary relationship between the game character’s point of vision, and the aiming of his gun or reticle. Though it has come to feel so natural, looking solely in the direction that your gun is pointed is rather absurd and unrealistic. With the Rift, you can look one way and aim another. Think about that again. Look one way, aim another.
It may not quite be full, true virtual reality, but the Oculus Rift is a major step in the direction towards that overall goal. It’s gotten the head portion of the body down pat, but that was the easy part. Now it’s someone else’s turn to get the rest of us in there.