October 11, 2015
I attended Oculus Connect this year and I wanted to give my first impressions of some of the things I saw there. Overall I had a great experience and I think Oculus did a great job organizing this event for developers. You could tell they really wanted to get all the latest tech they’ve been working on in front of developers to get people thinking about future games and experiences. The Touch controllers in particular seemed like the most important feature of the conference.
I played the Toybox demo on the first official day of the conference. I wasn’t able to sign up for my demo slot until somewhat late in the process and so I had to get the earliest demo slot. People were lining up at 9AM sharp and I was one of the first of the day to give it a go. My reaction to the experience was very positive — I basically had a huge smile on my face the whole time and for 15 minutes after. I had already sufficiently hyped it up in my mind from all the early reactions I read so I figured it would be tough to live up to that.
I was definitely wrong about that though, it met my expectations and actually surpassed them in many ways. I don’t think I was prepared for just how accurate the controls felt and how quickly I took to grabbing things and tossing them around. One of the objects was a boomerang type thing that could be tossed like a frisbee and then it would return, at which point you could choose to catch it or instead grab a laser gun and try to shoot it out of the sky. I chose the later of course and promptly missed every shot, but it wasn’t because the controls weren’t accurate, it’s because I’m a terrible shot with a laser gun. The boomerang took a couple throws to get a good one, almost like picking up a frisbee for the first time in a while and trying to remember the proper way to throw one. We all know physics sandboxes are fun in general, add touch controls and I could probably spend all day messing about. Speaking of playing in the demo all day – when I came back at the end of the day to do the demo again I asked the Oculus guide who was standing across from me, virtually of course, how long they had been in this Toybox world. They told me they had been in there 3 hours at a time throughout the day. 3 hours shrinking guests with their shrink gun, lighting off fireworks and sparklers with zippo lighters, and exploding garden gnomes with laser guns. It probably took them more than a few minutes to come back to the real world after they took of their headsets.
It felt completely natural to talk and interact with another person in VR. My mind considered them right there with me even though they said they were 3 rooms away. He could toss a block to me and I could catch it with a split second reaction. I think the social component of the experience impressed me just as much as the Touch controllers. Each piece, the social and the hand tracking, combined to create a very immersive experience that I can’t wait to get my hands on when it’s released. It definitely opens up many new options for gameplay. To check out my first impressions of Oculus Medium, the sculpting and painting app for Touch, go here.
I also played several game demos using the Touch that were very compelling. Bullet Train, Dead and Buried, Job Simulator, and a game that had you guiding miniature airplanes on to an island runway before teleporting you to the miniature airport to put out a fire in first person. All these experiences offered solid evidence that using your hands in VR is probably the most natural interaction method. It felt great quick drawing magic pistols in the fantasy western environment of Dead and Buried, or grabbing coffee cups and tipping them back towards your mouth to take a sip. The challenges with haptics aside, it feels great to have your hands in these virtual worlds.
RIFT CV1 + GAMEPAD GAMES
The Rift and the gamepad demos were very cool as well. I tried these later in the evening when the crowds died down a bit. There were 8 demos available, all of them sit down experiences with an Xbox gamepad. Instead of going into each one I will just say my favorite moments.
This felt like a typical 3D platformer in the vein of Mario 64 but the VR added more than I thought to the experience. It was fun poking my head into this world, leaning in and around the mascot character to see him from the front, jumping up into the air and back towards my face to see the character do impressive flips 1 foot away from me, peering ahead at the impending lava world that was about to shift the tone from this happy hillside to something much more dangerous — everything felt very alive and the overhead view was very effective at bringing you into this magical, miniature world.
I was very excited to try out this one, I had been reading about it for over a year and so my expectations were high. It felt somewhat different than what I expected due to the way the controls worked. I think I was expecting a faster paced experience but the level they showed had you moving at a constant, relatively slow feeling speed. I’m sure this is due to sim sickness concerns, as the constant velocity movement speed is looking to become pretty standard in VR experiences, but I found myself wanting to activate a turbo booster several times. That said, the game was fun if not entirely easy to control. Some people I talked to had trouble handling the barrel rolls and initial acceleration of this game but I felt pretty good throughout my time with the demo.
This one along with Edge of Tomorrow both offered similar 3rd person, AAA console style experiences. I was not really looking forward to these as much because they looked to be ports of existing console gameplay types and I figured they wouldn’t use VR to its full potential. While that may be somewhat true, I also had a lot of fun with these. They used scale and height to great effect — something that I think can come off as gimmicky but still can be fun when you look down and see an endless crevasse in the glacier your character is on. The camera was relatively tame and would often situate itself in an area to allow you to walk around without it moving, somewhat like the camera in ICO. These types of games, while I think have potential to be a popular genre within VR, don’t necessarily offer an irrefutable reason to get VR, they should be able to add value to a catalog of games.
More than any single game experience on the Rift CV1 demo setups they had, I felt like the experience felt really solid all around. I was encouraged by the casual process of sitting on the living room style chair, putting the headset on and picking up a controller to enter into VR. It sure beats the DK2 setup process, especially the early days that required all kinds of hacks and workarounds to get things running at a half decent level. If this is what the experience will look like to the average consumer, I think they pass the ease of use test.
The one area I was slightly surprised to see was the decision to include a non swiveling chair for the demos. Like I said, it was a typical big living room chair, which looks great and is comfortable, but it also means they are not necessarily encouraging that 360 rotational experience which I think is key to many good VR experiences. The tether will of course hinder that, but it would be great to see solutions to this like custom VR seating with HDMI slip rings that allow full 360 rotation without the hindrance of cable management. All of the premium headsets will face this cable management issue for the foreseeable future so it will be interesting to see what happens in that space but for now it seems Oculus is encouraging the sit and face forward approach with their lack of swivel chair and single positional sensor in front of the player.
I’m more excited than ever for CV1 launch and while I wish it was shipping with Touch included, I understand the need for them to get something in consumer’s hands as soon as possible. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Rift and gamepad experiences played and I think they offer early adopters a lot to do before the Touch stuff starts launching, which realistically could take an additional year to get a solid line up of content ready.
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