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How Will the Oculus Rift Change Game Design?
by Jay Weston on 02/13/14 09:33:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, as I’m an indie developer that recently got a hold of the first dev kit. What exactly will change in terms of game design and mechanics, or what can we do differently now that the Oculus has arrived? How exactly will immersion and presence affect game design?

I’ll start with outlining what the Oculus gives us that we did not have before.

  1. Increased immersion or “presence” – the feeling that you are inside the environment.

  2. Head tracking in terms of rotation (by actually moving your head) and position (craning your head forward, back, left and right).

  3. Depth perception.

  4. Real world head/limb movement speeds

  5. Orientation issues

Then I’ll end with a few thoughts on some Oculus games and demos.

Immersion

This has been the number one touted advantage of the Rift – you are now IN the game. Big things look big, high things seem high, large drops or valleys look deep, things that are close to you seem closer, and so on. You can’t compare it to a 3D screen, the depth and sense that you are inside an environment is real. In the Oculus, my first thought (inside the Settings Viewer) was “wow, the far corner of this large room is actually quite far away, and this guy is right in my face. That door to my right isn’t *really* there”. That’s quite a thing considering the graphics:

setting viewer

I believe the main benefit of  immersion is it increases the chances for the developer to deliver the expected feeling or emotional response from events happening in-game. For example, fear, awe, danger and scale are all greatly enhanced. So how does this change things? Is the Oculus merely an enhancing effect? Scary games will be scarier, racing games will seem faster, shooters more …shooty? Also what do I mean “merely” increase immersion? I realise immersion can be pretty big for some games, but for the most part I wonder how much better or meaningful will a game be, if its got double the immersion factor, or 10x? So now you’ll feel like you’re really, really, really there! So what? This is something very hard to quantify.

If you play Call of Duty as-is but wearing an Oculus, has anything much changed just because you feel more like you are there? Will you see a fellow soldier die, and instead of chalking him up as another meaningless death, will you feel genuinely bad? I kind of doubt it. You might feel like those mortars are really exploding right next to you, though. Taking this to a (silly) extreme, if you recreated the room you are sitting in now, and had 100% perfect VR and immersion, that would be impressive from a tech standpoint, but as an experience or a game, it is meaningless.

Will the increased immersion effects wear off or is it just novelty value that we will eventually adjust to? Going back to regular games, I remember System Shock 2 scaring the crap out of me when I played it as a kid, and the best horror games these days still manage to do the same, so it didn’t wear off for 2D gaming at least. Considering Dreadhalls (made for Oculus) and forgetting how nauseous this game made me feel, the sense of terror was definitely magnitudes higher than other horror games I’ve played. If I didn’t get used to being scared in old games or movies, then hopefully the immersion effect and enhanced emotional responses on the Oculus won’t wear off either.

Finally while I don’t want to talk at length about it – the potential for significant emotional reactions could swing in a number of ways. I could imagine anything from heart attacks from horror games to people not wanting to play shooters because it feels like they’re actually killing people, to the opposite, where we get even more desensitized to violence. I’ve had dreams that feel so real that I’ll wake up feeling bad that I’ve just cheated on my partner, despite it having never happened. Will the same thing happen when VR gets really real?

Head Tracking

Head tracking feeds into both immersion and game mechanics, being able to move your head around helps immersion, but it also gives us some new tools to play with that were previously not available. In the past we’ve used controllers or the  mouse and keyboard to control both where the player walks and where they look, however this leaves us with little option for finer control of the avatar’s head. The best option is something like Arma/DayZ where you hold Alt to control your head, but this still lacks control for moving your head forwards, backwards, left and right while rotating, and you can’t aim and look at the same time. For most games this fine head control will be unnecessary, but to use DayZ as an example again, even this could benefit if you try and move your head away from a teeth gnashing zombie, or actually shift your head over/under/around objects to search for nearby zombies.

Looking at some amazing VR ground

With the ability to both move and rotate your head in all directions and dimensions, new game mechanics can open up which could involve actions such as:

  • Close and thorough inspection of objects at different distances and angles

  • Complex and fine head movement control – ie looking around inside a cockpit, over an edge, peering around corners, peeking over ledges, ducking, etc. You are no longer restricted to looking straight up or down, either.

  • Head position as a gameplay mechanic – we now have an extra control in addition to gamepad or mouse/keyboard. This could allow more complex games or capitalise on a single mechanic as in Dumpy the Elephant, where you control the Elephants head and attached trunk with your own head movements. In this instance immersion is increased as the trunk feels like an extension of your own head.

  • Social actions, ie – nodding to multiplayer friends in a conversation, nodding in the affirmative instead of hitting the A button to agree with an NPC. These mechanics also increase immersion.

To carry on talking about Dumpy, this is a good example of a game that could have been designed without the Rift, and would have still worked, however with the Rift it reaches a new level because your head movement is linked to the elephants – you are moving your head as if you are an elephant. It gives you an extra hook into the game world that wouldn’t be possible by just swinging your hand/wrist around with a mouse.

Depth Perception

As an elephant, being able to see down your trunk in full 3D adds another level again – with it almost coming out between your eyes. Depth perception is linked to immersion in terms of boosting the effect of being somewhere inside an environment, but could also help players nail the apex of a corner, make contact with a melee swing, and get scared shitless by a monster that’s right in their face.

dumpy

Emotionally, I could see depth being a huge factor as well. Imagine looking at an NPC you’ve grown attached to slipping out of your fingers to their doom, Cliff Hanger style, or being right next to someone who’s hit by a car. Perhaps imagine a Bond moment where a buzzsaw or syringe is approaching your face… Again, for horror games turning around and seeing a monster face-to-face is terrifying as was evidenced when my partner slammed my new Rift into the table after ripping it off her face.

Reactions to other players or NPCs could be amplified if they move right in close to you. An aggressor could scream right into your face, or a love interest could slowly move in. Someone could lean in and whisper into your ear, a zombie could bite your face off, etc.

On a slightly more shallow note – all those fancy special effects and particles are sure gonna look pretty as you move through them!

Real World Movement

Real world head movement may even slightly restrict game design choices (although restriction of choices in art is rarely a bad thing). With the Oculus, you can only turn your head or move the view at a certain speed based on the player’s own neck muscles, or in terms of rollercoaster style games, you can only push different movement speeds in so many directions before making the player sick.

If you’re playing in 1st person, you’ll have to be a creature with a single head, neck and two eyes (sure, it’s not common to be a 10 headed, neckless cyclops or something), so while being an elephant or a Grey alien is doable, being a giraffe might not work quite so well. Also consider something like a bird, which travels horizontally with their body out behind them while the player themselves sits upright in chair. Gravity is working against game design choices like this. However, having played a few space games so far, the effect of being upside down with incorrect gravity isn’t so bad.

We also have to consider restriction of movement. You can’t have an NPC put the player’s avatar in a headlock for example, or restrain their head movement in any way, because the player can simply move their head. If you have the player moving through a very tight space, he can crane his head forward and just move through the geometry. I hear that in some demos, developers have blurred and/or darkened the screen when this happens. Perhaps this is a solution for restricting movement too?

Unexpected movement is another thing to think hard about. This can range from a camera move in a 3rd person game (perhaps the camera moves to avoid a wall or moves for a cut scene) to unexpected movements based on physics . If you play Wingsuit or Warthunder, despite their realistic physics models these games can cause somewhat unexpected up and down movements that causes your stomach to really churn. The more simple and direct the movement, the better, at least with the first dev kit.

Peripheral Movement

In addition to real world movement for the Oculus, peripherals like Razer Hydras can suffer from similar problems where the player attempts to move in a way that isn’t matched 1:1 to the game environment. For example, imagine in-game swinging a huge heavy axe with your nice light Hydras – there will be a mis-match between the speed you can swing in reality vs the game world.

Orientation

When playing normal games on a detached 2D screen, it doesn’t much matter which way you’re facing, which way gravity goes, or how much you spin or flip. However when you are immersed into an environment, these things become an issue for your stomach, and sometimes for immersion. Consider my awesome art below:

oculus orientations

Comparing your sitting position to the type of avatar/orientation. From left to right – elephant, bird, upside down space ship, scuba diver

Whether or not some of these conflicting body/avatar positions are a problem will probably come down to feel. I personally didn’t have a problem with the elephant or space ships, but I did feel odd as a bird. Games like Lunar Flight or other cockpit games on the other hand really feel like they click.

Existing Game Demos

I’m going to end this post with a breakdown of a small selection of games and how they utilize the Rift, as well as some potential problems with some concepts.

Lunar Flight

I think this is the best example so far of a game that uses all of the Oculus’s features to best effect. When DK2 comes out with head position tracking, it will be even more so. Seated in a Lunar Lander, I’m seated as I am in real life, looking out the cockpit of the Lander. I feel like I’m really in the Lander, the scale is perfect, I can judge depth well enough to land on target locations and the interface is designed well. I also like the fact that I have to look around to use the interface, rather than straight ahead, making more use of screen real estate and the Rift. When positional tracking comes out, I’ll be able to lean forward and judge my landings with even more precision, or look around a strut/monitor that’s in the way of my view of the Earth. Can’t wait!

Lunar Flight Link

Dumpy the Elephant

The number one thing that separates this game from others is that you move your head to control the elephant’s head and trunk. That, coupled with the immersion gives you a pretty solid feeling of being an elephant despite the cartoony graphics. I’m a huge fan of the art style, and its great to see people using non-realistic graphics so soon. Amazingly, considering the amount of head movement involved, I never get nauseous.

Dumpy Link

Ambient Flight

I like the concept for this game, and it looks amazing, and a flying game for the Rift is just a no-brainer. However I feel a big disconnect being seated upright myself, vs horizontal as the bird avatar. Funnily enough though, I didn’t get this with Dumpy. I feel that this game might also benefit a huge amount from something like the Stem controller, where you’d need to spread your arms out to fly and maneuver, maybe even flap them like wings. The main benefit to this game is the immersion of the Rift, where you feel like you are in the air. This game may also cross the line a little between an experience and game, where (at least currently) there are no challenges or goals of any kind. Once you’ve played this once, you’ll possibly never replay again, but with so many experiences to be had on the Rift, I think this might be quite common. I suppose you may return to it just to chill out and fly around.

Ambient Flight Link

DreadHalls

With the first dev kit, I universally dislike all FPS’s because it induces the worst nausea for me. However I’ve seen a few let’s plays and my friends had a go and they were all fine. Hopefully DK2 solves this for everyone and most game types. Having said that, Dreadhall’s use of the Oculus makes great use of real world movement, as you can’t look left and right any faster than your head will allow, and positional tracking will be amazing for peeking around corners. Monsters can feel like they are right behind you, and you can’t pull a superhuman turn/run backwards to see. This game and perhaps the horror genre feels like the easiest to link immersion to a better game, as being immersed in a scary environment elevates the terror by such a degree. A very real problem with the sheer terror factor for this game is that I don’t actually want to play it. This is something I’ve seen and heard in other reviews/youtube playthroughs as well – there might be a limit to how much you can handle while playing a good, immersive Oculus game! Just imagine we reach an Exorcism of Emily Rose level of terror in VR, yikes! At the same time, who can pass up trying something that someone tells you is too scary?

Don’t play it here(!)

Conclusion

The future of game design with the Rift is quite an unknown – we still have such a small number of demos available, most of them just bite sized experiences, so its hard to judge yet what a fully developed Oculus game will be like with the consumer version. Here’s to hoping that what we get isn’t mostly “what we have now, plus a Rift on your face”. Games like Lunar Flight, Dumpy the Elephant and Dread Halls are some great steps forward, and I think the technology will really make developers dream big and try things that haven’t been done before.

For Rift experiences, I’m also looking forward to everything from 360 degree videos to sunny beach simulators, to dioramas like Blocked In.

Thanks for reading, very keen to hear people’s opinions on how the Oculus will change game design, how immersion will affect how games are made, how I said a stupid thing, or any other comments you have!


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Comments


Darius Drake
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I've thought a little about how the Oculus Rift would turn out, but not much. One thing that I think will happen, though, is that the excitement of virtual reality will have a fate similar to the increasingly realistic graphics we've seen over the years. We still appreciate them, but the excitement has worn off some. It might be hard for a big thing like VR to turn out like this, but that's my guess.

I think when it comes down to it, a game is fun because of its game features, not because of uber graphics and other aspects like that. I'm not saying that elements like a good story and immersiveness can't add to a game and create unique and possibly more enjoyable experiences; however, I've played "simpler" games (and I'm sure you have to) that are more enjoyable than other games that seem more exciting at first. When it comes down to it, a lot of new advances in technology just provide a new experience that eventually wanes in quality of enjoyment, because it rests upon the "new" and"exciting." Video games can employ game mechanics to keep themselves genuinely enjoyable BETTER than new technology can employ excitement and new experiences to keep itself enjoyable. Do you know what I mean?

Maybe the Rift can add something to the core of video games--which is gameplay of course--and not just new peripheral experiences. Obviously exciting graphics and such still have appeal, so I'm not alluding to graphics to say that the Rift would eventually become insignificant. It's just that the excitement and amazement won't stay. An example of a new technology adding to gameplay is Wii Sports. Maybe that doesn't seem like a good advancement to some :D , but it changed the gameplay.

Darius Drake
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And of course, Jay, you gave some examples of how the Oculus Rift was already changing the way games are (or could be) played. So there is a good possibility that the Rift will have an affect on game mechanics, not just visuals and feel. By the way, great article. You did a good job outlining the changes you thought the Rift may bring.

Dave Bleja
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#1 and #3 are nothing new at all.

3D head mounted displays, such as the Sony HMZ, have been around for a while. They provide the same sense of 'being inside the environment' that you speak of. Depth perception has been around for years in the form of 3Dvision, Tridef, and other 3D solutions. And sadly, one thing those solutions have in common is that they all look way better than the Oculus Rift does at the moment.

After I bought my 3Dvision kit last year, I had great difficulty going back to 2D games - they just seemed lifeless, cramped, geometrically wrong, and archaic. The immersion of 3D was wonderful and addictive. So naturally I was super excited about the Oculus Rift and ordered a devkit. But I was shocked at how poor the experience was. The screendoor effect was a joke, the blurry image was barely legible at times, the headtracking was laggy, and barely any games worked well on it, including several where the developers tried but failed.

After seeing how inferior the current devkit is to my existing 3Dvision setup (and I only use a monitor - those who use 3Dvision projectors have a much more immersive experience than I!) , I didn't think twice about lending my devkit to a stranger on a forum. Once he gave it back, I sold it on ebay. Good riddance. (I should mention that I got *zero* motion sickness , so my disappointment with the Rift was based on the 'optimal experience')

Many of us in the 3Dvision community have tried the Rift devkit, and some have loved it. Though most have been underwhelmed, and there's a general sense of puzzlement over how something as painfully lacking like the Rift can have the gaming world talking about it so breathlessly, while something so effective and visually superior like 3Dvision can be considered an obscure niche or a fad.

I believe that VR is the future, but that we're still many years away from a genuinely satisfactory VR solution. The honeymoon period we're experiencing now with the Oculus Rift will fizzle out soon enough. I think there are probably two main explanations for why people are so excited about the Rift at the moment.

Firstly, I think most people who are excited about it haven't ever actually tried it (or in some cases they tried it very briefly while buzzed up at a game conference). I guess in this way they're a bit like the hordes of supporters who excitedly kickstarted the Ouya, only to feel much more lukewarm about it when the reality of what it could do actually hit.

Of those people who have tried it, many probably haven't tried proper 3D before. Perhaps they think they're being blown away by VR, but really, much of the appeal is simply the fact that they're seeing good 3D for the first time (nb: 3D movies rarely count, as they usually have very scaled back or 'faked' 3D; even nvidia 3Dvision as it comes out of the box is subpar until you fiddle with some settings). If they experienced great 3D gaming every day like I do, they mightn't be as excited.

The current Rift is little more than a bunch of promises (which is fine because as a prototype, that's exactly what it's supposed to be). But once those promises give way to realities, people's attitudes will inevitably change. I suspect that the commercial devkit will bring with it a hangover period as people become less readily forgiving of the Rift's flaws and complications.

The Rift in its current form isn't really even virtual reality proper. Since it's wired, the experience feels to me like being on a leash: I can look side to side, but ultimately I have to keep facing forward. If I want to turn around, I need to do so with my mouse or gamepad. So really, the experience is kind of hybrid between VR and the traditional gaming experience.

The conflict between the mouse/controls and the head tracking is, to me, the greatest problem with most of the current implementations of the Rift, and they highlight how much games will need to be designed from the ground up for VR.

For example, in Half Life 2 or Team Fortress 2, I frequently found my mouse and my head movements fighting with each other: I would first look left towards an enemy, but then that wouldn't take me far enough left (because of the wired 'leash'), so I would then add to the movement by moving my mouse left. Of course, then my head would be still awkwardly pointed to the left, so I'd naturally want to bring it to a neutral forward-facing position (ie. move it right). But by doing that I would of course stop focusing on the enemy. So I'd need to move my mouse left again. And basically this dance would continue the whole time, with the mouse and my head getting in each others' way.

Currently, this system would work well for games where you're in a cockpit (racing or flying games), where you control your vehicle with a peripheral, but independently look around the cockpit with your head.

But for most games to truly be a good fit for VR, I think they will need at least these things factored into the design:

1. no camera control other than the head (no mouse, no right joystick)
2. character movement independent of camera movement (so that rules out WASD)

So really, that just leaves a gamepad. But:

3. If there is a gun, this should be independent of head movement, or it'd feel silly

This could be controlled using the right joystick, but as we all know, aiming with a gamepad is difficult. This difficulty would be amplified in a 'huge' screen like the Rift screen, where you might want to move your crosshair 2cms left, but a little flick of the joystick will easily move it 50cm.

4. Really, some sort of motion control would be best where you can swing your arms around in the 3D space.

5. To make the most of the experience, the game should encourage 360 degree exploration, but not too much! Turning around will contribute greatly to the immersive experience, but will also be physically tiring if done too often. Getting the best balance will be hard for devs.

Ultimately, the best VR experience will be a full-body one using mocap or something like the Omni. Or at the very least, with a wireless gamepad on a swivel chair with ample clearance space all around it. Unfortunately, game devs won't be able to assume that their players are using any of these scenarios. They will have to design for the lowest common denominator, which is the player who's planted on a chair or couch and facing forward. The result is likely to feel not quite right for anyone: too linear for the 360-degree player, and too disorienting for the facing-forward player.

6. Ironically, enemies and/or objectives can't be as scattered as liberally around the 360 space as they are in current games, since turning around is more difficult and time-consuming in VR. The challenge here will be how to make enemy AI that refrains from flanking the player too much without appearing overly dumb about it. Or laying out objectives that aren't too hard to find without appearing too linear.

7. Movement will need to be much slower, since faster-than-life movement is what gives many people motion sickness in VR. This will have very unfortunate ramifications. Firstly, it will greatly discourage free-form exploration, since the player will quickly grow frustrated with slow, time-consuming explorations that turn out to be dead ends or lacking in content. Secondly, it'll mean that spaces will need to be smaller. No one will want to explore Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag if it takes 30 minutes to sail from one island to the next.

8. Camera control must not be taken away from the player. So no cutscenes, though Half Life / Metro style narrative passages will probably become more popular. That'll actually a very good thing.


So for the Rift to truly take off, there will have to be great enhancements from the hardware side, that tackle the problems of pixel density, screendoor effect, latency, blur, motion sickness, and wiredness. A custom peripheral wouldn't go astray either. Furthermore, the experience will only truly make sense when combined with other hardware - such as full-body mocap or Omni-style treadmill devices - which don't even exist yet and will remain niche even when they do.

But the changes on the game design side will be no less significant, and these will likely take even longer to implement. AAA devs will take years to properly embrace them, and indie devs will only sometimes get it right. The commercially successful games will be those which take the lowest-common-denominator approach, and cater to players who get motion sickness, who use a keyboard or wired gamepad, and who are too lazy to do much walking pace exploring.

In fact, I can think of only one existing game that would tick most of the above boxes and would be a great fit with the Oculus Rift, and that's Gone Home. It's set in a very small space, is primarily about atmosphere and narrative, is based around exploration, doesn't require quick reflexes or frequent turning around, has no cinematics, and encourages a freeform playstyle without allowing the player to get lost or exhausted.

but Gone Home is a humble niche game, and is hardly the stuff of revolution. I expect the Rift to produce a few more Gone Homes, but that won't be enough to captivate most gamers.

I expect that once the initial novelty of the commercial Rift fades, we'll see a LOT of Rifts gathering dust in cupboards or being put up for sale on ebay. Eventually, the hardware will catch up, and then after that, the software will catch up. And then, we'll see a genuine change in game design as we enter into the VR era proper. Then we'll be able to say "look how VR has changed game design!". But that will be well into the next decade.

Karl E
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The big unsolved problem with the rift is interaction. It is difficult to discuss VR games when how to interact with them is still undefined. Playing with the Rift only made any sense to me when combined with the Hydra. Oculus are taking a risk by not making a standardized control method part of their concept.
The risk is that there will be no such thing as an "Oculus" game in the first place - people will refer to VR games by the type of control scheme required, since that's the defining factor. They also run the risk that a company (Apple?) releases a system where headset and controls work seamlessly together, and ends up making all the money.

Bart Stewart
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I'm not sure this tells me how VR technology might change game design.

Mechanics, probably yes. Changing the I/O interface can offer new ways of performing desired actions. But design is a level of abstraction up from mechanics, and deals with choosing which actions to enable based on how they support the overall theme of the game. So how does players being more "inside the world" change how games are designed?

To get at that question, I look at the Rift as I do most game design questions: what kinds of play styles is it intrinsically best suited for?

From the examples given here, it sounds like being more inside the world mostly benefits action/sensation, with mechanics/accumulation enhancements mainly to deliver more intense sensations. Both of those kinds of play focus on manipulating and possessing external things. The more internalized kinds of fun -- caring about the people in the game world (social/narrative play) and understanding how that world works (exploration/knowledge play) -- don't seem to get much benefit from VR, other than the one proposed example of being able to gesture directly rather than through emotes.

I suspect that if VR technology were really going to change game design, it would have to be a technology that adds new capabilities to *all* the ways that people like to play, rather than being so specific to enabling more intense sensations.

I've seen at least one suggested use for VR that could increase personal intimacy (the gender-swapping demo). But that's about it for making play more socially or narratively engaging... and I've seen approximately zip for how VR enhances knowledge-seeking exploratory play.

That last one's not impossible, though. Knowledge is about perceiving internal structure... so what if VR got a lot better at that? Imagine if goggles were understood to be filters on a world -- normal mode is the regular texture-mapped geometry, but flip a switch and now you can see the bones of the world and how they're connected: geological substrates; starship power conduits; object components; the water lines of a city; even infrared "Predatorvision."

When VR is used to create worlds that have functional and explorable depth, rather than just making more exciting roller-coasters, I think then we can say it's starting to change game design.

Cordero W
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I've already said this, but the Rift is going to be mainly for increasing cinematic experiences. It'll appeal more to the crowd who are becoming more use to watching a game rather than playing it, Gone Home as the Dave above mentioned being the right kind of game for this type of device. In fact, the Rift is probably better used for interactive cinema. For instance, the in-home IMAX experience seems like the perfect thing for it. Thus, the "games" that will utilize it perfectly will be those that take the user into a different world. For example, having a player flying in a plane over the Himalayas, able to look around. Basically, taking people on virtual tours through either a representation of the real world or a fantasy world. This could open up a whole new market that will spawn its own revolution.

However, this revolution will not be in video games, but more toward the movie side of things. Imagine, watching TV through a 3d head display device with scenes making you feel more like you're actually there.

Unfortunately, the more I talk about this, the more likely it seems that science fiction theorists were right about our society becoming more engrossed and married to technology and its allure of entertainment that drowns out the sociological interactions of humankind. The internet was only the beginning. 3D displays, which I doubt the Rift will be the only one, do have potential of replacing the computer monitor. And maybe the living room television, with headsets for each family member, each one watching their own personal channel.

God help us all.


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