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The little VR headset that could
The little VR headset that could Exclusive
August 8, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

August 8, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive

Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that's setting Kickstarter ablaze, has all the makings of a good-old fashioned games industry heroic epic. It's the story of a serious obsession with technology, a love affair between kindred spirits and at the end, wildly cheering hordes of fans.

Okay... it still has a long way to go yet -- including the launch of an actual product. But the Rift is shaping up to be one of those entertainment experiences that comes out of nowhere and just seems so obviously right.

Aiming to raise $250,000 over a month via Kickstarter, the project has received almost $1.5 million in its first week. And this is merely an exercise to get development kits into the hands of game creators. The launch of the final product will likely come next year.

Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus and inventor of the Rift tells Gamasutra, "We showed it off to hundreds of people at QuakeCon. We had a two-hour-plus line almost the entire day. We asked every single person if it was worth that two-hour wait, just to get their minute and a half in the head-mount. All of them answered yes. It's almost a universally positive reception."

Of course, part of Luckey's job is to promote the device, so he's going to be enthusiastic. But it's genuinely hard to find any negativity around this thing. We've yet to get our own hands on the Rift, but reactions from the media have been positive, as sites like The Verge have tested the prototype and posted happy reviews. Luckey says, "What we have right now [is] a developer kit. As the technology matures and we're able to improve the experience. We're going to get to the point where there's really nothing to complain about.

"This was originally just a little community project. To see it take off like this has been amazing. I want to say I expected it, but when you have a dream like this, you just hope it takes off."

Developers seem to like it...

Luckey has been tinkering with virtual reality headsets for years. He has, he believes, the biggest private collection of headsets in the world. His intimate knowledge of the field has allowed him to create Rift, a headset that offers low latency head-tracking, a 110 x 90 degree field of view and a resolution of 640x800 per eye.

OculusRift_2.jpgEnter id Software co-founder chief John Carmack, who showed a prototype of the Oculus Rift at E3, enthusiastically calling it "the best VR demo probably the world has ever seen." Other game industry high-flyers have also been wooed and convinced of the goggles' capabilities, including Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski, Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus "Notch" Persson.

Carmack has built Doom 3: BFG Edition for the VR headset, running on PC. This is the demo that wowed crowds at E3 and at QuakeCon. Now developers like Notch have offered to pitch in with their contributions and will spend the next few months figuring out what they can bring to the party.

Luckey adds, "We want to get it out to developers so they can start seeing the best ways to do things in virtual reality. What's the most fun? What are the best control schemes? What are things you can do in virtual reality that you can't do with a keyboard, mouse, and screen? We've had a ton of developers contacting us and letting us know that they're interested. Both large and small. That's really exciting."

Kickstarter has allowed innovative, neat products like the Rift to address the market and change the games business. There is no doubt that its backers see this product as one that can challenge what the game industry's biggest players can offer. That's all the more impressive, given its origins. This is not something dreamed up by teams of salaried engineers in Tokyo or Redmond.

"I guess I'm what you'd call a garage hacker," explains Luckey. "I've been an enthusiast for virtual reality for a long time. I've worked in virtual reality for a couple of years in military labs, research universities. It's just now that I've been able to get together with some people who can actually make products happen, really make software happen."

He has big ambitions for his project. "What I would like in a year's time would be to have a really nice, polished, consumer head-mounted display that everybody knows about, with a lot of triple-A and indie game support."

...But VR sucks, right?

Twenty years ago, virtual reality was a boom industry as companies sought to marry stereoscopic displays with video-gaming, spurred by fanciful sci-fi visions of total immersive entertainment.

But technological failure has been the norm, jerky unconvincing experiences that feel less like immersion and more like looking through moving windows at a static background, or as Carmack told IGN, like "looking through toilet paper tubes."

this-is-the-founder-of-oculus-palmer-luckey.jpgPalmer Luckey

But things are changing. Luckey explains, "It's not so much that I've cracked the code as that technology has cracked the code. I didn't come up with some really, truly amazing breakthrough technology as much as all these technologies have been pushing forward on their own.

"All of a sudden we have high-density displays, really low-cost, high-performance motion trackers. All the pieces are there. All it took was somebody to bring all of those pieces together."

He adds, "The other reason is, the virtual reality market isn't really a tapped market, especially for gaming. Virtual reality companies right now focus on military contracts, research. They have not been trying to enter the consumer gaming space. By making something that's the best for gamers, we've been able to really overcome some of the challenges that other companies have faced."

A donation of $300 is enough to secure a development kit, including the Doom 3 demo. Luckey says that the email addresses of donations suggest that big games companies are keen to get a look at this tech, but he's also eager to see what the indie crews can produce.

"Indie developers are going to be a huge driver behind this," he says. "Triple-A developers can't necessarily just drop everything and try to make something completely original. But that's something that an indie could do. I hope to see really great things come out of that. It's a little bit harder to innovate in, say, the first-person shooter or platformers or real-time strategy. But with virtual reality hardware, it's a bit like starting over. There are a lot of things that are going to have to be discovered and I think the indies are going to be the ones to discover a lot of those cool things."

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Lex Allen
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Haha! The virtual boy. I saw somebody on an anime convention youtube video joking around with one of those the other day and it was hilarious!

I'm not sure how I feel about this because their were no real footage of the gameplay, unless those few clips at the beginning were actually Doom 3 in VR.

I don't know. How much will people have to pay for the head gear...?

Merc Hoffner
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Well, $300 for the development kit is already a darn sight cheaper than most head mounted displays, and a whole better functional quality than just about all of what's come before. If I understand it correctly, the innovative steps are a combination of:

1) assembling the various controller boards themselves so they can take direct control of the I/O processes to cut out masses of latency in state polling and image processing etc.
2) using newer, denser, cheaper, off the shelf and standardised single panel displays (the same types for mobile phones and small tablets) and using overlaying optics to provide the focal power and view wrapping for both eyes from one part, rather than trying to build minaturised bespoke displays for each eye. While the warping results in an uneven pixel density, they can maximise the density in the center where your view is concentrated, and the high overall resolution of the standardised parts should compensate compared to the low resolution of the 'most affordable' minaturised parts.

I wouldn't be surprised that IF there is a 9th generation, Nintendo will be making the "Nintendo ON" a reality ( Watch this - best hoax in history bar none)

By that time the parts will be commoditised, cloud supplied graphics will be commoditised and universally wirelessly accessible, and google's goggle initiative will be going mainstream while microsoft's Kinect virtualisation technologies will be attempting to lay its own standards.

Chris Nash
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The real problem is creating good input controls. Using a regular control pad to move around will cause extreme nausea. For example, imagine sitting there with the headset on, looking around at a landscape. Then you want to turn around. Do you physically stand up and turn around? No. You use the controller to turn you around. Now you're sitting there looking forward, and the whole world is spinning around you... The best way to control a VR game is to wear sensor-gloves. Then to turn around you would point your finger in the direction you want to go, and this feels much more intuitive... but what kind of games would this produce?

Merc Hoffner
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For turning one might use a similar approach as with wiimote FPSs: use a bounding box where looking around does nothing until you try looking past some bounding limit, and then the reference orientation rotates. Could try it. May not work, but I suppose that's a good reason for them to release this as an SDK first rather than straight to market: give devs time to experiment and work out good solutions - nothing turns out immediately. As for control I reckon a Move wand would be good, but maybe you could even make something work with a smartphone; between the accelerometer, gyro and magnetometer you can start to track, even with absolute orientation referencing.

Bob Johnson
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It sounds sweet. Hurry up and wait though. Wake me up when it is out.

Gern Blanston
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I think this is a big step in the right direction for a new kind of player immersion. I'd like to see something a bit more advanced than this during the next-gen of gaming. Something no more expensive, but more portable, lighter, and higher-res that can be used for all platforms.

I'd like to be able to bring my headset over to my buddy's place, then 4 (or more) of us locally can play multiplayer on our own respective screens. No need for split-screen TV, we'd all be completely immersed, and it's a new kind of social gathering. Of course this could happen remotely, too, with a built-in headset and mic for online play.

And I don't see something like this used as just a gimmick for certain types of games. I'd actually like to play any type of game using this technology to be able to focus completely, and become fully enveloped, on the projected image.

These ideas are for more exciting than any motion-based (or other proposed) "future of gaming" theories I've ever heard.

Martin Petersen
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So you wanna go to your friend's house to be completely immersed in your own albeit shared play session?? Sounds exactly like the nightmare scenarios my parents envisioned excessive video game play would lead to when I was a kid...

Guess I turned out like my parents after all...

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Glenn Storm
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Go, Palmer!

TC Weidner
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this is without a doubt in my mind the next step in where gaming will go and needs to go. Best of luck to all involved. With J. Carmack involved I'm very hopeful.

Brian Tsukerman
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Only in Kickstarter and it already looks better than Sony's attempt at a VR visor.

Clay Cowgill
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Get it working and then sell the solution it to Microsoft (or Apple, Sony, Google, etc.)... If there's any commercial success at all, the patent trolls and everyone else going back 20+ years will claim to own a piece of the action. It'll take deep pockets and tons of time to put it through the legal system.

TC Weidner
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It's a shame but I think you are 100% correct.

Nate Anonymous
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If Microsoft, Sony, etc. don´t already have prototypes they´ve been fiddling with by now, I would be completely surprised. Especially since this is apparently just using off-the-shelf components that could be probably put together in bulk for a fraction of the price.

For example, it´s obvious that a VR unit + Kinect 2 could provide a far more immersive experience than either standing alone, provided the games are developed within the capability of each piece of technology and Kinect 2 makes strides in accuracy.

And if someone could innovate a tactile feedback system that can be cheaply mass produced, then boom you have the next holy grail in gaming. Full immersion VR at a price the average gamer could afford.

Aaron Fowler
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What a perfect time for something like this to launch on KickStarter following the OUYA campaign.

The idea and concept is really cool.
But, I'm still skeptical.

I guess it's one of those things you just have to try and experience for yourself before you're sold. (like surround sound)

Michael DeFazio
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love the concept, just needs "the killer app"...something that benefits from the strengths (and downplays the limitations) of the device.

much as i love Doom and FPSes... just don't see Doom 3 as being THE killer app... primarily because "turning around" might be awkward and bring on "neck fatigue" if "fast twitch" is emphasized in gameplay (especially for longer play sessions).

i do however see huge potential in simulating games where you are "simulating an action while stationary/sitting down":

Driving Simulators - Grand Tourismo, Forza, Need For Speed, Burnout, Midnight Club, Driver, Colin McRae, PGR, MX vs Atv, Test Drive
Flying Simulators - MS Flight, Ace Combat
Mech Simulator - Mech Warrior, Gundam, Hawken*, Steel Batallion*,

(BTW all these games I listed (besides *) are 5+ million selling gaming franchises)

Matt Robb
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My thoughts as well. He talks about it replacing a keyboard/mouse in some fashion, but it's not like we have a physical construct of every level in an FPS to run around in. You could at best use it for looking around, but moving is still going to require some other input.

That said, using it in any cockpit game would be sweet, heh. Rather than rendering a HUD, they can render the cockpit itself, giving them more room for information readouts. I played a MechWarrior 4 variant in a cockpit simulator down in Dallas, was pretty fun.

Ole Berg Leren
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This comment is good and you should feel good.

If it could track my eyes, to see where I'm looking, and use that as an additional crosshair... dear god. I'd be playing mech-games all day, every day. Implement some voice-commands too, and I can sit and shout "CLUSTER MISSILES", paint some hostiles with my eyes while skidding around and wrecking stuff, fully immersed.

Then the next step is haptic suit and gloves, and a rolling "hamster-ball" to run around in undisturbed. Ready Player One?

Michael DeFazio
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i envision... something like Star Wars Rouge Squadron 4...(or a great WW2 flight simulator) with support for occulus

single player ... pilot a fighter yourself
pvp ...dogfight with another fighter
multiplayer(coop) ... pilot or be a gunner in a millenium falcon class ship/ b-29 bomber
team-v-team ... your fighters/freighters verses another teams fighters freighters
raids ...massive squadron of ships attack(or defend) a death star or fleet

Multiplayer Flight Simulators would be the bees knees imho.

Ole Berg Leren
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Rolling with that massive space-raid idea, it could also be used by a Commander-type player. What I'm thinking is that you simulate the whole command-deck, where screens are rendered but only fully simulated when they have player focus. Occlusion culling, kind of, I guess? I'm not too familiar with the terminology. Merely to save resources, tho, so kind of irrelevant.

Then, the commander can walk around the bridge, see how the battle fares, set up objectives, or maybe steer the gigantic mothership himself, with help from a team of other players.

It'd be like EVE space-fights, but designed more like Battlefield in the sense that each "map" is self-contained and hosted on a dedicated server to reduce lag. And by self-contained, I mean that it'd be less than what a regular Shard in EVE has to deal with.

I'm not saying this couldn't be made with regular monitors, but I think the visor would really lend a sense of immediacy to the whole ordeal that would enhance immersion substantially.

All power to shields! Brace for impact!

Tore Slinning
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I'm anxious in getting hand on one, not as much for gaming (though this with a joystick will make for much fun inside a Stuka cockpit).

But I'm anxious to see a virtual desktop system, the size of an I max cinema, wrapped around me!

Ian Uniacke
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I don't think this solves ANY of the problems that plagued previous VR attempts. It was never an issue of quality (although the old ones WERE bad quality), it was an issue of looking like a nerd and having to wear this big piece of machinery, for which the Rift is exactly the same. I predict this will be about as successful as the virtual boy (if that).

Michael DeFazio
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Ohh... THAT was the problem with VR... yeah i thought people looked nerdy/silly waving their arms like morons with motion controls and Nintendo really lost their shirt on that one. (ohh wait a minute...)

Ian Uniacke
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Your response clearly indicates to me that you don't know what regular people think is awkward and embarassing. Holding something is completely different to a regular person than wearing a contraption like you're an extra from star trek.

Ian Uniacke
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'"I" thought people looked nerdy/silly waving their arms like morons with motion controls'
(emphasis mine)

This is the problem with your're thinking about what you like not what the market likes. I only EVER heard that hypothesis about the wii from so called hard core gamers.

Ole Berg Leren
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"This is the problem with your're thinking about what you like not what the market likes."

Slippery-slope argument detected.

Michael DeFazio
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interesting you would try to break apart the "logic" in my post. (there really isn't any) ...think you missed the point...

i was trying to illustrate a few things:
1) your comment is very narrow-minded (to say the ONLY important variable in successful VR is "not looking like a nerd"...based on your definition of what makes you look like a nerd)

2) your opinion is predictable (it's new, but sorta like this thing... lets hate it before trying it). it would hold more water if:
a) you were an industry luminary (John Carmack, Gabe Newell, Cliff Blezinsky)
b) you've even used it and could attest to its efficacy

3) you assume your opinions ARE the mass market as a whole ("i speak for everyone when i say..."

rather than to point out those flaws explicitly, i decided to show how a similar argument could have been made about a new technology (motion controls) and how wildly off the mark it was/is.

truth is, my opinion (which matters little on whether this device receives mass market appeal) is that the device is still in need of a killer app, and i offered some ideas on franchises that may make good candidates for this device (based on it's advantages and limitations).

its much more fun to try to envision how something might succeed than be a stick in the mud naysayer and doom it to failure without trying it

...(we don't have to devolve the discussion into the internet forum 'come at me bro' posturing... if you have an intelligent contribution i welcome it)

Ruud van Gaal
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I've pledged in to get one; would be nice to get running with that wide field of view. I've learned with big multi-projector setups that a wide FOV really helps in the immersion aspect. And that was just a large screen without 3D.

Jeremy Reaban
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This is a very strange Kickstarter - it's for a development kit, yet reading the comments there and places like NeoGaf, it looks like a lot of users are buying them.

I get the feeling they are going to be awfully disappointed when they get it and all they can do is play Doom 3