Time for another take on Oculus, the Rift, and the new VR industry that is forming. Everything has pretty much exploded since Facebook purchased the company. That put Oculus on the map and brought a great deal of attention to the company and the new wave of VR technology now emerging. We even had the first official conference for consumer virtual reality put together by SVVR.
For a complete and well written account of the journey so far, check out Wired’s official article The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality. It has now been two years exactly since the Oculus Rift Kickstarter made history and we are still looking at another year before the commercial version is even ready. We are also only a few weeks away from the first Oculus Connect, which is an invite only developer focused conference that seems more like a pilgrimage than a conference, and will include about a thousand or so developers from around the world trying to make consumer VR happen. It seems this journey is only just beginning!
Lost Loot + Oculus Share = Yes!
I am happy to report that Lost Loot finally made it onto the Oculus Share site! I released the game back in the end of May and shortly after that submitted it to the the Oculus Share site hoping to get it out well in advance of the DK2 launch. Unfortunately, just after the Boston VR Bender was over, on the same day my new laptop bricked itself because of a BIOS bug, I found out that I needed to fix some issues with camera judder before it could be accepted. Oh, what a day! So, after several weeks with no computer and then a few more weeks getting to the bottom of the problem, I finally got the update submitted and it came out several weeks after that on 8/12. I am now working hard to update Lost Loot for DK2!
Check out this list of Oculus Share content! It is worth pointing out the amount of content released on Oculus Share in just the last few months. It is amazing to see so many VR games and experiences. Who would have thought that we would have all this cool VR content just a few years ago!
A Delivery From The VR Gods
My lightning reflexes paid off back in March when the DK2 was put up for preorder. I managed to order mine in the first couple of hours and I finally received the coveted device on August 1st. It is really amazing how many people want this thing – $227,000 Worth of Oculus Rift DK2s Sold on Ebay Despite Oculus VR Prohibiting Resales.
The device is a major step forward and I feel that it compares pretty well with the Valve prototypes I had the pleasure of trying at the Boston VR Bender. Positional tracking and low persistence makes the whole VR experience significantly more comfortable. Having the world move properly with your subtle head position is so important never mind that it can be used to do things like look around corners or poke your head out a window. Check out the Oculus Rift DK2 Positional IR Camera Performance Test to get a feel for just how big this tracking volume is. I wish my home office was bigger!
The capture of that subtle head movement which is then combined with a solid world that doesn’t smear as you look around seals the deal. With everything so solid it feels like being there and then it seem possible to reach out and touch things. Well maybe not yet, but soon…
Where Are My Hands?
We have been waiting pretty much since GDC for some idea on what kind of official input system the Rift will have. It is the next logical step given that the visuals feel so real now. We may find out more about this at Connect. In a recent interview Palmer let slip that they will be discussing everything at Connect, even input. Check out Oculus on Unconfirmed VR Input Device: “You’ll Probably Hear More About It [at Connect] and see that reaction from Nate!
I am also really excited about getting my STEM controllers in the next few months. I feel like they will provide the best solution to input for gaming. Games need sticks, triggers, and buttons and some kind of gesture solution will not work in my opinion. Ideally there would be a system that functions elegantly both ways. With any input system, it all comes down to low latency and accurate positional tracking because your virtual hands must move precisely with your real ones. A few cool videos of the STEM system in action: Advanced Weapon Mechanics, Lightsaber Demo, Easily Built Common Interactions, and VR Lightsaber Demo @ SVVR August 2014.
Tackling The Next Sense
Audio is considered as important to VR as the visuals. Check out Twenty Years after Doom: John Carmack on the Future of Engineering Virtual Worlds at about 1:33, where John talks about audio and what he is working on to get it right for VR. The entire video is great history and I highly recommend watching all of it.
John talks about the creation of binaural audio with the use of HRTFs (Head Related Transfer Functions). This has never been very useful for regular gaming, but will be really critical in VR for an immersive soundscape. He goes on to describe the same problems of latency issues with the audio systems in the operating system as there are with the video systems. He also points out that nobody knows the threshold for presence with audio. I gather we may see an audio solution that also bypasses the operating system and is somehow piped through a custom driver to keep the sound precisely in sync with head movement. I can imagine amazing psychedelic VR experiences where audio correlates directly with the visuals in some kind of new digital art form.
Fresh And Innocent Player Brains… Mmmm!
Both hand input and audio will help achieve presence, which for me can be best described as a period of time that you kind of forget that you are in a virtual world. I don’t mean that you consciously forget this. It is more like when you are completely focused on something and you tune out what is going on around you, then all off a sudden you realize that a significant amount of time has passed. Having that happen to me in VR while playing a game is what I consider presence. Your subconscious brain has accepted what it is experiencing and then it is a mild shock to pull the headset off. The proper hardware only provides the platform to achieve presence the rest of the work is done by the content. Check out Why Virtual Reality Isn’t (Just) the Next Big Platform : Michael Abrash & Dov Katz of Oculus VR, which really covers the idea of presence.
To help us developers, Oculus released a new updated set of best practices (PDF) which outlines many of the dos and don’ts of VR content design. Another excellent video on this topic is Tom Forsyth’s talk at GDC: Developing Virtual Reality Games and Experiences. My favorite part of this video is the section entitled ‘Be Kind to Your Players’ at about 5:10. They are all different and we as developers must guard them from harm via good VR design. And it is true, we get very accustomed to bad VR as we are building content. I fully believe my camera judder problem with Lost Loot was because I was totally desensitized to it and didn’t have enough folks testing and willing to point out those kinds of problems. I wonder if Oculus rotates through testers for the Share site so the same thing doesn’t happen to the folks approving applications there.
Will The GPUs Forgive Us?
If DK2 wasn’t cool enough, we are also heading towards another increase in resolution and frame rate for CV1 that will likely put us over the top in terms of inducing presence but probably strain even the most powerful graphics cards. Palmer confirmed it at the end of this Joystiq interview at about 3:10 and Carmack hinted at it in a tweet a few weeks ago. Considering the render target for DK2 right now is 2364×1461, the rendering target with a 1440p display will be around 3150×2000! I am scared what it will take to render anything complex at that resolution at 90fps with dual camera views! I can picture millions of GPUs crying for mercy and running for the digital hills!
One benefit of 90fps will hopefully be a brighter output on the low persistence display as clearly described in this oculus subreddit comment. You do get accustomed to it now even with the darker display, but as a developer I have felt like there is some loss in the intensity of colors and especially brightness/contrast. I guess we will see how this comes out in the end.
Me + New Oculus SDK = My Son + Toy That Won’t Do What He Wants = Crying Like A Baby
Now, a reality check! We are currently experiencing some significant growing pains. The move by Oculus to a custom driver to get around all the hurdles in the operating system is brilliant and definitely the right way to go, however, as a developer, working with DK2 has been difficult at best. All the excitement lately surrounding DK2 has been tempered somewhat for me with the struggle of actually building stuff that runs well and even getting other folks content to even work properly.
My laptop, the same brand new one that bricked itself with a bad BIOS revision, may be partly to blame. It has, like many laptops, an Nvidia Optimus setup in it with an integrated Intel 4600 GPU and a nice dedicated Nvidia 870M GPU. Nvidia Optimus setups are officially unsupported by the driver currently. Luckily there is a compatibility configuration called Extended Mode.
So, I have abandoned trying to get Direct Mode to even work for now. Extended Mode continues to treat the Rift as a monitor, however setup is a little tricky. I had to use it in flipped landscape mode since it is a portrait display and it is not possible to clone it anymore. However it is easer to look through the lenses and try to move windows and so on. I really don’t want to be popping out the lenses to see the screen. My DK1 is full of dust because of that. Speaking of lenses, they scratch really easily, even when cleaning if you are not gentle. I already have one scratch in my right lens from bumping my glasses into it. And, I am really careful!
Another problem I have with the DK2 is comfort. This may be due in part to having it adjusted all the way out to keep my glasses away from the lenses, but overall I think it has some ergonomic issues. First, it is heavier than DK1. Second, and more problematic is that it hangs out much further from your face and that weight causes it to twist down. The top head strap connects at the edge instead of further out so no matter how that is adjusted it still twists down. This causes me various problems. The most annoying is that I need to sit it up high on my face so I can stay in the sweet spot or things get blurry as it twists down and I am no longer looking through the center of the optics but through the top of them. The other issue is that it presses on the cheek bones just below the eyes and is uncomfortable after a while. I doubt I could do long sessions in the DK2 because of these issues. I have been able to get it to not twist as much by making the straps around the sides of the head really tight but this is also uncomfortable and is hard to do during development when putting it on and taking it off all the time.
The last difficult area I want to mention is camera placement. It was hard positioning it, or better yet, having a place to position it, that is in the right spot. It has a large tracking volume, much like Valve’s prototype headsets, but ideally the camera needs to be far away from where you are sitting. If you have a small space to work with all you can do is go vertical and look for some kind of wall mount. I ended up placing my camera on top of the 30 inch monitor I have on my desk, which works best if I sit back away from the the front of the desk. It still isn’t ideal and I may need to invest in a tripod to get it in a good spot. I don’t have a wall directly behind my desk so going high up with it pointing down isn’t really an option. I could rearrange my office, but that may be going too far. I think if it were possible to have a wider FOV camera it would work better closer, but I have no idea what the tradeoffs are there. Overall the camera is great though with no calibration and minimal dropouts from partial occlusion.
The SDK is definitely still a work in progress. There are likely going to be many additional updates to address bugs and other issues. For all of us it is a just going to be a little bumpy for the next month or two. I am hoping that they can get the driver working properly with Nvidia Optimus and Windows 8.1, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.
Content Is King
So, everyone keeps asking when Oculus will release the consumer version. The answer is NOT when it is ready, but when there is enough high quality content to run on it! Consumer VR will fail if Oculus and other VR HMD vendors do not time it correctly. There needs to be a critical mass of really cool VR content ready to go and a plethora of high quality AAA content for launch titles. I think Oculus will actively delay the release even if the hardware is ready until they feel the content is also ready. In my opinion I think the hardware is ready, we are having major issues with the software and lacking things like input solutions, and content is really lagging behind. Oculus Connect is just another indication of this push to drive the development of content.
So this brings me to my next point. Oculus is spinning up its own ability to develop content. It is pretty clear that after a successful adoption of consumer VR, HMDs will become a commodity and the content running on them will be where the money is made. Hardware is only an enabler to sell that content. The problem though is that larger publishers with the resources to make quality content have not bought into VR yet, because the risk is just too high, and the quality of most independently developed content just doesn’t fill the gap. I am really looking forward to whatever amazing VR title is being developed at Oculus. Just think of it as something equivalent to Half Life 3 in VR being Oculus’ lauch title. One amazing launch title that will sell the HMD regardless of anything anyone else plans to sell. If you don’t believe me, check out Pixar Technical Director Chris Horne leaves company for Oculus! This is just the latest in a long string of amazing hires. Check out this blog about Jason Holtman and all the new hires at Oculus this past spring.
Speaking of famous games, HL2 finally came out for the DK2! And, better yet, Notch is finally coming back around, with Carmack offering to make Minecraft work on the Rift himself. We may yet see official Minecraft support. Another really interesting area is cinematic VR. A company called Jaunt recently raised $28 million in funding, which is not a small investment. Check out On the Set of the Most Immersive WWII Movie Ever Made. I love the part about the crew hiding behind props and buildings when they film!
VR will be awesome, but only with a lot of high quality content, and not just games. For me this is the riskiest part of making this technology successful. After all, nobody has found the killer application for VR and there is still no way my wife will put the device on. Although, she is curious, but to her I look like a dork. When I find something that will convince her to try it and keep her engaged for more than a few minutes, VR will be here to stay!
That Is All…
If you are in Boston, don’t miss our VR meetups, and if you are going to Oculus Connect, I will see you there!
Check out the previous installment at Rift Ramblings (Part 5).