Seeing the Future

05.08.14

The Game You Wear on Your Face: Virtual Reality Is Finally Here

Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. Sony's gearing up for Project Morpheus. We've come a long way from the headache-inducing black and red graphics of Nintendo's Virtual Boy.

The holodeck is about to become a reality. Well, maybe.

In 1995, Nintendo, riding the successes of the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, released the Virtual Boy, an attempt at a consumer virtual reality headset. Featuring headache-inducing black-and-red graphics, the Virtual Boy was an abject failure. At $180, it was double the price of a Game Boy and not much more powerful. It was uncomfortable, ugly, and lacked any games worth owning. It was a spectacular failure.

In the years since, VR gaming has seemed like a pipe dream. People could go to arcades and find games VR-esque experiences, but no one has been able to create the feeling of being truly transported to another world.

Fast-forward to 2012, when Oculus VR was born. Founded by Palmer Luckey when he was only 19, Oculus launched an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign for the developer version of the “Rift,” a device that may become the first viable VR headset for the masses. Oculus asked for $250,000 and received nearly 10 times that. That was just the beginning. The following June, Oculus announced that it had received $16 million in funding, and then in December 2013, they announced an extra $75 million. The project born out of Luckey’s garage was a massive success.

And that was before Facebook. Many people heard about the Rift for the first time on March 25 when Oculus VR was purchased by the social network for $2 billion. The news came as a shock to damn near everyone, but in light of recent comments made by Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, the decision makes sense. “This is going to be an MMO where we want to put a billion people in virtual reality,” he said on Monday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference. “A billion-person virtual-world MMO is going to require a bigger network than exists today. Why not start with Facebook and their infrastructure and their team and talent that they’ve built up?”

Those $2 billion have also served to legitimize the work other companies have been doing to expand the VR experience. That’s important, because the feeling of immersion in VR space does not end with the headset. For a game to really give the player a sense of presence in another world, it must react to their bodies and movements. And many companies are trying to push that experience to its limits, putting players into their game environments in a way that was never possible before.

Virtuix is one such company, a small startup that received $1.1 million on Kickstarter and announced on April 24 that they had received an extra $3 million in seed money. Their contribution to VR is the Omni, a device that uses specially designed shoes and a nearly frictionless surface to allow players to literally walk, run, jump, and crouch through game worlds. There’s no need to press buttons or use analog sticks.

At $500, the Omni’s asking price is steep, and only 3,000 devices have been pre-sold before the launch this summer. But the creators aren’t deterred. “I can see a future where there is a VR headset in every household just as there is a TV in every household today,” Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk tells me. “And there is a headset, an Omni, and perhaps other peripherals that are part of their daily lives, whether they use them for entertainment, education, or any other purposes.”

But the Rift isn’t the only VR headset game in town. At the Game Developer’s Conference in March of this year, Sony announced “Project Morpheus,” a virtual reality headset companion for its PlayStation 4 console. Featuring a much sexier design than Oculus’s device, Project Morpheus puts itself in an interesting position. Fluid VR experiences on the PC require reasonably fast hardware, and the recommended system requirements noted on Oculus’s page for their current developer kit are vague but potentially taxing. People who want a great experience without great hardware will need to compromise the quality of the visuals in other ways, and some people may end up spending more on the graphics card than they do on the Rift.

Meanwhile, Project Morpheus is designed and optimized for one system. It’s not unlike the difference between iPhone apps and Android apps. iPhone developers know exactly what they’re developing for, because there are only a couple of devices that can run iPhone apps. There are thousands of variations of Android phones, and it’s impossible for developers to test them all or account for little intricacies. While PC games scale more easily than Android apps, designing for a variety of potential hardware configurations is still more complicated than working with a single platform. Project Morpheus developers will be able to guarantee a consistent experience for every user; Rift developers will not.

That is one of the reasons Dr. Richard Marks, who works in Sony’s R&D department on the Project Morpheus team, believes that his product will succeed. “You’ll be able to go to the store and buy it and you’ll know that it can just plug into your PlayStation 4 and just work,” he says. “That control over the whole experience is super important, especially in the early stages of VR.” While The Rift is somewhat complicated to use, especially in its current stages, and while that barrier won’t stop those really dedicated to the experience, it could turn off the mass market. Videos of 90-year-old grandmothers playing the Rift are great, but they need their grandchildren to set the systems up. On the PlayStation 4, the process will be easier.

In our review of the PlayStation 4, I wrote that the PlayStation 4 Eye companion camera is “quickly forgotten,” but that was before its true purpose was unveiled: VR tracking. The real trick to truly functional VR is a system that reacts to your every move, whether that’s in a full body sense as with the Omni or just with positional tracking of the head. “I see virtual reality in three components,” Virtuix’s Goetgeluk says. “There is the visual part, like the Rift; the locomotion part, like the Omni; and the third part is the tracking of hands or a gun, perhaps the waist. This additional tracking makes it a more immersive experience.”

Project Morpheus has big lights on the front—not unlike those found on the DualShock 4 controller and the PlayStation Move motion controller, a rarely used PlayStation 3 peripheral that is compatible with the PS4—which allow the cameras to track it in 3D space. That tracking, combined with information from the sensors inside the headset, mean that when you move your head, the world moves with you, not against you. This is important, because early VR headsets (including prototypes of the Oculus Rift) would make users feel motion sickness.

And the aforementioned lights found on the DualShock 4 and the PlayStation 4 allow for games to not just track players’ heads, but their hands as well, allowing movements and interactions to be tracked in full 3D space. When asked what his favorite VR experience has been so far, Marks mentions a demo set in a medieval castle, controlled using two Move controllers. “You just reach into the space and everything is exactly where you would expect it to be in 3D, so you can just grab onto things,” he says.

When the Wii was first unveiled, then called the “Nintendo Revolution,” its motion controller had people imagining a whole new world of possibilities, ones that the system never really lived up to. The PlayStation Move always seemed like a higher-tech response to the Wii Remote, but it also never showed its true potential. Project Morpheus may change that. Now, players will be able to not just look around and traverse a virtual space that reacts to their movements, but they will be able to touch and interact in a way that they never could before.

The Xbox One’s Kinect camera lets players “feed” animals in Zoo Tycoon by holding out their hand. Using Project Morpheus and PlayStation Move, players could really feel as though they were in that zoo, with a giraffe just inches from their face as they hold out their perfectly tracked hands. On the PC side, other technologies like the Sixense STEM attempt to do the same thing, but Sony’s simplicity will be the key to its success.

As will its price. Although Sony hasn’t given any hint to what Project Morpheus will cost, the Rift has set a promising precedent. Last June, Oculus CEO Brandon Iribe told Forbes magazine that the company wanted its consumer headset, planned for release sometime this year, to be sold for $300, but added that there was “the potential that it could get much less expensive with a few different relationships and strategies.” And while no specifics have surfaced since the Facebook purchase, in an interview with The Verge following the announcement, Palmer Luckey said, “This does let the headset be better and cheaper. Our roadmap is about the same as it’s always been, but there are a lot of things we’d wanted to do that now we can really execute on.” What that means for consumers is unknown, but the prospect of serious VR for under $300 is invigorating.

Especially since VR has uses beyond gaming. While both Oculus and Sony intend to use their headsets primarily for games, the Project Morpheus team worked with NASA to create a Mars rover simulation for the headset, allowing players to walk on a perfectly re-created planet. Goetgeluk’s vision of the future of his company, though, is even grander. He envisions the Omni in everything from physical therapy to military simulations to hotel room bookings (imagine being able to actually walk through a room before putting down a deposit).

But sometimes it’s hard to take the pioneers in a field seriously. Five years ago, everyone was saying that 3D would revolutionize entertainment as we knew it. But while 3D TVs continue to be produced, the feature is no longer a major selling point, and now people have turned to higher-resolution screens as the Next Big Thing. Palmer Luckey, for his part, thinks that traditional television displays as we know them will be dead within 20 years, and everything will be a head-mounted display.

And just as Hollywood embraced 3D, Dr. Marks says that Hollywood is interested in the VR experience. Although he didn’t say more, Sir David Attenborough’s recent announcement that his next documentary, Conquest of the Skies, is being shot (at least in part) for the Oculus Rift gives a sense of what is possible. Using an eight-camera rig allowing for a full 360-degree view, Attenborough and company will allow Rift owners to look out and see Borneo in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, certainly not from the comfort of their own home.

When asked about the potential for VR to get too realistic, especially with regards to hyper-violent games, neither Marks nor Goetgeluk are willing to say much. “It’s very realistic, so it feels like things are really happening to you,” says Marks. “If it’s something that would cause you to be uncomfortable in the real world if you were doing it, it will probably make you somewhat uncomfortable in VR.” (There have already been such circumstances involving a simple underwater demo making some players feel uneasy.)

“That’s not really our first goal, but I’m sure that’s something that will get explored by some of the developers out there,” Goetgeluk says. “I think that the knife always cuts on both sides, and that’s an ethical question that I don’t have the answer for. We’ll need to assess in the future what kind of impact VR can have on behavior of people who use it.”

And undoubtedly those studies will be done, because VR is really a new medium. It’s not really an extension of video games as we know them so much as it is something truly unique. Although some of the methods of control may be familiar, others like the Omni will usher in experiences that simply weren’t possible even just years ago.

“It sounds a little bit extreme, but I often do the comparison that VR is to a movie as a movie is to a photo,” Marks says. “It’s that big of a step.” Goetgeluk’s comparison to the switch from radio to television is equally grand, and only time will tell if their words are hyperbole or not. But with the rapidly changing technological landscape and the massive amounts of money being thrown at the sector, it feels as though our reality may be about to go virtual.