I’ve been strapping on the Oculus Rift since it was just the germ of an idea. Back in 2012, in a back room at E3, developer John Carmack put a device on my head that was made from the frame of Oakley ski goggles and literally held together with duct tape. He then unleashed hell in the form of a virtual reality version of Doom.
I was hooked and have tried many, if not most, of the various iterations the Rift has gone through since then. At CES, I was able to don the version that will ship to consumers later this spring. (When you’ll get it, assuming you were able to stomach the $600 price tag, will depend on how fast you were able to get your pre-order in.)
Make no mistake, it’s an entirely new way to experience and interact with entertainment. At CES, Facebook-owned
Oculus was showing off games – and only games. But there were plenty of other companies demonstrating other potential uses. Next VR, for example, hosted a live streaming party of the NBA game between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics at the show, giving attendees a chance to watch the game in 360 degrees.
The Rift will launch with a number of strikes against it, though. The howls of protest over the price have made some analysts question if VR adoption will be slowed. The company is facing what could be a nasty lawsuit from Bethesda Softworks’ owner ZeniMax, which claims Oculus used and is profiting from Bethesda’s intellectual property. And the delay of the Oculus Touch controllers is an especially big blow, since gaming is so much more engaging with those.
But as it has since the first time I saw a demon running toward me in 2012, the Rift can transport you to other worlds that if seen on a two-dimensional monitor, might seem ordinary.
Take, for instance, Bullet Train, one of the first demos Oculus was showing this year. It’s a demo of an impressive-looking but fairly average shooter that I would likely try once but, if I had a console controller in my hands, then largely forget. But with the Rift (and Oculus Touch), there’s a sense of urgency and distress as I combat my enemies, frantically firing my pistol, but having to target without the reticle that most games use, and without factoring in trajectory as I lob a grenade. I dodge bullets physically as they slow in front of me Matrix-style, occasionally plucking them out of the air and tossing them back (at lethal speed) at my enemies.
It’s thrilling and I’m sad when the demo comes to an end. However, as much as I enjoy the experience, I can’t help but worry if VR will set public thinking about video games back by several years.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling that clearly said video games are covered by the First Amendment, you’re likely to hear more anti-gaming advocates argue that they can be used to train people to kill, assuming the action genre is as popular in this format. And it’s a slightly harder argument to dismiss when you’re tracking a life-sized in-game character with your eyes and hands, rather than a controller.
Fortunately, as thrilling as Bullet Train was, there are plenty of other sorts of gaming experiences offered by Rift. It’s possible, though not entirely likely, that other game genres could lead the way for developers. Medium, for example, allowed me to try my hand at sculpting and painting. And Edge of Nowhere let me hike Everest in jeans and tennis shoes. It was Esper that really intrigued me, though.
The Rift employee who was my real-world guide to this virtual universe said that no one had played it during his time giving demos that week, so I couldn’t resist. What I found was a Portal-like puzzle game that forced me to think differently and made me laugh. Unlike many of the other demos I tried, this one used an Xbox controller, which will ship with the Rift. That gave a better sense of how playing a game on the Rift will be for the first six months or so, since that’s about how long users will have to wait for the Oculus Touch to come out. (It was nice, but almost anything that uses the Oculus Touch is a much more immersive experience.)
By the time I walked out of the Oculus booth, nearly an hour later, I had also strapped on my flight suit in Eve Valkyrie, played an arcade target shooting game (Dead and Buried), and explored a colorful Nintendo-esque world as a eternally cheerful fox in Lucky’s Tale.
Some of the games were better than others – and many will force players to unlearn things that have become second nature (like realizing you need to physically turn your body sometimes, rather than just flicking the right thumbstick).
But I’m no less bullish on VR today than I was four years ago. And the hour-plus long line of people waiting for their chance to try out the set at the Oculus booth was a good sign that I’m not alone.