Oculus Rift in space: gaming's final frontier
30th Jul 2013 | 13:40
VR wars are about to kick off
TechRadar is hurtling through space at six hundred miles per hour. It's difficult to take our eyes off course, but as we glide below a mothership we have to look up and admire the scale of the behemoth above us. It snatches the breath.
Right now there's very little to shatter the illusion that this is actually happening. But far from the distant reaches of space, we're sat in a studio in Guildford, UK, with what looks like a pair of early production model ski goggles strapped to our face.
Unless you've been living inside your own virtual reality for the last year, you've probably become aware of Oculus Rift. The low-latency VR headset, capable of transporting us to 3D virtual worlds, has been gathering momentum and will soon be unleashed on the consumer market.
But right now it's in the hands of developers to make these experiences possible. Among those taking the charge is Born Ready Games, creators of Strike Suit Zero - a space combat game in which you assume the role of an intergalactic fighter pilot.
The game was born from a Kickstarter campaign and released to PC earlier this year, and since then Born Ready has been beavering away on Oculus Rift support for the title.
So why did the team decide to jump on the VR wagon? Once you've taken a ride on Oculus, the answer seems simple: virtual reality and space were made for each other. Whether it roots from Spielbergian sci-fi or just a sheer curiosity of the unknown, the desire to explore the far reaches of space continues to be an enduring one for so many people.
"We've been brought up on Star Wars and Star Trek and Battlestar," says Born Ready Games CEO James Brooksby. "It's in all our fantasies, to be out there and be a space fighter pilot.
"What people want to do with virtual reality is have a virtual reality. Something they can't ordinarily do. In an airplane you can have some of that because most of us don't get to fly airplanes. But in space you're in a fantasy environment, you've got something that grounds you in reality but you've got the fantastical around you."
Strike while the iron's hot
Space could be the key that ignites Oculus's engine. "Immediately everyone goes: 'That's got to be one of the perfect things for virtual reality'," says Brooksby. But Rift could be just as important to the rebirth of the space simulator.
"Before we became Born Ready Games, there was nobody working on space combat at all," he says.
The days of Spasim and Elite may be a twinkle in the past but the quality space-based titles since have been far and few between. The space simulator genre took a decline towards the end of the 1990s - a trend that's now starting to see a reverse thanks to titles such as Strike Suit Zero and mass multiplayer online title EVE Online.
EVE has also been toying with Oculus Rift support. In fact, the game's developer and publisher CCP was even a Kickstarter supporter of the VR headset.
The Oculus support was then demoed to players at EVE Fanfest in April. "It was a huge hit," says CCP's Chief Marketing Officer David Reid, who admits he was a little skeptical until he finally went eyes-on with the headset.
He describes his first few moments in game: "This guy goes by so I think I need to catch up so I take this really hard turn and I suddenly feel my stomach drop out like you're on a roller coaster or on a plane. And I'm like 'Ok, this is more intense than I expected'".
As for whether EVE and Oculus might pair up more officially in the future, Reid won't confirm. At least officially. "We're exploring it," he strongly hints to TechRadar. "It does feel like there's something really interesting here."
But it won't stop with EVE and Strike Suit. As Born Ready's James Brooksby tells us, there are plenty of others getting on the ship.
"We sat there and went 'Ok, we really believe that space games should exist as a genre again," he says. "Other people started to play their hand in it and say 'We're working on one and we're working on one'. But we didn't see that as a bad thing. We just went 'Ok, that shows there is a lot of interest.'"
But as vast as space may be, Oculus has just as many opportunities to thrill us on the terra firma. In fact, the beauty of Rift is that the games are already out there - all it takes is for developers to pair the two together.
Every first-person title since the days of Doom could conceivable find itself with Oculus support. Fallout. Half-Life. Amnesia. Mirror's Edge. The list of titles that could pair with Oculus feels endless, and some, including Half-Life 2, are already supported.
Not to say that this is stopping developers creating new tailored experiences. From the sublime to the ridiculous, ideas are being thrown at Oculus that could very well change the very definition of gaming.
"It's the very simple ideas which is where the biggest innovation is coming from," Brooksby tells us.
A perfect example of this is City Quest, a 2D point-and-click game with a twist - you have to enter a 3D 1980s retro bedroom inside Oculus to play it. "So you walk into the bedroom, sit down and play it like an old platformer on the computer," says Brooksby. "And you can look around and see packets of crisps and things on the desk. Proper Inception stuff."
That the best ideas are coming from the independent developers should be of little surprise right now. Indie gaming is sieging the mainstream. The PS4 has pledged its allegiance to the indie developer market and the Xbox One has made the same vow.
Will they also be embracing Oculus with the same open arms? Well, that remains to be seen.
Putting the reality in VR
Of course, there have been several attempts to kick-start the VR machine in the past, but until now the idea has been restricted by its own technology.
"What's good about the way this is going at the moment is there's huge amounts of interest from the gaming side of things and big interest from the tech side of things," says Brooksby. "It looks like it's reaching more of a mass market."
And even better, the units are already out there in the hands of developers. "It's not like it's a pipe dream for just a few people, its already starting to get out there, and for not much more than the cost of a monitor. So I think there's a change this time around."
Oculus can also count gaming stalwart Peter Molyneux among its fans. "It was by far the best VR experience I've ever had," he tells TechRadar after taking Rift out for a spin.
However, he also suggests that developers don't get complacent with the wealth of titles already prepared for the Oculus treatment.
"I want an experience that's been crafted just for this," he says. "It needs the software to be written to support the hardware. You get past the 'Oh I can look around the world' and you immediately say to yourself 'Right, I want to do stuff'. I held my hands up and the fact I couldn't see my hands broke the experience."
These words echo resoundingly as later on we find we're as far removed as intergalactic warfare as possible. Instead we're walking around a small house. While the headset and joystick setup is the same, the experience is vastly different.
Observing various ornaments as we move around, we feel like we can reach a hand out and touch them. Doing so, however, does spoil the illusion. This might be a niggling thing - and something easily solved by the likes of the IGS Glove - but the feeling of nausea that's been creeping in is harder to ignore.
It's quite possibly Oculus's biggest obstacle right now. By comparison, spinning through space felt oddly normal. But there we were sat in a cockpit with little to differentiate it from the real thing.
Walking around on the ground, however, is a much more tangible experience. As we move, our brain tries to comprehend why our legs remain motionless, and that familiar dizziness-sickness begins to set in.
"I think motion sickness is always going to be a problem with VR because it's tricking your brain and when you try to trick the human brain, our brains have a habit of finding ways to make you motion sick," says Molyneux.
"As soon as you enter motion sickness, that's it. It's over for you. you've got to rip the thing off."
It feels like something that has no quick fix solution, but it's something that developers are working hard to overcome. "The Valve guys have done a really good job of some calibrations for eye separation and things like that," says Born Ready Games' James Brooksby. "The more you can convince the brain the better. But as long as you can maintain a strong frame rate."
The trajectory of Oculus Rift may be limited by this, although the HD version of the headset may play a big part in solving the problem.
And if Oculus turns out to be better suited for space exploration, that's no bad thing. Rift is ready to take off. People are hearing about it, people are getting to try it, and perhaps more importantly, people are throwing a lot of money at it.
Brooksby is convinced that for the first time, people are truly ready for virtual reality.
"My son's eleven, and the kid next door is ten," he says. "And they were in the garden chatting, and the kid said 'I'm getting this new thing' and he was trying to describe it. And through his description it became clear that he was talking about the Oculus. He said 'You put it in your face and you can see all these worlds.'"
The next door neighbour's ten year old kid knows about it," he reiterates, laughing. "It's obviously going further than we possibly imagined."
Wanna know more about the Oculus Rift? Check out our handy guide: