Any long-time gamer could tell you that an essential part of any game is its ability to immerse the player.
Video games differ from other forms of art in that they are necessarily interactive experiences. The hallmark of a truly great game or the redeeming factor of an otherwise mediocre one lies in its capacity to fully engage the player and provide them with the necessary atmosphere and investment of being an active part of a story and environment, one in which their actions further the progression of the plot or otherwise have an impact on the fictional world they temporarily inhabit.
Under these parameters it may initially seem obvious that the future of gaming platforms lies in the development of virtual reality consoles, yet it was not long ago that the concept was generally regarded as nothing more than either a far-off pipe dream or a running joke synonymous with frustrated ambition and failure (see Nintendo’s failed Virtual Boy console).
The long-established stigma against previous attempts of simulating virtual reality as being gimmicky, nausea-inducing, or otherwise non-functional has done little to deter a legion of entrepreneurs, inventors, programmers, engineers, and game developers who have stood up to meet the challenge over the last couple years. The virtual gaming system that has garnered the most media attention and is generally regarded as the most likely candidate for ushering in a new era of gaming is known as the Oculus Rift.
Developed by the Irvine-based company Oculus VR, the Oculus Rift was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign that gained over $2.1 million to start with in 2012. Although the headset is not intended to be available for consumer purchase until later this year, Oculus VR has sold over 60,000 developer kits worldwide, according to Tech Crunch, which has resulted in a library of over 200 games compatible with the device. These titles range from ports of already popular titles such as “Team Fortress 2” to novel experiences such as “Guillotine Simulator,” which runs the player through the experience of a public execution. The device is primarily intended to be used for PC gaming, and an improved version of the developer kit prototype, dubbed DK2 on Oculus VR’s main webpage, is set for release on July of this year.
Lido Giovacchini, a third-year game design major at California State University at Monterey Bay, attended the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco late last March, where he had the opportunity to participate in a two-game demonstration of the Oculus Rift. Giovacchini’s first experience with the device, a dog-fighting simulation that takes place in the universe of EVE Online, situates the player in a cockpit as they fight enemy ships.
“My first thought was whoa!” said Giovacchini, when relating his first impressions, “you put on the headset and suddenly you are completely immersed.” His immediate impressions did not continue to be completely favorable, however. As he continued playing EVE Valkyrie, he noted having difficulty with the interface and targeting system, which he described as being occasionally overwhelming.
Oculus VR has not been without its share of negative press, however, due to Facebook’s announcement in late March that it intended to acquire the company with an offer of $400 million in cash and $1.6 billion in Facebook stock, according to The Escapist. The buyout provoked the public outcry of Oculus VR’s fan base, especially the original Kickstarter funders, who felt their contributions had been rendered pointless.
The Oculus is not without its competition either. During this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, Sony Entertainment announced their own take on the virtual reality headset, under the working title of Project Morpheus, for the PlayStation 4, complete with working prototypes available for demonstration. Morpheus offers a comparable experience to that of Oculus Rift with a few notable deviations. According to the Verge, Project Morpheus’ field of vision is slightly smaller, offering 90 degrees of mobility compared to the Rift’s 100, and they both offer roughly the same axis rotation. They both offer the same resolution; however, Oculus has the advantage of utilizing OLED for a sharper image compared to Morpheus’ LED.
Modern virtual reality systems for consumer use, being a fledgling industry, do not as of yet offer serious contenders for market distribution. However, alternatives do exist, such as the Infiniteye, which offers an impressive 210-degree field of vision. Another product still in beta testing is the Avegant Glyph, a multi-media home theater headset that uses a virtual retinal display to project images directly onto the eyes. As the industry takes shape, the current line of systems stands to change the way we see games as an interactive medium.