An in-depth preview of the Crystal Cove prototype shown behind closed doors, and what it means for Oculus VR as their virtual reality headset edges closer to a public launch.
“We’re going to need a lot of therapists specializing in virtual reality withdrawals.” That was my first thought after reluctantly handing Oculus VR’s new Crystal Cove prototype (one of four in existence) back to the representative. We’ll talk about the unmatched immersion and the genius technological advancements in a bit, but that initial thought drove home just how powerful and profoundly important the Oculus Rift headset will be not just for video games, but for any industry that chooses to adopt the technology.
12 months ago I tried a version of the Oculus Rift adorned with duct tape and foam. I was forced to abruptly end the demo 3 minutes in after “sim sickness” set in and my stomach threatened a messy revolt. This year I went from nauseous, cautious skeptic to an enthusiastic believer. That’s because Oculus VR’s weeks-old Crystal Cove prototype is eons ahead of what the press demoed even 6 months ago at E3.
For the new Crystal Cove prototype (named after a beach down the street from the Oculus VR offices), the team was focused on reducing “full loop latency.” That’s the time it takes for you to move your head, get picked up by the tracker, have the computer interpret that data, render an image, and then push it to the display. The lower that gets, the more realistic the experience becomes — and the more likely it is that your brain will believe it.
Everything In Its Right Place
“We always knew where you were looking, but didn’t necessarily know where your head was,” explains Joe Chen, Product Lead at Oculus. Imagine you’re walking around in the mountains and you come to a cliff. You carefully lean over to look down,but instead of seeing a terrifyingly awesome vertical drop, the cliff moves with you. Not only would that be jarring, but it tears the immersion away and your brain instinctively knows that something is seriously wrong. So it became crucial for the team at Oculus to solve this problem.
That solution is positional tracking. The Crystal Cover prototype now uses a smattering of infrared LEDs on the visor, tracked by a small camera mounted to face the player. Combined with the accelerometer and some advanced predictive tracking, the Oculus Rift can now accurately sense where your head is in a virtual space.
Unsurprisingly, the first game demo was designed to reinforce the advantages of positional tracking and shatter the mold of the Oculus Rift being meant for only cockpit sims and first person shooters. I found myself inside a living board game, a 3rd person tower defense map created by Epic Games. Ogres marched down a preset walkway beset with craggy rocks and hidden coves. A lava river flowed underneath, occasionally shooting up fireballs and licking the walkway with flames. One of my first inclinations was to lean forward and flick an ogre off the walkway to a fiery death. (I couldn’t actually do that, but it illustrates how instantly immersed I was.)
From a sitting position on my throne, I was able to lean forward and peer around corners or look inside crevices. I could focus on a single corner to get a better understanding of enemy movement and time my arrow volleys. This adds an awesome layer of gameplay; what if my opponent had placed traps in these hidden areas? It could usher in a realistic “fog of war” effect for strategy and war games. This may sound lame to hardcore gamers, but this could even be a boon for hidden object games.
By the way, if you’re worried about the new camera and infrared LEDs not playing nice with your home lighting environment, know this: The Oculus engineers wanted to demo the prototype in a covered, shaded area. It turns out the meeting room was directly under multiple fixtures on the convention center ceiling, dumping out all kinds of super bright spectrum light. It still worked flawlessly, and this is early hardware.
The Present Tense
Another problematic issue with earlier Oculus Rift prototypes was motion blur, a symptom of PC gaming in general. “We thought if we got better panels, faster switching time, higher framerates, it would fix itself,” Chen told me. “It didn’t. Turns out it’s half technology and half human perception.” The second improvement in the new Rift headset is the introduction of low persistence.
When a game is running at 60fps, a new frame is displayed every 16ms. But what if your position or focus point changes before a new frame — relative to your position — is displayed? In VR, your brain knows something is wrong. Thanks to their hyper-accurate positional tracking, Oculus can now detect what portion of that frame is “wrong” and simply remove it. For the GPU experts in the house, think of it as taking the concept of runt frames and actually using it to their advantage.
“Your brain is getting this burst of correct information – the low persistence — and then carrying that persistence over to the next frame,” Chen explained.
As I and many other CES 2014 attendees can attest to, not only does your brain fill in that missing data, but it also prevents sim sickness. I wore this iteration of the Oculus Rift for about 20 minutes and didn’t experience a tinge of nausea. Within 60 seconds, I forgot I was even wearing a headset.
To demonstrate low persistence, Chen had another game for me to try. This time, though, it wasn’t merely a tech demo but a full game in development from CCP, the creators of Eve Online. Titled Eve Valkyrie, it puts the player smack in the middle of a frantic dogfight in outer space. Before launching, though, I was able to look down at my virtual body and peer forward at control panels. As it would in real-life, as my head got closer the control panel grew larger and the text became more readable. I tried to trick the simulation by bouncing back into my chair but it just felt normal — the display was again a couple feet away from me.
Once my ship launched, though, things got exponentially more incredible. I physically looked around, even 180 degrees behind me and saw my cockpit chair, beyond that asteroid belts and the cold expanse of space. Then I saw a bogey. Chen told me to pull down the left trigger of the controller in my hand and simply target and track the enemy with my eyes. I did as he requested and a targeting reticule formed around the enemy, tracking it with shocking accuracy. I released the trigger and blew him to smithereens.
I have no earthly idea what it feels or looks like to engage in space dogfights, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was as close as I could possibly come.
Eve Valkyrie is poised to be a killer app for the Oculus Rift, driving home both the low persistence and positional tracking that are crucial to that seamless virtual reality experience.
The all-too-brief demonstration at CES made me ponder an era not unlike Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One.” The Oculus Rift is so damn-near perfect that I honestly think “virtual reality withdrawals” will be a common diagnosis in the near future. But their technology could also bring drastic improvements to education, therapy, things like digitizing artifacts and archives. Historical time-traveling, even.
The wait for the retail version of the Oculus Rift is becoming unbearable, especially knowing that the development kit is in the hands of 50,000 developers. After their demo at CES 2014, I’m completely sold on the concept, the technology, and the potential impact it will have not just on games but on our civilization.