A Look at 5 Virtual Reality Games Using Oculus Touch

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Butterflies and bullet trains: Oculus Rift’s emotional demos will kick you in the heart.

Epic’s VR war room is a small office space strewn with prototype equipment: an HTC Vive, a small stack of Oculus Rift cases, even an old Razer Hydra controller. It’s certainly the last time I’ll demo the Oculus Rift before “A Virtual Reality Headset” hits the market, considering both the consumer Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive are scheduled to release in November. They’ve got another two days of squashing bugs before they can hand it off to Oculus, and a week before it appears for the first time at the Oculus Connect convention in Hollywood. Over the last three years I’ve flown spaceships and waved at aliens, batted UFOs out of the sky with my elephant trunk and watched military training exercises.

So I guess it’s appropriate that for a last hurrah, Oculus showed me some of the most ambitious Rift experiences in development—an epic subway battle, a huggable hedgehog, and a complex sculpting tool. Senior designer Nick Donaldson was in the office until after midnight, and he seems both weary and animated as he copies over the latest build of Bullet Train, helps me into a Crescent Bay headset, and hands me two half-moon controllers. A virtual partner talks you through playing with things like action figures and slingshots, and the most high-stress part is shooting toy missiles from a miniature tank. Bullet Train, as its name suggests, drops me in a fast-moving subway car that has me turning around to get my bearings — I do a quick double-take at a couple of reassuringly familiar MTA etiquette PSAs. You start out in a subway car, where you learn the basics of picking up guns with the Oculus Touch controllers—basically “reach out and grab them like normal,” thanks to the controller’s palm-grip buttons.

Where games have trained me to think in terms of hitting keys and buttons, I start paying attention to things like which hand to use first when picking up a two-handed rifle. Or you can teleport towards an enemy, hit him in the face with your pistol, throw it to the side, and steal his rifle out of his hands and shoot the three guys behind him. And it all culminates in a battle against a massive flying robot which fires rockets towards you—rockets which you, of course, snag on their way towards your face and return to sender. A rifle will automatically leap between my fingers if I grab one of two highlighted sections, and I can’t just shift it from hand to hand — I have to awkwardly drop it and start over.

I cracked some jokes during Oculus’s keynote yesterday about the rhetoric surrounding Bullet Train—Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe literally called it “inspiring,” which I think is an odd choice of phrase. It looks just like any other FPS game map — just rendered on a different kind of screen. “I think building a 2D game and building a 3D game aren’t actually that different, other than the extra dimension,” says Donaldson. Bullet Train uses teleportation because it’s one of the safest ways to move in virtual reality (putting players in a vehicle or using a distant third-person camera are others). The entire game is designed to carefully position players in the right spaces, looking the right direction — the teleporter will only move you to predetermined spots, placed carefully behind trash cans or desks oriented toward the center of the map. Players don’t necessarily expect photorealism from VR; because it’s so graphically demanding, an experience like Bullet Train has to use simpler graphics than one of Epic’s 2D demos.

But things like scale, camera height, and sound placement matter a great deal. “This isn’t some abstraction anymore,” says Donaldson, when they get it right. “This isn’t a screen on the wall. When Epic lead programmer Nick Whiting agreed to check out a weird little prototype from a company called Oculus, he didn’t expect it to slowly take over his life. His friend Nate Mitchell had just walked away from video game interface company Scaleform to take a gamble on a teenage inventor named Palmer Luckey — and the project he said would bring virtual reality back from the dead. It’s a small thing I don’t necessarily think of in normal games or in daily life, but having Henry glance over at you as the story unfolds—seeing the joy in his eyes when he finds friends, or the fear when a blue spirit flies around the room—it connects you to the character.

I haven’t seen Henry on a normal screen obviously, but I don’t think the fourth-wall breaking would be quite as poignant or effective on a normal TV screen/monitor. It was exactly what I dreamed of — being in those 3D worlds.” Oculus was taking an early version of its headset to the 2013 CES, and it needed something to show. As Iribe put it during Thursday’s Oculus Connect keynote, “Every great platform has to have a paint app, and this is our paint app.” Except it’s not really—it’s more of a sculpting app, more like Maya or Blender than Illustrator or MS Paint.

Epic phased in support for VR in Unreal Engine 4, and it created or adapted flagship demos for each new version of the Rift: a miniature lava fortress called Elemental for Crystal Cove, a two-person sword-fighting game called Couch Knights for the DK2, and a street battle called Showdown for Crescent Bay. Showdown, for example, repurposed material from old non-VR demos, slowed down drastically to disguise the fact that there was only 6 seconds of motion capture material. VR development occasionally sounds like the kind of thing that sends science fiction protagonists into existential crises. “After a day of heavy VR, I get this weird reality effect,” says Davis. “It’s like you’re now becoming more… scrutinizing [of] reality or something.” Ordinary objects have to be constantly examined, tweaked, and tested. “In our experience, you spend a lot of time looking at your hands, right? And look how they move!’” But the real problems are comparatively mundane — including finding the cutting-edge VR they need to create these kinds of demos in the first place.

I have no doubt—or, even if Medium doesn’t catch on, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before other artistic/creation software hits the Rift. Epic founder Tim Sweeney was already making games during the first wave of virtual reality, which ran from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. “He was a non-believer for a little while,” says Whiting — until, according to Davis, he tried out one of Valve’s room-sized VR demos, at that point far more advanced than Oculus’ test units. “He and [Epic engineering VP] Dan Vogel went inside and were like, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool. And they’re quality experiences—while Henry, Bullet Train, and Medium still feel more like proofs of concept than full-fledged software, we’ve come a long way from the demos I used to mess with on the original dev kit. The pixels would be like the size of a quarter sitting on a table, and running at 20 frames a second, it was just a completely disjointed experience,” he says. “It was always like, ‘I have this thing on my head, and I’m looking at some monitors, and it’s all pretty crappy.'” Today, Sweeney is an enthusiastic convert — VR, he insists, will change the world. “I think it’s really hard to remain a skeptic right now,” he says. “It’s not going to happen in the next year or two, but it’s going to happen in the next decade. Valve and HTC currently has better hardware with the Vive, but has showed next-to-nothing as far as games and software is concerned—and we’re only two months away from the Vive’s launch.

It aptly conveys two pieces of common wisdom: virtual reality is going to transform computing as we know it, and 90 percent of what early adopters see will be awful. “In the early days of iPhone, every game had virtual D-pads and they were trying to simulate a mouse and keyboard. I think that’s where we’re really looking at VR,” says Whiting. “I think the real magic is about two to three years out, when people really wallow in the space and learn it.” But VR has more hype to deliver on than smartphones did, especially because the greatest excitement is reserved for things that don’t exist yet — few people are totally satisfied with the goggles-and-controller technology that’s available right now.

Like many other early adopters, Epic’s VR enthusiasts predict that virtual reality will merge with augmented reality like Microsoft’s HoloLens, allowing wearers to alternately block out the world and project visuals onto it. It will revolutionize everything and, I think, displace all existing computing platforms, including PCs, and smartphones, and tablets, and everything else.” That includes Epic’s own desktop game-making software. “Picture every sort of content creation tool: Photoshop, 3D modeling, 3D editors associated with games — like the Unreal Editor,” says Sweeney. “Over time these will evolve to be VR-based. There’s no question that people creating content for VR would want to create that content in VR.” For now, though, the vast majority of experiences are for entertainment only. It hired a Lucasarts executive (and veteran special effects artist) named Kim Libreri to serve as CTO, and it started putting out demos that felt less like first-person shooters: a Pixar-esque animated short about kites, a virtual-reality Hobbit tie-in produced with special effects company Weta Workshop. Sweeney has described the Unreal Engine as a “common language” for a world where film and gaming converge, and there’s nowhere that convergence is more strongly felt than in VR. “I think we see almost equal amounts of game companies and movie companies using the engine for producing content at this point for VR,” Libreri tells me.

Right now, VR film gravitates towards live-action documentaries and short film or TV tie-ins — the series Sleepy Hollow was just awarded an Emmy for its virtual reality experience. No matter how beautiful and awesome flying over the Grand Canyon is, you still want to be able to control your own destiny.” And now that headset companies like Oculus have enough faith in their control systems to show them off in public, that’s finally starting to look like an option. Epic won’t say more about its plans beyond Bullet Train, except that new projects will start “as soon as we’re done.” It’s unclear whether the company will get a dedicated VR division, instead of pulling together a handful of people for each project.

Epic’s developers can describe lots of ideas for virtual reality, but if they’re ready to embark on any grand, unified plans, they’re not telling. That’s likely to hold for whatever technological leap comes next — Whiting and Davis hope it’s wireless headsets. “We haven’t actually started thinking about the next steps, since we’re just trying to finish this step,” Donaldson says. It’s hardly the fast-paced arena-running of Unreal Tournament, but after years of hands-off demos, it’s probably the most classically Epic-style VR experience yet. “It may not be for everyone.

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