The Rift Report: drifting through space and exploring musical landscapes

Andy Kelly at

Every Tuesday Andy straps on the Oculus Rift and dives headfirst into the world of virtual reality. Is it really the future of PC gaming? Let’s find out.

There’s no dignified way to use the Oculus Rift. Without exception, anyone who plays on one looks like King of the Dorks – especially if they’re using a flight stick or a racing wheel. If you want to do an impression of a Rift user, lean back in your chair, spin your head around with your mouth hanging open, and periodically say “Wooooaaah!” to yourself. But let’s be honest: PC gaming isn’t sexy. Hardware manufacturers think calling their products things like ‘Cobra XL Venom Singularity Ultra Edition’ makes them sexy, but it doesn’t. So leave your dignity at the door when you’re using the Rift, because the Fonz couldn’t make this thing look cool.

Simulating synaesthesia in Frequency Domain

In Frequency Domain you speed through a trippy, psychedelic landscape generated entirely by music. As you hurtle along, the waveform of an imported .mp3 file forms abstract 3D shapes that grow and pulse around you. “The idea is to create an engaging experience where the player sees and feels sound and music,” says creator Sagar Patel, a computer engineering graduate whose games industry work includes a stint with Kyoto’s Q-Games, creators of the PixelJunk series. “I want people to have a synesthetic experience, where they see what they hear and hear what they see. I've had great moments where the game has shown me sounds in songs that I had completely missed before.”

Patel says the Rift version, which is only an early demo, was hacked ‘in hours’, but it’s already an impressive spectacle. Watching the landscape being sculpted by the music, the colours throbbing in time, is mesmerising. It’s like flying through a mountain range on some bizarre alien world. “I love the sense of immersion you get from the Rift, of being completely surrounded by a different reality. It really is a whole new frontier, and I can't wait to see what new methods of interaction people come up with, especially when it’s combined with other devices. I've been experimenting with strapping a Leap Motion to the Oculus Rift, so that you can ‘see’ your hands. It's pretty crazy.”

Download Frequency Domain
You can download a regular, non-VR version of the Frequency Domain demo from the link above that’ll let you experience it without owning an Oculus Rift.

Floating away from Earth in Blue Marble

This is one of my favourite Rift demos. It sees you, an astronaut, being ejected into space and drifting slowly away from the Earth as asteroids, satellites, and eventually the Moon spin past your visor. Your oxygen steadily depletes until your suit finally runs out and the screen goes black. In my head it’s the story of a depressed astronaut who ejects himself from the safety of his station, knowing he’ll run out of air. That sounds depressing, but it’s quite beautiful – especially with music. A royalty free classical piano piece is the default song choice and adds an air of dreamy melancholy to the experience. No input is required: you just sit still in your chair and move your head to look around.

Or you can import your own music. The developers recommend Gary Jules’ cover of Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’ and ISS astronaut Chris Hadfield’s rendition of ‘Space Oddity’. I suggest trying Boards of Canada’s ‘Sundown’ or Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ for maximum ambience. It’s a nicely designed demo. I like the slight delay on the helmet as you turn your head, which gives it a feeling of weight, and the glowing LED readouts. These passive, atmospheric experiences are a great use for the Rift, and often more impressive than games. I can imagine a future where people use VR to escape into virtual zen gardens and Buddhist temples to get away from their hectic lives.

Download Blue Marble
If you want to import music into Blue Marble it’ll have to be an .ogg file, not an .mp3. Just drop the file into the ‘YourMusicHere’ folder and select it in-game.

Stepping inside Spirited Away

Spirited Away is one of my favourite films, so the chance to step into that world with the Rift was irresistible. Nick Pittom has recreated a location from the film – the bathhouse boiler room – entirely in 3D, complete with animated soot sprites and boiler master Kamajii. “The geometry of the room is surprisingly inconsistent,” says Pittom, describing the process of making a 3D room from 2D source material. “The first challenge was figuring out how to create a space that was true to the shots in the film, then it was just a case of building it part by part. I hand-painted the textures with a mouse by taking colours directly from the film. I wasn't sure it would work properly until it was nearly done.”

Anyone familiar with the film will remember the soot sprites who march back and forth tossing coal into the furnace, and their movement has been captured beautifully. “The soot sprites have some rudimentary AI to follow a path and switch animation when they reach the furnace and throw the coal,” says Pittom. “The animations are fairly close to the film, but not as faithful as I'd like.” Despite the stylised, painterly textures, the room feels remarkably convincing when viewed through the Rift. The lighting is particularly good, matching the look of the film almost perfectly. Brilliantly, Pittom’s next project is a recreation of the bus stop scene from another Ghibli favourite, My Neighbour Totoro.

Download Spirited Away: The Boiler Room
Check out Pittom’s website for a showreel of his 3D and animation work, or his personal blog for updates on his next Oculus Rift project.

Community FAQ

Want to know something about Oculus Rift? Ask and Andy will answer. Tweet your questions to @pc_gamer with the hashtag #oculusfaq or leave them in the comments.

Can you see Rift being regularly used, or is it a gimmick? – Ben O'Donnell

That’s the big question, isn’t it? Oculus Rift is definitely an impressive bit of kit, and will only get better as the resolution increases and the head tracking gets more accurate, but will VR ever become as ubiquitous as television? I think it’s too early to say, but the investors who’ve poured millions into Rift, and even former id Software tech warlock John Carmack, seem convinced. Cost will be a big issue. If they can release the Oculus Rift at an affordable price and get it in peoples’ houses, it’ll have a better chance of taking off. I doubt the living room of the future will see families sitting around with boxes strapped to their heads, but I think the Rift has a very real chance of succeeding.

Is my PC rendering the game twice when I use Rift? – Wanyal

Yes, currently the Rift has to render a game twice to create the stereoscopic effect. This means it puts a larger load on GPUs and CPUs than normal games, so you’ll need a decent gaming PC to use the development kit. This hasn’t been an issue on any of the PCs I’ve used Rift with, including my older machine at home, but I can see it becoming a greater problem when using the HD version. Oculus may find a way to get around this – there are already some compelling suggestions on the official development forums – but, for now, it’s the only way to make the tech work.

How well does this work for people who wear glasses? – Sgthotrod

The good news is that you can wear glasses with the Rift. If you’re short-sighted like me, you won’t have to because the screen’s right next to your eyes; but long-sighted people will have to keep them on. It’s quite weird, actually, being able to take my glasses off – which I need to see more than a few metres away in real life – and still ‘see’ things in the ‘distance’ in the Rift. It’s like it’s simulating me having non-broken eyes. But for the long-sighted among you, there’s enough space in the eyepiece to fit your head and your glasses without them getting crushed.