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.
When I first heard about how amazing Oculus Rift was, I was unconvinced. I'm naturally wary of any technology heralded as THE FUTURE, because I know that, in most cases, we'll look back at ourselves and laugh at how excited we got about such rubbish technology. But then I stuck my head in one and was instantly converted. Now I've become a tedious VR evangelist, bending the ear of anyone who'll listen about how incredible it is, and forcing people to sit at my desk and try it for themselves. So to give the guys in the office peace, I've decided to start this new weekly report on all things VR, both for people curious about the tech, and those of you who already own a Rift.
Driving from Stuttgart to Aberdeen in Euro Truck Simulator 2
The unironically brilliant Euro Truck Simulator 2 recently added experimental Oculus Rift support. While the idea of using VR to simulate slowly driving down the M4 might seem like a gross misuse of the technology, it's actually one of the best Rift games I've played. Those lovingly modelled cabins give your surroundings a real sense of depth and space. It's so detailed that when it rains, you see the droplets streak along the glass as you build up speed. With a good force feedback wheel (I used a Thrustmaster Ferrari F430), the rumble of your tyres on the tarmac and steering resistance only add to the hypnotic realism. If you turn and look out of the driver's window, the camera flips back to show you the rear end of the truck. This gives you a realistic feeling of 'leaning out' of the window.
I decide to stress test the simulation by driving non-stop from Stuttgart to Aberdeen. After about 30 minutes of driving, my brain is convinced I'm sitting in a truck on a German motorway, and not on a squeaky chair in an office in Bath. The cabin feels weirdly real, and there's something quite relaxing about cruising along with the wheel rumbling softly in my hands. At one point I was so convinced by the 3D cabin, I tried to lean my arm on the door. The door that doesn't exist. But then I start getting hot. The insulating foam around the Rift's eyepiece, the fluffy velour earpads of my Beyerdynamic headphones, and our stiflingly warm office force me to pull the headset off. I'm sweating buckets. So I barely made it out of Germany, but while it lasted it was a great example of how virtual reality can give simulators an extra layer of immersion. Just make sure you've got a desk fan to hand.
To enable Oculus Rift mode, right click on the game in your Steam library, go to the betas tab, opt into the 'oculus' experimental branch, then add '-oculus' to your launch options.
Watching Star Wars in a virtual cinema
VR Cinema is a virtual movie theatre that allows you to watch video files imported from your PC on a remarkably convincing cinema screen. I watched a 1080p Blu-ray rip of the first Star Wars film, and it's one of the most impressive Rift experiences I've had so far. You can wander around the theatre freely, or use a hologram-like interface to jump between seats. The screen feels genuinely massive, especially when you walk towards it and look up. Cleverly, the lighting around you reacts dynamically to what's happening in the film. If a scene is dark the theatre will be plunged into blackness, but if there's a brighter moment, like an explosion, it'll light up with the same colour as the image on the screen. You can even see a projector on the back wall if you look behind you. It's like having your own personal 500-inch TV, and you don't have to worry about idiots talking through the film.
This is the kind of thing that'll give Oculus Rift mainstream appeal beyond games. The idea of watching old or obscure films on the big screen that you'd otherwise never get the chance to is a powerful one, especially for cinephiles. Even with our development kit, which is a much lower resolution than the commercial Rift will be, it works incredibly well. I tried a few other films – Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Shining – and noticed that after 30-40 minutes of watching them, when I was sufficiently lost in the story, I completely forgot that I was looking at a virtual screen. It was like I'd fooled my brain into thinking I was actually at the cinema, which is a very strange feeling. The only problem is comfort. I have a hard time sitting through a film with 3D glasses on, never mind a plastic box strapped to my head. But get over that and this is one of the Rift's most tantalising showcases.
VR Cinema supports .avi, .mp4, .mkv, and .wmv files. If you import a video and see a blank screen, download the Combined Community Codec Pack .
Reliving virtual memories
One of the most surprising effects of using the Rift for extended periods of time is having distinct, three-dimensional 'memories' of places that don't exist. When I think of that movie theatre from VR Cinema, I don't think of it as somewhere I viewed passively on a screen: I remember it as a place . I recall its dimensions and its lighting. There's something unnatural about remembering things that didn't happen so vividly and tangibly, which makes me think of how replicants in Ridley Scott's tech-noir masterpiece Blade Runner were implanted with fake memories to make them believe they're human. Rift does things to the brain that it wasn't built for, and it'll be interesting to see what other sensations and effects emerge from prolonged use. Let's hope it's not slowly melting my brain. If I start ranting about hearing voices and tasting colours in this column, please alert the authorities.
Jerry's Place is a Rift demo that lets you explore Jerry Seinfeld's apartment, as featured in hit '90s sitcom Seinfeld. I've watched every episode a handful of times and I know the place inside out, but seeing it in 3D, and walking around it, was a bizarre feeling. Then I watched the show a couple of nights later and really felt like I'd been on the set before. I had a sense of it as a physical space, rather than a 2D projection. I really hope I see more of this in the future. Exploring film and TV sets in Rift could become huge, and like the virtual cinema, open it up to a much wider audience outside of gaming. Imagine being able to wander around the Starship Enterprise, or Twin Peaks, or Winterfell, or… well, you get the idea. Developers could work with set designers to make these worlds as accurate as possible. If this becomes a thing, I might just live inside the Rift forever.
Plug time! What drives a man to recreate a set from a '90s sitcom for a futuristic VR headset? I ask the creator of Jerry's Place this, and more, in the next issue of PC Gamer.
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.
Any side effects from playing it for prolonged times? – Dave Jewitt
People react differently to using the Rift. I know at least one person who had to take it off after five minutes because it made them feel sick. But I've been mostly fine. Besides overheating, I've had the occasional mild headache, which didn't last for more than a few minutes, and a slight feeling of seasickness after smashing my ship into an asteroid in Elite: Dangerous . The one exception is Half-Life 2, which made me feel like I was going to vomit almost immediately. I'm not sure why. It could be the high frame rate, or the field of view. It's hard to tell when you're in there.
How much is a Rift, and is it worth waiting for an updated consumer version? – Eoin Hurrell
Anyone can order a development kit from the Oculus VR website for $300 (about £180), but you won't be getting the full experience. This version is a much lower resolution than the consumer model will be. It's still impressive, and the sensation of 3D still works, but it's not in HD. I can only imagine what it'll look like in 1080p. As soon as we get one of the new Crystal Cove prototypes , which have a higher display resolution and more accurate head tracking, I'll let you know how much better it is. But if you have the money, the development kit is still a lot of fun to play with. There are hundreds of games, tech demos, applications, and other playthings to experiment with, which can be downloaded from sites like RiftEnabled .
How many times have you gasped and gone “Oh, fuck…” – Athene Allen
Many, many times. One of my favourite things is seeing peoples' reactions as they use the Rift for the first time. It's always the same: gasping, swearing, and inevitably saying “Wow!” as something flies past their head. I can see why the Rift has generated so much buzz, because the first time you use it you can't help but be impressed. There's no hard sell required: Oculus just have to strap it to a potential investor's head and wait for the money to roll in. Even now, after having clocked at least 30 hours in the thing, I still find myself exclaiming out loud, or staring in awe at things with my mouth hanging open.
For more adventures in virtual reality, return next Tuesday for the next edition of The Rift Report.