Why VR is Actually Here (This Time)

Ever since I got my Oculus Dev Kit 2 (DK2) I’ve been experimenting with demos, speculating about development, and following many projects closely. I’ve also been talking to people at conventions about why virtual reality is actually happening, and why it didn’t all the previous times we said it was. Yet it wasn’t until playing Elite: Dangerous with a high-tech flight stick that I could truly and confidently say “Yes, we’ve nailed VR this time. It’s actually here.”

Dev Kit 2

Yes, VR technology is still in its infancy, similar to homebrew computers in the 70s and 80s. A group of extremely motivated early adopters are now playing with prototype tech and software, putting it through its paces and pushing its limits. But just as the homebrew computers those hobbyists soldered together decades ago led to the cheap plug-and-play machines now available at your local Best Buy, VR headsets and experiences will become increasingly common over the next decade.

The Oculus Rift is constantly mentioned as the singular device that will allow us all to experience virtual reality as it was meant to be experienced. To the average person, the Rift has become synonymous with VR. However, as impressive as the Rift is, it was really just the first hardware to hit the mark. As with TVs and computers, it is now just one hardware platform among many that will offer the same (now proven) experience. Today you can buy TVs from twenty different manufacturers, and VR headsets are already going down this same route. We already have giants like Sony and Microsoft producing their own headsets along with dozens of other small manufacturers. The design is known and it works.

We didn’t get here on our own. It was only in the last decade or so that technology advanced to the point where the components we needed for true VR existed. These include:

  • Gyroscopes and sensors powerful enough to match our virtual view to our physical movements, yet cheap enough to be mass produced
  • Smartphone displays that are sharp enough to show high resolution images, yet tiny enough to hold in our hands
  • Advances in computer processing power and graphics technology that allow us to render all these images on powerful computers that fit inside a phone, and
  • Software integration that reduces latency, making “lag” related to head tracking all but non-existent. Previously, even a tiny delay between when you turned your head in the physical and virtual worlds caused motion sickness.

As with the first TVs, now that we have proven it is possible to build a working VR headset (with the developers at Oculus and Valve leading the charge) the hardware is coming, from a number of manufacturers, in all shapes and forms and sizes. A long road remains, but it is a road we are now traveling. This is why, unlike all the prior times developers and hardware enthusiasts have claimed “We’ve made virtual reality!” this time, it actually happened.

This is where we swing back around to Elite: Dangerous, and how it was the first VR experience that proved to me, beyond a doubt, that we’re living in a world where VR works. Below, some graphics.

EliteDangerousCockpit

The screenshot above shows the cockpit of your first spaceship, a Sidewinder, as it appears in the world of Elite. You can see your instrument panels, your joystick and throttle, your wraparound viewscreen, and space. Beautiful, beautiful space.

SAMSUNG

This shot is my home setup: an Oculus Rift DK2, a Saitek X-52 Pro, and a desk (with a bonus cameo from my dog). Those three pieces of hardware, plus a desk and chair, are all I need to fly a spaceship against other spaceships in Elite, traveling through deep space to meet new people and make them explode. Why does this experience work? I’ll break it down.

Before moving forward, if you haven’t, go check out my post on The Three Components of VR Game Design. Here’s how all these components work together in Elite.

First, the Bubble. It’s my Sidewinder, and even as a starter ship it’s a pretty badass bubble. The spaceship interior is detailed and interesting enough to be convincing, yet large enough that I never clip through a console or cockpit glass. Moreover, it is interactive. When I look left, navigation and trip plotting windows pop into existence, floating for me to peruse. When I look right, I see another pop up window floating where I can adjust power to my ship’s systems, lower and raise my landing gear, and dozens of other operations.

Better yet, I can access all these functions directly from the dozens of buttons on my controller (more on that later). When I’m in a dogfight and an enemy fighter flies above me, I simply look up, out the top of my cockpit glass, and track it as I throttle down and pull back my stick to bring it into my sights. I never fumble for a keyboard or a mouse.

Next, the Proxy. Elite nails this one, and experiences going forward will only improve. I have a body in Elite. It’s in my spaceship and my head is attached to it. When I look down, I see my body (clad in a spacesuit, of course). I see my arms stretching out in that cockpit, just as my real arms are doing, and I see my gloved hands gripping a joystick and throttle — just like the joystick and throttle I’m gripping in real life. My virtual body moves like my real one, and my suit is not unlike one I’d be wearing in Tron. It’s my body and it moves like I do (so long as I don’t let go of the sticks!) Elite even has a built in option to chose a male or female body (only visible in VR) so it works great for everyone.

Finally, the Controller. This where the Saitek X-52 (and the way Frontier’s devs cleverly integrated it into Elite) comes into play. The joystick and throttle on my desk look very similar to the joystick and throttle in my virtual cockpit. I’ve placed them in similar locations on my real world desk. And when I hold them, in the real world, I see my hands and arms doing the same in the virtual world. Better yet, I feel them.

I grip a physical joystick and throttle and see my virtual body grip virtual sticks inside my headset. When I pull back on my joystick in the real world, my virtual body pulls back on its joystick in my Sidewinder. When I push the throttle on my desk forward, my virtual hand hands throttles up in game. I can even see my thumb move to click a button in my cockpit when I click it in real life. There’s lag, mind you, but it’s still incredibly cool.

Is this experience perfect? Absolutely not. As I’ve said, VR is still developing. The resolution of the Oculus DK2 is not amazing (the next version, commonly referred to as the “consumer version”, has already improved it). There is lag involved in matching up my manipulation of my real world joystick and throttle to those in game (on average, about half a second) which is a limitation of my hardware and software set up. And I’m not running a $2,500 computer. My rig is firmly middle ground by today’s standards, and so while space looks neat, it’s not as jaw-droppingly awesome as these screenshots (just a sample of the massive universe you can explore in Elite).

But the nuts and bolts are there. The Bubble sells. My Proxy matches and mirrors me. And the Controller is in my hands. For those who spent way too much time in arcades in the 80s (raises hand) it’s not unlike playing Afterburner, or flight simulators that have been available to aviators for decades now – just much, much better. I know I’m not flying a spaceship. This isn’t the The Matrix. But I am inside a thoroughly impressive simulated spaceship that looks ten times better than any real contraption I could ever actually fit in my home. Flying a spaceship in Elite is incredibly fun and very, very convincing.

And this is just the start. Computers will continue to get more powerful. Graphics more impressive. Headsets lighter. Displays clearer. And input devices are coming — so many input devices — that will allow us to manipulate virtual worlds in the way we’ve all seen in movies like The Lawnmower Man. Just Youtube some videos from Sixense or PrioVR to see what I mean.

Elite: Dangerous isn’t the only VR experience that proves VR is actually here. It’s simply the first experience where I managed to cobble all its components together. And it is dependent on a great many things — having the proper hardware, setting it up in a specific physical configuration, and actively tiptoeing around the current technology’s many limitations. Yet it is real. And I’m playing it.

Very soon, I hope, all of you will be doing the same thing.

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