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The little VR headset that could
The little VR headset that could Exclusive
August 8, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

August 8, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive



Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that's setting Kickstarter ablaze, has all the makings of a good-old fashioned games industry heroic epic. It's the story of a serious obsession with technology, a love affair between kindred spirits and at the end, wildly cheering hordes of fans.

Okay... it still has a long way to go yet -- including the launch of an actual product. But the Rift is shaping up to be one of those entertainment experiences that comes out of nowhere and just seems so obviously right.

Aiming to raise $250,000 over a month via Kickstarter, the project has received almost $1.5 million in its first week. And this is merely an exercise to get development kits into the hands of game creators. The launch of the final product will likely come next year.

Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus and inventor of the Rift tells Gamasutra, "We showed it off to hundreds of people at QuakeCon. We had a two-hour-plus line almost the entire day. We asked every single person if it was worth that two-hour wait, just to get their minute and a half in the head-mount. All of them answered yes. It's almost a universally positive reception."

Of course, part of Luckey's job is to promote the device, so he's going to be enthusiastic. But it's genuinely hard to find any negativity around this thing. We've yet to get our own hands on the Rift, but reactions from the media have been positive, as sites like The Verge have tested the prototype and posted happy reviews. Luckey says, "What we have right now [is] a developer kit. As the technology matures and we're able to improve the experience. We're going to get to the point where there's really nothing to complain about.

"This was originally just a little community project. To see it take off like this has been amazing. I want to say I expected it, but when you have a dream like this, you just hope it takes off."

Developers seem to like it...

Luckey has been tinkering with virtual reality headsets for years. He has, he believes, the biggest private collection of headsets in the world. His intimate knowledge of the field has allowed him to create Rift, a headset that offers low latency head-tracking, a 110 x 90 degree field of view and a resolution of 640x800 per eye.

OculusRift_2.jpgEnter id Software co-founder chief John Carmack, who showed a prototype of the Oculus Rift at E3, enthusiastically calling it "the best VR demo probably the world has ever seen." Other game industry high-flyers have also been wooed and convinced of the goggles' capabilities, including Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski, Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus "Notch" Persson.

Carmack has built Doom 3: BFG Edition for the VR headset, running on PC. This is the demo that wowed crowds at E3 and at QuakeCon. Now developers like Notch have offered to pitch in with their contributions and will spend the next few months figuring out what they can bring to the party.

Luckey adds, "We want to get it out to developers so they can start seeing the best ways to do things in virtual reality. What's the most fun? What are the best control schemes? What are things you can do in virtual reality that you can't do with a keyboard, mouse, and screen? We've had a ton of developers contacting us and letting us know that they're interested. Both large and small. That's really exciting."

Kickstarter has allowed innovative, neat products like the Rift to address the market and change the games business. There is no doubt that its backers see this product as one that can challenge what the game industry's biggest players can offer. That's all the more impressive, given its origins. This is not something dreamed up by teams of salaried engineers in Tokyo or Redmond.

"I guess I'm what you'd call a garage hacker," explains Luckey. "I've been an enthusiast for virtual reality for a long time. I've worked in virtual reality for a couple of years in military labs, research universities. It's just now that I've been able to get together with some people who can actually make products happen, really make software happen."

He has big ambitions for his project. "What I would like in a year's time would be to have a really nice, polished, consumer head-mounted display that everybody knows about, with a lot of triple-A and indie game support."

...But VR sucks, right?

Twenty years ago, virtual reality was a boom industry as companies sought to marry stereoscopic displays with video-gaming, spurred by fanciful sci-fi visions of total immersive entertainment.

But technological failure has been the norm, jerky unconvincing experiences that feel less like immersion and more like looking through moving windows at a static background, or as Carmack told IGN, like "looking through toilet paper tubes."

this-is-the-founder-of-oculus-palmer-luckey.jpgPalmer Luckey

But things are changing. Luckey explains, "It's not so much that I've cracked the code as that technology has cracked the code. I didn't come up with some really, truly amazing breakthrough technology as much as all these technologies have been pushing forward on their own.

"All of a sudden we have high-density displays, really low-cost, high-performance motion trackers. All the pieces are there. All it took was somebody to bring all of those pieces together."

He adds, "The other reason is, the virtual reality market isn't really a tapped market, especially for gaming. Virtual reality companies right now focus on military contracts, research. They have not been trying to enter the consumer gaming space. By making something that's the best for gamers, we've been able to really overcome some of the challenges that other companies have faced."

A donation of $300 is enough to secure a development kit, including the Doom 3 demo. Luckey says that the email addresses of donations suggest that big games companies are keen to get a look at this tech, but he's also eager to see what the indie crews can produce.

"Indie developers are going to be a huge driver behind this," he says. "Triple-A developers can't necessarily just drop everything and try to make something completely original. But that's something that an indie could do. I hope to see really great things come out of that. It's a little bit harder to innovate in, say, the first-person shooter or platformers or real-time strategy. But with virtual reality hardware, it's a bit like starting over. There are a lot of things that are going to have to be discovered and I think the indies are going to be the ones to discover a lot of those cool things."


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