3D Gaming’s Future – Part Three: The Oculus Rift, Virtuix’s Omni, and Other Potential Game Changers
The Oculus Rift is getting plenty of press lately. Many are calling it the next big thing in video games. The device is a large piece of eyewear that can comfortably fit over glasses (which is a good thing) to give players a sense of being in a 3D virtual world. Despite all appearances, the device is light; it weighs roughly 380g. Don’t worry, you won’t feel like Ray Charles at the piano. But with excitement building over the pairing of this device with motion sensors and treadmills, immersive virtual reality environments are nearly here. There are still a few hurdles to overcome — namely replicating every single movement a player can make like jumping and making him believe he can fly — but that’s only a matter of time for an innovator to invent neural interfaces.
For the time being, the devices being offered are exercise machines in disguise. Virtuix’s Omni is a treadmill product that offers players the sense of walking through a virtual space. When the Rift or similarly styled products are worn, a user can get a fuller immersive experience. The only thing missing is an interface suit with built-in pressure pumps to let players know that they have been hit by a bullet, slammed into a tree or brushed at. Added stimuli in games are good, and they are essential for becoming part of that virtual environment. All of the five senses really must be considered instead of three or four. In a talk with Ray Latypov of VirtuSphere Inc., he hinted that an olfactory sensor is in the works. This pioneer has been in the field of developing and testing VR products for at least 20 years.
Unfortunately, the technology is not advanced enough to be like the holodeck in Star Trek with image projection, force field (magnetic) resistance, and matter replication to simulate real world physics. At least the technology is happening at a brisk enough pace to make the next big thing a reality sooner than later. But not everyone can afford the hefty price tag to bring that to the home environment.
The developer’s kit for the Rift is $300USD and the Omni starts at $249 ($350 for the complete kit). The only real criticism the Omni faces is that not everyone has an even stride. Some people take baby steps and others walk down a runway in measured rhythm. The space the Omni takes up seems small and it could be wider. Also, not everyone will take to being braced by an adjustable upper support, overweight gamers included, to ensure a safe experience can be had by all.
Other options include the VirtuSphere, which puts the gamer inside a hamster ball. This device tracks the player as he navigates through a virtual space. It operates much like the keyboard and mouse combination in a first person shooter. The X and Y coordinates are computed as the gamer moves around inside the ball, which functions much like the keyboard (WASD) component. The Oculus functions much like the mouse, giving players an ability to look around the environment so they can find their next target. This pairing makes FPS games the perfect choice to use, but according to Latypov not so much for other types of games like racing or sports.
The choices may seem limited, but only over time as motion sensors or controllers are integrated, getting involved in a game where players can slash their virtual sword or punch out their opponent will become a reality.
VirtuSphere is a concept it is one that works very well with the Rift. It has been fully tested to ensure maximum compatibility. However, since this item has a price-tag of $28K, it’s not intended for the average consumer. Their goal is to sell devices to organizations like NASA or the military. Latypov revealed that his company is working on an affordable consumer version of an immersive VR reality device and it may be available by early 2014. He even teased at a current project that will be bringing a similar experience with smartphones that have built-in accelerometers.
Despite all these innovations that are happening, he has the insight to note that most of the existing games made today are not ready for immersive VR environments, though many are designed with 3D in mind. “The problem is that most games are using atavism and rudimentary controls such as gamepads,” said Latypov. “It is understandable because [in the history of video games], it wasn’t possible to capture natural movement of the users: head rotation, hand and body movements, etc. Some new positive trends began with Nintendo Wii and MS Kinect. [But] there are a lot of problems involved, especially when considering how these locomotion platforms are engineered.”
User safety is important. Roll bars are needed and tangled wires can be an issue. Most of VirtuSphere’s products, including their own head-mounted display, use a proprietary wireless technology to facilitate integration. But there are other options — the Virtuix Omni, WizDish, and the Atlas, are more affordable alternatives gamer can invest in soon. If given a choice, the Atlas does not depend on a player to remain rooted to the spot, imagining movement. The last bit of interface depends on how the brain interprets how the body is moving on a particular surface. If the gamer is in motion, the human body’s inner senses, namely the equilibrium, will have to believe that what is happening is real. That’s the challenge most VR interfaces have to overcome. The VirtuSphere succeeds in where others may fail. And it should be noted that Occulus only considers how the head moves than the entire body. A big question some people may have is if they can let go of a controller and use it with a Kinect?
In simulators, if the person is sitting and driving, the sensation is different. The player is holding onto a device while the head mounted display shows the world around them. But in a first person shooter environment, other motion variables will have to be considered like ducking and dodging. Motion capture will be required to make that happen in-game. Another consideration that needs to be factored in is if whether or not the software can generate a swiftly changing visual field as the headwear adjusts upon looking around. A complete 360° field is required.
Even then, not everyone will want to mortgage their house to invest in a proper VR simulator. The Atlas is beautiful since it relies on a simple principle: put paper markers on the walls or floor to mark where the space begins and ends. A few issues remain, like developing new software to handle this type of immersive experience. The Occulus by itself may not handle every single detail, like the ability to handle 360° vision, bumping into walls or other players. A motion-tracking camera on the device and in the room (along with more layers of computer programming) will be required to keep tabs on the player.
However, for game centers, the concept of renting out the gear to use in a dedicated space may well mean a boon in business. Even Latypov agrees that people will head to game centers to try stuff they cannot afford to buy to pay at home. He notes that the Oculus is at the high-end of the purchase spectrum for the consumers, and it might be in the low-end of being affordable for arcades to buy for use. People who are curious about the Oculus and Virtusphere can visit arcade metroplexes to try them out.
And resurgence in wanting to head to an arcade can happen if the idea of virtual reality centers takes off. To book time to play a game within a simulator was one of the last great ideas to keep these entertainment hives alive. These operations still exist in larger urban centers, but they are nowhere near as popular as it was in the last century. The last holdout was with Battletech Centers. They were all the rage back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, but interest was slowly fading.
But with something like Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim being well-received, to not have a proper video game product is heinous. The interface just screams for wearing a Rift, running around in a motion capture environment, and laying the smackdown upon the Kaiju. The WizDish looks like the best choice for replicating the user interface used in the movie to pilot the mecha, and Michael Jackson could not be any more proud.
The only catch is that Warner Brothers will have to partner with a company that will bring the simulators to either a theme park like Six Flags or a specialty center. 3D virtual gaming may not succeed at home for the masses, but in the arcades, it can certainly take off. To have a successful product requires the Oculus Rift and other motion control devices to become useful in many markets spanning from education to the sciences than for the basement gamer geek. Add Microsoft’s Kinect to the mix, and perhaps virtual reality will truly be an experience to swim in.
Posted on August 15, 2013, in Opinions And Editorials and tagged gaming, Oculus Rift, Ray Latypov, Simulators, videogames, Virtual Reality, virtual reality environments, VirtuSphere, vr products. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.