Virtual reality has always been the obvious next step in gaming. As far back as the '80s, ambitious entrepreneurs such as Jaron Lanier--who coined the term--envisioned a virtual reality device in every home. Sadly, their ambitions didn't jive with the state of the art. Companies like Victormaxx and Virtuality devised and sold VR devices, but these high-cost gadgets suffered from low resolution and devastatingly high latency. The disappointed consumers of the '80s and early '90s gave up on virtual reality, and so research into these devices all but died. It wasn't until 1994, when Grigore Burdea published his book Virtual Reality Technology, that serious interest in VR returned. Almost two decades later, VR technology is on the horizon, and there are some heavyweight hitters backing the resurgence.
The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset in development by Oculus VR. The device's lead designer, Palmer Luckey, decided to create a head-mounted display device for gamers that would cost less than the virtual reality devices already available. He shared his idea on the popular 3D forum Meant To Be Seen to gather feedback, and that feedback culminated in a two-million-dollar Kickstarter campaign. Since then, Oculus VR has raised over 90 million dollars for research and development. Entrepreneurs Brendan Iribe, Michael Antonov and Nate Michael are also invested in the device's success.
Oculus VR unveiled the first Rift prototype at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo and featured a Doom demo coded by John Carmack. This early version of the Rift sported a 5.6 inch LCD display and provided a stereoscopic 3D perspective via 2 lenses that were positioned over the eyes. The specs lulled users into an immersive 3D world with 90-degree vertical coverage and 110 horizontal. Flush with Kickstarter cash, Lackey and company decided that the 5.6 inch LCD display--which they had hitherto considered a necessary evil--had to go. Owing to the demand they had found for the device, the team was concerned that there wouldn't be enough of the 5.6 inch LCDs to fill all orders. To solve this issue, Oculus VR launched a new version of the Rift, featuring a more common 7-inch screen. The larger screen means that the Rift can create an overlap between the right and left eyes, enabling the device to more exactly mimic human vision.
The second Rift prototype boasts significantly lower latency as well as reduced motion blur. At the heart of this improvement is the lower pixel switching time. This figure is the amount of time it takes for a pixel to switch from one color to another. Another improvement noted by reviewers is a lower screen door effect. This effect, described as the lines of solid color that form at the borders of pixels, occurs in all head-mounted display technologies.
Oculus VR is selling this improved model of their device as a $300 developer kit, and sales are strong. Developers are embracing the technology with zeal, creating 3D wonders that include a recreation of sets from the popular '90s sitcom Seinfeld and a towering Minecraft map. Brazilian video game designer Henrique Olifiers is creating a Rift-compatible version of the popular game Surgeon Simulator. Yet despite clamoring developers and fans, the Rift has a long way to go before it can fulfill its promise of ushering in the age of virtual reality. Oculus VR plans to release the first commercial version of the device in 2015, and Valve Corporation has a few pointers for them.
Creators of instant classics such as Half Life and Portal, Valve Corporation is a giant in the gaming space. Valve has also spent the last decade building what some considered an impossibility: an online PC game distribution network. Despite early doubts, Valve's Steam network has single-handedly revitalized the indie gaming industry. When the company gives its opinion, the industry listens. The gaming juggernaut gave verdict on the Oculus concept in January of 2014 at their Steam Dev Days conference at the Washington State Convention Centre, stating that they would like to work with Oculus VR to "drive PC VR forward." Perhaps cementing the relationship, former Steam employee Atman Binstock has taken a position with Oculus VR as its chief architect. Binstock was the lead developer of the virtual reality technology that Valve demoed at their conference in January.
Though Valve has dabbled in the VR space, the company was quick to state that they would not develop their own commercial virtual reality headset. They followed this up with lavish praise of the Rift, stating that the device is the state of the art in headset virtual reality devices. However, the endorsement came with a reality chaser: a list of improvements Oculus VR should make by 2015.
2015 and Beyond
A single slide on Valve's PowerPoint presentation at the conference summed up the technological improvements that the company feels the Rift needs in order to go mainstream. Chief among these was the recommendation that each lens in the device provide at least 1000x1000 pixel resolution. Daniël Ernst, architect of the 2012 Rift demo, agrees. According to Ernst, "Details are vital." 2D game developers can gloss over minute details within the environment, but true 3D developers have no such luck. Within a Rift game, every detail counts. Low resolution textures or poorly rendered in-game text on items such as books will lessen immersion.
Valve also recommends that the Oculus feature no more than 20 millisecond latency and offer a 110 field of vision. For comparison, human vision features a 120-degree arc. The company further called for millimeter-accurate resolution translation and quarter-degree accurate rotation. These last two qualities are particularly important, as a high degree of movement accuracy minimizes the symptoms of motion sickness that have hitherto been associated with VR devices.
Valve's interest in the Rift is not, of course, purely philanthropic. The company intends to create a "VR platform" that will give developers a single storefront from which they can sell their Rift-compatible titles. Their existing game network, Steam, already enjoys over 70 million members. One thing is for certain: there's no company better positioned to propel virtual reality into the mainstream.