After a couple of years of teasing, I finally got to play a handful of games on the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Oculus VR showed off nine games that gave me a good sense of what it’s like to have fun inside a virtual space.
Brendan Iribe, head of Facebook’s Oculus VR division, let me roam around inside the Rift’s game apps during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), where Oculus VR showed off working games for the first time. It was a nice treat, since the Oculus Rift isn’t scheduled to ship to retail until the first quarter of 2016.
The titles I viewed included the funny puzzle game Esper by Coatsink, the sci-fi flight sim Eve: Valkyrie by CCP Games, the thriller Edge of Nowhere from Insomniac Games, the role-playing game Chronos from Gunfire Games, and the fast-action VR Sports Challenge from Sanzaru Games. I ended the demo with a hilarious Toybox demo of the Oculus Touch input system that gives you “hand presence,” or an ability to see and use your hands in virtual reality.
The games didn’t make me sick from motion sickness. And better than that, they did a good job transporting me to another place. Eve: Valkyrie was clearly the AAA experience of the bunch. But I also enjoyed Esper, where I had to use a controller to push or pull a ball through a series of pneumatic tubes. It was a clever game that would be very hard to duplicate outside of VR. I considered the experience, particularly the Oculus Touch demo of the Toybox, to be my favorite gaming experience at E3 2015.
After playing those games, I interviewed Iribe about the “sense of presence and immersive experience” that Oculus and its developers were trying to create. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Your VR hockey seems pretty exciting.
Brendan Iribe: It’s fun. That’s a first-person sports game, which a lot of us didn’t necessarily think was going to be possible until we saw what the developer did with it. We continue to see more and more of that — games we didn’t necessarily know would work in VR until a developer goes in and discovers the game mechanic that makes it come together. Sure enough, hockey can be a great VR experience.
GamesBeat: It seems to be important where you decide to place your camera.
Iribe: These are all made for VR. AirMech was ported, I guess, but they made a complete VR mode for it. It’s a tabletop game. It’s incredibly compelling. I find it a lot more compelling in VR. I’m not just saying that. It’s neat to be able to lean in to a tower-defense tabletop game. Anything like a Clash of Clans, where you can lean into the fort and look around, that’s super compelling.
This is the consumer Rift. We’re finally here with it working. It’s an engineering sample, but it works well. This is the look and feel we’ll ship in 2016.
GamesBeat: It’s very well-cushioned.
Iribe: We’ve spent a lot of time on ergonomics. That was something we found to be really important as we iterated on the headset, from developer kits to Crescent Bay to the Rift. Getting the ergonomics right so it didn’t pull against your face. Having a ski-goggle strap, which we’ve been working on for years, turns out to put a lot of pressure on your face. You have this computer out there. Having that push against your face is not comfortable after 10, 20, 30 minutes.
With this strap architecture, we made this rigid body. It locks in place, but it doesn’t pull against your face. It rests on your brow and all tightens up, but it’s not pulling. It makes for a much more comfortable long-term play. It’s a lot more balanced and lightweight. The weight is off the front of the headset. All the weight is pulled back around this area, so it doesn’t have that moment of inertia out there swinging around. We have integrated headphones and audio, too, but you can pop them off if you want.
GamesBeat: Did you change anything under Facebook, or did you just accelerate everything?
Iribe: We accelerated everything. The biggest change was going from 60-70 people when we first started talking with Facebook to adding 300 new developers. We’re nearly 400 people. That wouldn’t have happened without Facebook’s support.
We have a very big hardware team. We have industrial design, mechanical engineering. We have a great software team on the core tech, on SDK, on integration with Unreal and Unity. Now we have internal content development working on a number of experiences — the core home experience, the infrastructure for the platform, profile, entitlements, e-commerce. All those systems have to be there if you want to run a full platform. You need an app store for developers to be able to put their content up for sale. All that was made possible a lot faster by being part of Facebook.
Several important things came out of partnering with Microsoft, too. One, we got one of the best game pads in the world. Two, we got deep integration, optimization, and compatibility with Windows 10. We’ve worked on that for a long time, trying to make Rift work well when you plug it in to your PC.
If you’re familiar with the early developer kits, it’s an external monitor. That’s how Windows thinks of it. Windows never planned for a VR device. When you plug a HDMI cable into the computer, Windows thinks it’s a new monitor. The desktop blinks. It tries to rearrange windows and icons. In fact, you have a VR device with two screens, potentially, in stereo vision. It’s not a 2D display. We had to go in under the hood and trick the display driver into thinking it wasn’t a display plugged in. It was a lot of work and it wasn’t always compatible. Now we’re at a place where it’s pretty good on Windows 7 and 8, and on Windows 10, when you plug in the Rift, it will know what it is. It’s a native device.
GamesBeat: Was this another reason to push the release of the Rift back?
Iribe: The Q1 2016 target date was focused around getting the highest quality hardware product and full system out to consumers. We didn’t want to rush it and jeopardize the quality. This is just the beginning of VR. We want to deliver the best VR system. Part of that is taking the time to get manufacturing right, get hardware right, get software right, get integration with Windows right.
GamesBeat: Not every game I’ve tried in VR has conquered the sickness thing.
Iribe: A lot of that’s going to be a content issue. We have a big focus on comfort. I’m the most sensitive in the company. I put on a headset here at the show, one that wasn’t ours, that was challenging for me from a comfort perspective. We’re not going to be showcasing content that I can’t enjoy, that we can’t have most of the audience enjoy. We put a lot of effort and took a little extra time to make sure that Rift is a comfortable experience.
GamesBeat: You can filter these bad apps out of the app store, perhaps?
Iribe: There will be comfort ratings. There will be roller-coaster rides in VR. We’re not going to say we won’t have those. Rift coasters are just not for everybody. They’re going to be for a certain part of the market that has the tolerance and can handle that and wants that. There will be a number of players that want to rocket-jump and run around worlds. But that’s not everyone.
What everyone can enjoy is certain stationary experiences. What we’ve found is that games like Edge of Nowhere and Lucky’s Tale, experiences that have a little bit of world movement — really slow, on a certain camera track — don’t cause discomfort, or cause very little. I can enjoy those. I played Lucky’s Tale for two and a half hours and felt fine. I didn’t expect to be able to do that.
GamesBeat: Chronos was also set up in an interesting way. You’re seeing a character from a third-person view, but you’re really stationary in a room. That character can move around the room. That’s one way to solve this too-much-motion problem.
Iribe: It’s a god’s-eye view. Chronos will be even more comfortable, in theory. There’s a lot of other factors you have to get right, but when all that comes together, it delivers comfort. At this E3, we’ve put blue dots on games with no locomotion, and we’ve put yellow dots on games with some locomotion. If you look at something EVE Valkyrie, maybe it should have two yellow dots. But most of these experiences are very comfortable. It turns out that third person is working really well in VR.
This is next-generation gaming. We’re free of the 2D monitor. We’ve added things like the proximity sensor. It’ll detect when you put it on and welcome you into the Rift. We also have the lens distance adjuster. We’re not demoing that here, just so we can keep all the lenses in the same place to get people in and out quickly, but you’ll be able to adjust the lens distance. Everybody has a unique distance between their eyes. This lets you get the lenses right in the center of your eye. It makes for a more comfortable experience. Right when you touch it, it knows that you’re adjusting it, and a little configuration comes on. We also have a microphone inside.
GamesBeat: Are you recommending how long people should wear it?
Iribe: I had a lot of fun for two and a half hours, with no discomfort. I’m a pretty good threshold. I’m not the only one, but out of everyone in the company, I’m in the top five most sensitive. When I can do something and it passes the Brendan test for sensitivity, it’s a good sign.
GamesBeat: I’m thinking of the usual 20-hour game. Should it be more like five hours?
Iribe: We’re not recommending 20 straight hours of gameplay in the Rift. We’re looking at 30, 60, 90 minutes. Maybe an hour or two. Then you should be able to enjoy it every day. When you come out of it, if you don’t feel good, you’re not going to want to do it the next day. We want you to come out of the experience feeling like you want to get right back in.
Now, the first thing people say when they put on the headset is, “Where are my hands?” We’re getting your hands in there. Brian is going to get in here with you and you’ll be able to enjoy multiplayer, a bit of a social experience in the Rift. Brian’s one of the engineers heading up audio engineering, working on the 360 audio system.
GamesBeat: Tell me about these controllers.
Iribe: These are the Half Moon prototype of the Touch controllers. The goal with Touch was to make it an extension of yourself, to get your hands in the game. We experimented with a lot of prototypes. We didn’t want you holding wands that you might fatigue on, where you’d have to rest your hands. These rest in your hands. You can keep your hand open and still interact. You’ll be able to point or give a thumbs up. Now you have hands.
Your hands are really in the game. Not just you holding something, but being able to look down and feel like those are your hands. You can reach out and pick things up, interact with elements in the world, flick things with your finger, give somebody a thumbs up. This is the first generation on a path toward truly getting your hands in the game, true hand presence.