Con­nect­ing with Ocu­lus

At Ocu­lus Con­nect 2 in LA, at­ten­tion turns from re­fin­ing VR tech­nol­ogy to what de­vel­op­ers are do­ing with it now that it’s al­most ready to roll out

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All the news, and games, from the Ocu­lus Con­nect 2 con­fer­ence

Were Con­fu­cius alive to­day and in the habit of writ­ing proverbs about the videogame industry, he might well say, “Lis­ten to John Carmack”. The man who pro­grammed Doom and Quake, started his own aero­nau­tics com­pany as a hobby, and has been work­ing on vir­tual re­al­ity at Ocu­lus since 2013 usu­ally has a pretty good idea where the tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness of videogames are head­ing. A year ago, his key­note at the in­au­gu­ral Ocu­lus Con­nect in Los An­ge­les was fo­cused on the dif­fi­cult pro­gram­ming chal­lenges re­quired to make VR pos­si­ble on smart­phones with Ocu­lus’s GearVR. This year, he wanted to talk about some­thing dif­fer­ent: Minecraft.ft.

Minecraft was likely the most im­por­tant game an­nounced for Rift (andd GearVR) at this year’s Ocu­lus Con­nect 2 event. “I call this my grail,” Carmack saidaid dur­ing his key­note. “It’s been my quest foror the past year and a half.”

Mo­jang’s game it­self didn’t dom­i­nate e Carmack’s key­note, but con­tent, in gen­eral, did. Ocu­lus’s chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer took a telling break from pro­gram­mer speak to talk about games.

“If you had a magic wand and could say, ‘I will cre­ate the per­fect vir­tual re­al­ity head­set that com­pletely solves all the prob­lems and is in­dis­tin­guish­able from re­al­ity,’ would that be a su­per-suc­cess­ful prod­uct with the con­tent that ex­ists at this in­stant? You would run out of things to do fairly quickly,” Carmack said. “On the other hand, if I had the magic wand and could say, ‘I want the per­fect con­tent for the hard­ware that ex­ists to­day,’ that would be a phe­nom­e­nal prod­uct. It would be incredible. You see flashes of bril­liance, signs of the fu­ture in the things we have right now. But they’re iso­lated. It’s so sparse. You can see some­thing and say, ‘That was re­ally awe­some. That was

the mo­ment there. If we had so much more of that…’ Or, ‘I had a great ex­pe­ri­ence there but now it’s done – what do I go on next?’ It’s been clear to me over the last year that con­tent’s the thing that needs the most ef­fort from us. And it wasn’t as clear a year ago.”

Carmack’s fo­cus on games over hard­ware set a theme for Ocu­lus Con­nect 2. For the first time in three years, Ocu­lus didn’t have a brand-new head­set or con­troller to show off at a ma­jor event, since the com­pany is in the process of per­fect­ing its Rift and Touch hard­ware and pre­par­ing for full-scale manufacturing. This is the end of the Ocu­lus Rift as a promis­ing ac­ces­sory, and the be­gin­ning of VR as videogam­ing’s next big thing – or next big flop. The Ocu­lus Touch games be­ing de­moed at this year’s con­fer­ence made a strong ar­gu­ment for the former.

Ocu­lus’s Touch con­troller is a per­fect illustration of the credo ‘good de­sign is in­vis­i­ble’. It’s hard­ware that feels so well crafted that its de­sign seems ob­vi­ous in hind­sight. Of course this is the right way to in­cor­po­rate mo­tion con­trol in vir­tual re­al­ity. Any­one could’ve thought of it. The re­al­ity, of course, in­volved many months of it­er­a­tion. Ocu­lus made hun­dreds of pro­to­types, ac­cord­ing to founder Palmer Luckey, to ar­rive at the de­sign for Touch, a small nub of a con­troller with two key trig­gers for the in­dex and mid­dle fin­gers. Pulling the in­dex fin­ger trig­ger feels sim­i­lar to the trig­ger on a tra­di­tional game con­troller and serves as the ‘ac­tion’ but­ton for most Touch games. But the mid­dle fin­ger trig­ger is where the magic hap­pens: press­ing it feels just like clos­ing your hand into a fist, and it nat­u­rally serves as the ‘grab’ but­ton for many Touch

games. It’s an in­stantly in­tu­itive process. The top of the con­troller is home to a joy­stick and a pair of but­tons, al­low­ing the hard­ware to cover the same but­ton in­puts as most gamepads.

A ring en­cir­cling the de­vice houses sen­sors that the Ocu­lus base sta­tion can de­tect for 1:1 po­si­tion­ing, and the hard­ware’s mo­tion sens­ing feels fast and pre­cise. The con­trollers are wire­less and ex­tremely light, which helps to cre­ate a sen­sa­tion of them dis­ap­pear­ing once you have them in your hands and slip into VR. Touch’s one sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tion, at least in com­par­i­son to SteamVR con­trollers, is range. The Ocu­lus sen­sor has a rel­a­tively small ra­dius com­pared to Valve’s room-span­ning laser scan sys­tem, and al­though the fi­nalised Touch unit will ship with a sec­ond sen­sor to com­ple­ment the one that comes with the base Rift hard­ware, it most likely won’t be enough to match SteamVR’s track­ing range.

Touch faces an­other road­block: it won’t be in the box when Ocu­lus ships in the first quar­ter of 2016. Quizzed about the de­ci­sion to sell Touch sep­a­rately, Ocu­lus VP of prod­uct Nate Mitchell con­cedes that there are is­sues. “It’s a hard de­ci­sion. There are a lot of trade­offs,” he says. “Price will be the big­gest bar­rier to en­try. I think con­tent will be num­ber two. I think in the be­gin­ning of Touch you’re go­ing to see mostly in­die games from de­vel­op­ers who can af­ford to take a risk, who be­lieve, who want it out there.”

But Mitchell lists plenty of rea­sons why launch­ing the Rift head­set be­fore the Touch com­po­nent is ready is the right move. As he notes, an af­ford­able price tag will be key to Ocu­lus’s chances of suc­cess at launch. In ad­di­tion, not many Touch-ded­i­cated games ex­ist right now, but there are many gamepad ti­tles in de­vel­op­ment, and they will be avail­able to ship be­fore the Touch hard­ware is com­pletely fi­nalised. “Start­ing the ecosys­tem as soon as pos­si­ble on the Rift side is re­ally im­por­tant,” Mitchell says.

There are al­ready in­ter­est­ing, fun VR games com­ing to Rift that are playable with an Xbox One con­troller, which will be packed in the box, but it’s hard to over­state just how much more im­mer­sive VR is when your hands feel per­fectly cap­tured in the vir­tual world. In mo­ments where we’ve felt true ‘pres­ence’ — Ocu­lus’s favoured word for your brain truly buy­ing into your vir­tual sur­round­ings — the usual in­stinct is to reach out and touch some­thing. Nor­mally, we can’t do that, but Touch changes the rules, and the dif­fer­ence is gen­uinely pro­found.

Ocu­lus’s big­gest in-house re­veal at Con­nect was a sculpt­ing ap­pli­ca­tion named Medium, which al­lows you to build and paint in VR us­ing the Touch con­trollers. It’s a sur­pris­ingly fun, pow­er­ful toolset, even for some­one with­out much artis­tic skill. The sim­plic­ity of the tools is invit­ing and al­lows for quick switch­ing be­tween cre­at­ing or eras­ing mass, chang­ing the size of your ‘brush’, smooth­ing out rough pieces, and paint­ing onto the sculpt­ing sur­face. More ad­vanced tools let you sculpt along a mir­rored sur­face to cre­ate sym­me­try. An­other mir­rors a pot­tery wheel, let­ting you add sculp­ture ma­te­rial as your cre­ation spins through 360 de­grees.

Sculpt­ing in Medium makes you aware of the Touch sen­sor’s lim­i­ta­tions. In­stead of walk­ing around an ob­ject, it’s eas­ier to ro­tate it in space; walk­ing is likely to move you out of the sen­sor’s field of view, and putting your back to the sen­sor breaks track­ing with the Touch con­trollers.

Even so, Medium demon­strates a cer­tain amount of VR’s po­ten­tial out­side of games. Ocu­lus says that mod­els will be ex­portable from the ap­pli­ca­tion, which may make it a prac­ti­cal pro­to­typ­ing tool for artists with real 3D mod­el­ling chops.

The best thing about the demo is shar­ing it with an­other hu­man be­ing: an Ocu­lus engi­neer talks us through our art les­son, her translu­cent avatar head and hands float­ing in vir­tual space near ours. The so­cial im­pli­ca­tions are clear, and it’s no co­in­ci­dence that multi-user fea­tures show up more than a few times dur­ing Con­nect 2, par­tic­u­larly in apps such as Twitch and Net­flix for GearVR, the $100 Sam­sung-made unit that will bring VR to Gal­axy S6 and Note 5 phones.

As with Rift, the fo­cus for GearVR at Ocu­lus Con­nect 2 was mostly on con­tent rather than the tech­nol­ogy, show­ing video apps and vin­tage games playable in VR. Watch­ing a Twitch stream and see­ing and hear­ing the avatars of other peo­ple sit­ting in a vir­tual room with you proves sur­pris­ingly fun, but is it fun enough to see you strap­ping a smart­phone to your head for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time?

That ques­tion has been ap­pli­ca­ble in a broad sense since VR reemerged in 2012. Is strap­ping on a head­set to play games a truly mass­mar­ket prospect? Will the ex­pe­ri­ence be worth it? The thou­sand de­vel­op­ers who con­gre­gated at Ocu­lus Con­nect 2 cer­tainly think so, and the num­ber of games they’re cre­at­ing for the launch of Ocu­lus Rift next year will at least give it a fight­ing chance.

It’ll be their job to con­vert the faith­less when Rift is fi­nally re­leased. Then again, maybe they won’t have to work very hard. “I’ve never met a scep­tic of VR who has tried it,” Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney told tech web­site Re/Code dur­ing Con­nect. Strap enough Rifts onto enough heads, and con­sumer VR may be off and run­ning.

“It’s a hard de­ci­sion. There are a lot of trade-offs. Price will be the big­gest bar­rier to en­try”

The Touch con­troller is still be­ing fine-tuned, but it is a pow­er­ful part of the over­all Ocu­lus Rift propo­si­tion

Henry is Ocu­lus Story Stu­dio’s sec­ond film. The divi­sion’s char­ac­ter lead, Bern­hard Haux, pre­vi­ously held a sim­i­lar role at Pixar

The VR-pow­ered sculpt­ing tool Medium in ac­tion (above). At Ocu­lus Con­nect 2, John Carmack (right) put his fo­cus on the games, not the hard­ware

Rift hard­ware still has no of­fi­cial price, al­though Ocu­lus’s Palmer Luckey expects it to ex­ceed $350

Epic’s Tim Sweeney be­lieves that VR is an easy sell – once po­ten­tial con­sumers get to ac­tu­ally try it

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