It’s Even More Real When It’s Virtual

Earlier this week we pulled the trigger on the choice between the two main rivals in the world of VR, and ordered an Oculus Rift for VALUE! This is a big deal, because this is probably the most important piece of hardware for the RoMeincraft project. Last night it arrived at casa Jaromirr and Caeda, and of course, being a good tech boy, I had to give it a go. So here’s a little write up of that experience!Disclaimer: I have only had a couple of hours with it, including only a demo and two games, but that is plenty of time to have an opinion on the technical side of things. Game reviews and further experiences will of course get their own future blog posts.

Setup

Let’s start with the first pleasant experience: the unboxing. The box contains an XBox controller, a remote, the sensor and of course the headset. The box itself is sexy, it feels sturdy, and will provide excellent means of transportation for the Oculus.

I set up the sensor on my desk, and connected both the sensor and the headset to the HDMI port of my video card as well as to the two USB 3.0 ports it needs. Then it was time to install and configure the headset. This was pleasant experience number two, because it was so damn easy to set it all up! You download the software (1.2GB…), run through a configuration wizard giving you very clear step by step instructions, et voilà, you’re good to go. I then set up my racing wheel, because of all the things I can do with this puppy, simracing in VR is something I have been wanting to try for AGES. One thing though: I have 10 USB ports on my PC, and I was already running out… Next I set up Steam VR, which was also a matter of seconds, and again a couple of GB of disk space. I then launched Steam VR, and… that was it? Everything together, unboxing, getting my racing gear from the attic, hooking all of that up, installing software (including redownloading Assetto Corsa, my go to racing sim), half an hour? That’s impressive.

Holy s***, my car has side windows too?

I put on the headset and sure enough, I was in Steam’s VR menu. Amazing. Immediately I ran into hiccup one though: where’s my flippin mouse?? Caeda started going “a bit more to the left sweety” because she saw me struggle lol. Alright, moment of truth, launch Assetto Corsa, set up the controls again, set the display settings to a nifty dropdown option called ‘Oculus Rift’ (product support done right), selected my favorite car and track, start. When it loaded I started giggling like a teenaged girl running into Justin Bieber, combined with uttering “woooaaah” and “ooooh” and “OMG THIS IS COOL.” I started looking around me inside my car, appreciating the detail Kunos Simulazioni put in their game, and … wait, I CAN GET OUT?? I walked around my car, standing in the middle of the famous straight of the Nürburgring Nordschleife (click for real life picture for reference), looking at the sun setting, the castle in the distance, and my car standing in front of me. I have no words for the feeling that overcame me, it was so insanely cool!!! I got back in, and started driving.

Immediately I noticed something: I can finally look into a corner the way I do in real life. This is something that is a very limiting factor (unless you use some eye tracking software with an IR sensor) when simracing, the possibility, or lack thereof, of looking around you, looking in your mirrors, looking at that car next to you so you don’t hit it, and most importantly, looking where you’re going. I’m not going to go into the technique of racing cars to you all, as that would bore you infinitely. In short: when you lose control of your car, or if you’re going fast, looking where you want to point your car will make your hands follow that direction which will enable you to drive with surgical precision, and get you out of very hairy situations.

I ran a couple of Nordschleife laps, and then I noticed… no motion sickness! That’s good, very good. I did some more racing stuff, and then started a 24 car race on another favorite track of mine. A couple of bad starts because of dodgy AI ramming me off the track later, we were going, all 24. I climbed from 24th to first (literally in the last corner) in five laps, and it felt amazing. I have been simracing now for about ten years, and never have I ever experienced anything like this. The fact that you have that thing on your head, the fact that at first it feels like two tiny CRT displays are right in front of your eyes, the fact that you’re in a room, the fact that you’re in your pyjama pants, ALL of that disappears like Justin Bieber being chased by the aforementioned teenager. You’re in a world of your own, you’re in that car, not looking at your position on track, not looking at which gear you are in or where your hands are on the wheel. All you pay attention to is what is in front of you and around you, and how it feels. When I crossed the line and noticed that those two cars I passed in the last corner of the last lap were number 2 and 3, I felt invincible. This is an experience I will not soon forget, and for sure will do again.

Touch it, grab it, break it, shoot it

Alright, simracing in VR is the best thing I have ever experienced while racing digital cars, but what about those Oculus Touch controllers huh? Let’s see what those can do. Again, setup was a breeze, although I required another USB 3.0 port, for another sensor. I had limited myself to only the square meter in front of my desk, which I was told was moderate, but whatever, let’s go do that demo to get me started. A soothing voice explained to me how to grab things, point at things, the basics. Then I got thrown into what felt like a futuristic apartment, together with a Wall-E style robot, that I proceeded to scare quite a bit, making him run for cover, then leave said cover, waving at me. I waved back, he came close enough to me to say hi, and proceeded to give me a bunch of discs to insert into the 3D modelling machine. I made butterflies fill the room, I made it snow inside with a bell rattle, and shot a nerf gun at floating targets. All with one common thing: it is all so damn instinctive. The controls are so easy to get the hang of, making you pick up things, toss things and touch things within minutes.

Alright, demo done, let’s try one more game. I downloaded Echo Arena, a zero G frisbee game. I was immediately loaded into a lobby, came to grips with the controls of controlling my floating direction with tiny boosters on my exosuit, grabbed some objects, got into the training room, tried to get hold of that damn frisbee that five other people were trying to get hold of at the same time. It’s online, so real people, with mic, that literally no more than five minutes in game were already cussing at each other… That’s the first moment I got reminded that I was in a video game: the words f***, off, and ***hole in one sentence… Anyways, practice schmactice, real game time. I loaded in with two other people, against three other people. The goal: get the frisbee in the other team’s goal. I was garbage, of course, but still managed to grab the occasional frisbee, only to lose it seconds later, right as I was about to pass it to my more experienced teammate. It did not help that I only discovered afterwards that there was a turbo boost on those boosters. What good is a sports game without sprint, amirite? It was good fun though, and I bet after some more games I would get the hang of it soon enough.

However, that was the end of my Oculus Rift experience, as I got my first motion sickness after a mere twenty minutes in Echo Arena. No wonder though, you’re constantly looking into different directions where that damn disc has gone, entangling you in the lead wire of your headset, having no idea what direction you’re facing in the real world, floating, trying to be fast… I think my sensors got a serious overload there, and I think that’s understandable. I also think one’s vestibular can be trained to endure this for longer periods, so all in all I have to say my fear of getting motion sick was ungrounded, it’s not too bad at all.

The Oculus Experience

So that was it. It’s now… wait… THREE HOURS LATER??? Okay, no wonder I’m sweaty, and a bit drained. I sat down, contemplating what an experience those 2,5 hours of time (excluding setup) with the Oculus have been. My nose hurt, this thing is not really fun if you’re wearing glasses. Not something I noticed while playing though, so I guess that’s good. But all in all, this experience has been an enriching one. This VR thing, it’s pretty amazing. A while back, for the Interactive Past Book, I was asked if VR would be the future, and I said no. I still stand by that. I was very happy to have a regular monitor in front of me again after packing everything up, and sitting at my now much emptier desk, in my comfortable desk chair, playing some League of Legends. But saying that it’s not for me, that I can no longer. The Echo Arena experience was cool I guess (until I got a bit woozy), and the demo was cute and entertaining, but the simracing experience was out of this world. I still can’t describe just how special it was to me. At literally no point (unless you’re looking for your mouse in between races) I felt like I was gaming, it really felt … real. Immersive. Fast. Just downright incredible.

So the conclusion? VR is epic, and so is the Oculus Rift. It is clear that the longtime research, development and support for game devs has bore fruit, creating a marvelous experience for its end users. The fact that it now “only” costs $450 during the summer, makes it a bargain, considering the experience you get in return. I will not say that I will be playing with it again any time soon, because it does feel like an experience, but one that is not for every day. I’ll still prefer my good old regular display and MKB to play my regular games. But VR proves one thing beyond any doubt: the VALUE creed has never been more true.

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