The traditional game interface is fairly abstract: Players move a mouse or thumbstick, and an avatar on a 2D plane in front of them looks around. Using this interface, game designers have developed a wealth of entertainment over the years, but this system keeps players separated from their games. Game and gamer are two distinct entities, tethered together only by a controller. One company is hoping to change that by creating a more natural and immersive display system. Using state-of-the art virtual reality technology, Oculus hopes to wrap players in their digital entertainment. The technology is impressive, but before virtual reality becomes the next big thing in gaming, it has a number of hurdles to overcome.

This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue 243.

Palmer Luckey grew up dreaming about virtual reality. A self-taught optical and electrical engineer, hacker, and VR enthusiast, Luckey slowly amassed a collection of over 40 virtual reality headsets (possibly the world’s largest private collection). Luckey dreamed of someday stepping into the Matrix – of walking around a virtual world that looks and feels like the real thing. As computer engineering advanced and the technology inside virtual reality headsets became more and more sophisticated, it seemed like gaming was getting close to achieving that dream. However, no one was building the technology that would allow us to interface with a 3D virtual world. After spending a year working in a military VR research lab, Luckey decided to start his own company, Oculus, and do something about that.

The technology to make virtual reality headsets has been available for decades, but only recently has that technology become cheap enough to be commercially viable. Even still, most head-mounted displays on the market today are heavy, clunky devices with a diagonal field of view of only about 30 to 40 degrees. Worse, the very best commercial sets sell for over $100,000. Luckey knew the technology existed to make a better, cheaper headset, so he began tinkering with prototypes in his parents’ garage in Long Beach, California.

Soon Luckey’s work caught the attention of industry luminary John Carmack, who decided to integrate VR compatibility into the rerelease of Doom 3’s BFG Edition. “I believe that I’ve actually made the best VR demo for this type of thing ever made,” Carmack told G4 when he showed off one of Luckey’s
prototypes at E3 in 2012.

Carmack wasn’t the only industry vet impressed with the technology. Designers like Gabe Newell, Cliff Bleszinski, and Markus “Notch” Persson all endorsed Luckey’s design, and when Oculus announced its Kickstarter campaign for the Rift VR Headset for PCs, it brushed passed its fundraising goal of $250,000 in only four hours – eventually raising nearly $2.5 million.

The Rift Experience

During my hands-on time with the system, I played Adhesive Games’ mech combat shooter Hawken. Immersive is a word that is often overused in reference to video games, but it’s hard to describe the Rift experience without using the term. I turned my head and the screen around me shifted to show me another piece of my environment. I looked back and could see the inside of our mech’s cockpit. My stomach even lurched a little after I jumped off the roof of a building and had that dreamlike sensation of falling. The Oculus Rift makes you feel like you’re soaking in a game world. It’s immersive.

It’s easy to see why so many people are excited about this kind of technology. During this year’s Game Developers Conference, we slipped on a pair of prototype goggles and weren’t eager to take them off. The Rift gives players a virtual window of 110 degrees, creating a field of view far more lifelike than that of traditional VR goggles. More importantly, Oculus has been able to reduce the head tracking latency to a matter of milliseconds. Virtually no lag exists between a user’s head movements and the movement of the in-game camera, something that virtual reality headsets have traditionally struggled with.

Our biggest complaint about the headset is the slight amount of motion blur we experienced when turning. The development kits features two low-resolution panels. Each panel sends a 640 x 800 pixel image into one eye, which adds up to a display image of 1,280 x 800 in total. While this technically qualifies as HD, the images aren’t fine enough to eliminate motion blur. The good news is that Oculus is working to incorporate higher-resolution display panels for the commercial version of the Rift, which it says will eliminate this problem altogether.

Developers are able to buy development kits for only $300, and Oculus hopes to keep the price of the consumer model in that range, but the company isn’t ready to announce anything further about price or release dates. However, Oculus’ biggest problem isn’t keeping costs down while improving the hardware (Oculus has four Ph.Ds on staff already working on those problems). The primary challenge is helping developers overcome the unique challenges and oddities of developing games in virtual reality.