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PAX Prime 2015: All Things VR

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For me, this PAX was to be the most interesting yet because I was finally going to get some time with the VR headsets.  Imagine my excitement as I began to book appointments to see Oculus, Oculus Touch (the controller), Vive, and of course the Morpheus.  In all honesty the demos sounded a bit dull – a plane landing simulation from the perspective of an air traffic controller, a toy box demonstration with no gameplay, walking around a derelict research facility – I felt like I was going to see VR but not experience it.  That’s not to say I wasn’t going to attend the demos, far from it, but I was going in with an open mind.  I didn’t have to, what I saw was pretty cool.

oculus_2My early demos with the Oculus specifically were not the gameplay pack that a lot of PAX attendees got to see, which is fine because I didn’t want to wait in the long lines.  Instead I got a chance to play P-O-L-L-E-N, which is an upcoming title for all VR headsets (as well as PS4 and PC standard) that has a vague premise.  Space travel has happened and in this reality, it has been around since the 1990s.  An industrial group built a research station on Moon Titan (guessing that’s not our moon) after discovering something just under the crust.  A year later a tech was lost in an accident and now we find ourselves in a now seemingly abandoned space station to discover what happened.  In short, it’s a walking simulator, which has been mostly hit for me.  I do think that developer Mindfield Games is smart in telling us next to nothing about the game because the strength of these titles is all about discovery.  With the Oculus I was able to navigate the living quarters, dispense a soda, read notepads (moving closer or further away zoomed the camera), and interact with a few things.  It was there to show off an interactive world, which it did, but I couldn’t help but notice the resolution loss when swapping from PC to the Oculus and without true head tracking it didn’t really seem to justify the tech.  The same was true for a handful of other demos I got to see, all of which included the caveat that the games integrated Oculus but were not designed for them.  P-O-L-L-E-N was designed with VR in mind and it seemed that the only limits the developer had at this time were that of tech limitations.  One of the developers on the show floor gave me a glimpse at some of the things they are testing out with the Vive and more interactive tracking, but it wasn’t quite there yet.  I guess we will see in early 2016 when both this game and all of the headsets hit the consumer market.

viveNext I got a chance to utilize the Vive, big clunky handheld wands and all, for the flight sim demo.  It was much cooler than I had imagined to be on the ground and bring planes in, not to mention this demo was definitely using motion tracking.  We were in a closed area that was supposed to let me know when I was close to a wall, but I think that was only for the headset because my foot bumped into it a few times.  All of that aside, what the Vive demo showed me was that motion tracking both your movements and hands is a large improvement over using a controller.  I haven’t done a good job at describing the control interface: it’s two wants so to speak that you more hold than interact with and it’s in lieu of a controller.  I think you can use a controller, but no demo I played on Vive did.  It starts to bridge the gap of seeing the world in VR and then being a part of the world in VR, although the control interface and wide range of gizmos on my head and strapped to my waist was distracting.  I have no idea how I’m going to suit up for any of these devices without a second person to help me.  Additionally this game played with scale a lot more, the sight of large planes coming in for landing right in front of me was very cool indeed.  I wanted a different game and experience, but as a tech demo it was showing me the potential.

morpheusMorpheus proved two things: that the tech can run on an actual PS4 without any new hardware and that resolution on these headsets is either identical or so close that you won’t tell the difference.  I got to experience the shark cage demo, which was okay and probably blew people away when it first premiered, but now seeing that I could get more interactive it felt dated.  The Morpheus does have head tracking already available to it and the move controllers can pretty much do what the Vive did, but I was not able to see a demo that put it all together, although I’m sure that’s coming.

When it all came together and I decided I needed one for my house was when I played with the Oculus Touch.  This was something different, but I must lead with the fact that it appeared to be a higher end headset than the consumer model coming early next year and we were in a foam-padded room that was designed to easily track me.  I don’t know if everyone has the space for something like that but I surely can do it in my spare bedroom so I’d love to be an in-home beta test site.  Full disclosure, Oculus doesn’t appear to have any plans for a program like that and it is unclear when this will ever be available or for how much.  Those new touch controllers may look goofy in photos, but with your thumb resting on an analog stick, index finger on a trigger, and full movement tracking of your body it was a very cohesive experience.  I was also interacting with a demo staff member that was in the other room on the same device, which meant we were the two subjects of the demo and that was something new.  He brought us into a toy box where I could pick up items, throw them, break them, and control them.  I was able to run a remote control tank while he threw a boomerang and surprisingly was able to catch it as it returned.  I tried tossing a truck in the air and catching it; I need some practice.  He then demonstrated that the atmosphere can change by taking us underwater and out into space, seeing the difference in the physics, and showing off how the three worlds react.  We also went into a fireworks factory where things you would never want to do in real life – setting off an M-80 in your hand or shooting a roman candle into your eye – were possible.  Fireworks had impressive effects, especially when they are shooting past your head, but this was the least interactive part of the demo so we quickly moved to the shooting gallery.  Here is where I got to see how awesome a first person shooter could be with this device and he showed off scale as he made me bite-sized and attacked me with a toy dinosaur that looked massive in my view.  I was also told this looked equally hilarious to the two people watching me do this demo without seeing what I could see.  It was real, it was true VR as I had imagined it, and I want one.

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As we keep hearing about VR, the industry is split on whether or not it will take off as a viable platform or become the next gimmick.  I can say this, with what I played in that final Oculus Touch demo, it could be the latter.  One large hurdle is that most commercial products coming soon will not feature that type of interactivity and cost of these units and the space you need to run them may be staggeringly high.  It’s necessary to properly ground these devices and tech into a world where designers can actually make games for them instead of showing us a roller coaster demonstration.  What I played most of the day Sunday showed me that I did not want the early products that I can purchase come 2016, but rather that I should save my time and money for the bigger experience.  I do think there’s a place for everyone here, especially when you consider that some gamers won’t want to be walking all over their living room and dropping thousands just to play a game.  If this describes you, the early headsets may very well be the choice you want.  Either way, it doesn’t have to be a gimmick, but the experiences and games that actually come from this tech will be the deciding factor and there just isn’t enough substantial content yet for us to know for sure.

I apologize for the lack of pictures or non-text media.  Due to the nature of these products, I had no way of showing it off.

 
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