Oculus Rift Interview: Grass-Roots Virtual Reality Momentum Upstages Xbox And PS4 At Gamescom

'It's Not The Holodeck, But This Is Something You Have To See'

There were a lot of great games on show in Cologne at this year's Gamescom. There were next-gen consoles, mech shooters, zombie adventures and driving simulators. They all had their surprising moments, and impressed in different ways. At least one had a flame-thrower death cycle.

But there was only one demo that made me worry -- just for a second -- that I might burst into tears.

Unlike with some of the bigger publishers at Gamescom, the demo didn't take place in an impressive stand with free coffee and pasta salads. It was located in a small, blank white cubicle somewhere in the business centre. There was just a single basic sign stuck on the door, and two PCs on a desk.

And once the demo began, there wasn't even much of a game to play. My character awoke on a stone pathway, outside a grey castle lit from behind by a volcano spewing lava and ash. There were mountains in the distance, cracks in the floor, and a gloomy doorway into a monster's lair. So far, so much video game cliche. The controls weren't inspiring either. My character couldn't even walk, much less swing a sword.

But then, I looked up. Not my character. Me. I looked up. As I did, the view - powered by the 3D display secured onto my head with a skiing goggles strap - moved with me, with no perceptible delay. I stared deep into the sky. And then I saw that it was snowing. The flakes were drifting in the wind, falling onto me. I wanted to reach out and touch them as they passed in front of my face. It felt real.

The snow wasn't really there, of course. But I was.

The Oculus Rift is something special.

The Oculus dev-kit headset is essentially a pair of goggles, with a lens for each eye. Inside is a 1080P display, which displays game worlds in 3D and pans to your direction of view with very little lag. The screens are so close to your eyes, that you can't really see the edge. You can see depth, and feel like you can refocus on different areas of the screen in a natural way. It's very, very immersive. The tech is still raw, but it's getting close to something profound.

The story of how Oculus VR was founded, funded and developed has been told before. The more recent news developments - the hiring of ID legend John Carmack and the launch of VR game discovery platform Oculus Share - have also gained their share of pixel inches.

But the real story of Oculus Rift - and yours is probably untold, as yet - is just simply what it's like to put it on for the first time. Because it really is as magical as you've spent your life hoping something like this would be.

In a later demo, I was able to fly up from the castle to the top of the volcano, choosing my direction by looking at my destination. It wasn't a dramatic flight - barely more than a 'no-clip' demo. But it was also quite profound. And in a final demo - all told I had barely 10 minutes with the device - I "sat" in an empty cinema watching a Man of Steel trailer. It sounds dull - and it was, in a charming sort of way - but it was also totally immersive and convincing, and a better 3D experience than the movie itself could ever hope to be.

Yes, I was already primed to love it. And yes, the Rift is still just in its raw pre-beta stage, and by no means ready for general sale. But by any standards, the demo was a devastating demonstration of the Oculus Rift's potential. It was also one of the more amazing moments of my entire life.

We had the chance to sit down with the founder of Oculus VR Palmer Lucky, and co-founder Nate Mitchell, to talk about the technology, where it's heading and how it might change the world.

Above: it's hard to show what the Oculus Rift 'looks like' inside, but the above image from 3D vision gives you an idea.

How conscious of the excitement about Oculus Rift are you? I noticed that outside your booth there are lot of people just hanging around wanting to talk to you…

Palmer Lucky: It's kind of crazy. I think what it is, is that with a lot of games or pieces of technology in general the companies have to convince everyone from the outset that their vision of the tech is something that consumers want. With virtual reality, consumers know what it is and have wanted it for a very long time. When tech advances enough and we can develop a good enough solution that's really cheap, people already know they want it. We don't have to sell them on the idea of virtual reality.

Nate Mitchell: I totally agree with Palmer, part of this is taping into people's fantasy. Maybe it's not the holodeck but this is something that you have to see.

That seems especially true when you compare the ground-level excitement about the Rift, to some of the next-gen consoles -- where the pitch for new hardware is being made very hard, and with mixed success.

N: I think one really interesting twist to all that is that we're really having to do our best to tell developers why they should build content for the Rift. And that's a challenge - and a different approach to Microsoft and Sony, who have a lot of money to offer.

P: And the two systems are so similar - a lot of it comes down to business decisions not technical decisions. They say that 'Oh, the Xbox is going to be so much better for creativity', whereas VR is this totally different thing where you have to approach it very differently.

Both of the big console makers are pitching their machines as a natural home for indies. How do you think Rift fits into that?

N: Most demos that we've been seeing have actually been from indies, because they're willing and able to take a risk on technologies that maybe haven't proven themselves, but they can innovate.

Does the experience of Rift live up to the dream yet? What does it take to fully realise the promise?

P: What does it take to fully realise ultimate virtual reality, that's indistinguishable from reality? We don't…

Power gloves? Just two Nintendo Power Gloves?

N: Hah, power gloves!

P: We're too far away from it to know what it's going to really take, but it's not just going to take technological advances. We're not going to be able to just piggyback off mobile phones to get to that point. It's going to take a lot of biological advances where we understand how the brain works. How we perceive the world, and how to tap into that without having to mimic every single thing through all of the senses. Humans are visual creatures, so if you can make a really good visual experience and then work on some of the other stuff you can still make something which is very fun, and very immersive. And you can forget that you're in a virtual world. But it's not the Matrix.

N: I think that's what is magical about VR, or the Rift. We're not there today. But what's magical about the Rift is that sense of presence and that suspension of disbelief when they put it on. People can finally step inside the game and the feel like they're in that world.

It also seems that right now people are more forgiving of flaws - graphical or otherwise - in games on the Rift, because it's so new. Does that give you an advantage?

N: Thats really true. Every single one of our demos has been a less than perfect experience, because it's usually working with an indie developer…

P: Or a port.

N: Right. It's all so new. Assassin's Creed for example, that franchise not only are they using assets and an engine that's been in development for ages, they also have a team of hundreds of people that's been working on the game for years.

P: Those people have built Assassin's Creed games five times before, and those kind of games for decades.

N: For us, the slate is clean. It's mostly small teams that are showing what they're working on right now but people are getting excited because when they step inside VR, they're like "oh my God I'm flying". That's the important thing, not how are they animations working out.

Do you feel like the media are hurrying you to release something that isn't quite done yet?

P: Too bad!

N: Like Palmer said - it's two things. Firstly too bad. We have to take our time and we have to get it right.

P: We're not going to be rushed by the press or anyone else. We're going to take our time and release something that we're really proud of, that we think people will be happy with. Because if we don't - if it's rushed to market and it's not a good experience, then people are going to think that VR is just some kind of gimmick.

N: We can't let it fail again.

Do you feel like if you don't do this right, it will be another five years before someone tries again?

N: I don't know because there's so much momentum right now. Six months ago I would have told you yes, but now there is so much buzz and excitement. I wouldn't be surprised to see more competition coming up in the market. Someone will try.

Do you worry about that?

P: No. For several reasons. One, if other people are going to get into the market it generally legitimises the market, it also means that there is likely to be more VR content, if it's easier for developers to justify developing something only for VR. On the other hand I also think that we have the best team, and the best hardware, and that we'll continue to have the best team and hardware. I don't think anyone will make a better VR headset than us.

N: I think the counterpoint would be that we like to pretend that the competition is always around the corner. We're never sitting back saying "we're in the lead, let's take it slow".

The above is a transcript from an interview conducted at Gamescom in August 2013, lightly edited for space and clarity.

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