Now that we know the consumer launch of the Oculus Rift is coming in the first part of 2016 – complete with a funky new control system – it’s a good time to return to the demo scene that is available now and see what kind of experiences are being produced for the leading virtual reality platform.
As it currently stands, VR is more suited to bite-sized experiences that rely more on transporting you to wonderful and magical places rather than offering rock solid gameplay. There are problems with the technology that can sometimes hamper what might be thought of as traditional gameplay, particularly things like motion sickness which can really rule out certain types of demos for many people. However, the ability of the Oculus Rift to provide truly impacting and awe-inspiring experiences is almost unrivalled in the world today.
Here are some of the experiences that I’ve really enjoyed on my DK2 setup, particularly from a futurist/scifi perspective, and I’m tending towards newer options here to keep things fresh for those who might have the kit in their hands. If you don’t have the DK2 available, then you can check out any of these demos on YouTube for a taste of the VR future that is right around the corner!
NeoS: The Universe
This is a fantastic demo that takes you from the smallest level of scale (surrounded by protons and neutrons) through to the largest (galaxies and the observable universe). As you progress through the scales you are in first overlooked by a penny that seems the size of a building, before seeing it get smaller in front of you and other objects such as basketballs and a T-Rex come into view.
Everything is given in relation to the others, until you start looking up at the different sizes of cities and countries; planets and stars. I’ve always found planetariums to be a confronting experience, that confronts you with a sense of insignificance in such a vast (and somewhat terrifying) expanse. This is one of those demos that only really works on an immersive platform such as VR, and indeed the image I’ve displayed here doesn’t really work because you can’t have a sense of the objects being in true perspective with one another. One that will be fantastic to watch develop and grow in detail and functionality.
For obvious reasons, this is a demo that my neuroscientist wife found particularly interesting. It was great to be able to introduce her to some of the more educational aspects of VR, even though there isn’t too much to this basic demo. For someone who often stares at bran scan imagery for days at a time, though, to be able to be transported into a model of the neural pathways was just one of those experiences when you can be amazed by how much of a leap forward VR technology really represents.
Shapeshifter VR Experience
Getting the virtual concert experience right is going to be a great moment for VR. Being able to feel like you are there with the crowd, right in the front row interacting with your favourite musicians – even getting a backstage view that almost none of us are going to have the privilege of in real life. It’s one of those obvious avenues for the technology to go down, and it’s good to see a band such as Shapeshifter really try to build something in the technology. Unfortunately, this is a pretty basic example – and it’s hampered by not offering a 360 degree view to really make you feel like you are there – but as a sign of things to come I did enjoy it. We just need higher resolution VR for real-life video examples like this to really take off.
This is one of my favourite demos that has come out recently. It’s another ‘seated’ experience, in the sense that you just strap yourself in and watch everything take place, but it really is able to promote a sense of scale unlike almost anything else on the Rift so far. The music is industrial and feels appropriately cyberpunk and, although the experience is one that is short and sweet, when the rambling mechanical giants walk by there truly is a sense of presence as you are placed into another world.
Demos like this show how the power of VR isn’t necessarily going to be transporting us to real-life locations, but to let us inhabit entirely new and surreal modes of being. One of the best cyberpunk experiences on the Oculus Rift out there at the moment (particularly as I’m gutted to not be able to try Technolust yet, as the demo is DK1 only and release is for CV1).
Mona Lisa Room
This is one of those ‘transport you to a location’ demos that a lot of people are starting to get involved with. It seems like such an obvious use of VR technology, and you can really see how the cultural heritage and museum sector is going to jump on this once the technology is commercially available. Essentially what you have here is a solo tour of a very famous art gallery room in the Louvre museum in Paris, complete with atmospheric and well-produced audio guides for a number of different paintings. Most importantly, it’s a VIP viewing – you are escaping the hundreds of tourists crammed into the small space for a personal experience taken at your leisure. Unfortunately, this particular demo really exposes the need for a higher resolution screen than the DK2 has at hand. The Mona Lisa is a small painting, and so none of the detail comes out which is particularly jarring given that the audio tour is talking specifically about how perfect the painting is. Even the massive wall-size Biblical painting nearby comes across as too pixelated to really engage with. It’s a concept that is going to take off in the very near future, but not until we get nice high-res screens!
There’s a growing trend in VR to replicate famous locations in film and television and let users walk around in these landscapes. I’ve seen examples from the Simpsons and Family Guy, through to Dr Strangelove and The Shining (for the record, anything horror related on the VR just exposes how much of a wuss I can be!). Sunshine was, I thought, a great science fiction thriller with a lot of interesting futurist themes. This demo replicates one of the most visually striking aspects of the film, which is the observatory deck that looks out on the approaching Sun. It’s a barebones demo, little more than a basically modelled room and some appropriately emotional swelling music – but it really draws you in. Unfortunately the surface of the Sun doesn’t move and warp, which would have made this a truly awe-inspiring experience, but it does slowly rotate to simulate the effect and when combined with the music is a great experience for any futurist or science fiction lover.
Apollo 11 VR Experience
An excellent combination of education and emotion, this is a fantastic experience that is really accessible to people of all ages. The music combines perfectly with the charismatic and uplifting speech from John F Kennedy that you watch at the beginning and the demo only builds from that point. The scratchy transmissions going back and forth, combine with interviews from Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as you literally rise up to enter the Apollo 11 spacecraft with them and experience the launch.
It’s difficult to do justice, but the different components of this demo just come together to instil a real sense of wonder and pride of the human achievement that was the lunar landing. One that can bring you to tears as you sit in the cockpit and almost feel the rumbling of the launch around you, reaching out to touch the controls and looking out the window as you leave the atmosphere of Earth itself. If that isn’t just a step away from full immersive presence then I don’t know what is!
There’s so many other Oculus Rift DK2 demos that I could share some thoughts on, so I think I will do a follow up to this post in the coming days. Suffice to say that, despite my having motion sickness issues, there is so much to offer on this platform. If you are a futurist who hasn’t jumped on board yet with a DK1 or DK2, make sure you start getting your desktop rig together and high-spec enough to cope with the CV1 coming out next year. You won’t want to miss this boat, as it’s a real glimpse of a technological future filled with wonder and truly unique experiences of human creativity.