It is fitting in light of the current barrage of virtual reality news that the first thing I checked out at PAX East was the newest version of the Oculus Rift: Crescent Bay. I have not tried many revisions of the hardware in the past, typically only once a year, and each time I am blown away by how much more immersive the technology gets. There are still some questions, and in my mind, missing concepts, but the demo I just experienced blew my mind and messed with my perceptions in ways I did not think were possible.
The demo rooms are self-contained this year. (In the past it was in the open or in a sitting environment, with soundproofed walls and a mat on the floor to make sure you stay in a consistent spot.) The hardware that was placed on my head completely enveloped my viewpoint, and there were earphones that were snugly placed over my ears. The kit was very comfortable and pleasantly light. There is some ambient noise and a cyber-looking green environment in place before the demo begins so you can orient yourself. Once I was set up (facing the tracking camera) the demo began.
Nearly eight minutes long, it jumped among a number of environments and scenarios, some cute, some terrifying, all incredibly impressive. The demo started with me in the interior of a submarine. Everything seemed fine, and I was able to look all around me and look at the machinery. Due to head and position tracking I could get closer to some components and tilt my head to get a closer look. Right off the bat I was immersed in the environment and felt a sense of panic when systems started to fail. I am just glad they did not start flooding it, as that would have really triggered my panic centres.
Next the demo shifted to a scene where a dinosaur was stalking me, a raptor-like creature that rivaled those seen in Jurassic Park, all the more impressive as it menaced me while I stared at its details and movements. The magic of this Oculus system is that you involuntarily move in reaction to the events. During the dinosaur scene I twitched back as it approached me.
Following this cool sequence a couple more showed off the technology’s full immersiveness featuring animals and environments, but the showstopper for me was a part of the demo that had you perched on a ledge at the top of a towering building reminiscent of Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia. I immediately stepped back and felt a tiny amount of vertigo. I had to steel myself to step forward and look over the edge, from where I could see the ground many stories below. Think about this. I am wearing a headset, in 2015, that makes me feel about and respond to heights in literally the same way I do in real life. This was the same feeling I had on the glass floor of the CN Tower and it impressed the hell out of me.
Following this there was an entertaining sequence between two robot arms that eventually had a magic battle with wands that completely enveloped me so that I was spinning around in circles keeping up with the blasts and movements. This demo made me feel like I was part of a Pixar short from the inside and not a viewer. It really made me think about how movies could completely change with the use of this technology: Forget 3D, immersing the viewer in the scene is a true game-changer.
Next came another dinosaur segment, this one featuring a T-Rex, but in a much more menacing way. You are in a museum and the T-Rex appears at the end of a hall and approaches you, stops in front of you and analyzes you in a calculating way before it roars to show you it’s the boss. I recoiled from this monstrous dinosaur and when it decided to leave and stepped over my head I hunched down and watched it move over me in wonder.
The final demo portion featured an Unreal 4 logo and it too was a showstopper. I was placed in the middle of a raging battle between soldiers and a giant robot, all in slow motion. Bullets whizzed past my head, I dodged as rocks and debris shattered all around me, and I looked up at wonder as an exploding car flipped over my head with someone still inside it. The scene had me moving towards the robot and it was a little surreal, as I felt like I was actually moving towards the hulking metallic beast. The demo ended with the robot looming over me and I was left breathless and thoroughly impressed beyond words.
The demo was an absolute blast from start to finish and I was completely immersed in the worlds I was put in the middle of. The only two things that pulled me out were that I had no body in the spaces, and that I had no direct control over what I was doing. If I looked down I did not see my hands or body, which was odd especially on the ledge sequence. It was not a deal-breaker by any means, but it did pull me out of the experience somewhat. The lack of control was another oddity. I wanted to touch and manipulate things, especially in the submarine sequence, but without any direct input I felt like a spectator more than an active participant.
I can’t stress enough though how absolutely amazing the experience was despite those limitations. I was transported into numerous virtual worlds in a way that made me truly feel like I was there and I am blown away by how real and immersive it was. VR is real, the Oculus Rift – especially this current Crescent Bay build – is a truly ground-breaking product, and I am excited to see what the final product will be when they release it in the next year or so.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00NY7H5EA][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0057R5XRG][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0990999920]