Getting ready for VR: how to prep your system, and how to not scare the crap out of those playing
“The manufacturing process is going very well. We did the Kickstarter update about the pilot run. Definitely exciting times over here,” Nate Mitchell, the VP of product at Oculus, told the Report. The company is on track to begin shipping the dev kits next month, and Mitchell stated that the hardware will come in near the middle of March. “We’re expecting people to start receiving kits before GDC [March 25 through 29]. That’s our goal, and we’re confident that’s what we’ll hit.” With the hardware mere weeks away from being in the hands of developers and a few hardcore enthusiasts, I had some practical questions for the team.
Our endurance for virtual reality
So far I've only spent a few minutes wearing the headset, but members of the team have gone for much, much longer. “It’s really hard to say how long each individual person can stay inside,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said. “We haven’t done a thorough shakedown; we’ve only recently gotten final hardware to start playing with and start integrating with our demos. I’ve personally spent over six hours in a unit, no problem at all. A lot of our developers spend hours in the unit when they’re working on our Unity and Unreal demos, but it’s not a consumer-ready experience. There are people who feel disoriented after using it. That period of time depends on the person. This is day zero, it’s only going to get better from here.” The more people who spend time in the hardware, the more data they'll have. Much like 3D, different players are expected to have different reactions to being inside the virtual world. You know how hard it is to adjust between what's real and what's virtual if you've ever been immersed in a game and then jumped when someone touched you from behind or tried to get your attention. That problem is only going to get worse when your entire field of view is taken up by the Rift hardware, and you're wearing over-the-ear headphones for greater immersion. Is there a safe way to get someone's attention in the game without freaking them out? “Generally we just tap them on the shoulder,” Luckey said. “We don’t have any magical solutions. Usually if you just tap someone on the shoulder they’re not too freaked out. You can usually get people’s attention by yelling at them.” “It’s definitely neat to see people get totally immersed, especially when you throw the headphones on them. We’ve found a gentle tap on the shoulder the best way to get someone’s attention. It’s something we’re certainly exploring different ways to make it easy on people,” Mitchell explained. “If you leave someone in a demo for 15-20 minutes and then come back and touch them on the shoulder, sometimes they jump. It depends on the experience.” The earlier demos were Doom 3, which was an unnerving environment. The demos being used now are a little more serene. “One thing that’s interesting is that people will be playing while sitting in a spinny chair, and they’ll spin so that they’re facing 90 degrees to their right. They have no idea that they’ve actually moved,” Luckey said. During our brief testing, PAR photographer Dabe Alan became briefly disoriented when taking the Rift on and off. Sitting down while playing, especially if you're alone, may be wise.
What you can do right now
If you've ordered a dev kit, there are some things you can do to get ready before the hardware arrives. “In a very practical sense, beefing up the GPU is an obvious win. To get great VR experiences you need to be at 60 fps in stereo with Vsync. It really does require a relatively high-end graphics card. We’re right there on the cusp where GPUs and the hardware have been there to support good VR experience,” Mitchell said. There are other tweaks you can try for a better Rift experience. “Another thing is tweaking settings to make games run better. For example, to reduce latency. Some game engines will buffer frames. Many game engines will buffer a few frames, because it doesn’t matter too much,” Mitchell said. “One neat thing that NVIDIA has in the control panel will give you the ability to reduce the amount of buffered frames and force it to be lower. That can actually help a lot in terms of reducing latency.” Tweaking your settings for virtual reality is different than how you runs games normally, and that may be take a bit of education. “We’re going to be putting out more information as we get closer to shipping the development kits so people can start doing some of these tests,” Luckey said. “We’re going to get the developer center up before we get these kits shipping and there will be plenty of samples you can download and see if they’re running at 60fps on the computer right now.” This is the problem with higher resolution VR displays: The illusion falls apart at anything below 60 fps, but running modern games at that frame rate, in stereo, takes a pretty hardcore gaming rig. Or, it may be pointed out in a moment of pure speculation, a next-generation console. In fact, the Rift headset may not be the only piece of hardware Oculus is working on. They said they're experimenting with many different control options when wearing the headset, and those include game controllers, mice and keyboards, and, well, other stuff. “We can’t officially dislose anything, but we’re definitely interested in all sorts of human-computer interaction,” Mitchell said. “The Rift is at the crux of that, and we’re looking at all sorts of tech that interfaces with it.” 2013 is going to be a very interesting year for VR enthusiasts.