This post is about my experience at Oculus Connect.
the first Oculus Developers conference : Hollywood CA, Oct 2014
Specifically, it is about my experience of Oculus’ next-gen demo, dubbed Crescent Bay. This technical demonstration showcases the absolute state-of-the-art in terms of both consumer VR hardware and experience design techniques. The demo took place through the conduit of 21 hand-built prototype HMDs created especially for the show. Each HMD was placed in the center of a padded room, approximately 10’x10’ in dimension.
PREFACE: This post requires a simple disclaimer for Rift Virgins, so hear me now: I am an intelligent articulate and passionate person. Ever since I experienced the Rift for the first time a month ago, I have been excitedly and persistently trying my best to describe the experience, the genuine experience of presence, to family, friends, and strangers. With some of them I’ve talked about it for hours on end. To cut to the chase : nobody gets it until they try it. Absolutely no words can describe the visceral and truly real feeling of presence that one receives in modern VR experiences as embodied whilst inside the Rift. The experience has almost nothing in common with watching a 3d movie or playing a video game, though those experiences are the common tropes that are referenced by the popular press. When you enter into and play inside VR, you are actually participating, creating, and generating genuine experience. You are creating actual memories in your life, and you are experiencing genuine emotions. In other words, what you experience while within the Rift, on a deep psychological level, is equally as valid as the events that you experience, learn from, and remember from waking life.
Some of you can get your intellectual heads around that. And yet, you will still not be prepared for what you experience on the inside. So read on, understanding that nothing I say can communicate the experience… and perhaps more importantly: find someone with a Rift, and get yourself inside. Within 10 years, just about every first-world human will be deep in there for a portion of every single waking day, both for work and for play. So you’ve got fair warning:
It’s time to get your VR legs on.
Back on topic: The purpose of this post is to give you a vicarious ticket to Oculus Connect. For now, we’re going to focus on the most magical and thought-provoking event of the weekend: playing the “Crescent Bay Demo.” Crescent Bay describes both a hardware specification and a 15-minute demo reel that Oculus and Epic Games put together in order to showcase the capabilities of the next-gen HMDs. The upshot is :
Oculus showed that head tracking, in fact that the entire HMD, is now a solved problem. Want more details on that?
Now let’s get down to it, and talk about the actual experiential content of this groundbreaking demo. The entire demo was 15 minutes in length, transitioning the player gently between about ten 90-second universes. I’m going to recount the micro-experiences that I remember most vividly, and some of the really neat concepts that they embodied.
WARNING : SPOILERS.
If you’re thinking you might try out a Crescent Bay demo in the next month or so, you may consider skipping this and developing your own ideas. But since there’s only 21 protoype units in the entire world, and access is pretty limited, well: if you’re in the vast majority of the population, read on:
1. Cartoon Campfire.
The first sim I encountered was a very low polygon count simulation of a fox and a moose sitting around a campfire. This experience showed some neat creative possibilities for artistic expression. Not everything has to have 10,000,000 polygons with procedural texturing and ray-traced lighting. It was playful, calm, and relaxing.
2. Toy Train Track.
As you awaken to this experience, you see the equivalent of a toy train track on a low tabletop. Actually, its a playful model-like representation of an entire town, created entirely in papercraft, origami-like. The first thing you notice is that the train is gently and steadily moving along the track. Simple enough. But then, some things start to happen that you’ve never seen in your kids playroom. Clouds materialize above the town, and a gentle rain starts to fall. Leaning in very close and peering into the windows of the train, you can see the passengers, going about their motions. You hear a sound and giggle when you observe a comic-worthy UFO flying in, abducting some townspeople in its tractor beam, flailing in the air as they are lifted into the sky. You get on your knees to look around the table and into the houses, marvelling at both the detail and the impossible truth of a fully animated miniature universe, materialized right before your eyes.
3. Tron / C-Space.
This was one of my top three. All I can say about this one, is that I literally felt like a God. Again evoking the Matrix, it felt something like that final scene in the close of the trilogy, where Neo floats through layers of machinery to return to the Source. In this experience, you find yourself floating in zero-G, within a city-like sphere perhaps a mile in diameter. Your body is slowly and surely moving towards the center of the sphere. Within the master sphere, countless other spheres and fragments of spheres are nested, slowly rotating on their centers. Each has holes and portals carved all throughout its surface. As you navigate towards the inner core, by chance or design, it seems that a portal rotates into perfect alignment with your path just as you’re about to collide. I played this sim with arms outstretched. I truly felt as if I was in the Tron universe, with code all around me. Now here’s the kicker of this one: inside sources tell me that the entire codebase for this simulation, including MIDI audio score, is 4k. That’s four. thousand. characters. of code. All textures and shaders are procedural. All shapes are algorithmically generated. All sound is MIDI. After hearing that, it all made sense. This is true and pure elegance of programming.
4. The Mirror Room.
You find yourself in a room, simply decorated in neo-classical fashion. A table sits in the middle of the room, with a tea set. I found this to be the most boring of the scenes, until I turned around to look at a fireplace, and above that fireplace… a mirror. Now here’s the kicker. In the mirror, right where my head was, was a disembodied mardi-gras mask. It absolutely precisely and accurately reflected the movement and orientation of my head as I bobbed, weaved and danced with mild amusement and fascination. The choice of a mask, instead of an animated puppet avatar, was a clever design decision. I and many others I talked to found that that symbolic and playful representation gave a sense of freedom, even mischief, to the interaction. Yes, in VR, we will all wear the masks and costumes of our choice.
5. The Alien Encounter.
Suddenly we find ourselves standing on the surface of a distant, barren planet. Volcanoes spew steam on the distant horizon. Well, the landscape is not totally barren. For there, about 6 feet in front of you, sits a large headed, huge-eyed alien mildly reminiscent of ET. Fun enough. It’s huge eyes blink, and it sways from side to side slightly, its chest gently heaving as it breathes. You are curious. You walk closer. Much closer, in fact, then you might with a normal human standing in front of you. You get about 4 inches from its face, examining the depth of its eyes and… and then, the alien suddenly jerks its head back, and frowns a bit, and I couldn’t tell for sure, but I swear he then muttered something in pseudo-english about coming too close. So I back off… and sure enough, the alien comes forward again. Its classic Turing: I know its a sim, and yet I deeply wonder : how much of the aliens is programmed, how much is canned, how much is my own psychic projection, and how much is actual emergent behavior? No matter: I sensed, again in a deep reptilian place, far beyond logic, that I was interacting with a genuinely intelligent, and indeed alive, lifeform. This demo showed really promising opportunities for building genuine empathy between players and game characters… far beyond anything I’ve ever encountered in classical console 2d videogames.
6. Epic Unreal Showdown.
There is irony in this title. This was the grand finale, and left me and many others both speechless and mildly traumatized. It was truly epic, and absolutely unreal in its… realism. surrealism. EXPERIENCE. You awaken standing in the middle of a street in New York City. Immediately, a bullet flys by your left ear… and this is very important now… wait for it: at one. twentieth. of. normal. time. In fact, the *entire 3d scene* is unfolding in “bullet-time” as you slowly but surely ambulate through it on a linear track. So now that you understand the time warp… the scene is this: 8 soldiers in full body armor defend against a giant killer robot, who is busy firing grenades and blowing up cars all around you (video below). You see the bullets, mostly from the air distortions left in thier trails, beautifully rendered in volumetric and totally dynamic 3d. Have you ever seen a strobe photo of a bullet going through an orange? Now imagine that you can see that unfolding in slow motion, AND that you can get your face right up to it and stare at the bullet spinning through the air and the wake behind it, all in total 3D. You can duck under the bullet and look at it from the other side. The experience, quite simply, is near impossible to describe… 1) becuase really only military vets have ever experienced anything even remotely analogous, and 2) actually experiencing the time warp function was literally something that, until now, could only be imagined.
The one thing I can describe is a very very very real sense of where the bullets are, and a deep inner need to jump, duck, lay down, roll, and to perform whatever physical maneuver was necessary to avoid bodily penetration, even in slow-mo. Oh, did I mention that the robot also launched grenades and rockets? And that those impacts in turn produced massive volumetric explosive fireballs, and huge chunks of shrapnel and dirt flying through the air all around you? And that one of the robot missiles hits the underside of an occupied car, which promptly explodes and tumbles through the air right above your head?!?!? There’s way to much going on in the scene for anyone to comprehend, even in super slo mo, and the totality of it is as simply and insanely beautiful as a Michelangelo mural.
To wit: in the middle of this pure chaotic violence, I actually found myself mesmerized by a puddle in the street. I peered deeply into it as gentle ripples flowed across its surface, and watched a surreally distorted mirror of the entire scene unfolding before my eyes. All I can say is that what I encountered was a genuine experience, and formed a genuine memory, that I will never ever forget.
I exited the demo in genuine shock. It was truly hard to process all those experiences that had been crammed into a 15 minute timespace. I’ve had a lot of time now, well 2 days at least, to reflect upon what exactly happened in that room with the Crescent Bay. I’ve got a few theories:
- No human is meant to experience, or perhaps I should say no human is designed to absorb, 10 intense sensory experiences in a 15 minute window. When I exited, I completely and totally understood what Neo meant in the Matrix when he came back up and said with excitement: “I know Kung Fu!”
- It definitely put me through some totally genuine emotional and adrenalized moments. At the end of the Epic Street Battle, my heart rate was somewhere around 160 bpm.
- Simultaneous to the post-event excitement was a feeling of deep inner exhaustion. My friend got a deep headache and had to sit down still for about an hour. I opted to head straight to the hotel room, where I promptly passed out into a deep, dreamless sleep for 2 solid hours.
- WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO BE VERY VERY CAREFUL, BOTH AS DESIGNERS AND PARTICIPANTS IN THESE EXPERIENCES. DESIGNERS WILL NEED TO BE HIGHLY SENSITIVE TO THEIR AUDIENCES, AND HOW MUCH PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL INTENSITY THEY CAN REASONABLY HANDLE. PLAYERS WILL NEED TO STAY HIGHLY ATTUNED TO THEIR OWN MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH, AND CAREFULLY MONITOR THE AMOUNT OF TIME THEY ARE INSIDE, AND HOW IT EFFECTS THEM.
Perhaps the best two points I can sum up with are this:
1) When the Oculus Rift DK1 hit the market, close to 100,000 earthlings pre-ordered it sight unseen, and one year later, their socks were blown straight off their feet. Many of them have been developing content for the platform ever since. Many of those are what I might call “jaded VR enthusiasts”… they’ve played it all, seen it all. They can’t be wowed. To the last man, every single one of these early adopters came out of the Crescent Bay demo, shocked, stunned, and sometimes speechless. The experience is literally several orders of magnitude improved beyond the DK1, and the DK1 was good! Normal people are going to be… pleased is the most massively understated word I can conjure. Thera ya go.
2) The memories generated within these experiences are still very present with me, and are in fact being played over and over and over again in my head. Their magic, wonder, and beauty are so powerful, that I find myself tearing up when I think of them. It is hard to describe, but experiencing top-end VR is very much like being totally inserted into the fantasy / science-fiction world of your choice. There is real magic in there, and it works and is observable and feelable. If you’ve ever been scuba diving and marveled at the majesty of a giant manta ray flying right in front of you, or gasped as you looked across an epic mountain range in the deep wilderness… well, the feeling is similar.
Come on in.