Every E3 seems to have an overarching theme, be it the rise of new consoles, the arrival of new ways to play, or the way in which the announcements and reveals made reflect the current state of the videogame industry. With this year’s edition of the biggest show in videogames now just weeks away, it certainly feels as if it’s virtual reality’s (VR’s) turn to be the hot topic. This is, after all, the last E3 before true consumer head-mounted displays (HMDs) are released, with the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, HTC Vive and Gear VR all launching before next year’s show rolls around.
These are likely the last days of VR being an enthusiast topic; something that the brilliant-but-small group of passionate developers and players have raved about these past few years. The conversation is going to start spilling over to gamers that haven’t been following the technology thus far. Make no mistake about it; Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) is going to push as hard as possible to make sure everyone knows Project Morpheus is coming. Oculus VR will no doubt be using the full might of its owner, Facebook, to get the Oculus Rift into as many hands as possible. Valve will be taking advantage of its current status as the first to release to try and attract as many customers as possible.
With that in mind, VRFocus presents a brief history of the revival of VR, taking a look at each head-mounted display. Today we look at the kit that’s undeniably responsible for VR’s rebirth, the Oculus Rift.
The Early Prototypes
It wasn’t so long ago that consumer VR was still that seemingly distant dream, written about in outlandish sci-fi novels and pictured in cult classic films. The concept of VR is something that many had assumed they wouldn’t see their lifetime. We surely wouldn’t see convincing, immersive experiences until cars were flying and cities were drowned in neon. Until then? Keep watching Tron. But Palmer Luckey didn’t want to keep watching Tron, he wanted to make VR happen for real.
In 2011, Luckey built his first head-mounted display (HMD) in his parent’s garage as a response to the surprising lack of a compelling device on the market. He was 18 at the time. Keeping followers up to date on the Meant to be Seen 3D forums, he continued to work on new prototypes for this device, eventually attracting the attention of none other than John Carmack, the legendary videogame developer behind the Doom series. Carmack himself had been looking into VR and began to work with Luckey, who sent him one of his prototypes to showcase at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
The result is what many will recall as their first time hearing about the Oculus Rift. Luckey had previously established the Oculus VR name with the intentions of launching a Kickstarter for a DIY version of what he was now calling ‘the Rift’. Carmack was showing this to E3 attendees with the then-upcoming Doom 3: BFG Edition. The kit gained a fair amount of buzz, enough that Brendan Iribe, a former executive of the now Sony-owned Gaikai, met with Luckey and came on board as Oculus VR’s CEO.
Things escalated quickly from there. E3 took place in June and a Kickstarter campaign for the now pre-assembled, fully-fledged developer kit for the Oculus Rift was launched in August, complete with an endorsement from Half-Life developer and Steam creator, Valve. Luckey and co asked for $250,000 USD, an amount that would seem ambitious to many. In the space of a month, the campaign raised $2,437,429. Later that year, the company would ship its first development kit (DK1) to backers.
Development Kit 1
It’s testament to just how quickly VR has evolved that the DK1 now resembles a fossil. This was the barest of essentials for a VR experience; a 640 x 800 resolution that was housed inside a plastic casing. Connected to a PC, traditional videogames were now displayed as the same image twice, side-by-side. When viewed through the Oculus Rift, which held a pair of lenses in front of the screen, this content appeared in 3D. Head-tracking meant that the screen would essentially imitate the user’s eyes, twisting the visuals as they turned left and right. The cracks in the device were obvious and sometimes very literal; the lower res screen meant that the gaps between pixels were highly visible when pushed against a user’s eyes (named the Screen Door Effect) and concepts such as positional tracking, which would allow users to also move their head forwards, backwards, up, down and from side-to-side, were missing. But, at the time, it was just enough to sustain an interest and excitement for VR.
Not every issue was forgivable, however. Simulator sickness has been a serious problem for VR from the very start and, while much less of an issue today, it could easily be identified as the biggest concern with the DK1. To put it simply, the trouble with VR getting close enough to start giving people the feeling of being somewhere else, however slight, is that all the unsolved factors can contribute to nausea. DK1’s head-tracking was fast, but not fast enough for the brain to miss any latency between users turning their heads and the screen catching up to where they were looking. Moving in a VR world but not moving in the real one can also be confusing. Motion blur from moving the screen too fast was extremely unpleasant, as was witnessing a low framerate transform a world into an unnatural, jaggy mess. A wide range of reasons similar to these made the DK1 a vomit-inducing experience for many. It was and continues to be an unfortunate side effect of using VR, though huge improvements have been made since, many by Oculus VR itself.
Even after the Kickstarter campaign, Oculus VR made the DK1 widely accessible, allowing just about anyone ready to claim that they were a developer purchase the device for $300, an astonishingly low barrier for entry for a new technology. This created a thriving community in the space of just about one year, with indie developers and modders tinkering with the device and shoehorning unofficial support into PC titles. Interest in VR started to gain steam and actually gained Steam; Valve revealed that it had its own HMD in the works that was far beyond the DK1, but would be supporting Oculus VR in its efforts to make consumer VR a reality rather than competing with it. August 2013 saw Carmack come on board as Chief Technology Officer. In the same month the Oculus Rift also got its first big videogame announcement in EVE: Valkyrie, a multiplayer spin-off of popular MMO, EVE Online. Oculus VR was getting stronger and stronger.
Crystal Cove and Development Kit 2
By early 2014, developers and enthusiasts were ready for Oculus VR to take the next step. The DK1 was a great starting point but enhanced kits were a known quantity; some high profile teams were using HD-edition dev kits. Surely more was on the way. Oculus VR kicked off what would be a year filled with announcements and reveals by showcasing its latest prototype, Crystal Cove, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that January. A number of crucial updates had been made; positional tracking was now in, made possible with a user-facing camera that followed LEDs dotted around the device, and the display had switched to an OLED, 1080p panel. The higher definition helped to further combat the Screen Door Effect, though by no means eliminating it. OLED, on the other hand, drastically cut down in head-tracking latency and featured an improved refresh rate that made motion blur much less of an issue.
It was exciting to see Crystal Cove, but Oculus VR hadn’t yet revealed what this meant for DK1. The answer would come a month or so later, when the company halted sales of the device, citing that some of the components that it used were no longer available. It was a good excuse but there was no fooling fans; the Oculus Rift’s second development kit (DK2) was coming.
DK2 made its debut at the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March, which also played host to the reveal of the second major VR HMD, Project Morpheus for PlayStation 4. Oculus VR’s new device was essentially Crystal Cove made more presentable and strikingly comparable to Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE’s) kit though beating out its 1080p screen, which used the LCD technology that didn’t boast the advantages of the OLED. Pre-orders for DK2 were swiftly set-up on a somewhat manic first-come first-served basis. Elsewhere, Epic Games closely aligned its Unreal Engine 4 with the device, showcasing demos that took full advantage of DK2 such as Couch Knights. It was undoubtedly a big week for VR, but it was nothing compared to the news that would follow closely behind it.
That year’s GDC ended on 21st March. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the week that followed would be a quiet one. Instead, it held quite possibly the biggest story in VR’s history so far. On 25th March 2014 social networking giant Facebook announced that it was to purchase Oculus VR for $2 billion.
Possible acquisitions of Oculus VR were a regular topic among the community. Some thought that Microsoft might take an interest, bringing the kit to both Windows and Xbox One. Others suggested Oculus VR might find a home at Google. No one had guessed that Facebook would be the one to get its wallet out. The initial response was mixed to say the least; some looked to the long term, recognising that interest from a company of this size validated VR’s potential as a game-changing new medium and realising that Oculus VR now had almost limitless resources to work with. Others were upset by the decidedly corporate root that the company was taking. These weren’t just cries of a disgruntled community; Minecraft creator Markus Persson outright scrapped plans for a VR port of his popular title while other developers such as Jonathan Blow expressed their disappointment with the deal.
The heat remained on Oculus VR for a while. The handful of public appearances that the company had scheduled in the coming weeks were fuelled with questions of if the Oculus Rift would deliver on its initial promise as a videogame-focused device and how Facebook might plan to integrate it with its own platform. Luckey, Iribe, Carmack and VP of Product Nate Mitchell were taking to forums and other outlets to reassure that Facebook was not ruining the Rift, it was instead giving it the resources to have an actual shot at making an impact. It took funding pressures off of Oculus VR and opened the floodgates to a new realm of possibilities.
It didn’t take long for Facebook’s backing to set in; four days after the acquisition was announced Valve’s Michael Abrash, who had been working on VR at the company, came on board as Oculus VR’s Chief Scientist. It was far from the only new hire the company would make in 2014; the VR specialist saw unprecedented growth, bringing on technicians and more that had previously held key positions at the likes of Google and beyond. In fact, whole other companies such as the Carbon Design Group, which helped create the Xbox 360 controller, were purchased. As time went on it became more and more obvious that the Facebook acquisition was taking Oculus VR to places that it couldn’t have possibly gone before.
Another key hire was Jason Rubin, the founder of Uncharted and The Last Of Us developer, Naughty Dog, and the President that had attempted to save doomed publisher THQ in its final days. Announced at E3 2014, Rubin was positioned as Head of Worldwide Studios, providing a tantalising glimpse into Oculus VR’s approach to videogame development. The company had pledged to publish some VR titles before, such as the PC version of EVE: Valkyrie and Mario-esque platformer, Lucky’s Tale, which was also announced just before the show, but this was a commitment to developing its own internal VR videogames. Oculus VR was starting to reflect a platform holder similar to Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE), Nintendo or Microsoft. But, as the company moved from strength to strength, the question of when the Oculus Rift might finally go on sale to consumers began to pop up more and more.
The first pre-ordered DK2s were delivered in late July 2014. Eager developers got stuck in with the kit, updating with old projects to support positional tracking and even starting to think about releasing full videogames for the kit. Oculus VR doubled down on shipping these units for a few months, making decidedly low key appearances at the likes of Gamescom, all the while continuing to grow its team. One might consider a new prototype, new development kit, historic acquisition and endless new hires to be enough for one company, but 2014 was far from over.
September saw two major events for Oculus VR. The first was the reveal of Gear VR, a smartphone-based HMD made in partnership with Samsung that went some way to explaining the company’s supply of HD screens for DK2. Gear VR was something of a pet project for John Carmack and would go on to beat the Oculus Rift itself to market (a topic for a later entry in this feature), but gave Oculus VR crucial experience in some consumer-facing areas.
Far more exciting for Oculus Rift fans was Oculus Connect, an official developer conference that took place later in the month. Rumours about announcements ran wild in the run up to the show. Many hoped Oculus VR would finally reveal the consumer version of its anticipated kit while others speculated that it would address the topic of input, as standard videogame controllers were proving to be a barrier for VR users that wanted to see their own hands within an experience. Neither of these would be revealed in the end, but Oculus VR did introduce the next best thing; Crescent Bay.
This was yet another new prototype for the Oculus Rift and, while not the final consumer version, was said to be on the path to what people would one day take home. It improved on DK2’s positional tracking, so much so that the company for the first time asked players to stand up when sampling its demos. There was also integrated audio and a new display. At the time the team was tight-lipped on the latter, later revealing that Crescent Bay in fact housed two screens; one for each eye.
Oculus Connect served as a great way to sign off 2014 for the Oculus Rift as Gear VR took centre stage. Oculus VR had demonstrated its ability to put on a show similar to what one might expect from an E3 press conference, making announcements such as the Unity Engine adding free VR support and reveals like the Showdown demo from Epic Games. The remainder of the year wasn’t completely silent; Oculus VR made yet more hires and acquisitions including hand-tracking company Nimble VR, which provided a huge hint at the future of VR input. The Rift also came to other shows such as EGX in London. 2014 had been a massive year for the device, but it was merely paving the way for what everyone really wanted; the retail Oculus Rift.
The Road to the Consumer Rift
As any technology fan will know, the industry hits the ground running each New Year with the Consumer Electronics Show. Oculus VR was again present at the January 2015 edition, sharing news about improved audio for the software development kit (SDK) for the Oculus Rift, but again dodging questions about the release date for the consumer device. The barrage of interviews did provide some hints though; namely that Nimble VR’s tech wouldn’t be included in the first release. But CES 2015 proved to be more about other HMDs than the Oculus Rift, with the reveal of the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) ecosystem and more.
In fact, far more significant Oculus news came, of all places, from the Sundance Film Festival later in the month, when Oculus Story Studio was unveiled. This was big news for VR beyond videogaming; it showed that the company considered VR films, which place viewers in the middle of stories and even allow for certain levels of interactivity, to be just as important to the technology as videogames were. Even more exciting was some of the talent attached to the studio; former Pixar animator Saschka Unseld was working on the studio’s first project, Lost, while Maleficent director Robert Stromberg was also revealed to be collaborating on a piece. Details on when and how these projects will see release remains unclear, but Oculus VR’s future in film was shown to be very promising.
Many had assumed that, even with these announcements, January and February were simply the calm before the storm that was GDC 2015. And, indeed, GDC was a storm; a torrential downpour of announcements from the HTC Vive to the new version of Project Morpheus. Oculus VR itself revealed the Gear VR for S6, but the Oculus Rift surprisingly struggled to stay afloat. GDC 2015 was one of the most significant weeks in VR’s history, made all the more surprising by the fact that the HMD that started it all didn’t play much of a part of it. Fans were getting restless waiting for a release date for the Oculus Rift, something that Palmer Luckey himself had once said would be out before the end of 2015 unless something had gone ‘horribly wrong’.
Making matters worse was the HTC Vive, backed by none other than Valve and its new SteamVR system. VR companies had been friendly towards each other thus far; Valve and Oculus VR’s positive relationship pre-Facebook was well documented and Sony was eager to talk about its cooperation with the Oculus Rift maker. Now Valve was going back on its earlier statements about not releasing a consumer HMD. Not only that, but the company came out swinging with the promise of a holiday 2015 release date for the HTC Vive, a window that was looking less and less likely for Oculus VR itself. As if that wasn’t enough, the Vive boasted Room-Scale tracking, allowing players to walk around and area of up to 15-feet by 15-feet with a pair of motion controllers in hand. This was something that Oculus VR wasn’t even talking about. If the company hadn’t felt the pressure of both the demand for consumer information and true rivalry before, it certainly was now.
How much of a role Valve’s move played in Oculus VR’s out-of-the-blue release date confirmation isn’t clear. The message it sent, however, was; Oculus isn’t out by a long shot. As no doubt anyone that’s read this far will know, the company confirmed earlier this month that the Oculus Rift would be shipping in Q1 2016, pitting it just behind the Vive but likely a little further ahead of Project Morpheus, which is promised for the first half of next year. We now know when it’s launching and we know the type of PC we’ll need to run it, but there’s still so much to learn with the Oculus Rift. How much is it going to cost? What does the launch line-up look like? Will fans be expected to use a gamepad to play compatible videogames?
The answer to these questions aren’t far away. Some will likely be revealed during the company’s upcoming pre-E3 press conference on 11th June 2015, while others could be saved for later in the year. One thing is clear, however; after years of waiting and exercising some extreme patience, it’s now finally time to get excited about the consumer Oculus Rift.