Yes, I'm convinced. Virtual reality is here, it's real, and it's coming to a game near you.
Earlier this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I demoed Oculus VR's updated Rift DK2 headset. Then at the end of the week, I pitted my stomach against Sony's brand-new VR entry, the PlayStation 4-driven system dubbed Project Morpheus.
Both virtual reality rigs are still in the development stage but could be arriving on retail shelves in 2015. Or, if some of the rumours circulating here at GDC prove accurate, in time for the Xmas holidays this year.
Sony was offering attendees four different demos on Morpheus. Fortunately for me, I wound up playing a pair that included a run on EVE: Valkyrie, the sci-fi dogfighter demo from CCP Games that I also experienced on the Rift DK2.
That was ideal for a direct comparison of the two VR systems generating so much buzz at Moscone this week. Plenty of other tech journalists have taken the same approach, of course, and the consensus seems to be that Oculus is ahead of Sony in VR at the moment.
I agree with that up to a point. I actually wound up enjoying the Valkyrie demo more on Morpheus than on the Rift DK2, but that may be because I had more time to play the mini-game on Sony's rig – and was a lot better at it, since I got the hang of the space shooter courtesy of Oculus.
But what did trouble me when demoing Morpheus was that all my earlier smugness about not getting queasy on these new VR systems was nearly thrown back in my mouth a little bit. I did the undersea adventure The Deep first on Sony's kit and followed that up with a spin on Valkyrie. Sony gave us quite a bit of time on its demos, maybe 10 or 15 minutes total, whereas Oculus perhaps wisely kept GDC attendees' test drives down to about three minutes or less.
I found that by the time I'd been shot out of the space lanes and relaunched my ship in Valkyrie a couple of times, my stomach was starting to offer the faintest of protests, and for the first time in a VR demo I had the feeling that my time in the space would have to be limited.
Is the Rift just a better piece of hardware than the Morpheus prototype right now? Perhaps. Oculus said this week that it has improved latency and other factors in its second-generation Rift prototype to "eliminate motion blur and judder, two of the biggest contributors to simulator sickness."
Sony hasn't said much about what it has done to counter motion sickness with its own system, and even issued warnings ahead of time to demo runners to stop using the headset if they started to feel sick. But given the similar specs between the two rigs, I can't help but be suspicious that simply using Sony's headset more than twice as long as the Rift DK2 is what started to make me queasy.
And if that's the case, then VR may currently be a very fun thrill ride that you really don't want to stay on for very long, unless you have the stomach of a seasoned fighter jet pilot.
Meanwhile, Sony's headset, with its curvaceous white plastic case and blue LED strips, looks like a more polished product than the Rift from afar. The Morpheus kit even has a rounded, lens-like front that serves no purpose other than to look cool from the outside – compare the Sony headset with the blocky, clearly-a-prototype Oculus Rift and Sony wins the early stage industrial design battle, hands down.
Of course, it's what happens behind the goggles that's really important. Here I found Sony's VR kit to be a step behind the Oculus rig from the get-go. The Morpheus headset features 1080p resolution spread across both your eyes just like the Rift, but the latter headset has a wider field of view at 110 degrees – Sony's is 90 degrees, per their specs.
I had limited time on Oculus VR's DK2 headset, but my impression was that it offers a cleaner visual experience than Morpheus. Sony's rig was weirdly cloudy, as if there was a slight but noticeable film over my eyes as I navigated the company's demos. It's also clearly got some kinks to be worked out. For example, in The Deep, when you turn fully around, you're treated to the sight of your headless body floating just out of reach.
The new Rift's visuals sure seemed a lot crisper, but it might just have been that I was more rheumy-eyed coming to the end of this tech conference; it's tough to tell. But others, like VentureBeat's Kat Baily, have reported a similar impression after trying out both VR headsets.
Another area where I find myself agreeing with Baily is the fact that Sony's demo of The Deep (despite the headless body thing) may well be the experience that puts virtual reality over the top. It's a simple little undersea adventure, but one that is likely to generate an "Oh, NOW I get it!" response from many folks trying these new virtual reality systems for the first time.
In The Deep, you are a scuba diver in a shark cage being lowered into the ocean depths by a vessel bobbing on the surface. At some point, after enjoying the sight of lovely coral reefs sliding by as your cage descends, there's an abrupt jolt as the chain connecting you to the boat above breaks off somehow.
Your cage hits the sea floor with another uncomfortable rattle as pieces of the apparently destroyed winch that represents your lifeline begin to float down into your view. That's disturbing enough, but as the ominous shape of a shark appears off in the murky distance, it really starts to get dicey.
The key here is the really remarkable extent to which all your senses are telling you that you are really there in that exposed cage, even as your brain is reminding you that it's all a mirage. The shark swoops in closer and *SPOILER ALERT* starts attacking your cage with his gaping maw of dagger-like teeth, eventually tearing off a wall of the cage and threatening to turn you into chum just as the demo mercifully ends.
It was the first time I've felt completely immersed in a VR world since testing these rigs – truly frightened on a fight-or-flight level as that shark came in for the kill even as competing, logical thoughts battled the illusion for supremacy.
That's saying something, as far as I'm concerned. And I'm willing to bet there's a nice little market for this kind of thing.