Virtual reality headsets: How Oculus Rift started a games revolution

Oculus Rift is yet to go on sale, but it is the talk of the games world and already supported in titles including Elite Dangerous; Narcosis; Deep; and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

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In 2012, 19-year-old Palmer Luckey launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise $250,000 to build development kits of a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift. The campaign closed at $2.4m. In March, Facebook acquired Luckey’s company, Oculus VR, for $2bn.

It isn’t yet ready for consumers but the headset, along with alternatives such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Sony’s PS4-exclusive Project Morpheus, has already made a big impression on the games industry, where developers are excitedly experimenting with this burgeoning form of entertainment. One that game people are particularly keen to experience in virtual reality (VR) is Elite: Dangerous, a space simulator that lets players pilot a spaceship and engage in trade or combat. “Our galaxy is filled with incredible sights,” says producer Eddie Symons. “Seeing these things recreated in an immersive virtual reality experience is the closest any of us will ever come to experiencing those real wonders.”

Elite also works well in VR because, as Symons explains: “As a seated experience, it’s much easier to lose yourself in the game.” The synergy between player and avatar also lowers the risk of simulator sickness. Frontier Developments added Rift support to Elite earlier than planned when it became obvious that’s what players wanted. Honor Code had a similar experience with forthcoming underwater survival game Narcosis, developer David Chen explains: “The recurring theme was just constantly, ‘This game is going to be on Oculus, correct? It sounds like the perfect fit.’” That fit is almost too perfect, as the Rift echoes the protagonist’s diving mask, which enhances the horror of being stranded on the ocean floor.

“It can put you in situations that you would never ever be able to, or in our particular case maybe want to, experience first hand,” says Chen.

Owen Harris is also interested in VR’s ability to take us away. He’s working on a game called Deep that started as an aid to help with his anxiety issues. “The whole idea initially was to go to a nice place,” he explains. “With a screen, you just simply can’t get that.”

Like Narcosis, Deep takes place underwater, though currently a more abstract interpretation. A device worn around the diaphragm measures breathing: a deep inhalation moves the avatar up through the water, while breathing out lowers them. It could only work in VR.

The same is true for Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, in which a player wearing a VR headset defuses a virtual bomb, instructed by players in the real world. Steel Crate Games came up with the idea during the Global Game Jamcorrect but is developing it fully now thanks to the positive response. It’s a unique application for the technology that counters the criticism that VR is a solitary pursuit.

“Our game has certainly provided some very social experiences that we hadn’t been seeing much with other virtual reality demos,” says developer Ben Kane.

Given that the Oculus Rift isn’t yet available for consumers, the range of projects is astonishing. As for what happens next, it’s clear from the language developers are using – “limitless”, “unimaginable”, “world changing” – that the effect these devices will have on our lives is virtually impossible to predict.


Jordan Erica Webber

The GuardianTramp

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