The Current State of the Art
Virtual Reality has always been a sci-fi fantasy on the distant horizon. But the past year has seen prominent game and tech hardware companies finally deliver on some of these promises. Take a look with us at the current top-of-the-line VR hardware, the coolest VR games, the biggest obstacles the technology faces, and a sneak peek at the not so distant future of virtual reality!
HARDWARE - Valve and HTC's Vive
Valve, the company behind Half-Life, Portal and Steam, recently announced their foray into VR waters. They've teamed up with Taiwanese manufacturer HTC to create the Vive. Early reports suggest that Valve has nailed the technology, eliminating problems with jitter and offering unprecedented immersion. Vive is scheduled to release in 2015.
HARDWARE - Vive's Tracking System
The key to Valve's VR advancements is its positional tracking system, shown here. It allows for unprecedented accuracy, tracking your precise location as you wander through the physical world and the virtual world simultaneously.
HARDWARE - Vive's SteamVR Controllers
Another key component of Valve's Vive is the system's unique controllers. Somewhat similar to Wii Remotes, these two handheld control inputs also function within Vive's positional tracking array, communicating where your hands are, and what they're doing, instantly within a game.
SOFTWARE - Portal Demo
Valve has repeatedly clarified that the Portal gameplay that debuted with Vive's announcement is strictly for demo purposes. The game was an excellent demonstration of the robust visual effects available in the new Source 2 engine, and a tantalizing promise of the beloved series' potential for virtual reality.
SOFTWARE - The Gallery: Six Elements
The Gallery is a fantasy adventure title that was built from the ground up for virtual reality gameplay. Originally in development for the Oculus Rift, The Gallery was also used to demo Valve's Vive system. It comes across as a cool blend of PC puzzler Myst and motion-control-heavy games like Elebits.
SOFTWARE - Job Simulator
Job Simulator was another title demoed for Valve's Vive. It's from Owlchemy Labs, famous for their terrifying building-leaping game "Aaaaaculus!" for the Oculus Rift. Job Simulator is a silly, futuristic spin on Cooking Mama, offering a surprising amount of pleasure from manipulating simple objects in a virtual world.
HARDWARE - Microsoft HoloLens
Microsoft has recently taken its first steps into the virtual reality marketplace with the HoloLens. The device itself is an intriguing take on augmented reality, projecting virtual objects and tasks over your real life environment, with big promises of seamless integration between the two worlds. It definitely leans more toward augmented than virtual reality, but it shows that Microsoft has strong interest in pursuing this field.
SOFTWARE - Minecraft
Specific info on software titles for Microsoft's HoloLens has been scarce, but Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios, has promised that game applications are on their way. In the reveal video for the HoloLens, we saw a user interacting with Minecraft in his living room, so an eventual release seems highly probable.
HARDWARE - Magic Leap
Magic Leap made a lot of news over the past year when they raised over $540 million in venture funding from companies such as Google. While much remains a secret, we do know they're creating headmounted devices that project images directly onto your retinas (as opposed to viewing them on a screen). Visionary sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson and the special effects house Weta Workshop have already joined up to help.
SOFTWARE - Dr. Grordbort
The first real demo we've seen of a game for Magic Leap has been the short AR game Dr. Grordbort, designed by Weta Workshop. It featured a Magic Leap user firing lasers at robot droids invading his real-life office. Debates have raged over whether the demo was authentic, which illustrates how impressive the tech is...if it can actually deliver.
HARDWARE - Sony's Project Morpheus
You've probably heard about Sony's VR system Project Morpheus (or even seen it in action on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon). But Morpheus got a pretty nice upgrade at this year's Game Developer Conference. It now features OLED screens, enhanced positional tracking, and a doubled refresh rate. It appears that Sony wants to be a serious contender in the VR field.
SOFTWARE - London Heist
So far, the most impressive reports for Project Morpheus have stemmed from the London Heist game demo, which was developed by SCE London Studio. A grimy, first-person cover shooter, it demonstrated that, for all the gee-whiz novelty experiments VR has inspired, it also has enormous potential for tried-and-true game genres.
SOFTWARE - The Deep
Speaking of gee-whiz novelties, Project Morpheus has its share of those, like the shark showdown featured in the demo for The Deep. Now you, too, can emerge vicious from an undersea encounter, looking more frazzled than Richard Dreyfuss in a wetsuit.
SOFTWARE - EVE: Valkyrie
EVE: Valkyrie has been one of the flagship VR titles ever since it made the rounds for the Oculus Rift. The spaceship dogfighting shooter is also scheduled to be released for Sony's Project Morpheus. It's often cited as one of the best examples of VR gameplay; its cockpit viewpoint is ideal for the idiosyncrasies of a virtual reality headset.
SOFTWARE - Crytek's CRYENGINE
Crytek, the developer of the graphical powerhouse Crysis, has already pledged VR support, including plans to work on Project Morpheus. Above is an example of graphic designer Damian Kijowski's environment art built using Crytek's CryEngine - a small glimpse of what we can expect in the future from this toolset.
SOFTWARE - Unreal Engine 4 Paris Virtual Tour
Epic Games is another developer that has pledged support for Project Morpheus. Although Unreal Engine 4 has been out for two years now, designers are still processing the power it provides. Here's a still from an incredible virtual tour of a Paris apartment. Created by Benoît Dereau, it's a great example of what we can expect when Unreal and VR inevitably collide.
HARDWARE - Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift is by now a household name. It's essentially the inaugural piece of gear that sparked the recent VR renaissance. The consumer version arrives this year. Because of its long runway, there's a considerable library of games and tech demos already available for the device.
SOFTWARE - Sightline: The Chair
Tomáš Mariančík's awe-inspiring Oculus Rift tech demo is often recommended as an inaugural experience for new virtual reality users. You simply look around and get swept up by the charming visuals. Whether you're witnessing a rain-splattered street or an asteroid belt, the experience is always transporting.
SOFTWARE - NaissanceE
NaissanceE is an indie title that's recently been updated to support the Oculus Rift. As you explore its beautifully atmospheric underground cities, you may never want to return to your own.
SOFTWARE - Radial-G: Racing Revolved
If you've ever played an F-Zero or Wipeout game, with their drilling electronic music and glittering utopian city backdrops, then you've got a great reference point for this futuristic racer for the Oculus Rift. As your perspective flips and loops, you'll feel the dizzying vertigo that would no doubt accompany the experience in the real world too.
SOFTWARE - Alien: Isolation
While Alien: Isolation didn't receive official Oculus support, a simple mod adds the functionality. GameSpot did its own test on an Oculus Rift kit and the results were horrifying and hilarious. In VR, a xenomorph is a fast track to a heart attack. Next up: When VR goes wrong ...
VR PROBLEMS - Headaches and Facial Pain
Not everything's sunshine and rainbows in the land of VR. One of the most striking problems is something we've been aware of since Nintendo's Virtual Boy: headaches. If you've ever worn a pair of headphones too long, you're already familiar with the sensation of headgear that's worn out its welcome.
VR PROBLEMS - Motion Sickness
So far Valve seems to be the main company tackling motion sickness in VR. Unfortunately, it's a common complaint, one that takes significant technical expertise and improvements in latency to avoid. If too many people associate the experience of VR with feeling sick, the stigma could stop the entire enterprise in its tracks.
VR PROBLEMS - Stable Reference Points
Tied in closely with the motion sickness problem is the concept of fixed visual reference objects. For example, in the real world, when your field of vision is constantly shifting, you always have your nose to look at to center your perspective. Purdue University has experimented with inserting a literal nose into a simulation as shown above. It helps explain why VR is especially suited to spaceship cockpits or racing sims, which have a fixed context for you to view the action through.
VR PROBLEMS - Isolation
Isolation is another problem with VR, and we don't mean it in a condescending "kids in the basement" way. It's just a practical barrier of entry. Disengaging from your surroundings isn't as convenient as flipping on the TV and chatting with some friends. It makes VR more of a scheduled activity, when you have time to be alone.
THE FUTURE OF VR - Haptic Feedback
We've looked at the problems of VR, but where is everything headed in the future? Haptics (feedback involving your sense of touch) is certainly a fruitful avenue for research. You've surrounded your visual and auditory senses in the virtual world. Now it's time for your sense of touch to come along for the ride, too.
THE FUTURE OF VR - Haptics
The field of aaptics largely remains the domain of engineers and astronauts, as seen here. But Valve has already begun implementing touch feedback in its controllers. Imagine encountering a fearsome dragon in a game, and being able to reach out and actually run your fingers along its scales!
THE FUTURE OF VR - Tasteworks
The Royal College of Art and Imperial College London are currently experimenting with software that changes your perception of taste. The idea: You eat a real-world object, while simultaneously, in the VR space, you have audio and visual cues that skew your sensory input. It's like drinking a glass of orange juice when you were expecting milk. Expectation can radically influence our physical senses, and VR is just beginning to explore this.
THE FUTURE OF VR - Direct Neuron Stimulation
In an interview with Geoff Keighley, Valve's director Gabe Newell hinted at a bold direction for the future: “We’ll transition fairly quickly into what we think VR is going to turn into… how you can directly stimulate people’s optic nerves… your neurons essentially have the equivalent of a MAC address. And then you’re just talking into people’s brains using some 60 GHz spectrum. So you’re driving peoples’ brains directly without surgery.”