This is it. This is likely the final time (famous last words) I will ever demo the Oculus Rift before it hits store shelves. It’s certainly the last time I’ll demo the Oculus Rift before "A Virtual Reality Headset" hits the market, considering both the consumer Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive are scheduled to release in November.
So I guess it’s appropriate that for a last hurrah, Oculus showed me some of the most ambitious Rift experiences in development - an epic subway battle, a huggable hedgehog, and a complex sculpting tool.
Enter the Matrix
That’s an 'epic' subway battle as in the new VR demo from Epic, creators of Unreal Engine and last year’s “Showdown” demo. This year’s demo is called Bullet Train, and it’s quite a bit more interactive.
It’s a shooter, as you might expect from Epic. There’s barely any set-up. You start out in a subway car, where you learn the basics of picking up guns with the Oculus Touch controllers - basically “reach out and grab them like normal,” thanks to the controller’s palm-grip buttons. Movement is handled by teleporting from node to node, and the same button causes time to slow to a crawl while held.
It’s pretty simple, if you’ve played a lightgun game before. You exit the subway car into a station where faceless enemy dudes await with various guns and then…you shoot everybody.
I’ve played a lot of first-person shooters, but I’ve never played one quite like this before. Bullet Train is, above all else, focused on making the player feel cool. You’re invincible. You teleport. You slow down time. You’re the ultimate badass.
You can, for instance, wield a shotgun and an automatic rifle at the same time. Then when it’s time to chamber another shell in your shotgun you can throw your rifle in the air, rack the shotgun, then grab the rifle out of the air and keep firing - all in slow motion.
Or you can go all Terminator on them and just rack the shotgun one-handed instead.
Or you can teleport towards an enemy, hit him in the face with your pistol, throw it to the side, and steal his rifle out of his hands and shoot the three guys behind him.
Or you can grab enemy bullets out of the air and fling them back.
And it all culminates in a battle against a massive flying robot which fires rockets towards you - rockets which you, of course, snag on their way towards your face and return to sender.
I cracked some jokes during Oculus’s keynote yesterday about the rhetoric surrounding Bullet Train - Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe literally called it “inspiring,” which I think is an odd choice of phrase. I’ve played plenty of experiences in virtual reality I think are more inspiring and/or thought-provoking than a bombastic shooter.
On the other hand, Bullet Train’s a hell of a lot of fun, and a proof of concept for more “traditional” games in virtual reality.
An experience that’s actually inspiring? The short film Henry, created by Oculus Story Studio (the company’s internal film division, headed by Pixar vet Saschka Unseld).
Henry ‘s a pretty simple story: There’s a hedgehog who likes to hug things, but his spikes get in the way. On his birthday, Henry wishes for a friend. He gets his wish, in the form of some balloons that come alive. Hedgehog. Spikes. Balloons. Yeah, you see the issue.
Don’t get me wrong - I cry for any old thing. I cried for Toy Story (1, 2, and 3). I cried for Iron Giant. I wept like a baby during Furious 7. I am, as the saying goes, a man in touch with his emotions, at least as far as films are concerned.
And yeah, I cried during Henry - once out of sadness, once out of happiness. It’s the first time this has happened to me (though I’ve teared up once before), and I quickly learned crying doesn’t mix well with "having a thing strapped over your eyes."
There’s something magical about Henry though: Eye contact. It’s a small thing I don’t necessarily think of in normal games or in daily life, but having Henry glance over at you as the story unfolds - seeing the joy in his eyes when he finds friends, or the fear when a blue spirit flies around the room - it connects you to the character. You empathize.
I haven’t seen Henry on a normal screen obviously, but I don’t think the fourth-wall breaking would be quite as poignant or effective on a normal TV screen/monitor.
And then there’s Medium. As Iribe put it during Thursday’s Oculus Connect keynote, “Every great platform has to have a paint app, and this is our paint app.”
Except it’s not really - it’s more of a sculpting app, more like Maya or Blender than Illustrator or MS Paint. Still, having played with (and loved) the HTC Vive’s equivalent, Tilt Brush, I was excited to check out Medium.
This was my one disappointment of the day. Medium is neither as intuitive nor as fleshed out as Tilt Brush. The Oculus Touch controls are overcomplicated and often left me struggling to remember how to execute my vision, whereas with Tilt Brush on the Vive I felt like I could hastily sketch out a couple of mountains, some grass, a sky, a few flowers, and a bird within mere minutes.
And, I must add, the lack of walk-around VR on the Rift is part of the problem. The Vive makes Tilt Brush easy by encouraging you to bend down, walk around your 3D drawing, reach out to the sides, et cetera. With Medium, you’re constantly fighting the Rift’s poor sensor range. Reach down too far and the Rift loses track of your hands. Move too far back and it loses your hands. Draw a line out to the side and it might lose your hand.
I ended up standing mostly stationary, instead rotating my creation by “grabbing” it and twisting it through the air. And that system works fine, but it feels a lot more like working in a traditional 3D modeling environment than, for instance, shaping clay.
Will it be useful to artists? I have no doubt—or, even if Medium doesn’t catch on, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before other artistic/creation software hits the Rift. But today it mostly left me wanting to mess around with Tilt Brush some more.
I’ll tell you what: Oculus certainly appears to have the most virtual reality experiences ready for a consumer hardware launch. And they’re quality experiences - while Henry, Bullet Train, and Medium still feel more like proofs of concept than full-fledged software, we’ve come a long way from the demos I used to mess with on the original dev kit.
It’s arguably the Rift’s saving grace. Valve and HTC currently has better hardware with the Vive, but has showed next-to-nothing as far as games and software is concerned - and we’re only two months away from the Vive’s launch. Oculus, on the other hand, has competent hardware with a lot of compelling content in the wings.
History says that the one with the better content wins, regardless of relative power. The Xbox 360, the PlayStation 2, and the Super Nintendo all won out over more powerful competitors. I bet Oculus is crossing its fingers hoping that trend continues with virtual reality.