What the Oculus Rift offers creative agencies

We visited Specialmoves to find out what the hottest new independent gaming tech offers interactive and experiential designers.

VR is back. Back in the 1990s, virtual reality was widely-hyped and then quickly just-as-widely-derided – thanks in part to the terrible tosh talked by movies such as The Lawnmower Man. We were told that soon we'd all go home every night, put on binocular headsets and gesture-tracking gloves, and go exploring virtual worlds. This idea turned out to have a lifespan only slightly longer than the Vengaboys career, culminating only in a popular-till-you-tried-it FPS game at the Trocadero centre in Piccadilly Circus that produced disappointed teenagers every 20 minutes or so.

The Oculus Rift attempts to fix the technical issues that made first-generation VR such a poor experience and, by doing so, allow creatives to find new ways to use it that get round the core issue that few people want to wear a helmet to play a game or have an experience unless there's a damn good reason to strap one on. First-gen VR used helmets the size and weight of a microwave – and often had to be hung from the ceiling.

The computing power required to render a 3D world stereoscopically meant that game graphics were poor, even by mid-90s standards. And everything had to built from scratch at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds, so the only way developers could see to make them commercially profitable was as arcade games – where they turned out to be less fun that traditional arcade games – and simulators (where they did find some success).

Matt tries out the Oculus Rift under the guidance of Specialmoves creative director Jon Biggs
The laptop at the back shows what Matt is seeing through in the Oculus Rift's two screens (one for each eye)

The Oculus Rift is relatively cheap – £300, though it's currently available only to developers – and plugs into a standard PC. It's also an open platform, so game developers can add support for it relatively easily – especially for games that already support stereoscopic viewing, such as for Nvidia's 3DVision 3D glasses tech. For creative agencies and others who aren't big games companies, a big attraction is going to be that its supported natively by the Unity 3D game platform and development environment – as used for quick development of many indie, web and mobile games and non-game 3D experiences.

The low cost of the device and development opens VR up to new concepts. Instead of arcade games, we could see it in use in personalised branded experiences such as virtual test-drives in major train stations. Or visitors to show homes or flats in new developments could visualise putting their own personal touches, adding furniture and designing the kitchen – with the end result being a much greater chance of a sale for the property developer.

The real opportunities for creative agencies to use the Oculus Rift for interactive and experiential projects will come early next year when a 2.0 version with HD resolution starts shipping commercially – but the developer version offers a good chance for experimental R&D to work out what its capable of. Always at the cutting edge of using gamer tech for branded projects, London based agency Specialmoves has already got its hands on the Rift, so Digital Arts editor-in-chief Matt Egan (and model for this story) and I took a short walk to their studio in Exmouth Market to check it out.

We were shown the Rift by Specialmoves' founder Pascal Auberson, creative director Jon Biggs and head of business development Hannah Locke, who showed us a game-type world that you moved around using an Xbox controller – as the Rift can't track real movements – and a rollercoaster ride that did deliver an adrenalin rush when you go over a big drop.

The team at Specialmoves are clearly intrigued by the Rift's possibilities but quick to point out its limitations.

The first is its size and weight. While not as cranial crushing as first-gen VR headsets, it's still too large to wear comfortably for long periods – and requires three straps to sit on your head that will definitely mess with your hair. It's also a bit dorky-looking. These issues wouldn't be a problem if you built it into larger motorbike or pilot's helmet as part of a game or simulation experience – but, as Jon pointed out, hopefully the 2.0 version will be more like a pair of snowboarding googles (or even smaller).

Another issue is the picture-quality. It's 1,440 x 720 resolution may be fine for watching TV, but when the screens are mere centimetres from your eyes you really notice the pixels. Again, Oculus Rift 2.0 will help with this, having full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution displays.

A bigger issue, noted Pascal, is that the screen lags a bit behind your motion, so looking around isn't as smooth as you wish it was – and moving your head quickly can leave you with tears in the picture as it attempts to keep up.

It also takes time to set up the Rift for glasses-wearers like me.

If the Oculus Rift 2.0 can overcome these issues, it could become an very useful tool for helping make experiences immersive. One interesting idea that Jon mentioned – which wasn't in any way possible back in the 90s – is streaming stereoscopic video captured using 360 videos to the Rift, allowing you to look around trackside at an Formula 1 event or inside an inaccessible ancient monument from within a museum. Also, rather than kinda-clunky way of controlling you way around virtual environments using a game controller (below), mixing the Rift with gestural controls – either larger movements tracked by a Kinect or hand/finger movements using a Leap Motion – could also offer some intriguiing possibilities.

The developer version is capable of delivering a fun experience, but I'd imagine the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Version 2.0 should help keep players, viewers and potential buyers entertained for longer.

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