Oculus Rift has faced stiff competition in the virtual reality space over the last year. The instigator of the entirething has seen Sony and Valve/HTC come in and steal some of its thunder with Project Morpheus, perhaps the most commercially viable, and Vive which offers the highest quality overall VR experience.
So there was some pressure for Oculus to bring its A-game to E3 2015. I's the biggest video games show in the world, and the last one before the final Rift headset is due to launch in Q1 2016.
Thankfully, Oculus didn't disappoint. E3 is a neverending procession of noise, guns, ultraviolence, cars, sequels and sports, but Oculus's latest VR demo reminded us of the simple, childish, joyful act of play, and how much fun it can be to just hang out with another person, rather than trying to shoot them in the face.
Oculus Touch input is go
Our demo started with us strapping on the Crescent Bay version of the headset, connected via a wire to a local PC, and with two positional tracking cameras on the wall in front of us.
Crescent Bay is very similar to the headset that will launch in Q1 2016, and in fact we were even told we were using the final CV1 version even though we knew it was Crescent Bay. Oculus staff speak about the prototype and the smaller, redesigned headset interchangeably but we will update this story as and when we get pictures and hands on time with CV1, the final headset.
One new element we did get to try out was the Oculus Touch controller. The half-moon shaped wireless controllers track your hands in a really interesting way. They're broadly comparable to the Nintendo Wii and Razer Hydra motion controllers, but they're so much more advanced.
The Oculus assistant handed us the Touch controllers and strapped them over our wrists, like a Wii remote. There are three buttons on each controller--a clickable thumbstick, a trigger for your forefinger, and a button for the three remaining fingers. This combination allows you to do things like point, give a thumbs-up, and grab hold of objects. The only downside is that you probably do need another person in the room in order to help you strap everything on.
Playing Oculus' Toybox demo
In the demo itself, you enter a Star Trek Holodeck-like room, with another person staring at you. That person is an Oculus representative, who appeared as a blue human outline in front of us. This was one of our first experiences of a VR multiplayer game, and the act of anthropomorphising another player in a VR space can't be underestimated. Whereas hearing someone's voice through Xbox Live can feel like they're on the other side of the world, inhabiting a space with someone else in VR is an incredibly bonding experience.
Our representative started the Toybox demo, and we both stood in front of a desk covered in toys and other items. The idea is you use the controller to pick up these items -- you grip stuff as you would in real life, and the buttons are manipulated as a result. It can be a bit tricky to work at first, because it's slightly strange picking up an item in a virtual space when your brain knows that you're already holding something. However, after a few tries, you start to figure it out.
Read this: Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus
The demo started with us trying to stack blocks into a tower, and then picking them up and throwing them at china plates and other breakable scenery. It sounds simple, but the act of breaking expensive items was particularly therapeutic (running around E3 is mighty stressful). It was even more pleasurable to then light Roman Candles and set off explosions and fireworks -- more simple interactions, but really enjoyable in a virtual space.
Ray guns and rockets
During our demo time, there were some really charming examples of how the Touch Controllers can be used to play with items and physically manipulate them. We were able to pick up a remote controller in the VR Toybox and drive a little tank around the table, shooting rockets at other items in the world, or even the other person sharing the game space with us. You can also do things like pick up a table tennis paddle and ball and play keepy-uppy - we managed a mere three bounces.
As the Toybox is essentially a videogame, there has to be some element of shooting stuff, so we were able to try our hand at skeet shooting in a carnival-like fun fair. Once we got the hang of that, we picked up a catapult and started pulling back the elasticated band -- the realistic physics made the pellet travel faster the further we pulled back. Then our partner held the catapult and we focused on pulling back on the band, which allowed us to really fling the pellets at speed.
Another thrilling moment came when our partner grabbed a ray gun and shrunk us down to miniature size. Our partner looked huge in comparison, and their voice became deep and boomy, as if they were a giant from Jack and the Beanstalk.
Our partner informed us that we sounded like a mouse, with a really high pitched voice. It was adorable, although slightly scary for us. If it sounds childish to say that, just remember everything is more immediate and immersive inside a VR headset like the Oculus Rift.
Your move, Morpheus
Elsewhere at E3, Microsoft has announced a partnership with Oculus, while developers including Insomniac (Ratchet & Clank) have also jumped on board. The VR dream is beginning to become real, with the consumer Oculus Rift arriving early next year.
According to Oculus, the Touch controllers may not be available until later in the first half of next year, but until then, the Rift headset will work (and ship) with a standard Xbox One controller.
Like the best platforms, VR can be playful, it can be scary and it can be social. It's too early to call a winner in the VR arms race, but from what we've seen here at E3 Oculus is definitely going to be a frontrunner.