I was lucky enough to recently dive into the world of virtual reality, by trying out both the Sony Morpheus (since renamed PlayStation VR) and the Virtuix Omni. As it was my first ever VR experience, I was able to receive a completely fresh look at not only these specific hardware models, but the technology as a whole; a rare opportunity for someone who has been gaming for their whole life. And, after my time with the units, I can officially say the advertisements are true: the future really is now.
Keep in mind that the Omni works in conjunction with Oculus Rift technology; however, the software and hardware used in the demo unit were both said to be outdated when compared to what the Rift is currently capable of, so you can expect performance improvements in the near future.
Virtuix’s Omni is different to PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift for a few different reason. First, it incorporates more than just what the user can see; it also incorporates their movement. So instead of just giving the player 360 degree head movement and breathtaking, realistic visuals, it also gives them the ability to move their character in the game by moving their feet. Not only does this add to the already terribly immersive experience that is VR, but it also adds to the price of the unit, which currently retails for $700. Lastly, the unit is more than just a visor. It also comes with shoes that house motion tracking sensors, a harness so you don’t fall out of the unit (we’ve seen it happen), and a smooth, concave platform that allows fluid, in-game movement. This thing really is a sight to behold when it’s all set up.
Speaking of set up, the Omni can be quite a project when it comes to preparation. Not only does the player have to put on specially designed shoes and don a harness, but there is also quite the learning curve when it comes to using the rig. A couple Omni team members briefed me on the ins and outs of the device and gave me ample time to “train” my legs to become accustomed to the slippery movement used to control my in-game character. This all led up to the actual demo, TRAVR Training Ops, which had players running around what looked like a police training facility, shooting floating targets and evading enemy turrets. The game itself wasn’t much to write home about, but it did provide the perfect atmosphere to get an expansive feel for the technology. The demo was timed so participants could compete for the best record, but most players were so immersed in the experience they took time to walk around and explore their surroundings.
For my first VR experience, the visuals were surprisingly so-so. Bear in mind, the headset we used was the Oculus Rift running rather outdated software, so the images we were seeing were visuals from around a year ago. Don’t get me wrong, it’s miles beyond 3D and cause for much praise, but maybe I just set expectations too high – because the real winner of the demo was the movement aspect. The pace at which the in-game character moved was directly linked to how quickly the player moved their legs. This freedom by itself was exhilarating, and although there’s nothing wrong with modern controllers, this could be an extremely viable technology given some tweaking and more affordable options.
Another facet of play that could use some modification is the aiming system. While players did hold a plastic gun to help keep the illusion of shooting, aiming was done solely by head movement. So, in reality, the gun was there more for comfort than practical use. This disconnect between gun movement and player movement was odd, but after a few mental adjustments wasn’t as much of an issue. However, the developer has mentioned a motion sensor gun is in the works to alleviate the awkwardness and create a more fleshed out experience.
The Virtuix Omni, while not perfect in current condition, is an incredible step for not only VR, but gaming as a whole.
Excuse me while I take just a second to get out of “professional mode” and really drive this point home. Games are all about feeling immersed and having fun. They’re about getting lost. Like so many things in life, they’re about the journey and with this VR setup, the journey is one gamers haven’t experienced thus far. The feeling of adventure is so much more intoxicating and authentic when the real world is completely taken out of your field of view.
Although I only got to play one game for five minutes, it seems likely that given the proper price tag and some reworked programming, the Virtuix Omni and similar VR such as the Cyberith will have gamers looking at their world in a very different way. Granted, it won’t be for everyone, as the experience can be a lot to take in, but the people who do enjoy it will get lost in it. I’ll just be here to see if it catches on and when they’ll be making VR versions of No Man’s Sky, Monster Hunter and *gasp* Pokémon. That’s right. Virtual reality Pokémon MMO. Get excited. Get ready.
Now, back to professional mode. Given that the Omni does brandish a $700 price tag and is definitely the cheaper of the two when compared to the Cyberith’s $6,000 private business unit, there is the problem of affordability. Many people out there struggle with the $400 price tag on consoles let alone a device that only enhances the games being played. So it really is crucial that a more affordable option is made available or else most gamers will go without such an enriching addition to the titles they love – and trust me, if money was no object, the $700 would be well worth the investment.
Omni developers said games such as Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim were played using the technology, and more talks with other game developers have taken place to create a full library of games that support the device. Lastly, I do have to take the time to admit that the rig was comfortable to wear and the visor didn’t over encumber head movement in the slightest. This was a huge relief after hearing some horror stories in the early days of VR and the Virtual Boy.
For more information on the Virtuix Omni, an interview with Omni chief executive officer, Jan Goetgeluk, will be posted shortly – so be sure to look out for that.
Sony PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus)
Next up is a more well-known VR headset, which focuses solely on visuals. In my hands-on demo with Project Morpheus (since renamed PlayStation VR), I played the Sony game Playroom VR. In this title, four players battled against one. The catch was the outnumbered player was a giant sea monster and the rest were small, robotic humanoids. The demo started as the monster emerged from the ocean and started to chase the helpless robots through a destructible city.
I first played as a robot in the demo and it was pretty self-explanatory: run away from the monster and avoid falling debris. There was no possibility to die, so it didn’t really matter how well you played, but the action was entertaining nonetheless. At the end of the stage, the robots put on super suits and threw objects ranging from construction cones to pianos at the beast. After a certain amount of items hit the monster, the group of players launched the creature into space with a giant finishing move. Although it wasn’t anything special, it was fun because of how much enjoyment the person wearing the headset was getting. However, the real fun didn’t begin until I actually put the headset on myself.
Right at the game’s start, the player is put into the body of this ocean dweller. A full 360 degree view is offered to the player and the world pops to life once you realize you can look at anything. In the first five seconds of the game you can see fish, seaweed, the ocean surface and the suns rays penetrating waves. It doesn’t seem like a big deal just reading about it, but the full field of vision is a huge plus that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until PS VR turns off. As the small robots run from the monster, the player controlling it must do their best to duck and weave into buildings, cars, helicopters and signs. The more obstacles you hit, the more bits of debris rain down on opposing players. If you’re more just into the surroundings, you’ll be happy to know the world is fully fleshed out and filled with bustling traffic and city life.
Granted, after the headset comes off, you realize how staged the demo actually was, but that’s just a mark of how enticing the VR really is. During the game, you really don’t care if it’s set up or not – you’re too busy enjoying the scenery up close or from afar. Which leads me to my next point: depth of view. It was incredible to see how different objects looked from a distance as opposed to right next to them. For instance, the fleeting robot players could be viewed up close while they were running and small details like texture and body designs could be seen and admired to the fullest. I can’t stress enough that it’s the little things that’ll hold your attention when you put the headset on.
When the running comes to a close and the robot players power up, it is then the monster’s turn to go on the defensive. As items come hurtling in your direction, the beast must do its best to avoid any and all projectiles. This had me getting out of my seat and swaying side to side. You know, for the sake of survival and all that jazz. Items whizzed past my body and when one hit me, the screen would crack and flash red. Add in some physical cues, like rumbling and some audio of the beast crying out in pain, and the experience would draw you in even more. Before I knew it, the last item smacked me dead in the face and I was launched out of the atmosphere. When I looked down, I could see my tail trailing behind in the air. Looked to the right and I could see birds in the clouds. To the left, I saw planets and a shooting star. And then – I saw nothing.
The demo was over, and I was moving on to the next booth, but not once during the PlayStation VR showcase did I grow tired of the visuals. Not once did I wonder when the ride would be over, because I was too busy getting lost in another world. You could easily chalk this up to a lack of experience with VR, but I liked what I saw and I know what I like. I mean, to be completely honest, the game I played wouldn’t last two seconds as an everyday title where only a controller could be used. There simply wasn’t enough to it. But with the help of VR, even a simple, thoughtless game like that grabbed my attention and put a smile on my face. Imagine what it could do with some of our favorite games? We’d be experiencing long cherished games in a whole new way – and that’s a powerful sentiment; one that will not only excite fans for the future, but will promise a fresh coat of paint to all the games we’d thought we’d known so well.
Of course, all good must have its bad. The face tracking for the Playroom VR took a while to set up, and even when it was finalized, the visor would go black from time to time during the game – especially when the monster had to dodge incoming objects. This was caused by all of the player’s head movement during the segment. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, as it completely takes the player out of the moment, which is a big no no considering VR is all about being in the moment. It would also be nice to have a rumble and headphone portion of the headset. As mentioned above, little physical and sound cues will go a long way in the world of VR, as they add precious layers to the amount of depth already taken on by the player. The further players are taken into these worlds, the better.
Overall, PlayStation VR was a hell of a lot of fun. It wasn’t on par with the Omni, but what would you expect when comparing the amount you can do with both?
This was an exciting opportunity, as it gave me the chance to experience something I fully expect to see a lot of in the coming years. While it most likely won’t replace the tried and true TV/monitor and controller combination we’ve all come to love and cherish, you can bet that this technology will have an impact on the world of gaming. Only time will tell us how big that impact truly will be.