Oculus Rift E3 2013 preview: The future of virtual reality gaming starts here

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While the console war between Sony and Microsoft over whether the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One would reign supreme was the main draw at E3 2013, there was another hot new piece of technology there that had the gaming world buzzing. The Oculus Rift, which was funded by a Kickstarter and made its debut at Game Developers Conference 2013 in March, excited the video game community with the promise of what's in store for virtual reality gaming.

The Rift is a headset worn as a person is playing a game. Though in-game movement is still done by using a controller, a player can look around using the Rift to create a completely immersive and seamless experience where the environment surrounds him or her in 360 degrees. The demo shown to Zap2it at E3 was made in the Unreal Engine 4, and placed the user into a volcano setting, a snow setting and another room setting. While this demo had been shown in the past, it was a different cranked up HD version of the demo that was truly impressive. Oculus VR Vice President of Product, Nate Mitchell, explained that the HD version isn't meant for the consumer model but is just a glimpse of what's in store for high definition virtual reality.

The crisper graphics made a huge deal in terms of immersion, and there's no denying that the virtual reality system created by Oculus works in the way it was intended. Another example of what the Rift is capable of came at the end of the presentation where the VR system placed Zap2it in a movie theater where we were able to watch the trailer for "Man of Steel." Again, this was just a demo created by an indie developer, but Mitchell said this movie theater example is a potential application of the device. For instance, it would make sense for Rift owners to use the system to watch movies on the system instead of on their iPhones or tablets for, again, a more immersive experience.

What remains to be seen is what games are actually created for the Rift. Thus far developers are eager to create new titles for the system, and Oculus is waiting until some products are available for launch before announcing a release date for the Rift. Mitchell said the Rift is "months, not years" away from being released, with a target $300 price range.

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"The challenging part about the Rift is actually designing a great VR game," he said. "So [user interface] is different in VR. Scale, visual identity; all of these things change. [Developers] port their games and it's awesome, but we think the very best experiences are going to come from those made-for-VR games that people are just starting to develop now."

That means gamers shouldn't expect a port of something like "Skyrim" or "Call of Duty" for the Rift. Still, every Unreal Engine developer has access to the Rift dev kit to create product for it, and Mitchell said plenty of developers have expressed interest. In fact, a demo designed for the Rift by CCP Games called "EVR" was named one of the Best of E3, which is impressive because it isn't an actual game.

The most obvious application for taking advantage of the Rift's abilities would be making a horror game, as the virtual reality system would play up the sense of immersion in the game. Similarly, a stealth game would be able to make great use of the ability to easily absorb a game's environment. And of course, it remains to be seen what more Oculus can do with the Rift before it is released. There still is a lot of untapped ground left to cover with the Oculus Rift, especially in terms of integrating motion control and body movement sensors.

"Human-computer interaction s super interesting to us," Mitchell said, referencing things like the Kinect. "We aren't convinced that keyboard and a mouse, or even a game pad is the right interaction device for VR, but we haven't decided yet what is. We're going a lot of research and prototyping on our side to sort of experiment with different input methods."

For now, consider the Oculus Rift something to watch far. Though not compatible with gaming consoles (though that may change), the Rift shows the direction that gaming will likely head and promises that new levels of immersion for avid gamers are "months, not years" away.

Photo/Video credit: The Verge/Road to VR
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