Living the Game World – The Oculus Rift, STEM System, and First Person Immersion

On a recent live show, Daniel Floyd and James Portnow, two of the people behind Extra Credits, said that they believed the Oculus Rift to be a cool new gadget in gaming, but nothing out of the ordinary that will revolutionize the industry, as many have claimed. Now, to say I respect these two would be vastly underselling it; Extra Credits taught me more about game design than pretty much anything else in the world. So, I was quite surprised to hear these two say this. I think the Oculus has the potential to change our approach to gaming entirely, to catapult the medium into a new style of interactive storytelling and experience that we’ve only begun to experience thus far. I completely understand where Portnow and Floyd are coming from, and the Oculus by itself wouldn’t be all that special. But I believe that what it represents and what it has inspired has such enormous implications for gaming that I become even more excited every time a new invention is unveiled.

In my last piece I talked about the first person perspective, and why I believed it is so much more effective at utilizing the strengths of gaming as a medium by placing the player inside the head of the player character. However, the Oculus takes this a step further, and lets the player look around in the game world as though it were their own. Some downplay this advantage, but I simply cannot overstate how valuable it is. I tried the Rift at New York Comic Con last year, and it took me a few solid minutes to really realize that what I was seeing was a game world. The low latency that the Kickstarter video detailed seemed like technical jargon at the time, but actually experiencing it firsthand made me realize that that reduction of response time crossed the line into feeling like reality. virtuix-omni-kickstarter1Looking around felt like, well, looking around, as simple as that. That single difference made the game I was watching, a stripped down racing simulator, the most engaging thing I had ever seen. No matter how precise or smooth mouse-and-keyboard or controller looking becomes, there will always be a disconnect because you simply aren’t looking around. The vision is choppy and inorganic, the experience broken up and the slightest bit awkward. Getting lost in new worlds becomes so much easier when that barrier is removed. When you don’t feel like you are looking at a screen, but instead, a world, immersion is automatic, not something that must be earned.

However, what makes me the most excited about the Rift isn’t the Rift itself, but what it has inspired. I fell in love with Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, in which a future video game uses a VR visor, like the Rift, and haptic gloves. In my search for tech like this, I found many cool pieces of technology, such as Virtuix Omni, but Sixense’s STEM System is what stood out to me. slider_stem_5trackerThe STEM system would allow the player to have a sensor in both hands and both feet as well as their waist. In conjunction with the Rift, this would allow a player to organically move through a simulated world, moving their hands, legs and body as though it were real. Interaction with the world becomes much more detailed, with picking up objects being much more complex than a simple “Press x to do this.” The player can physically dig through items and move them around. The possibilities with systems like these are endless. How many genres of games that have thus far been stagnant could be made more invigorating with the rift and this technology? Racing games? Hidden object games? Art games like Proteus or Dear Esther? Games that just dump a player into a world without many mechanics could suddenly become brilliantly engaging because of these new technologies that simulate real interaction. The gaming community largely despises the Kinect, and rightfully so, but it did open up new genres and types of games.  But since the Kinect, and the Wii like it, the core gaming audience became incredibly skeptical of new hardware, viewing it as gimmicky and without any real substantive change.  Imagine if another system, one without the Kinect’s flaws, could open up new genres or reinvigorate old ones. This would have a serious impact on how we make games, and that is the kind of change that we would want from new hardware.

However, there is one game that I have in mind, one that already came out.  Gone Home was, in my opinion, a fantastic game with brilliant writing and interwoven gameplay. However, it got a lot of flack from some of the gaming community because of its lack of traditional mechanics. How much more eerie would the game have become with a Rift? The sense of immersion would be total. How much more engaging would the mechanics have become if, instead of pressing buttons to move through old family documents, the player had to physically shuffle around through old files and objects, searching for something to give them a clue as to what was going on? I loved Gone Home as is, but think about how much it could be enhanced through new technologies.

The Rift and STEM System are just two of the myriad of new inventions that are emerging in this new crowd funded Hardware Renaissance. In a generation where the new consoles had almost nothing new to offer in terms of hardware, it is so refreshing to see people trying to tweak the way we play games to make them better, not just gimmicky. This isn’t a movement that is brought about by the big players of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, or Valve, it is made by nerds in their parent’s garages coming up with brilliant ideas on how to change the gaming landscape. And the big players aren’t sitting out, hell, Valve’s ported their Big Picture OS to run on the Rift as the first VR-capable operating system! heres-what-happened-when-we-strapped-a-bunch-of-people-into-the-oculus-rift-virtual-reality-headsetWhatever these new inventions end up doing, they’re getting people, both developers and players, to start to take a second look at some things we had assumed about games. To me, that is exactly what we should be asking for.

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