The Oculus Rift has single-handedly revived public interest in virtual reality and it represents a tremendous leap forward from the immature head-mounted display tech that was touted so passionately in the '90s. For developers interested in advancing the field of immersive gaming, it has already proven to be a catalyst of sorts, inspiring unexpected and offbeat experiences after a few weeks of experimentation (guillotine simulator, anyone?). It's opening up previously unexplored avenues of expression for some creators, since it's likely the first reason they've seriously considered designing software for virtual reality.
But there are some people and teams who live and breathe the hunt for immersion. They've waited years for the realization of virtual reality (wrap your head around that) to occur, and the Rift's arrival is finally opening doors for projects that were previously roadblocked due to the lack of a viable headset. The team at VRcade in Seattle, which started tinkering with concepts for a large-scale virtual reality system back in 2010, saw the Rift's wide field-of-view as the solution to their problem. They wasted no time in applying the display to their existing system designs, even going so far as to develop their own Rift-equivalent HMD in the interim between ordering and receiving their dev kit.
For their version of a holodeck brought to life, they've coordinated a system with full body and prop motion tracking working in conjunction with the Rift, designed to deliver a range of experiences like virtual laser tag and haunted house tours, to name a few. Promisingly, there's already a working scale model of their system, with a handful of concept demos that showcase its unique capabilities. GameSpot recently had the chance to take a crack at a trio of early VRcade demos, and despite their unfinished state, each provided an excellent case for the team's proposed version of advanced virtual reality.
Target Practice: Standing at an intersection of virtual corridors with a prop rifle in hand, listen for cues and fire at targets lining each hallway.
Crate-Physics Simulator: Your task is simple and straightforward: use the prop rifle to interact with a pile of boxes, which feature varying degrees of gravity and mass.
Visit the Zombie Apocalypse: The final demo places you in the midst of a postapocalyptic cityscape, where you're forced to confront a small wave of zombies, face to rotting-flesh face.
The design behind VRcade's system is straightforward: take the Oculus Rift, an array of motion capture cameras, stuff a wireless video receiver into a vest pack (think Miracast), attach a few reflective motion-capture balls to your gear and any requisite props, and you're ready to hop into the game. Normally, VRcade sessions will feature full skeleton tracking (as seen in the video below), support large teams of participants, and take place in arenas large enough for teams to run and hide from one another.
Even in our less-than-complete setup--a 10-by-10-foot office without a full skeleton tracking rig--hopping into the VRcade demos left a positive impression on the majority of those who tried it. Despite the glitchy nature of the demos, the wonder you feel when the movements you take in the real world are accounted for in the virtual world is hard to ignore. The gun in your hands is a direct link to the virtual gun, and the 1:1 movement correlation is remarkably immersive. Once you remove what may be the most intrusive layer of abstraction in gaming--the controller--the potential for immersion skyrockets.
Compared to the Target Practice demo, the physics simulation required a little more faith on the part of the users. The mix of physical (the gun) and virtual (the crates) interactive objects played tricks on the mind, as more than one player instinctually tried to kick the boxes, to no avail. However, crouching and leaning to maneuver around the confines of virtual cover was still a novel and convincing sensation. With a large-scale VR environment in mind, it's not hard to imagine how convincing a rendered world could be without technical or physical barriers getting in the way.
If VRcade can secure funding through its upcoming crowdfunding campaign, and ultimately realize the vision of its founders, it's exciting to think where the team might take immersive gaming and entertainment in the months and years to come. It's a young field ripe for pioneers and trailblazers, and though this particular team still has a long road ahead, they've gotten off to an impressive start. In some ways, the success of the Oculus Rift will be a good indicator of VRcade's potential for success. If it finds favor among early adopters, and somehow expands the audience for VR to include the mainstream, it won't be long before people look for the next big thing. By adding the ability to track movement and objects to create a more immersive virtual reality experience, VRcade may very well be that thing.