Oculus VR, the developers and manufacturers of arguably the most immersive and successful virtual reality (VR) technologies to date, showcased their latest prototype last week and by all accounts it’s set the scene in a spectacular fashion for the advent of Oculus Rift’s entry into the commercial market, pitched for 2015.
It’s called Crescent Bay, and its presentation took centre stage last week when Oculus hosted Oculus Connect – a seminal conference designed to showcase the latest development to come from the company and its developers. Crescent Bay is the latest instalment to Oculus Rift, the parent headset which has delivered several editions, each one advancing significantly upon the previous.
Oculus has been steadily developing Rift since founding the company in 2012, and to have followed the company over the last two years is to have witnessed an exciting, and very impressive, period of technological innovation. In that time the company has moved from its duck-tape clad prototype, that some thought may never produce a product, to having enormous successes in achieving convincing and immersive experiences for users of its VR headsets.
This is no easy feat – true VR fidelity relies upon seamless integration between multiple technologies to the extent that the experience succeeds in convincing the brain’s perceptual faculties of its displacement into another environment (albeit a virtual one). It’s somewhat of an all or nothing experience – where even minor imperfections, in particular lag or obtuse pixelation, can break the illusion. If accomplished correctly though, users are treated to something of an out-of-body experience that brings the user into an altogether different, virtual, world. It’s such a trip, that the experience of users has spawned a vernacular to describe it. Most notably there is the word taken to convey sensations of conviction in one’s virtual 3D surrounds and sense of immersion: ‘presence’.
Crescent Bay “allow[s] for sustained presence” claims Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, speaking at Oculus Connect. Considering the features of the new prototype and reading testimonies of those lucky enough to have played with it, it seems the elusive goal of persistent presence may indeed be just around the corner. Crescent Bay serves as a substantial departure from its predecessor (the developer kit, DK2); and although its precise specifications haven’t been disclosed, Crescent Bay is known to support 360 degree tracking, a 90Hz refresh rate, integrated 3D audio, higher resolution screens, as well as improved ergonomics and a lighter weight. Tracking of head movements is still enabled by way of an external camera that tracks the position of markers on the headset; but Crescent Bay advances on previous editions by introducing tracking LEDs set into the back of the headset to compliment markers on the front. This addition supports 360 degree positioning and much greater freedom of movement to the user. Compare these to DK2 and it’s clear improvements have been made on nearly all levels.
Again, to read the overwhelmingly positive experiences of users, it seems Crescent Bay has overcome many of the challenges and glitching that detracted from experiences with previous editions of Rift. Iribe noted that “this prototype shows off the features, the quality, the presence that we need to deliver for consumer VR” – perhaps a hint that with Crescent Bay, the company are getting very close to delivering their product to the consumer – something that can’t come soon enough.
That’s because the company haven’t yet engaged at all in marketing their Oculus Rift to the mainstream. What they have done though is to fully embrace the developer community, and offered a package (containing Rift hardware and software) to developers at a cost of $350. Now on their second iteration (DK2), the bundle has been enough for developers to begin advancing application of the technology themselves.
Naturally, game-designers have been at the forefront of this bottom-up initiative. Rift-enabled versions of Half Life 2 and Doom 3 have been greeted with immense enthusiasm (check here for some neat examples), and it’s clear gaming takes on a whole new, and perhaps its true, form when combined with VR. Meanwhile the game developer Epic has been in close partnership throughout Rift’s development – producing new demos and engine technology to showcase advances in Rift hardware. Back at Oculus, a series of in-house designed demos were prepared to convey Crescent Bay’s capabilities at Oculus Connect under the title ‘Crescent Bay Experiences’. By all accounts the suite of demos suitably captured the potential of the new system. On display were scenarios ranging from immersion into first-person-shooter like scenarios (Epic’s ‘Showdown’), to vertigo inducing sky-scraper environments, charming cartoon camp-fires and surprisingly tense encounters with a tyrannosaurus rex.
Oculus Rift was actually acquired by Facebook earlier this year at a cost of $2 billion – at event that was met with considerable criticism, not least by original investors who felt that their contributions to a passionate start-up company (Oculus Rift began humbly enough as a Kickstarter project) had simply borne out toward a take-over by one of the world’s largest corporations. Nevertheless, for at least the meanwhile the Facebook take-over hasn’t waylaid progress, as Crescent Bay goes to prove. In the longer term though, there’s plenty to ponder over in consideration of Facebook’s intentions for the technology. In its simplest formulation, their plans likely entail bringing VR to the mainstream in it’s fullest form – in time VR could become a ubiquitous technology. To be sure, this is an exciting prospect.
VR has had it’s fair share of misses and failures, and for some time dropped off the radar of rapidly developing products of consumer interest while smartphones and gaming took off at pace. So perhaps now is the time. With advent of super high-resolution screens, high processing power required for graphics, and the demonstrations coming from the likes of the Rift series, the necessary tech, will and prospects are in place to support a serious resurgence of VR.
Oculus Rift has its competitors of course. In particular there’s Sony, who are developing their Morpheus headset for Playstation; and to some extent Google too, although their end-game and approach is quite removed from anything aiming to induce presence. But competition is a good thing – sure to foster further advances in technology at greater pace. For the moment at least though Oculus seems to be at the very forefront of the trajectory VR is set for – they’ve jumpstarted the VR concept and arguably produced not only the first high fidelity VR system, but one that’s feasible as a consumer product.
Without doubt the potential for VR is enormous – the highly engaging and endlessly diverse environments it can create opens up an entirely new ecosystem for gaming, education, communication, and simulation. Even the film industry stands to enter a new domain, and one can easily speculate over therapeutic application of the technology too. With the arrival of Oculus Rift into a commercial market, hopefully sometime next year, the countless avenues and applications of VR will open up and start being explored. It will be an exciting time, after all, this is an entirely new medium – a consequential technology in its truest form. What’s more, in spite of cutting-edge graphics and success with immersion into worlds of presence, what we’re seeing now is really just the opening act – something that will surely come to be a rudimentary, albeit foundational, accomplishment in the context of immersion into a virtual platform.
“You can create unbelievable worlds. You can create believable worlds,” Iribe says. “After all, this is just the beginning.”
Oculus VR – Official site
Wired – Report on Oculus Crescent Bay
Business Insider article on Oculus Rift’s entry to the consumer market