Step into the “Rift”

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Trevor Whalen, Staff Writer

If you’ve read or watched any amount of science-fiction, then you’re probably familiar with the idea of virtual reality. The most well-known manifestation of virtual reality in our society is electronic games: whether it’s console games, PC games, handheld games, or mobile games, one of the ideas behind games is to create a virtual environment that players can explore.

In the early days of the games industry — the ‘80s and into the ‘90s – many people saw virtual reality headsets as part of the industry’s future. But those efforts didn’t last. The technology was unimpressive and added little to the experience. The VR “fad” passed on.

But over the past few years electronics companies such as Sony have been designing these headsets again. This year, one headset in particular gained wide attention: the “Rift,” a VR headset designed by engineer Palmer Luckey.

The “Rift” headset has been the first of its kind to garner media attention for quite a while. It came to light at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June. John Carmack, technical director at id Software and well known name in the games industry, had been checking out various VR headsets beginning in 2011. After trying out a half-dozen or so head-mount displays, Carmack came upon the Rift.

During his keynote address at QuakeCon 2012, Carmack described his discovery: “I came into contact with Palmer Luckey and his Rift prototype,” Carmack said. “It looked like he was at the point of having something really exciting.” Carmack got in touch with Luckey, who then sent Carmack a prototype of the device.

“That was one of those times where it’s good to be me… it’s good to have people know who I am,” Carmack joked. After trying it out, he thought it was the most impressive VR headset he had used.

Carmack gave the press demos of the device, to which he had added some enhancements at E3. Later at QuakeCon the device was set up for any general attendees to check out. The consensus is that it’s the most impressive VR headset currently in development.

And it isn’t just Carmack who’s supporting the device. Valve Software’s Michael Abrash, one of the game industry’s veteran engineers, thinks Luckey’s headset will be part of a new wave in technology. “I think [the next big advancement] is in the area of wearable computing…[such as VR],” Abrash said at QuakeCon’s “Virtual Insanity” panel. “I came to that conclusion about a year ago and it’s astonishing how quickly that is proving to be true… Palmer [Luckey] is the most visible manifestation of that.”

Before Carmack discovered the Rift, it had been a side-project of Luckey’s. At the same panel noted above, Luckey said, “I’ve been an electronics and hardware enthusiast for a long time… I got into head-mounted displays because I was [also] a stereoscopic display enthusiast.” “I started collecting head-mounted displays and started taking them apart, researching what I could,” Luckey continued. He went through around seven revisions before designing the Rift prototype Carmack discovered.

Carmack’s promotion of the headset at E3 and the ensuing buzz led to the founding of Oculus by Luckey. The Rift was then placed on Kickstarter.com on August 1st this year. Within a day, it surpassed its goal of $250,000 by receiving more than $400,000 in pledges. Currently, it has about $2.4 million.

The Kickstarter allowed Oculus to put together developer kits, which are available for preorder on its website at $300 (the expected delivery of these kits is January 2013). These aren’t commercial products, but testing kits for game developers and engineers to check out and mess around with.

The only two games that have Rift-support built in are id Software’s Doom 3: BFG Edition, a rerelease of 2004’s Doom 3, and Adhesive Games’ Hawken, which will be released Dec, 12. Since the only way to get the Rift headset is by preordering a $300 developers’ kit, and only two games currently have support for it, this isn’t something you want to—or even can—go out and buy now.

Oculus is clear on this point—the developers’ kit is meant for developers. But the Rift is planned to become a commercial product sometime in the near future. More PC games will likely support it, and it will be interesting to see if Microsoft or Sony add support for it in their next line of console systems.

If you’re interested in games, you should pay attention. It could represent the biggest leap for the industry since 3D graphics in the mid ‘90s.

 

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