Dabe Alan

Going to space: how the Oculus Rift will change both how we game in and explore our virtual worlds

Going to space: how the Oculus Rift will change both how we game in and explore our virtual worlds

When my son comes into my office and I’m wearing the Oculus Rift, he doesn’t ask what I’m playing. He asks where I am. When I bring the development kit to a friend’s house we don’t say that we’re going to put it on, we say that we’re “going in” or “coming out” when we take it off. The vocabulary of play changes when you’re wearing the headset and a pair of headphones.

Right now I’m floating around a space station.

Spacewalk is the work of students at USC's Interactive Media MFA program, and it only took five days to create. There is no real goal, you simply pilot your space suit around the International Space Station. The “game” begins when the visor slides up and allows you to see through your helmet.

The helmet itself doesn’t move when you turn your head, and you immediately become aware of wearing a significant amount of material and metal around your body. You can hear yourself breathing inside the space suit, deep breaths in and out. You can only move your arms in order to check your gauges. The sense of vertigo and claustrophobia is hard to shake.

The upside is the fact that you’re in space. The trigger buttons control your left and right thrusters, and by firing these in combination you’re able to float lazily around the space station. This is a multiplayer game, so you may encounter other astronauts, although there’s not real way to interact with them. There’s not much in the way of goals, and it takes a significant time investment to get used to the controls. It’s also hard to remember that you’re flying in 3D space, outside of a pressurized environment. There’s no real “down,” and no “up.” The Earth floats beneath you. You can look around and enjoy the view.

I’ve spent way more time than I’m comfortable admitting in this game, simply enjoying the feeling of doing something I'll likely never get to experience in “real” life. This is what it may feel like to actually be in space. The virtual space suit feels heavy and awkward, but you can look around and explore the ISS and the view around it. With the headphones on you don’t hear the children playing in the other room, or the rain outside. The illusion is complete: You’re isolated, and alone in space.

This is the promise of the Rift. The games will come later, but the tech demos and fun downloads being released on a daily basis, and for free, are more about putting you in interesting places. There’s a game called Planet1 where you simply pilot a sort of lunar lander around an alien environment. There are giant white spheres you can fly around, and you’ll see meteor showers every now and again. There is nothing to do but explore. You’re alone in this cold and desolate environment, piloting this interesting ship. That’s it.

Kelly Weaver has been working on new control ideas to get players flying around virtual environments. Once again, there is not much of a game in these videos, and it’s unclear about whether a game with a goal and a scoring structure is even the end goal. It’s too much fun to simply fly around, feeling as if you have actually escaped gravity. Flying demos, or playing Unreal Development Kit demos with the flying option turned on, is one of my favorite things to do with the hardware.

Taking to the skies, your headphones blotting out the sounds of the outside world, is an amazing way to fight writer’s block.

I stated that I didn’t have fun playing the demo that simulating a beheading, but a reader said I was missing the point. “That's video games in a nutshell though. Give me an experience I would never otherwise have in a safe, risk-free environment,” they said. “Bring out emotions I don't normally feel, and show me things I would never normally see.”

Take the space combat game First Law. You can hit a button and spawn enemy ships, but it's just as much fun to fly around the asteroids, enjoying the feeling of sitting in the cockpit of your own fighter. I have four kids in the house, and I work from home. Sometimes when things get too hectic I like to put the headset on and pilot my little fighter in deep space. The feeling of being there, of there being very little between you and the vacuum of space is what sells the experience. Without goals you're simply able to hang out in these environments.

This is why I love the Rift right now; all these games that take me someplace different. Maybe to space, maybe to an alien planet, and sometimes to an execution. I’ve only played one or two that asked me to fire a gun. Virtual reality is an amazing tool, and the Rift has finally allowed developers to create beautiful environments where we can simply exist, look around, and enjoy the view.

Developers are sharing their dreams of space, and far away places. Players are exploring hostile environments and seeing wondrous things from our offices. There may not be many “games,” not in the traditional sense, but I’m having more fun floating past the solar panels of the Space Station than I’ve had in the past four or five shooters combined.