I had the great fortune of kicking off my week at E3 2012 with a bucket list moment: a one-on-one chat with id Software's John Carmack followed by some head-on time with the Oculus Rift VR headset that he's been tinkering with.
Let's back up a bit. Carmack has long been a hobbyist in the realm of VR display technologies. The Oculus Rift is only his latest project. When we first sat down in a small room at Bethesda's show floor booth he handed me a Sony HMZ-T1 head-mounted display, referred to by many as the "Headman." The $800 piece of tech creates the sensation of being in a private movie theater, with built-in dual HD OLED displays creating what amounts to a floating 2D/3D screen in front of your eyes.
Unfortunately, the Headman turned out to be a less-than-adequate choice for Carmack's goal of immersing the player entirely within the game world. The display creates the illusion of a floating screen but it doesn't actually fill your entire field of vision. There were other issues too, but the biggest problem for Carmack with the Headman as a VR platform was the limitation placed on the user's field of view.
That's when he turned to the Oculus Rift, a $500 DIY kit that is currently in development. The VR headset conceived by Palmer Luckey turned out to be the perfect platform for Carmack to tinker with. A few concessions needed to be made, the most obvious of which is a low-resolution output for whatever you're looking at through the goggles. That said, after spending a good chunk of time tooling around in Doom 3 BFG Edition with Carmack's prototype Oculus Rift on my noggin, I can confidently say that it really does "work."
The head-mounted display that he put together is very obviously a homebrew creation, with a strap stolen from a set of ski goggles securing it to your head and thick strips of electrical tape covering the left and right fringes of the eyepiece, effectively blocking out your view of anything that isn't the video signal piping through the goggles. There's also no built-in solution for sound, but Carmack provided me with noise cancelling headphones that fit easily over his headset.
Even with the low-resolution display, the effect of using the Oculus Rift as you play is mind-blowing. You are essentially transported into the game, with the headset recording every tilt and turn of your head and body. The Oculus Rift doesn't do everything; I used an Xbox 360 controller to move, fight, and interact with parts of the environment. The headset simply enhances your feeling of being "inside" the game.
- Photo Gallery: Doom 3 BFG Edition
It's a little bit disorienting at first. More than once, I found myself struggling to maintain my balance as I grew accustomed to turning my head and body to adjust the direction I was facing inside the game. It works though, and it works well.
Carmack seemed hopeful about what the future holds for tech like this. There are definitely some areas that need improvement, but the biggest potential hurdle -- processing power -- is a non-issue. Modern-day graphics cards provide all of the data-crunching juice that even a more advanced, higher resolution version of the Oculus Rift would ever need.
Doom 3 BFG Edition will apparently be shipping with support for head-tracking input devices. There's not exactly a huge market out there for this sort of tech right now, but Carmack's hope is that the added support will spur hobbyist techheads to come up with their own solutions. He further thinks that it's only a matter of time before one of the big tech companies takes notice of projects like the Oculus Rift and pours significant resources into developing a workable solution for fully immersive VR display devices.