The software development environment for the Oculus Rift is the Wild West, and Teddy Lipowitz is as clever a prospector as they come.
Maybe that analogy is a bit off; the violence and competitiveness that characterized the 19th century gold rush doesn't exist among Oculus Rift game developers. Lipowitz, the developer behind some of the most inventive prototypes we've seen from that community — his work includes a cover-based shooter, a real-time strategy game and the human model viewer posted above — is the perfect example of that spirit of cooperation. All his prototypes, and the hardware adjustments behind them, are open-sourced and free to download.
"At the moment, it's day zero, so nobody knows anything," Lipowitz told Polygon in a recent interview. "There's so many ideas to try out. When you're starting out with an idea, you have no idea if it's going to fail or succeed. That's really exciting for me; it's kind of fun to throw the rulebook out the window and just try things.
"I think it's really important for people at this stage to really share everything they're doing; even their failures. It makes sense to release it so other people can learn from it, because we're all learning at the moment. There's so many things that are going to change over the next 12 months. There's going to be all kinds of ideas that nobody thought of, that are going to seem really obvious but completely change the way we play with VR."
"At the moment, it's day zero, so nobody knows anything."
Lipowitz is a VR hobbyist; his projects, though impressive, don't net him any source of income. Almost all of the collaborative Oculus Rift development community is in the same boat, he said — in part because nobody knows what a commercial virtual reality game looks like yet, but mostly because the Rift has yet to be released to gaming consumers at large.
"A lot of this has come about because Palmer [Luckey, Oculus founder] made it open. It was Kickstarter, anyone can get one; he really encouraged the indies and everyone to get involved. And that's beautiful, because now, there's only 20,000 of these kits out there in the wild, and it's going to be a while before there's a commercial release. So in the short term, it doesn't make any sense to make a commercial project, because you don't know what your market is and you can't make very much money.
"The beautiful part is that everyone's just releasing everything for free and sharing ideas, and that's really good. It's kind of following the same vein as Palmer's idea."
Lipowitz's personal focus in VR development is on positional tracking, and his breakthrough came in the form of the appropriately futuristic-sounding Hydradeck.
"I came about the idea because after I got the Oculus Rift, I played Half-Life 2. It was really good; twice as good as playing it normally. But what I found was, because you're holding onto the mouse and keyboard, you're kind of locked in one direction. As a gamer, you're used to thinking of turning your view with the mouse or controller, but I wasn't really looking around like it was a virtual space. I felt like you needed to free yourself from those constraints and do something much more intuitive."
His solution seems kludgy on paper, but its practical applications have been, so far, completely mesmerizing.
The Oculus Rift's internal gyroscopes are capable of tracking the movements of the player's head with tremendous accuracy, allowing them to look around in 3D space; but it doesn't have a built-in solution for tracking the rest of the player's body. Lipowitz has solved that issue by adding peripheral manufacturer Razer's motion-sensing Hydra controller into the mix in a rather unorthodox fashion: One end of the controller can be held in your hand, allowing you to simulate that hand's position in the virtual world, while the other is strapped high on your chest, to detect the positioning of the rest of your body.
Lipowitz's first Hydradeck prototype is a simple exploration game set in a medieval citadel — one of the Unreal Development Kit's basic, reusable assets — that sold the importance of positional tracking for him. It enhanced the transportive experience that the basic Rift already provided to a whole new level, he explained; it made the virtual world he was exploring feel a lot less virtual.
it made the virtual world he was exploring feel a lot less virtual
"You know, in that Humans demo, when you get face-to-face with that person, the first time I did that, I felt like I wanted to apologize," Lipowitz said. "You feel like you're in their personal space; it's not like you're looking like a model in a game, it felt like there's a guy there, and I'm really sorry, but I'm a bit too close. It's really freaky, and that's so exciting for me."
In recent interviews, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has picked out positional tracking as one of the major areas he wants to improve upon before the Rift's commercial release. Using the Hydradeck, Lipowitz and the development community that's building upon his designs are one step ahead, working to solve the unexpected issues that crop up around movement in virtual reality.
"The first demo that I built, one of my friends tried it, and he's quite tall," Lipowitz said. "He found that he couldn't get into some of the buildings, because he's actually too tall — it tracks your actual height. He had to kind of bend down, or else the collision wouldn't go through. There's a lot of things like that which are a bit unexpected."
This age of virtual reality exploration and collaboration isn't going to last forever, of course. New uses and applications for the Oculus Rift are being discovered every single day by the dev community, but eventually, they'll come at a slower pace. Once the Rift sees a commercial launch, developers will spend less time sharing ideas and more time capitalizing on and protecting them.
"Once we've gone through this prototyping stage, and people have figured out what controls work, and the really broad game ideas and languages; once that's figured out, the rewards are going to be different," Lipowitz said. "You're not mining for gold anymore, you're polishing diamonds, and making really amazing experiences. I'm more excited to get to that stage when we have all of this mapped out, and you can play things as in-depth as BioShock or any other kind of really well-polished, amazing game in virtual reality."
As much as he's excited for that day to come, he's eager to continue his experimentation and lightning-quick iteration — he works on a prototype for just three weeks before moving on to the next project — for as long as he can. There are countless genres to explore, and so many reasons to explore them; he whipped up a real-time strategy prototype to prove wrong his cohorts who said strategy games can't be made in virtual reality.
He wants to find out what else can be done with shooters beyond his cover-based prototype; a Wild West quickdraw game, perhaps. The implications for sports are boundless, if he could only get the physics right — table tennis would be a perfect fit using his setup, he said. Simple exploration software (like the original Hydradeck prototype) is some of the most affecting stuff he's played using the Rift; other than the VR horror games people have already made, many of which carry (and completely deserve) warnings for potential players who have heart conditions.
He wants to explore multiplayer interactions in virtual space, whether it's just a metaverse for players to congregate in, or a swordplay application — maybe something like Fruit Ninja, or maybe something more competitive. He's basically described the fictional, interconnected world of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, but in a completely non-abstract context. This can be very real, very soon.
"I think it's really happening," Lipowitz said. "I think it's worth pointing out that with Oculus, we're scratching the surface. It's a start. This is the revolution — this is Doom 3, it's gone 3D all of a sudden. It's like that kind of switch, but it's going to be so long, and so many changes before we get to the level that we've got with our current tech."
"I doubt I'll ever work on another 2D project again."
Lipowitz has theories of where the technology can go over the next decade, starting with a rise of arcade-like virtual gaming rooms followed by more stationary solutions, like galvanic stimulators — machines that can send signals to a player's inner ear to mimic actual movement.
That era is far, far down the line — if it ever comes as all. The next step for virtual reality, the one that comes after the dust of wild, academic discovery has settled, is commercial viability.
"I personally have no doubt in my mind that this is going to completely change computer games forever. You wouldn't have to try too hard to turn it into a commercial product, you really just have to wait for the market to be there. Right now, the time's not ready because they haven't released. I'm sure there will be lots of other vendors who follow after Oculus' success.
"So, yeah, I'm sure I'll end up working on lots of different VR projects from here on out, probably," Lipowitz said. "I doubt I'll ever work on another 2D project again."