Discussing the Oculus Rift becomes tricky when you don’t have the hardware to show people.
You can say that virtual reality places someone inside a video game all you want, but those are just words until they get to actually go inside the experience themselves.
Which is why a game about cheating dolphins has me more excited about the future than most other big-name games this year.
Oculus unveiled the "Crystal Cove" prototype of its Rift hardware at CES this week, and the new hardware has added positional tracking and a slightly mysterious OLED screen that is supposed to decrease motion blur while making the experience much more realistic.
The protoype is earning rave reviews from everyone who has tried it, but the important thing about these additions is what they can bring to games. It’s neat to be able to lean in and take a closer look at an object in a game, but how does that improve the games themselves?
Take a look at this demo of an Oculus Rift game called Classroom Aquatic that features dolphins trying to cheat on a test. Yes, it sounds silly, and it looks even sillier, but the mechanics are brilliant.
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It may seem like a simple idea, but it ties into a primal fear, the test that we’re unprepared for, and it asks us to deal with a real-life situation. Cheating. You have to keep track of a teacher that’s walking around the classroom to try to make sure everyone is being honest, you need to move your head around to check out the answers of the other dolphins, and you have to make sure they don’t catch you peeking.
This is just as stressful, if not moreso, than most stealth games, and it’s even more effective because you’re in the middle of the action. You’re not moving a mouse or controller to gain intel from your environment, you’re inside the game.
You have to move your head as if you were there to try to get the answers you need, and keep in mind the demo doesn’t support positional tracking. In the future these games may ask you twist your neck and head in weird positions to gather information. You’ll have to lean forward or backwards to see around obstacles or the other students.
Classroom Aquatic shows how many situations virtual reality opens to game designers, and how interesting the interactions can be. It’s hard to make a game that’s so dependent on the player’s point of view fun with a mouse and keyboard, but being able to look out the eyes of the character? To actually be surrounded by dolphins and try to cheat off their answers while avoiding the roving teacher? The Oculus Rift allows the game to instill what seems to be a sense of dread in the player, while wrapping the game up in absurdist trappings.
This is the first step towards new kinds of experiences, and the addition of technology that will allow more ways to move your body for more precise interactions will only help experiences like Classroom Aquatic. This isn't making existing genres slightly prettier, this is an exploration of new ways to involve the player in these stories.
The six degrees of movement brought to the Rift by the positional tracking will only help games such as Classroom Aquatic, and designers will be able to experiment with different interactions that rely on that sense of place and immersion to deliver their emotional payload.
There are already simple experiences that give you the sense of movement or flight that are nearly addictive, and it’s only going to get better, or worse depending on your point of view, once the final, improved hardware is released to the public.
Seeing the games that have been created for the now nearly obsolete development kit and the strides being made towards the final product has been more than exciting; this is a look into what could be the "real" next-generation of gaming. Cheating dolphins are much more interesting than yet another shooter, and the Crystal Cove prototype gets us one step closer to that world.