If there was one thing that was abundantly clear during our time at PAX West 2016, it's that VR gaming is absolutely upon us, and it is without a doubt all the rage. Another thing that's nearly as clear: despite a big headstart, the Oculus Rift is in serious trouble due to its lack of motion controllers, and the HTC Vive is eating its cake. Among the dozens and dozens of VR demo setups from various game and hardware developers spread across PAX West, we didn't see a single Oculus Rift... except in the official PAX West VR demo hall, where both headsets got equal play, and perhaps one Rift setup at the AMD booth. The potential for immersion is a whole lot greater when you start using motion controllers rather than an Xbox controller, which is what the Rift thus far requires, and we're pretty sure this is why the HTC Vive is the headset getting all the attention right now.
All that being said, we went to PAX West in part to get a sense for whether VR is really ready for prime time, or if it should be still be considered an early-adopter product. We sampled a range of demos from various developers, and watched attendees playing a whole bunch of other demos. Given that the average wait to try a VR demo at PAX West was 1-2 hours, we couldn't exactly spend our precious reporting time waiting for each and every demo, but we think we got a sense of what's out there, and whether this is something our readers should be jumping on.
Our first page of coverage will look at the three demos we were able to schedule time with, thanks to the wonderful folks at Nvidia, Obduction/Cyan, and EarthlightVR. On the next page, we'll provide photos of other attendees engaging with VR, and share some insights from conversations we had with developers of a few VR games on display.
The folks at Nvidia were kind enough to let us jump in line at the VR Funhouse to check out this high-powered demo of all that VR can do using Nvidia's Gameworks technologies. The VR Funhouse is setup with a "shooting gallery" layout common to a lot of VR games. Basically, you can turn in 360 degrees, but you don't actually move forwards or backwards.
As you can see, Nvidia had a big space reserved for the Funhouse, and it's an indication of the kind of open space you'll need if you want to experience room-scale VR at home. Room-scale games essentially translate your real-world body motions into character motion.
Note that this was the one "room-scale VR" demo we tried, although they were pretty ubiquitous at PAX 2016. Games that aren't room-scale will use your head, hands, or controllers for motion, but your body will not play a role (which means you'll likely be seated if playing for a while!). Although you don't really need to move forwards or backwards in the Nvidia VR Funhouse, you do need to turn from side to side in some of the games, which would be pretty difficult while seated.
The funhouse included a "whack-a-mole" game, archery, a goo shooter, and a tommy gun shooter, among others. The shooting gallery events in the Funhouse were our favorites, as they were the most similar to standard 3D games, and also seemed the easiest to control. Games like archery and sword-fighting were a bit more awkward. We couldn't quite get past the feeling that the HTC Vive controllers as used in the Funhouse more or less replicated the feeling of Sony's original Move controllers on the PS3, but with a bit of added complexity due to head movement throwing off your view. The accuracy wasn't quite what we would have liked, and it seems there's quite a bit of calibration required to get the controllers tuned for the individual player, which wasn't possible in a public demo.
Another thing we should mention here: the Funhouse VR demo requires a lot of processing power. Because it's filled with Nvidia PhysX particle simulation, Flow fluid simulation, Hairworks hair simulation, and other Nvidia Gameworks effects, it doesn't run on just any PC. Nvidia went all out, hooking us up to a dual-GTX 1080 SLI system running on an Nvidia six-core CPU. That's a $3,000 PC right there, minimum, so in addition to the $800 MSRP of the HTC Vive, we're talking a lot of money. This feeds into our general impression that intially, at least, the most sophisticated VR games will not run on the minimum spec for the HTC Vive. To its credit, the VR Funhouse had the best graphics we saw in any VR demo, and this is likely because Nvidia chose not to lower graphics quality to add the VR dimension; it simply increased the system requirements!
Next up was a pre-release VR update to the highly-praised new game Obduction, from the developers of the trailblazing Myst and Riven adventure games. We were especially excited to try this out, and again thanks to developer Cyan for making time to show it off.
Obduction is available in standard 3D, as shown above, but the developers had in mind VR from the start. And that makes sense: Myst was one of the first games to truly leverage the beauty and immersion possible with 3D gaming in the 1990s, so a follow-up in VR is something plenty of adventure fans have probably been hoping for. Now, unlike Nvidia's VR Funhouse, in this game you actually do move around, and while you can use the HTC Vive controller (or an Xbox controller), the developers suggest you instead use the blink (teleport) mode of travel, where you turn your head in the direction you want to go, and then click a button to take you to the next highlighted stopping point (typically a few feet away in the virtual world). That means you don't actually see or feel yourself move, and the reason this is the suggested method is that seeing yourself move in VR is a recipe for motion sickness (as we'll touch upon shortly!).
Now, the unfortunate truth is that using the teleport method reduces the immersion, but this game is similar to Myst in that moving around the world isn't exactly the point; looking around the world is. The interactions in the game are kept simple (basically you just "interact" with objects by looking and clicking).
Ultimately, we thought this demo looked good, but we weren't entirely blown away. Perhaps part of the problem is that the game has to run at reduced details to perform adequately in VR, so the overall graphics quality isn't what you'd see in modern 3D adventure games, which can approach photo-realism. Obduction was pretty, but it was not realistic. That being said, it was definitely unique. Above we've included our headset view captured onscreen as we looked off a mountaintop bridge: it's quite a sight to behold!
Finally, we'll discuss EarthlightVR, being put together by a dedicated group of developers in conjunction with NASA. Before strapping on our Vive for this demo, we asked the developers whether this was a game, a simulation, or an "experience." They said it was all of the above, and we'd agree it certainly has the potential to be. The game aspect was only briefly touched upon in the demo, but we certainly saw the simulation and experience aspect in full effect.
This game is truly mesmerizing from the moment you leave the ISS crew quarters to perform maintenance on the exterior of the ISS, and it showcases the most natural of VR movement techniques: locomotion by hand! Yes, indeed, of all the VR demos we've tried, this one makes the most "sense." The HTC Vive has handheld motion controllers, after all, so a game in which you move around entirely by hand is the ideal match. And of course, the only place where this really makes sense is in space! There's also an underwater simulation that was part of the demo, which is also a good match for the control technique. The game uses distinctive yellow handholds to indicate to the player where they should move their hands, something we've seen in 3D action games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted. It makes finding a path easy without looking too out of place.
Unfortunately, we experienced first hand what VR developers are seriously concerned about: motion sickness, or more precisely VR sickness. There was a point where we were in the water tank looking upwards and got stuck, unable to use our motion controllers to proceed onto the next handhold. We just kept going back and forth trying to get our in-game character to do what our hands were trying to do in real life, and it only took a few minutes of this before we were ready to hurl something into our virtual spacesuit (and onto the real-life floor).
This is going to be an issue specific to the user, so folks who don't suffer from motion sickness in the real world may be less likely to suffer it in the VR world, but it's clearly an issue that developers are struggling with, given the number of games that eschew motion all together. Even so, we came away impressed by the immersiveness of the EarthlightVR demo, and we applaud the sincere dedication of the developer team, which is clearly aiming to create a world-class product that reaches far beyond being an arcade game.
On the next page, we'll highlight a few of the other VR games on display at PAX West.