Virtual reality is at E3. Sure, it's been around at other trade shows before. But after using both the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus and playing all the games they had to offer here in Los Angeles, I'm convinced the world of virtual gaming is coming sooner than anyone thinks.
I tried both Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift at E3 2014. Both VR platforms represent the biggest dogs in the space right now: they're also both more similar than you might think. And that's a good thing. A very good thing, if we're really going to have VR gaming take off beyond being a show-floor novelty. It's why I feel convinced that Morpheus and the Rift are a tandem, a one-two punch in consoles and PCs to push developers to start creating virtual games. There's a sense that a new landscape is being carved out, and it's a common landscape: one that finally feels close to a finished product.
How far away are we from putting virtual-reality helmets on our faces and playing games, and is it even a viable idea? Both Oculus and Sony had game demos that, at least to me, proved that the answer to the latter is surprisingly yes -- and for slightly different reasons.
Project Morpheus: It's all about the controls
Sony had three game demos to show at E3, on the same hardware that was shown back at the Game Developers Conference back in March. Each had a different interface and control style, and showed a different way to use VR.
A Castle demo, which has made the rounds on "The Tonight Show" and elsewhere, put me in a courtyard facing a practice knight dummy in armor. I attacked the mannequin with various weapons: my bare fists, a sword, a mace, and even a crossbow. And, at the end, I faced a massive dragon. To play, I used a pair of glowing PlayStation Move controllers. These were my virtual hands, with which I could grab and punch, or swing, or even raise my crossbow sights and aim with one eye shut. The level of control was shockingly real, and the depth perception was perfect. It really felt like I was picking up and closely examining objects in the world around me.
An Eve Valkyrie demo using the Unreal engine used a DualShock 4 controller. Eve has become the poster child of VR gaming: I played the same game on the Oculus Rift using the Crystal Cove prototype back in January. The experience here was pretty similar.
The final demo put me in a street luge, lying down on a bean-bag chair, using my head to tilt and control movement while I shot down a street, raced under 18-wheelers, and plowed into some weeds at the end of the road. I got some serious motion sickness, but not because the head-tracking created any lag; it just accurately depicted really fast vehicle movement, like a roller coaster, and produced the same effect.
Sony's virtual hardware is most impressive because it uses existing parts: PlayStation Move and DualShock controllers to play, the PlayStation 4 camera to track head motion, and an extremely well-made helmet that slid comfortably over my thick eyeglasses. It's not a real for-sale product yet, but it feels real.
Oculus Rift: Indie support, and many different ways of play
The Oculus Rift was also using existing hardware -- the polished version with a tiny tracking camera, also seen at GDC. It is, in many ways, a similar product to Project Morpheus. The new version of these Oculus goggles still feel tighter when strapped on, like ski goggles, but they didn't crush my eyeglasses quite as much as the last time I played.
The level of screen resolution and the size of my field of vision felt about the same as Project Morpheus, too: pixelated when you stopped and studied a still image, but smooth and effective when moving. Both were smooth and relatively low lag, and both offered fairly expansive fields of vision, ending about where my eyeglass lenses do.
The Rift had Eve Valkyrie, too, yet again, and playing it reminded me exactly how similar Morpheus and and the Rift are. It was equally good, with maybe a slight graphics edge going to Project Morpheus. Both made me feel like a space fighter overrun by enemies dogfighting in all directions. And no matter how much I spun and barrel-rolled in each, I felt fine.
Oculus also showed off a first-person shooter, called Super Hot, where you could stop time and dodge bullets with your head. And a maze-stealth horror game, Alien Isolation, where I tried and failed to escape a biomechanical xenomorph from terrifying me and killing me. It felt like a scene out of a Universal Studios ride.
But the best demonstration I saw was a Super Mario-like game called Lucky's Tale, made by Playful: a game that made its debut at E3. Lucky's Tale is a classic 3D-style coin-collecting type of platformer. But what's amazing is how it plays perfectly in virtual reality, even though you, the player, watch the action from a distance. I jumped around and watched my fox hop through colorful worlds, but I could also look behind at what I'd already seen, up at the sky, or tilt and lean to look at other areas. It was a bit like seeing a toy diorama that I was controlling. And, in that type of play mode, the TV screen melts away. I wasn't quite virtual, and wasn't quite looking at a screen: I was in the world, but also playing above it. This could be the model for how many, many traditional games go virtual.
Oculus doesn't have its own wireless controller alternatives, but there are already plenty of experiments in playing with other peripherals: treadmills like the Virtuix Omni, hand-sensing Kinect-like arrays like the Leap Motion, which has already been stuck onto Oculus rigs, and force-feedback armatures. There won't be any lack of Oculus-ready accessories, when that time does come.
Gaming and VR could be ready around the bend
Neither Sony or Oculus have announced formal availability or any release dates for either Project Morpheus or the Oculus Rift. But that doesn't mean that either feel like prototypes anymore. In fact, I felt surprised at how both VR rigs made repeated cases for fun ways to play games, even ones that weren't standard VR. Sure, jamming a helmet on your head and finding a way to connect it might seem like a hassle. But this is the closest we've ever been to VR as viable mainstream entertainment. That alone deserves a serious amount of respect. And having a common language in VR tech between the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus will be key for future games. Which will come. Because, as far as I've seen, VR isn't going away anytime soon.