I experienced five completely different takes on virtual worlds at Oculus Connect

The Oculus Connect Conference offered our first glimpse at new hardware, but there were quite a few games to try, too.

Nate Ralph Associate Editor
Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.
Nate Ralph
5 min read
Watch this: Touching virtual worlds at Oculus Connect 2015

The Oculus Connect 2 conference was a great opportunity to check out the state of virtual reality, a glimpse into this whimsical virtual metaverse that game developers and hardware manufacturers -- and Facebook -- hope we all buy into.

But for all the transformative social and entertainment potential locked inside these goggles, it was also a conference that was very much about video games, and using Samsung's Gear VR headset, or the Oculus Rift's handheld Touch controllers, to interact with them in new ways. More specifically, it was about Bullet Train.

Reach out and touch some bullets

Bullet Train is kind of dumb. But it's also enormously clever, and also entertaining. The eponymous train is only around for a few minutes at the start of the demo -- or maybe the train is a reference to the train station? The bullet part is much easier to suss out: there are bullets, fired at you, and fired by you.

But this is all taking place in an Oculus Rift, and in my hands are the wireless touch controllers, so this isn't your average first-person manshooter. Press a button on the left controller, and you'll slow down time. You're meant to point the controller at a floating portal and teleport toward it, but what you're going to want to do instead is release the triggers on each controller to drop the weapon you might have been holding, and grab the bullets (or rockets) hovering in front of you. Yes, you slow down time and grab the bullets fired at you in order to throw them right back.

I would've chucked those bullets. Epic Games

The Touch controllers are meant to emulate your hands: squeezing the trigger under your index finger usually works out as a grabbing gesture, for grabbing, say, bullets. The controllers track the position of your hands in real time with the help of sensors positioned around the room, so they know when you're winding back. And they'll track your hand and its position when you suddenly jerk that hand forward, releasing the trigger, and thus the bullet, right into some hapless virtual goon. There are guns that you'll pretend to fire by grabbing their grips and cocking when required, and the controllers in your hands rumble during gunplay, but leave all that behind and embrace the bullet toss.

Virtual work...

VR can be magical like that. Consider Job Simulator 2050 -- also on the Oculus Rift. It's pretty much what it sounds like: You're pretending to be a human doing mundane human things like working at an office, while a cynical robot walks you through a day in the life of the average, presumably extinct, human being.

The all-too-familiar office environment is turned on its head: you can pretend to care about your (robot) coworkers' family photos, blithely stamp paperwork, pour coffee into cups and snack on donuts. Or, you can use the Touch controller to toss paper airplanes, throw books at passersby, or use the photocopier to make endless copies of the objects around. It's silly, in the vein of Surgeon Simulator, but also a look at what a clever developer can do when presented with a controller that offered an approximation of a tactile experience.

Take a break from your office and visit this one. Owlchemy Labs

...and virtual play

Things feel a bit more traditional on the Samsung Gear VR. Samsung's mobile VR system runs Oculus software on your smartphone, which you dock into a headset. It's a more mobile take on an experience that usually leaves you tethered to a PC, and remains far more accessible to most -- provided, of course, that you own one of Samsung's new devices.

I tried the new Arcade app, played with a standard Bluetooth controller. It drops you into a virtual arcade, with a row of cabinets featuring classic video games. It functions as expected: Sonic the Hedgehog moved with typical speed and grace, and Galaga is as maddeningly addictive as ever. But much like an arcade in meatspace I constantly found myself distracted, looking left to right down the row of arcade machines around me. To say nothing of looking down at the arcade cabinet's controllers, whose buttons and joystick depressed and moved to match my actions on the controller.

Up close with Samsung's $99 Gear VR headset (pictures)

See all photos

Watching the magic...

Twitch, the video game streaming service, was something else entirely on the Samsung Gear VR. You're in a theater, and there's a game of Heroes of the Storm or whatever you'd like on the screen before you, Twitch's signature chat chugging along on the right side of the screen.

But turn to your left, and there floats a floating, smiling daisy, with a name just above. There are another two on your right. And you're chatting with them, and they with you -- I was told I was the disembodied head of a cartoon blonde woman, but I'm sure the final product will let you choose your avatar. I'm not sure I liked the experience, and my fellow viewers spent most of our time lost in the novelty of it all than paying attention to what was going on, but maybe that'll be good enough for some.

...and then making it

Getting lost in novelty isn't all that bad, though. I could spend days lost in Medium, on the Oculus Rift. It's a sort of virtual sculpting simulator: one hand holds the brush, the other holds a sort of configuration, that'll let you tweak your settings. You could turn a brush that spews clay into one that spews paint, or enlarges your creations, or adjusts the position or intensity of the spotlight shining on your work.

It's a beautifully realized experience, shadows dancing on the floor as I twist and turn an amorphous blob. You'll use the secondary, middle-finger triggers on the Touch controllers to move your masterpiece around, while the primary trigger activates your brush. I didn't actually make anything, just a sort of blue beehive I promptly hid myself in, before boring a hole out for light. But the simple, fluid act of creation was a wonder.

I'm still on the fence about VR, having since been swayed by the potential of Microsoft's HoloLens. But my PC is due for an upgrade anyway, and Minecraft is making an appearance on Oculus, too. Who knows, maybe I'll see some of you in the Matrix someday soon.